Lesson learned from Little Bear

Bear watching cruise. Alaska small ship cruise mv David B
Little Bear fishing for salmon in Alaska

More than anything else, I love to be in places where I can observe animals. For me, every encounter with wildlife is special. Most of the time these encounters are nothing more than a brief glimpse or a snapshot into a creature’s daily routine. But each time I observe I learn something new about animal behavior and also about myself.

I find bears especially captivating. I love watching how they move, how they make decisions, how they find food, and where they choose to be. I love watching old bears, and young bears, baby bears, and mama bears. I love watching brown (grizzly) bears and black bears equally.

Some encounters stand out. In July this past summer, it was a was a young brown bear. We’d been watching it through binoculars from the David B the night before. The bear had come down to the beach at low-tide to try its hand (or paw, I should say) at fishing. It was alone and seemed to be new at the solo-life of a bear. We speculated that it had recently been run off by its mother and was trying to remember the techniques it had been taught as a baby bear. The bear was trying to pounce on the fish by running and jumping into the creek with its big paws spread wide.  Each time it came up empty pawed. We watched it for over an hour.

Bear watching in Alaska on a small ship cruise
Little Bear checks on its territory

The next morning, the bear, which we affectionately started calling Little Bear, was back on the beach at low-tide. We found it at a different braid of the stream while we were exploring the bay in the skiff. Little Bear was again working on the nuances of fishing, and it appeared it was still coming up empty pawed. Jeffrey kept the skiff offshore in deep water, but close enough that we could watch. Little Bear, strutted around in the water looking for fish. When it found some, it would pounce, and splash, and pounce again.

When it noticed us watching, it ran a short distance along the shoreline with an attitude that suggested we were not welcome to share the fishing hole. Jeffrey backed the skiff. Little Bear was satisfied that we were not a threat, and went back to fishing.

Watching a bear catch fish in Alaska
Surveying the fishing hole

As I’ve thought about Little Bear this fall, I’ve come recognized how hard it is for animals to make it. A young bear has a lot of obstacles to overcome. Young bears don’t often get the best places to forage for food, or the best territory. Young bears like Little Bear are a lesson in persistence. They have to keep trying to catch those fish, no matter how many times they come up empty pawed. That’s what I love about watching wildlife. Life lessons. Lessons that make me smarter, wiser, and more in tune with nature.

As winter sets in, I hope that Little Bear is fat and happy with a big belly full of salmon.

-Christine
PS – If you’d like to have an experience like this, be sure to visit our Alaska pages or simply contact us. Jeffrey and I would love to share moments like this with you.

Skiffy-a-saurus Wins Again!

Skiffy-a-saurus Wins Again!

By Jeffrey Smith

We built a new skiff for this season and we’ve been really loving how much it’s changed things.

It was kind of a last minute decision, and the builders really rushed to get it done for us. We only loaded it on board the day before our season started, It’s huge by comparison to our old skiff (which by an interesting requirement at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, had been known as Skiffy.)  The new one is so big (to us) that we named it Skiffy-a-saurus.

We use it for all the things we used to do. It’s really good and stable (people can stand up and move around while we’re moving) and it easy to climb in and out of at the beach. We’re using it for getting into kayaks too, but but now we’ve added a couple other activities to our skiff repertoire. The best one– skiff exploring.

We didn’t use Skiffy much for exploring, because it’s capacity was so limited, usually only half the group, but now, everyone can go at once. Now when we get to a new cove or harbor and drop the anchor, we all pile in Skiffy-a-saurus and head out to explore the shoreline. We putt along at 3 or 4 knots, sometimes shutting down the motor to drift and listen, and really get to see what’s there. On this last trip alone, we watched eagles and gulls, saw deer feeding at the water’s edge, spied on crab crawling across the bottom, even drifted while harbor porpoises and icebergs circled the boat. But the best one yet… We watched a brown bear right up close!

Barnacles for Breakfast – Paw licking good!

It was morning, just before breakfast. The sun was lighting up one side of the little fjord we were anchored in. The other side was still in the shade. A brown bear swam across from the sunny side into the shadows on the other side. It was probably a half a mile down the shore. We watched it for 15 or 20 minutes, then Christine suggested we go take a look with Skiffy-a-saurus. Everyone got their cameras, and we all quietly climbed in.
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I headed us over to the shore, then hugged the shore as I idled us close to where he was. At about a hundred feet from the bear, I shut down and let the tide carry us along the shore. We were just feet from the rocky edge. Slowly we got closer and closer, The grizzly didn’t seem to notice (or care) that we were there. No one made a sound. When we were even with him on the beach we were probably only 30 feet away! About 15 of that was deep water, so we calmly took pictures and watched as he poked among the rocks, eating barnacles and mussels.  Then we followed him back down the beach for almost another 10 minutes. It was fantastic. Chalk another one up for Skiffy-a-saurus because this moment was only possible because of it.

