The Bears and I

I will never ever forget summer 2002. I was stunned by this spectacular landscape and the experiences I had on this very first trip to Alaska – to get into a world that most likely only few have had the chance to witness in such an intense way. Most above all to experience things with wild bears that I previously thought would simply not be possible. It is an inexplicable experience to be accepted by these magnificent animals in their home.

Sometimes it is even more, which means to have the feeling of having achieved their trust, but this takes time, a long time. Bears are wild animals and if you encounter one he will behave very similar as when encountering one of his own kind that he hasn’t met before. The bear will try to get a scent of the unknown to watch your movements and to listen to any noises.

Patience leads to trust

At first, the bear is very careful and keeps its distance. Therefore, if I see a bear for the very first time when on my own, the two of us behave very similar. We are both cautious and watch each other.  Sometimes the bear approaches, sometiomes it leaves. Who knows, maybe he’s had bad or good experiences with human beings before or maybe none at all. You need a lot of patience and stay in a certain location for an extended period of time in order for the bears to get used to your presence. Some bears always keep their distance, others are curious and with every encounter they approach a little closer until they do not feel threatened by my presence any more at all. However, only very few bears show such behaviour. Keep in mind, for yourself you are not allowed to approach any bear closer than 50 yards and a sow with cubs it is even 100 yards.

It is always the bear that approaches

Over the years and after having spent many a months with literally hundreds of encounters with sometimes the very same individual bears, a few of them feed and sleep at my side. But to get to this point it takes time, a lot of time, and when one sees pictures showing myself in close proximity with a bear one has to know that this is a special bear, one of the very few, that I trust likwise they trust me. Now the time has come when I can watch a single bear for hours and even days. I have my camera at hand and am able to document their life at parts. The days pass quickly and since I am not allowed to stay more than 2 consequitive weeks in the very same location due to minimalize impact on vegetation and the bears accoriding to the Park Service I have to move camp and paddle to the next bay.

After many a return trip to the very same location year after year I got to know many bears individually and to my favourites I have given names like Balu, Bruno, Luunie or Luna. It is very important to recall that it is always the bears that approach me and never vice versa. If you do approach a bear you provoke a reaction by the bear, but if you are passively sitting for hours in the very same spot you are predictable for the bears and they know I will not make a sudden movement when they approach to within close distance. I repeat that park rules are that you are not allowed to approach any wild animal closer than 50 yards. I consider it much safer to hold your ground once an animal approaches.  As a biologist I care for the bears well being, and in case I notice that my presence intrudes or even discards a bear from its food resource I quietly back off and give the bear more space. It is very important to know that I adjust my behaviour according to the bears behaviour. However, I was surprised how many bears obviously do not seem to be bothered by the presence of not only myself, but all the people that are visiting the Katmai Coast year after year.

Close up still images

Sometimes bears relax close by. In one case a mother with her cubs built her daybed close to my camp and used it for days. Her cubs inspected my camp while the electric fence was turned off until she called them back to her. There are so many great encounters and experiences and I really get the feeling to be part of the whole world out there. This ‘relationship’ with the bears is only possible because of the highly concentrated food resources in these parts of Alaska. Here, a bear uses a tiny home range for a extended period of time, totally different for example to the European brown bear, that usually has very large home ranges (hundreds of square kilometers, compared to only a few in Coastal Brown Bears of Alaska). When you spend much time with the very same individual bears you get to know them by their behaviour but also by distinguishable markings in their face or on their body. You can tell females apart from males and get to know their dominance status and hierarchy. For myself nature cannot demonstrate individuality in a more impressive way. Every bear is an individual and to be able to tell them apart makes me feel good. Their behaviour can be similar or very different. Even in case of cubs if you only spend enough time with them it is not a dificult taks to be able to tell them apart, even if they have the same sex and look very very much like each other.

Recognition

The very same way a bear can recognize its conspecifics and also other individual bears I have the feeling that some bears also are able to recognize this two legged animal that they get to see year after year for some time. The nose is the window in a bears world and the very same way a dog is able to recognize a human being even after years of having had no contact I believe that bears are able to do the same. Next to the odor I also believe that the noises (I often talk to the bears) are as important for an individual bear for recognition. The voice is anyway a very important ‘tool’ when being around bears. Depending on your tone  you can eihter get a bear to respect you and keep his distance from you or you can calm down the bear and demonstrate that you are no threat to him. In the very rare case of being challenged by a young male, shouting at the bear is as important as having your pepper spray and flare ready and at hand.But never behave aggressively towards any bear in all other (normal) situations.

Even after all those years and countless encounters there exist dangerous situation that remind myself of never loosing respect towards these potentially dangerous animals. When being in bear country you have to make sure to never surprise a bear and worse a mother with cubs at close distance. Always make your presence known to the bears, espcially when being in un-open country or when walking through thick brush, which in places is the only way of getting around. So far I never had to use the flare or pepperspray, but it is also important to know, that I behave very cautiously around the bears. I really try not to take any chances out there using an electric fence around a well chosen camp site away from the bears highly concentrated feeding areas, being very careful with food in camp (storage in bear proof containers ect.) and always staying alert, also at night and during storms and rainfalls, which limit your senses of hearing drastically what is going about your camp.

Dangerous situations

I am convinced that in human-bear interactions where something happens that in most of the cases it was due to the mistake of the humans themselves that got them into trouble. Bears normally do not look at humans as a potential food resource. If so there would simply be many more fatal attacks, because thousends of people encounter bears every year and many of them do not show a lot of respect towards them when taking pictures and/or approaching them. Also, never ever feed a wild animal and also never run away from a bear. If in serious trouble, after the bear has made contact (which is very very rare, as bears usually run away), protect your head and play dead. But if the bear does not let go, fight for your life with everything at hand if it is not too late already.

For myself it really makes a huge difference if I do know the animal indivudally or not that I have in front of myself. This influences my behaviour towards the bear a lot. After all, in both cases (when I know the bear or when I do not know him) I never loose respect.

Respect

I would also never reach out and touch a wild animal. That is someting like an invisible borderline I believe, that one should simply not dear to cross, as it would mean to disrespect wild animals as a whole. I do not doubt at all that with certain individuals this would be possible, but when they come too close (within a few feet) I tell them with a little straight forward tone in my voice that this is close enough now. For myself, the relationsship with a few bears is the reason to come back year after year. I simply wonder how they do and what has changed since I last saw them. To meet the very same individual wild animals year after year in many cases is simply magical. And I hope that I will be able to contuine to visit these places and watch the bears I got to know so well for many years to come.

Dream of bear research project

These magnificant animals really mean a lot to me and I cannot imagine a life without them anymore. However, in my everydays life I work as a biologist for the Fish & Game Department of the State of Aargau, here in Switzerland and am a happy father of two children. Even though I am involved with the managment and more so the educational advertisement of the return of brown bears back to Switzerland, I am not a bear biologist at all. However, I do have many a question to ask and lots of possible reserach ideas with the bears in the Alaskan wilderness. It is certainly a dream of mine to try to set the basic steps that hopefully one day  I will be able to have my own research project with the bears I got to know so well.

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