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Bear encounters in Alaska make tourists feel like salmon



by George Oxford Miller

At one point, Harry isn't sure he'll get a chance to celebrate his 84th birthday. The day before he toasts the beginning of eight and a half decades, he has to dodge a galloping grizzly bear. We've been in Katmai National Park on the Alaskan Peninsula for three days and Harry hasn't made the one-mile trek to the viewing platform on the Brooks River. An off-duty ranger offers to escort him see the massive bears that gather by the waterfalls to catch salmon.

At the falls, eight grizzlies, each weighing about 800 pounds, stand stoically in the foaming water. Then one springs to life and snaps up a 10-pound red salmon swimming upstream to its breeding grounds. "This is my best birthday present ever," Harry says as he catches the action on his camcorder. "I'm filming this for my friends back home who are too old to travel," he says, only half jesting.

The path back to the lodge cuts through a primeval spruce forest crisscrossed with paths worn by centuries of bears patronizing the all-you-can-eat salmon buffet. Fresh prints on our trail warn that the lords of the woods also ramble the human route to the falls. The four-million-acre national park harbors 2,000 grizzlies, the highest concentration of brown bears in North America. About 65 frequent the falls area.

Harry shuffles along at an energetic pace for an octogenarian, but not fast enough for the ranger. She has gained a ten-yard lead on the rest of us when we hear her yell, "Get off the trail! A bear's coming!"

This isn't exactly the first line of response for a bear encounter we learned at the mandatory orientation. Stop and speak evenly (not a scream) to let the bear know you are a human (and not a salmon?) and slowly wave your arms over your head to make the bear think you're bigger than it is (maybe bears are easily fooled by human gymnastics, but I doubt it). Next, back up and give the bear plenty of distance. But never, NEVER run. Running, like the ranger is doing as she screams to get off the trail, may stimulate the bear's catch-and-kill instinct.

In this case, we don't fault the ranger's breach of etiquette. The what-to-do-if-you-meet-a-bear talk doesn't actually cover a bear charging at 30 mph, but I think "improvise" is the operative concept. But, in a true example of human altruism, instead of dashing for safety, we pause long enough to grab Harry and pull him off the trail.

I flash that this must be how a salmon feels. It survives a thousand-to-one odds against escaping the hungry jaws of trout when it's a fry, of barracuda and killer whales when it's spending its adult life at sea, and fishermen's nets when it begins its final, and mostly fatal, journey home. After three years at sea, the tyranny of instinct drives it to return thousands of miles across open ocean to the exact stream of its birth. But before it can achieve genetic fulfillment, it must make one last heroic leap over Brooks Falls, and past the hungry jaws of the gathering of grizzlies.

The ranger's warning only gives us enough time to stumble a yard or so off the trail. In that instant, our heart rates pounds off-scale, our adrenaline surges. We can almost see the wildness in the approaching bear's eyes. But this grizzly wasn't charging us. Instead, it races by like a cartoon roadrunner. If we hadn't acted fast, Harry would have become the park's first hit-and-run victim.

Our first response after the bear disappears down the trail is a burst of elation. Then we look at each other hesitantly. "Why does a 400-pound bear go running through the woods?" I ask the ranger. Without waiting for an answer, we grab Harry and edge farther off the trail. Sure enough, a second bear, one of the 800-pound variety, comes lumbering down the path in pursuit.

It passes us, then stops. It turns around and walks back and stars at us. Now, we really can see the wildness in the bear's eyes. "Does anyone have any bear mace?" the ranger asks in a tone that makes us all feel like salmon confronting the last hurdle. 

We grouped up into a tight bundle (like schooling fish when a danger threatens), but universally forget the admonition to never stare into a bear's eyes. In bear language, staring is the ultimate challenge, a prelude to the big fight. But apparently, the boar is more interested in making a public example of his junior rival than in a bunch of two-legged, bug-eyed interlopers. He turns and ambles off.

Katmai National Park is the premier location in North America for viewing grizzlies doing naturally bearish things. While hundreds of humans focus their cameras and binoculars, the bears focus on gorging on salmon. The salmon run lasts through July and occurs again in September when the spent, dead  fish wash back down the river. Three observation platforms allow visitors to watch the foraging bears in safety, while rangers monitor the fishermen and insure they cut their lines and retreat if a bear approaches.

We never have to wait long for the excitement to unfold around the viewing platforms. At one, a mother and two cubs entertains as the youngsters frolic in the shallows, play tag with mom, and wrestle like puppies - all just a few yards beneath our  feet. We can sit on our cabin porches and watch bears and humans fishing in the curve of the river, bald eagles soaring overhead, and an occasional moose.

At dinner on our last night at Katmai, Harry says that his life didn't flash in front of his eyes - the encounter didn't last long enough to record his passage of 84 years. Not even long enough to record on his camcorder. But he does toast the bears with a Manhattan. Like the rest of us, he has gained a new appreciation for wildness and the effect it has on the human psychic. We quote Thoreau, "In wildness is the preservation of the world," and recount the majesty of the grizzly bears. I don't know whether the encounter shortened or lengthened Harry's time on this earth, but I do know it enriched it, as it did ours.