OPINION: Living with bears in Anchorage

It was an amazing thing to witness and be a part of. Four people lay on the bare plywood floor of a Hillside cabin, the sides of their heads pressed tight against that floor, with ears and minds and hearts listening intently, everyone quiet except for an occasional whispered exclamation of surprise or delight.

Our attention was focused on the faint sounds made by three tiny black bear cubs, born beneath the cabin sometime in mid- to late January.

At the time of their birth, the cubs were even more miniscule and utterly helpless creatures. About the size of chipmunks, they weighed a half-pound or so and were naked, sightless and toothless.

Making the circumstances even more remarkable, they were completely dependent on a hibernating mother who moved in and out of sleep, and who hadn’t consumed any food or water since she’d entered the den months earlier.

All four were squeezed into a cramped area beneath the cabin, only 18 inches high and 10 to 15 feet in diameter. That tight space, along with the mother’s body heat, would keep the den warm enough to act as a kind of “surrogate womb.” Combined with the mother’s rich and nourishing milk and bodily warmth, the den allows the cubs to not only survive but grow substantially by the time they head out into the larger world in spring.

Knowing our great interest in bears, our friend — I’ll call her Rose — had invited us to her cabin high on Anchorage’s Hillside, to share the hibernating family’s company. By the time we showed up in mid-March, the cubs were two months old, more or less. And vocal when hungry. With ears pressed against the floor, we could easily hear their high-pitched whines. We could also hear a second sound, harder to describe, a kind of mewing-slurping-purring mixture. That, Rose told us, was the contented sound of nursing cubs.

We marveled at not only the miracle of those nursing cubs, but also their mother’s silent — and apparently complete — tolerance of our presence. “Think about it,” Rose smiled. “These bears are only a half-inch from us when we’re lying on the floor. The mom can easily hear us talking and moving around. And yet she accepts us being here because we’ve shown we are not a threat. She’s grown habituated to our presence.”


It was the second time in four years that this adult female bear chose to den beneath Rose’s cabin. The first time she had year-old cubs and that went well; so a level of trust — what else can you call it? — had already been established.

Knowing Rose’s passion for bears and her understanding of their behavior, I’m confident the mom couldn’t have picked a better place.

Nearly a month passed before Jan and I returned to the cabin, this time joined by two other guests. The space beneath the cabin was quiet when we arrived and remained that way for half an hour, almost certainly because the cubs were napping.

Once they awakened, things got noisy. Now considerably larger, the cubs had also become more active. A variety of thuds and bangs and crunching sounds emanated from the den beneath us, loud enough we didn’t have to press our ears to the floor, as the cubs explored and tested their surroundings and, we figured, played with each other.

Eventually, they again began nursing and we were once more treated to the high-pitched pulsating, whirring, purring sounds of feeding cubs. Now and then a cub would bawl loudly. And occasionally we could hear the mom’s fur brush against the floor’s underside, while accommodating her larger—and steadily growing—offspring.

While listening to the cubs, I recalled a time, more than two decades earlier, when I spent a few hours in the company of orphaned black bear cubs, before they were sent to a zoo in the Lower 48. I still consider that experience some of the best hours of my life.

Both then and during this year’s cabin “encounter” with denning black bears and again as I write these words, I’ve believed that if every person who lives in bear country could have such an experience, most (if not all) of those people would become more tolerant, more accepting of bears; and they would behave more generously and respectfully while living with bears in our shared homelands.

It’s really not so difficult to peacefully coexist with bears. Sure, it takes some work to learn the proper etiquette, how best to behave safely in their presence and to not become a source of easy food — from poorly stored garbage to dog food and bird feeders — that these “opportunistic omnivores” come to associate with humans. But it’s worth the effort, especially if you’ve learned what amazing creatures they are, adults and cubs alike.

It seemed a miracle of sorts, to get this window into the lives of hibernating bears and, in their close — yet safely sheltered — company, try to envision what was happening below us.

We talked about returning one more time. But before Jan and I could do so, we got a text from Rose on April 18, showing muddy paw prints in the snow outside the cabin. “Someone has started to show signs of waking up. Still definitely underneath the cabin but starting to make some forays out.”

We agreed it was best to stay away, since “they’ll be in and out now.”

Within only a few days, the family had left their den for good. Rose sent us video (taken by a trail cam she’d set up) showing all four bears outside the cabin, the three cubs now likely weighing between five and 10 pounds but still teddy-bear cute.

By early May there was no sign of the bears. “Hopefully they’re way uphill,” Rose texted.

Safely away from neighborhoods, from nervous humans.

Again it’s my wish that we humans would be as tolerant, as forgiving of bears, as they are of us.

Anchorage nature writer and wildlife/wildlands advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Alaska’s Bears” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.”

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Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Alaska's Bears" and "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."