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Exploring The Bear Country of Alaska
There is almost no place in the world that is as sparsely populated as Alaska. Large parts of the country are still dominated by the animal world. This is also true of the vast Katmai National Park in southern Alaska, where the landscape is marked by glaciers and volcanoes, some of which are still active. At the bottom of the peaks of the Aleutian Range that are up to 2000 meters high lies the flat and stormy Shelikof Strait. The hard-to-reach coastal landscape is a Dorado for animals. This is the country of the bear.
Our boat – a former research vessel – is our base camp and we are anchored in Hallo Bay. At this moment the tide is out and a bear is wandering along the beach in search of mussels. It is an “Alaskan brown bear,” as the animals along the coast are called.
A subspecies of the brown bear lives in the heartland and is called “Grizzly” (Ursus arctos horribilis). It is much smaller than coastal bears and is known to be aggressive towards humans. This happens mainly if people do not respect the rules that must be respected while staying in their territory. In these cases, Grizzlies accidents make horror stories and headlines from time to time.
However, in general, Grizzlies are – like the big Brown Bears on the coast – shy and quiet creatures, who love their peace and quiet more than anything. Our Master Bruin is particularly interested in the Razor Clam. With its distinct sense of smell, it searches for mussels up to 15 centimeters under the sand and pulls them out. But he must hurry, because the mussel notices the danger and quickly burrows itself into unreachable depths. If caught by a mussel, it rips the mussel open with its teeth and claws.
Two years ago, when we were with the bears at McNeil, at Kodiak and Katmai, the people at Brooks Camp warned us insistently about the wild coast we were now on. They told us that there would be a particularly large number of large and very dangerous animals. And what did we find on the rugged western shore of the Shelikof Strait? On the beach there were bears foraging for mussels and on the grassy ground bears grazed peacefully. We have never had any problems with them.
Of course there are rules of conduct in Bear Country. Eating in or near the tent is an absolute no-no. Even toothpaste, creams and cosmetics are an irresistible attraction. Distances to be observed of 50 yards for an individual animal or, respectively, 100 yards with a mother bear with a cub are justified. For example, at the well-attended Camp Brooks, people are careful to keep a safe distance. The rule is respected by humans, but Brownies don’t always stick to it!
As we wander around a bend, we are standing in front of a large green field. Bears! I count them surprised: eighteen bears are in the grass! We are cautiously approaching an animal, which stands aside, directly in front of a steep, overgrown rock face, from which water rushes in long threads. The big brown bear chooses the softest grass. As he notices us, he slowly approaches us. A fox is speeding by with a bird in its mouth. Indifference, the bear looks back. Then it focuses back on us, but in the end the grass seems to be more interesting to the bear: slowly it steps on its rocky face.
The rain has stopped, the sun comes out – but again only for a short time. We spend hours of peace in this river landscape, surrounded by bears.
The boat is already waiting for us. At night we anchor near the Rock of Shakun.
The weather forecast doesn’t sound good, and we have to leave the island in still heavy seas late in the afternoon. The wind is steadily increasing and we are happy to reach Kukaku Bay. We go very deep into the bay, anchoring in a sheltered spot, because the storm is already breaking out in the open sea. The Shelikof Strait is notorious. On board I read in a report that there have been years with 23 storm days a month, with waves of three, six or even ten meters. We spend two days in this place in the rain and wind. Then there is a brief improvement in the weather and a small float plane can pick us up. Despite the bad weather in the Shelikof Strait, we got to know a unique landscape with rich flora and fauna.
As for the big bears of Alaska, in hundreds of encounters with them we have met only calm animals. We have encountered them at McNeil, Kodiak, Brooks River, the Katmai “back country” and Shelikof Strait. To us, they embody the untouched wilderness and fascinate us immensely.
However, it should never be forgotten that bears are extremely powerful and fast animals. An erect brown bear can reach a height of three meters. In Kodiak there are animals weighing up to 800 kilograms! In a melee attack, humans don’t stand a chance. The bears we met had a good or abundant food supply. Also, they were not destroyed by humans. Perhaps these circumstances have influenced their calm demeanor.
For grizzlies at heart, the food supply is much worse. Their living conditions are difficult. Failure to comply with basic safety rules on their territory can have fatal consequences. Fatal attacks against humans in Yellowstone and Glacier National Park document this emphatically. Despite all the charm – caution is always advised with these animals.
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