The weather was cloudy with flat lighting, great for photography. There were three of us, two photographers and a guide; we were sitting on a small sandy hill, overlooking a large sedge grass meadow. We had been watching three grizzly bears. The female had vanished into the woods and the juvenile male was munching sedge grass about 400 yards away. The big male I wanted to photograph, just lay there sleeping, at about 80 yards.
For years I’ve been fascinated by grizzly bears, fascinated by their power, size and speed. I read an advertisement that promised some hope for my yearning. It was Bear Camp, a place to see coastal grizzlies in Alaska feeding on returning salmon; they can weigh over 900 pounds. Did I mention that they can run over 30 miles per hour? So, we have a 900-pound mass of muscle, fang and claw that can run over 30 miles per hour. Makes me wonder why we humans believe we are on top of the food chain.
Even knowing this, I purchased my airline ticket, packed my cameras and left East Bend heading for the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. In my imagination, I could just see these big, fearsome creatures about 300 or 400 yards away. There I’d be with my very long range telephoto lenses, high on a hillside, or behind some trees, sneaking a look and making some great photos.
That’s not exactly how Bear Camp works; there are no high observation stations, and no trees to hide behind. And, the bears are right there, right in front of you, perhaps as close as 20 yards. This came as a big surprise to me. The first couple of times I was within a hundred yards of a grizzly I was very afraid but, it happened again, and again. We’d be out there and bears would just amble by. Sometimes I’d see three or four at a time munching on the sedge grass because the salmon had not started to run. This happened so often that my fear almost vanished. The guides take no firearms and no pepper spray, they do carry a flare which can spew out flame and smoke about three feet, and bears are extremely afraid of fire. No human food is ever allowed to be eaten by the bears, and the camp’s garbage is flown out, almost daily. The bears don’t associate us with food or, thank goodness, as food. A bear getting human food is the largest single cause of bear and people confrontations. This is never allowed to happen in Bear Camp.
The big sleeping bear we had been watching suddenly awoke and stared toward the far right end of the meadow. I saw what he stared at, another large male grizzly determined to make his presence known. Apparently this new bear, nearly black, was the dominate male in this area, so the bear we’d been watching left in a hurry.
This dominate bear slowly walked toward us, stopping about 80 yards away to graze on sedge grass. Grazing slowly in front of us for nearly an hour seemed to change his appearance. He no longer seemed to be a bear on a mission to prove his dominance. He began to look like a large teddy just out for lunch.
One thing you don’t want to see a grizzly do is pace back and forth like an expectant father. This signals agitation. Our nearly black bear was just grazing slowly like a milk cow, but then he looked over our shoulder at something behind us. It was another very large, cinnamon-colored grizzly. The cinnamon bear was challenging the dark bear for a share of the meadow. Our dark bear began to pace back and forth, each zigzag motion brought him about 10 yards closer to our position. After a few minutes, he was within 30 yards of us; the cinnamon bear nervously roamed around behind us.
Still, I felt safe, and was busy changing lenses. By the time I had attached a smaller lens to my camera, I could hear our dark grizzly. What I heard were clicking sounds. I strained to determine what was making that noise; it appeared to be the bear’s teeth as he rapidly opened and snapped his jaw closed. This is another thing you don’t want to see a grizzly do; it’s another sign of agitation. Suddenly, I am no longer feeling so comfortable.
Thoughts start to race through my mind. There is a highly agitated grizzly bear coming toward us. He is agitated because he feels that his dominance is being challenged by a large cinnamon grizzly bear behind us. So, here we are between two very large grizzlies that want to fight. By the time this finally gets clear in my mind (dope slap time) the black bear is about 12 yards away. The bear, jaws snapping, turned and walked directly toward me with his legs stiffened and spread wide apart like a gunslinger. This is the third thing you never want to see in grizzly behavior — that cowboy strut being yet another sign of a highly agitated grizzly. By this time, I have stopped making photographs because my hands are shaking uncontrollably, and I don’t even remember that I own a camera.
While I am experiencing extreme fear, our guide calmly rises to a crouching position and steps slowly toward the bear and moving his arms back and forth, in a horizontal plane about waist high, and says, “Stop bear, stop.” Unlike my heart and every nerve in my body, his voice is calm and steady. Amazingly, that big grizzly turned and went around us.
After the grizzly was gone, our guide turned to me and said, “You did great.” I’ll never believe he was talking to me; I didn’t do anything but stop breathing for about two minutes. I am, however, absolutely convinced that he was congratulating himself. And, he should have, he did do great; he talked that bear into not walking all over me. Then he said, “I’ve only forgotten to bring a flare with me twice, today was the second time.” Now why did he have to tell me that? My legs trembled so, I was unable to stand.
Rod Hunter lives in East Bend and is an avid hiker, biker, photographer and nature lover. He is the past state chairman of the Sierra Club of NC. He volunteers as a court appointed children’s advocate for children in foster care and with Cancer Services Inc. He is a two-time cancer survivor. He has backpacked in Alaska, Arizona, California, Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Georgia, Virginia, and of course North Carolina.