Very rarely do I come home and immediately start writing– but I can’t contain myself . . . you won’t believe what I did today!
All my life I have been an animal lover, fascinated by wildlife behavior on nature shows. I had never actually seen a brown bear in the wild. Today my inner seven year old girl squealed as I became that wildlife photographer. Now I just had to be brave enough to actually do it.
My guide, Martin, from Scenic Bear Viewing in Homer, Alaska took me out in his plane to Lake Clark National Park where we photographed wild Alaskan Coastal Brown Bears in their natural habitat!
Naturally, as one of the wildest and most memorable things I’ve ever done, I had to make a video to show how amazing the day actually was:
At 53 countries I’ve started to become numb to the phrase “A once in a lifetime experience”. A lifetime should be full of those experiences . But looking a sow in the eyes as she directly approached and decided to brush by– a mere 10 feet away– then take several other curious steps forward, that’s a moment that I will never forget.
I didn’t sleep much the night before. I was too nervous to eat breakfast as well. I carefully analyzed what back country survival gear would be needed in “if . . . then” situations. I texted my parents; left a note for the landlord. Both of which included something along the lines of “If you don’t hear from me by [this date and time] then I was either A.) Eaten or B.) Went down in a plane crash. But that was all before I met Martin.
You see, over at the hanger Martin and his daughter, Sammy, were all about making us feel safe and prepared for the day. I was fit for thigh high waders, which mine came in a very fashionable duck grass camouflage print. I liked them. We reviewed a map and discussed the volcanoes we would pass on the flight. Martin briefed us on the safety of the plane ride. Rocking the camouflage and feeling like a country princess, I boarded, slipped on some earmuffs, and we were off. The clouds rolled over the Homer Spit as it passed below us. The entire flight, including takeoff and landing, were as smooth as glass; the entire flight really surpassed my expectations for what a 6 seater prop plane might feel like. As my new buddy and fellow passenger Geoff put it: “I’ve been on commercial airlines with worse turbulence”. Gliding over the Alaskan wilderness I could tell that Martin was really passionate about his profession as a pilot.
The scenery in itself was worth the trip. The water comprising the Cook Inlet was so clear that I could see the kelp forests beneath us. The currents wove intricate webs. Glaciers look incredibly different up close. We flew over the volcano Mount Iliamna as she spouted steam. “It’s not every day that you get to fly over the top of a 10,000 foot volcano” , Martin said. The pristine wilderness was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
We landed on the red and green pebbles of Christmas Beach. As my first boot hit the ground, I wasn’t as nervous as I’d anticipated. We hadn’t been unloaded for two minutes when a pair of courting bears climbed the small hill above us and walked out onto the beach. The boar popped his jaw, unsure about us, he didn’t want us there as he pursued the female persistently. We’d arrived during mating season, about a month before the salmon arrived. Martin shared his knowledge with us about the bears’ behavior. He’d learned about the body language of the bears that had been passed down from an expert guide before him, and a guide before that, totaling together about thirty to forty years of bear wisdom. We trailed the pair for a mile down the beach. Ultimately Martin was able to use his knowledge to make the big male comfortable around us, so much so that the bear laid down like a big puppy.
I asked Martin if he “considered [himself] to be a thrill seeker?” He replied “No” that the bears are in all reality, “Actually very lazy” and “Have a bad reputation”. Our explicit direction was to observe Martin and match his body language, stay close together, and follow instructions. The behavior of the bears depended on our behavior. If Martin walked, we walked. If he squatted , we did the same behind him. Martin always positioned himself between us and the bears. When he backed away because a bear was nervous, we did too.
The bears know him. They recognize his scent. And he knows the bears.
Mother bears have even brought their cubs up to him, because they use him to teach their cubs about humans. He’s been in tricky situations where sows use him to hide behind as a boar threatens her cubs.
I never realized how little I actually knew about the bears. I hadn’t even been calling them the correct name. These were Alaskan Coastal Brown Bears. They’re incredibly intelligent. They have complicated social lives and individual personalities. I even began to observe distinguishing physical characteristics like a pretty coat or a crooked nose. A rogue male looked disheveled, crazed by the mating season, like he hadn’t shaven in weeks.
We walked out to a viewing point over a field a sedge grass and saw bears as far as the eye could see. I had been determined to keep count throughout the day (but lost track during all of the excitement) . . . somewhere between sixteen and twenty bears total.
I became comfortable with Martin there. He even tried to make me feel better after I gracefully got stuck in the mud and fell in. I half expected something like that to happen to me– it was totally silent except for the clicks of photographs being taken. The setting was serene, similar to walking on a plate of glass. The bear didn’t even look up from clamming on the beach when my tush made a loud squish flat against the mud. But she was probably laughing at me too. Embarrassing. I’m notoriously clumsy.
Face to Face with A Bear A Moment I Will Never Forget
But I can see how it would be easy to get too comfortable around the bears. On our walk back to the plane I had an intense moment with a sow. She’d had enough of the clam buffet and was headed back to the sedge grass. She was so close that I could hear her breath. She walked a semi-circle in-front of us. “Nobody move”, Martin instructed. Squatting, my face was level with the bear’s. The sow looked me directly in the eyes, so intensely that I intentionally looked down, telling her I was not a threat. She continued to approach, one step, two steps. It’s insane how strongly I felt the fight or flight instinct screaming. I even began to flinch away from her. No, I wouldn’t run. Hold your ground, I remembered. Martin had taught us that was the worse thing we could possibly do. I firmly replanted my foot before it took the step away. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Then Martin stood and re-positioned himself. She backed off. That was intense.
And that’s why you take a guide. Specifically, Martin.
Keeping Alaskan Bears Wild
Our biggest defense was being in a group; Alaskan bears have never attacked a group of 3 or more. In all of his years, Martin had never even had a close call. He carried a flare with us for protection and has never had to use it to chase a bear away. The bears’ daily routine consisted of eating, eating more intensely, taking a nap, running away from other bears, repeat. Us being there had very little, if any, effect on their natural behavior, which made me feel good about being there. The bears in Alaska’s remote National Parks behave differently because they have been treated differently by humans. They don’t associate humans with food because they’ve never been accidentally fed. They aren’t terrified of us because they hadn’t been hunted. Sadly, this isn’t the case for all Alaskan bears. The park is so remote that it isn’t accessible accept by plane or boat with licensed guides who respect the bears and know how to keep them wild.
True confession time, I am also one of the biggest scaredy cats that you would ever meet. With each photograph I let go of my irrational over-sensationalized fear and focused on capturing a portrait of each bear that showed it’s personality. After this trip, I felt prepared to enjoy the back country of Alaska without fear of, only respect for, the bears for the rest of my Alaskan summer. . . and really the rest of my life.
It felt good to go with a responsible company that does their part to keep these fantastic animals wild. When we left our footprints and plane tracks washed away with the high tide.
I left feeling completely amazed at our beautiful Earth. After all, that was really what I had come to Alaska for.
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Going out into bear country isn’t something you should do alone.
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