Outdoors/Adventure

When’s a good time to see bears in Alaska? When the timing is right.

“There is no greater social sin than poor timing.” My memory cannot specify when this phrase implanted itself in my memory. The best I can guess is a long time ago. It often seems to visit the forefront of my brain, as it did when the brown bear cub popped out of the brush.

With my truck in the shop that morning, I had taken Christine to work early and stole her vehicle to make an appointment later in the morning. Rather than go home to wait for the appointment, and given the early hour, I decided to drive out to a place we see critters often enough to attempt to make some photographs.

When the cub appeared, there seemed little doubt its mother would be close by, so I stopped and watched. The early morning light didn’t provide enough illumination for clear photographs of moving objects, and the little bear danced around and bucked like a new-born colt in a pasture.

The bucking stopped briefly, and the bear looked back at me with a heart-breaking expression. Yes, perhaps I am guilty of anthropomorphizing, but the photo is compelling evidence. I waited for about 10 minutes, hoping the mother would make an appearance, and when she didn’t, I looked into the dark gulley where the youngster had walked.

The cub shuffled along through the semi-open birch forest, still no evidence of the mother in sight.

Perhaps something happened to her, I thought, and I wished the little bugger well, without much hope.

The early hour left the road barren of traffic so I drove slowly, enjoying an unusual bit of solitude. Maybe a half-mile down the road, another bear, this one an adult black bear, appeared along the road, snatching mouthfuls of succulent plants and grass growing in the road ditch.

It moseyed along, occasionally looking over at me as I paced him along the road. I hoped for a classic bear shot, maybe one sitting on his fat butt, or scratching his back on a tree. But it wasn’t to be. The bear was too busy eating to perform, so I drove on.

Still driving slowly, I wallowed in the good fortune of having seen two bears, a red-letter morning for most anyplace one can drive to. I couldn’t imagine seeing any more that day.

Another mile down the road, a sign at a trailhead caught my eye. I stopped to read it and discovered it warned hikers of bears in the area. I thought, “well, yeah, they’re right down the road.”

In retrospect, I know the bear was completely concealed from view behind the large sign I had just read. In the moment, though, I felt like an idiot as I pulled past the sign and it registered that yes, there was another bear.

Another black bear, this one was small and easily hidden behind a bear-warning sign, and most likely in its first year away from mom.

Gorging on the roadside vegetation, the little bear paid no attention to me. The light had improved, and seeing an opportunity, I went a way up the road and waited. Soon enough, the bear came long, grabbing the lush vegetation and paying me no mind at all.

There are times when I have trouble detaching from situations in the face of common sense. Most often bears are involved. They are endearing animals to watch, and time spent with them is, at least for me, always worth the price of admission. Nevertheless, the mesmerizing antics of bears can make it difficult to remember that no matter how friendly they may seem, they are still wild, and can be dangerous.

There is no bear hunting allowed in the area where I saw the bears, and that can breed a level of contempt or comfort when bears encounter humans. It can become too much of a good thing, and there are no winners when things go bad. So, with great reluctance, I squashed the desire to just hang out with that bear all day, and the hell with my schedule.

I turned around and headed back, still plenty of time to make my appointment and press the shutter button a few more times if opportunity knocked. I had no illusions about seeing more bears as my eyes searched the countryside on my slow drive back.

A spruce grouse hen scuttled along the edge of the road, and as I approached, several of her newly hatched chicks scurried amongst the roadside grass. One stopped long enough for a photo.

Another couple hundred yards down the road, two young snowshoe hares bounded along, stopping here and there to nibble flowers. One stopped behind a couple of blades of grass as I drove along. Evidently, the young bunny thought he was hidden, and sat nicely for a photo.

Folks who love nature and who attempt to preserve experiences with it in photography will understand that I was aglow with the successes of the brief morning. Happy to head to the dreaded appointment, where I would now have a song in my heart.

“No,” I thought when I saw a too-black spot up the road. “It cannot be another bear.”

Well, it wasn’t a bear, it was three of them. The mother stepped out from the roadside brush and started across the gravel. Sitting dumfounded with my mouth hanging open, first one, then another black bundle of fur emerged and jumped and hopped their way across the road, following the mom a few yards from a trail Christine and I frequent.

I finally retrieved my head from the stuck place and managed a couple of photos. One of the cubs stopped in bear curiosity to observe me while I made a photo. OK, the song became a symphony.

Driving away, I thought about all of the timing that had to occur for my morning to be what it had been.

What if we hadn’t stopped to get coffee, or if there had been two cars ahead of us instead of none?

What if all the traffic lights had been red, or if someone else had been on the road ahead of me?

Having thought about it a bit, none of that really applies to nature. There are no clocks, no calendar, no appointments. I’ve concluded the only sin would be not going at all.

Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan and avid shooter who lives in Kenai.

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