Skiffy-a-saurus wins again.

“Say that’s a nice skiff you have there!” – Grizzy admiring our Skiffy-a-saurus

Verney Falls in August

A black bear waits at Verny Falls for salmonWhen we enter Nettle Basin on our Southbound Inside Passage cruise between Ketchikan and Bellingham, we always hope we’ll find bears at Verney Falls. In mid-August the salmon come home to spawn here and the bears come for the feast.

Nettle Basin, at the base of the falls will be alive with hundreds of splashing salmon. Sometimes we’ll kayak right up to the waterfall to watch eagles, ravens, and bears feeding on the salmon. It’s exciting to watch bears fishing but I’ve often found myself more mesmerized by the great schools of salmon that gather in the pool at the base of the waterfall. When they jump, it sends a splash of water on to me and my kayak and as they swim their fins cut the surface like sharks.

There’s a lot of energy packed into in this small space. It’s nature’s raw energy of life and survival. I find myself rooting for both the fish and the bears, and I root for the eagles and the ravens too. It’s easy to get caught up in the drama at the waterfall, it’s why we like to come here.

-Christine

Listening to Crows

Crow in Alaska
Crow keeping a watchful eye on me

When people ask what I do for a living, I respond that Jeffrey and I run a tour boat in Alaska, and if that leads to a longer conversation, I usually continue on about how we spend lots of time watching humpback and orca whales, and how we have a couple of spotting scopes on the boat so we can watch bears forage on the beach. Rarely do I run on about how much I love watching crows and other common animals. This is partly because, like weeds, the virtues of crows remain undiscovered for most people.

I find crows fascinating. They help me fulfill my need for nature during the off-season at my urban home where there are no deep-wilderness animals to geek-out on.  Sometimes the crows tell me what’s going on in the neighborhood. Like the time when a raccoon was out wandering during the day. I heard what I like to call a “crowmotion” a few block to the east. The crows were noisily and excitedly moving through yards and alleys. I stepped out the backdoor to see what all the fuss was about. As soon as I opened the door a raccoon came into my yard seeking refuge in a tall cedar tree. Unfortunately for the raccoon, there were already two other raccoons sleeping there and the poor thing was forced to move along. I watched it leave the tree and cross the street. I lost track of the raccoon as it ambled into the neighbor’s yard, but the crows continued their parade “cawing” and flying from tree to tree for several blocks.

I’ve learned a lot from observing crows and that with their help, they often lead me to exciting discoveries. One time I was kayaking close to shore in a cove in Alaska. It was a calm overcast day. I was looking for sea stars, crabs, and small schools of fish. I kept my attention focused on the water below my boat. After a while my ears picked up the sound of several crows in the bushes to my left. The crows were going on and on about something. I half listened thinking there was probably an eagle in a tree. I decided to look up. No eagle. I went back to skimming along the surface and searching the shallow water. They crows kept talking. I looked up again and decided to see if I could find the focus of their attention. I held my boat still by gently padding the water with my paddle. I watched. The crows were clustered low on the branches of spruce, hemlock, and alders. I looked at where they were looking. A branch moved. The tide was high and I was maybe 30 feet from the edge of the forest. I held still and smiled to myself as my eyes made out a dark fuzzy round shape with two more fuzzy round shapes on top. The animal was partially blocked by shrubs and very difficult to see. The crows had discovered a brown bear and wanted everyone to know. I had listened.

Brown bear on Admiralty Island on a small ship cruise
Crows gave away this brown bear’s hidden resting place in the woods.

There have been many other times that the cues of common animals have increased my awareness. I’ve watched gulls flying in a straight line, then suddenly circle. Most of the time it’s a fish coming to the surface, but sometimes it’s a whale. One day I realized that I often say things like, “Oh, that’s just a crow”, or, “It’s just a gull,” when really, they are so much more than “just a.” They are communicators and lively participants in the ecosystems and habitats of which we are part. If we pause to listen to them, we might discover they know things that will truly enrich our lives.

Christine to Talk at Northwest Women in Boating’s November Meeting

Christine will be in Seattle on November 18th to give a talk about her favorite plant and animals that she sees in the San Juan Islands, Inside Passage and Alaska.

Northwest Women in Boating Talk