A place where bears own the right of way


A few months ago, I found myself in a remote area of Alaska, watching pink and chum salmon splash through the shallows of an unnamed stream.

The sounds of the salmon, the breeze coming off the ocean, the breakers on the beach, and the continuous calls of gulls made for an Alaskan symphony. A bush plane wasn't due to pick us up for four more days, and we were settling in to the rhythm of the Alaskan coastal bush.

I walked to the top of a narrow sandy ridge behind the stream to survey my surroundings. Ahead of me, the ocean rolled onto the shore and islands were just visible through the mist, miles off in the distance. Behind me lay the stream, then a stretch of alders and then, on the horizon, peaks holding last winter's snows.

As I stood there, taking in all this scenery, I caught movement to my left. Turning, I saw a female brown bear about 60 yards away, walking the ridge-top in a direct line to where I stood. A cub followed her closely. She moved with a determined stride, and her cub had to trot to keep up. She was looking right at me, and I assumed she would veer from her path and go around the obstacle that I presented.

At 50 yards, though, neither her pace, direction or stare had changed. When the mother bear had closed the gap between us to 40 yards, a quick inventory of my possessions revealed nothing but a camera and a Leatherman.

Still counting on Plan A, that the bears would yield, I held tight. I could now see clearly the mother bear's dinner-plate sized front paws: 10 long claws, flipping forward in slow motion that settled deep into the sand, moving closer to me with each step in that swinging, pigeon-toed gait of the great bears. When she was about 30 yards away, I decided that if she came 10 steps closer, I would execute Plan B, which was to take 10 calm steps and then slide discreetly down the side of the ridge. That was the entirety of my Plan B.

A brown bear sow finishes nursing her three cubs at Silver Salmon Creek, in Lake Clark National Park.

Ten of her steps later, I executed Plan B, sliding down the sandy ridge. I stopped and turned just in time to see the bears walking right over where I had just been standing. They continued their unhurried way to the stream. The mother bear didn't even look down at me as she passed, maybe judging me inconsequential, the clear loser of this ridge-top standoff. Her cub slowed, gave me a quick glance, and then trotted to catch up to mom. I began to breathe again.

I remember seeing a Curt Gowdy hunting documentary back in my youth. A guide and hunter crept over a ridge, somewhere in the wilds of Alaska, to look for caribou in the valley below. It was a damp, heavy, quiet day, and mist obscured the far side of the valley. As they glassed the valley, they saw no caribou, but spotted two brown bears, foraging in the bush. To my youthful imagination, it seemed as if time had gone back a thousand years, and the entirety of the world consisted of only this immense clouded Pleistocene valley, the two bears and the two men.

They watched the bears for a while, then the guide whispered, "This is the bears' valley; it is their wild place, we will leave them alone." And with that, they backed down from the ridge, and the bears never saw them.

It was difficult for me, a Midwestern kid, to imagine a place so wild, immense and so pristine that it could hold the great brown bear. How I yearned to someday experience such a place for myself.

Looking back, that is how I felt about the bears on the ridge that day. It was their wild place, not mine, and of course I had to back down. They could travel a hundred miles without seeing a human being. Their land was still the way it existed before humans crossed the land bridge from Asia, not far from where we stood that day.

I came away from the ridge that morning knowing I had seen the wild place I had imagined years ago. And as the bears walked by me, I captured that moment with close-up photographs of a mother and cub brown bear, silhouetted against the wild Alaskan sky.

Keith Penner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes in Green River, Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.