The rising sun warms up the tent and fills it with light. I leave the comfort of my sleeping bag, open the zipper of the tent, turn off the electric fence around the tent and take a deep breath. From the tent I overlook the huge tidal zone of the bay, it’s also the place where the river from the close by glacier flows into the sea. I can see two bears fishing for salmon, maybe a kilometer away. It’s the same place where a wolf was fishing yesterday evening, long after the sun was gone. It takes about an hour and a half with a small water plane to get here, no roads, no houses, no crowds, just pure wilderness. It’s a special feeling and I’m so grateful that I’m privileged to be here and experience it and that places like this still exist.
It’s august and it’s about the time of the year when the salmon come back from the sea and into the rivers to spawn. That’s exactly what the bears are waiting for. They need the nutritious salmon to gain enough weight for the long winter hibernation. This year everything is late here in Alaska, so are the salmon. When we arrived, only 2-3 bears were around. Don’t get me wrong, 2-3 bears are more than cool but there should be 20 or even more. Most of them moved on to another bay. Maybe south to Geographic Harbor or Kuliak Bay, maybe north to Hallo Bay, I don’t know. They cannot wait for a couple of days till the salmon arrive. Every day is precious in the race to gain weight for hibernation.
As mentioned, there were no salmon in the river when we arrived. So on our first day we “only” found a big male bear in a huge grass field, feeding on grass. But on the second day everything has changed: the salmons are in. From now on, all the action is going on in the river and the tidal zone.
Everything is bound to the pulse of the tide here. From low-tide to mid-tide is the best time, it’s when the salmon spawn in the tidal zone and the bears follow. The closer it gets to high-tide, the less action is going on. Most of the time the bears even disappear and use this break to rest or do their “bear-stuff”.
We are waiting on one of the riverbanks. A big bear is fishing for salmon but he’s too far away to take pictures. It’s the same bear that we’ve already photographed the last couple of days. His left front paw is hurt and he limps, that makes it easy to recognize him. But he is doing fine and catches one salmon after the other. He doesn’t care about us – these strange looking something with cameras in their hands. He is busy with catching fish and has no time to waste. While chasing the salmons through the shallow water he is fully concentrated and he is fast. One time he catches a salmon about 7 meters in front of us and brings it to the nearby river bank, where he starts to eat the salmon. So we “joined” him for dinner. I hear every breath he makes, hear him smack while he is eating the fish. Another time he walks along the river straight in our direction, first he’s 30 meters away, then 15, 7, 5, 3. He just walks by, maybe 3 meters in front of us. You cannot imagine this feeling unless you experience it, joy, confidence, respect!
I had several hundred bear-encounters over the last couple of years, most of them while working on a project about European Brown Bears in Slovenia – www.lebenamlimit.at – and I have worked with bears here in Alaska too. During that time I’ve learned a lot about their behavior and about how they interact and use their body language. If they feel confident with the situation they are so relaxed. To me they are the most fascinating animals on our planet and to be with them at such a wild and remote place like Katmai National Park left me in awe.
Unfortunately the end of the trip came all of a sudden and earlier as expected. Via a satellite phone we got the weather forecast for the next couple of days. A storm with rain and fog was on its way and it was likely that the small plane that should pick us up, could not come for several days. So we called our pilot and she picked us up a couple of hours later.
We will come back, that’s for sure. Maybe next year…