The big and bigger bear

For some strange reason, just before leaving for Alaska, I decided to watch Werner Herzog’s critically acclaimed documentary film, Grizzly Man. It’s the story of Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiast, documentary filmmaker, and founder of the bear protection organization Grizzly People. A lover of animals since he was a child, Treadwell decided to travel to Alaska to watch bears after a close friend convinced him to do so. He wrote that after his first encounter with a wild bear, he knew that he had found his calling in life, and that now his destiny was entwined with that of the bears. He attributed his recovery from drug and alcohol addictions entirely to his relationship with bears. Timothy lived among The Coastal brown bears of Katmai National Park in Alaska for 13 summers. At the end of his 13th summer in the park, in 2003, he and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed and almost fully eaten by a 28 year old Brown bear at Hallo Bay.

And stranger yet, I hadn’t given any thought to that story, until the 5th day of this trip, out alone one evening with Lance, one of my guides. It was very rare to spot an animal before Lance did. He would point out a wolf resting in the tall grass 100 yards away and I’d have to strain my eyes and follow his directions to finally locate the animal. Maybe he was distracted this evening, or maybe just a little less cautious because he only had me to worry about, but I spotted the bear first, and told him immediately, ” Lance ! bear, and this guys looks different”. “Oh yeah”, he said, “that’s a big bear”. Most of the bears we had seen up to this point were estimated to be in the 500 to 700 lb range, by no means small animals, but this guy looked menacing. The way he carried himself, his sheer size, the battle scars, suddenly Timothy Treadwell was playing in my head. I just didn’t feel comfortable the way he was looking at us.

But all we could do was stand there, as usual, and watch as he lumbered away off to our right. And now he had the attention of a smaller bear that had found a dead salmon in the shallows of the creek. As he slowly approached the youngster, the bear dropped the fish and scurried away along the creek bed and out of sight.

And once again, here I was, about to witness another of the endless dramas that are played out day and night along these gravel stream beds. And we were reduced to inconsequential bystanders, playing absolutely no role, simply watching. So now, the big, bad bear was right underneath a landmark our guides called the “oxbow”.

They had names for numerous, prominent outcroppings to assist in getting their bearings and pinpointing locations. And suddenly, there was the smaller bear, on the edge of the oxbow, 75-100 feet up, rocking back and forth on his hind legs, slamming the ground underneath with his front paws, sending dirt and debris down upon the old bear below who was hardly taking notice.

He was directly at the edge of the cliff. I was sure he was going to fall off.

Lance was just laughing, amused by the fact that this younger bear, which had just been chased off, was now taking an aggressive posture from the relative safety of a 100 foot cliff. “Look at him acting all tough up there”, he said. There was no way that big, old bear was going to make the trip all the way up there to bother with him. And he didn’t even look up as he slowly made his way downstream. After a few minutes of this, we saw the smaller bear make his way down the opposite edge of the oxbow to our left. He peeked out of the brush, and after checking to see if the coast was clear, grabbed the salmon he had dropped, and took off running in the opposite direction the larger bear had gone.

After both animals had cleared out, we walked over to examine the footprints of the bigger bear. Lance showed me a simple way to guesstimate his size. Measure the distance across the front pad and simply add 1. This will give you a rough “square” of the bear. So if you measure the bear track and it comes out at 5″ across, you would add 1 and guesstimate that bear was roughly a six foot bear. We estimated the distance to be about 8″ across. A 9 foot bear weighing approximately 1,000 lbs.

“How much I hate the people’s world”.

Timothy Treadwell

And so it goes.

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