Ten days in the Alaskan wilderness has been an amazing experience. Before I went I was talking about grizzlies but I learned a lot during my visit at the south coast of Alaska.
More than 32,000 brown bears call Alaska home. Even though there are technically two subspecies in North America (the grizzly and the Kodiak), all brown bears in Alaska are genetically identical. The difference between Coastal and Grizzly Bears is geographical and diet. As their name suggests, Alaskan coastal brown bears live along the coast where the living is easier and the climate is better. They enjoy a greater amount of animal protein, mainly in the form of fish in their diet and hence get larger. The grizzly has to work harder for it’s food and are more aggressive.
Although the coastal brown bears have learned to live close to people it doesn’t mean they are less aggressive than the grizzly, they are just less shy. Our guide Dave told us a lot about these bears and Dave was our extra set of eyes and ears. He watched our back when we were focused and looking through the viewfinder.
Sixty miles of coast are the habitat of the coastal brown bears in the area we were based. At this time of year they need as much fat they can get and one of the best source for that is the Silver Salmon and clams. A whole salmon provides no less then 4.000 calories and a single male has been seen eating no less then 50 salmon on one day. This is an exception and occurs only in areas where they are very easy to catch. Along the coast it’s definitely not easy. We’ve only seen a bear catching a salmon twice. They were really struggling and even looked desperate at times. Winter is coming and they need to prepare. The mother can’t keep all for herself because the cubs have to make it through the winter as well so it’s a constant search for anything eatable.
At low tide they start their search for clams and salmon. The mother seems to know exactly when to look for salmon and when to dig for clams. Salmon are not easy to catch, even in shallow water. The mother often sat on the bank looking for any movement in the water and ran at full speed trying to catch a fish and often standing up to have a better look.
After catching a fish she often kept it for herself. The cubs were loudly begging for the freshly caught fish but the mother warned them aggressively not to come any closer when she was eating. She knows full well winter is coming and she needs every calorie to stay alive. She also needs the food to provide the cubs with milk, which contains 25% fat. I witnessed a cub stealing half a salmon and it ran like hell. It’s all about survival and making it through the harsh winter.
Clams are also a good source of protein and much easier to catch. The adults developed a good technic and know they have to dig fast because the clams dig deep and fast into the sand when they sense any movement. The cubs were still learning and watched their mother closely.
Bears are preparing themselves for the winter and look for anything eatable. We even witnessed a mother bear breaking in a summer cabin. The owner closed it up for the winter and didn’t think a box containing pancake mix would cause any problems. He was wrong. The bears broke through the door and didn’t clean their mess afterwards. They left a real mess looking for more food. Bears can smell food from a distance no less then six miles. The owner will not make this mistake again.
Although a bear’s life can be brutal the cubs find time to relax and play. They are very curious and want to touch, taste and smell everything.
Being this close to a wild and powerful animal like the brown bear is an adventure I will never forget. I’ve seen fights to the death on television and am well aware of what they can do. They can run at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, climb trees, swim and knock out Mike Tyson when he was in his prime. Disrespect a bear and you will pay the price big time!
The rules are simple. Don’t approach them, let them approach you. Don’t sneak up on them but let them know you are around. And most important try not to take the salmon like John West did in that commercial.
Being close to them is a privilege and the best time I had was while taking portrait shots. I can’t deny I felt adrenaline rushing through my veins when a fully grown bear walks up to you within the focus distance of my 500 mill.
I enjoyed every second of this trip. The food was outstanding and flying in and out with a bush plane flown by an 18 year old was interesting. It was my pleasure to co-lead this trip and I’m hoping to do it again in 2016. When I have whet your appetite with this blog and you want to experience this yourself, please have a look at our WEBSITE for more information.
I want to thank the lodge staff, guide Dave, teddy bear Dan and all the guests for a great trip. I will hopefully see you again in the near future.