I’d never seen a live bear in the wild. The two dead black bears I’d passed on the side of the road in Bradford, PA don’t count. And hiking in the Adirondacks I’d missed them on numerous occasions, if other hikers are to be believed. But now I was in Hallo Bay Alaska, Katmai National Park, a bear viewing paradise. Myself and three others had just landed clumsily on the beach after the breathtaking flight from Homer 120 air miles away. I felt I was a character in a National Geographic special. Sitting next to the pilot of a 1974 Britten-Norman twin engine Islander, headphones on, as he pointed out volcanoes and glaciers. I was in awe, not only being in the presence of a bush pilot, but also the immensity of the land, all that water, and the approaching mountains.
This would be the most remote area I’d ever been to in my life. 300 miles away from the nearest road by land, and would be my home for the next 5 days. No man-made trails, no viewing platforms, no bear spray, no firearms, no other people. Just the 4 of us, our 2 guides, and the bears , wolves, and eagles that call this beautiful place home.
2 hours ago I was boarding a tiny plane at a small airfield in Homer and somehow had just landed, quite unceremoniously, in a photographic heaven.
So after getting situated in our tents, the guides gave us a short talk regarding etiquette. Pretty basic stuff. No flash photography. Always stay with the group. Never approach any animals. Backpacks containing lunch on your back at all times. They were very adamant about not allowing the animals to begin associating humans with food. Every 3 weeks the guides had to pack up the entire camp and move to a different location a mile or so away. This was not only in keeping with National Park guidelines but also prevented the animals from getting too comfortable around the camp. Then we headed out looking for bears.
We spotted our first bear from about 300 yards away. He was heading away from us, walking along the river, and then rounded a bend and was gone. While we never approached any of the wildlife, we were always on the move to the spots that Jerry, one of our guides, knew the bears liked to fish. Then we would sit and wait for the animals to approach us, sometimes uncomfortably close.
Jerry was a 22 year old free spirit from Colorado who decided one day to pack all his belongings into his aging Toyota pickup and head for Alaska. He had a friend who allowed him to sleep in a tent in her backyard until he could get situated. 6 months later and he now had a place of his own. No running water, but he had a solid roof over his head. And given his short time at guiding he was remarkably adept at finding the best spots to hang out and wait for bears. I heard from Jerry about a year and a half later. He had given up guiding and took a factory job. He said he felt like he had been living on borrowed time.
So we headed in the direction we thought the bear might be going but when we finally rounded that bend in the river, nothing. Jerry and the 3 others took a seat on rocks along the bank. Small talk and waiting. I was standing about knee deep in the river, more like a stream actually, when along the bank I saw him approaching. ” Jerry, there’s that bear”.
and now walking in the stream I was standing in. Jerry very calmly instructed me to get out of the water at once. This encounter I have not yet been able to fully describe or understand because it was just so foreign and unfamiliar. Primeval, I would say. As this gigantic animal continued to approach, one part of my brain was telling me everything was okay. This was nothing new and it was the reason we were here. But why wasn’t he stopping ? Surely he could see me. No wild animal ever keeps approaching a human. This would be my first glimpse into no longer being at the top of the food chain. And this is when the other part of my brain started screaming at me to run. Get out of this situation as quick as you can. This is not right, you shouldn’t be here ! It was a tug of war of emotion I had never experienced before and may never again. A literal battle between my developed self and an ancient instinct that was lying dormant within me and was just now surfacing. An instinct that I never knew I possessed, until now, brought to the surface by an approaching animal that was unpredictable, potentially dangerous, and who’s intentions were not clear, at least to my untrained mind.
Hesse writes; ” I am an experiment on the part of nature, a gamble within the unknown, perhaps for a new purpose, perhaps for nothing, and my only task is to allow this game on the part of the primeval depths to take it’s course, to feel it’s will within me and make it wholly mine”.
But then you realize this fantastic animal has very little interest in you and is much more concerned with simply catching salmon. Sitting a mere 50 feet away from this incredibly powerful giant, watching him splashing and diving for his lunch, totally oblivious to the 5 strangers watching his every move, turned out to be my first “bear in the wild” and would set the stage for many more remarkable experiences over the next 5 days.