Looking For Bears

On our Northbound Alaska Inside Passage Cruise this year we were joined by returning passengers Brian and Angela, and Ann, a delightful and fun woman traveling on her own from England. We also had our friend Jim, a occasional-crew member on board.

Since Brian and Angela made their reservation in the winter I’d been talking with Brian about some of the things he and Angela would like to do while on the David B. At one point he mentioned that he would be celebrating his birthday while he was on the David B and how much he would like to see a brown bear in the wild. Jeffrey and I knew it was very likely that we would be seeing a brown bear, but then there is always that nagging worry that we’d be unlucky and the bears will be elsewhere. We’ve been skunked before on bears and we hoped that this trip would have at least one good bear sighting.

We left Ketchikan and headed north. We had 7 days to find Brian a brown bear and hopefully do it on his birthday. We scoured the beach with binoculars and along the way we saw bald eagles, seals, seal lions, an orca whale, humpback whales and lots of deer. We also found hundreds, if not thousands of rock bears – the kind of rocks shaped like bears make your heart race thinking you’ve just found a bear- but no bears. As the trip continued Jeffrey and I began to worry that there just weren’t any bears to be seen. In Petersburg, we asked our friend Andy if he’d seen very many bears this year. He reported that the salmon were running late and that there hadn’t any bears at his place.  Finding Brian an unhabituated wild brown bear became an obssession for me a Jeffrey. We anchored in Donkey Bay and Gambier Bay, both on Admiralty Island where there’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 1600 brown bears. We were pretty sure we would have a good chance of seeing a bear come down to the beach.

One morning at Donkey Bay, Jeffrey, Jim, Brian, and Ann walked along the shore in search of bear signs. Brian found a spot where a bear had slept the night before and all around the bear’s bed were bear droppings, including a very fresh one. That was enough for the explorers and they promptly returned to the boat. It was Brian’s birthday and no bears.


Twin Meadows Brown Bear
Brown Bear Foraging at Twin Meadows - Click for a Bigger Image

With only one day left to find Brian his bear, Jeffrey and I had that sinking feeling that the bears were just not around. On our way back from watching Dawes Glacier, we knew we had just one more really good spot to try to find a bear. Jeffrey gave Brian our best pair of binoculars to scan the shoreline of Twin Meadows. It was our last shot and we hoped we would be lucky.

Finally an “Ah-ha!” came from Brian as he pointed to the beach. Slowly, Jeffrey maneuvered the David B in for a closer look. We all rushed up on deck with binoculars in hand to share the moment we searched for for so many days. No one talked as we stood on deck while Jeffrey inched the David B in close enough to watch the bear. It was a special treat and a huge relief. The bear paid no attention to us as it worked its way along the low tide line of the beach, digging and turning over rocks in search of food. I looked back at Jeffrey just long enough to see him smiling from the bridge deck. We were close enough to watch the bear without binoculars.

For me watching this bear was very special. It was a soft reminder that wildlife does not always cooperate and what we see on TV is a very different experience from what we see, hear, and feel in real life. We all worked hard looking for this bear and because of that work the moment of discovery was really the sweetest.  I will always remember this bear and the smile of Brian’s face when he first spotted it. For him, I hope it was the birthday present he had hoped for; even if it was a day late. Watching bears with Brian, Angela, Jim, and Ann was such a joy because they all seemed to fully appreciate the serendipity of watching bears in the wild.