Sunday, August 26, 2012

bear photo ops

On Friday, a hiker was killed by a grizzly in Denali National Park. We know that one of the last things he did was to watch and photograph the bear as it foraged for berries, then eventually moved toward him. We're still learning the details and the man is getting lots of criticism for how he broke the park's rules about staying away from bears and moving away if one is encountered unexpectedly. But I can't help but put myself in his shoes.

In the spring of last year, I agreed to write an article about places to bike along Turnagain Arm. A new trail in Portage Valley takes cyclists and walkers up the glacier-carved valley to Portage Lake and the visitor center opposite the receding glacier. The valley is fairly narrow, but is traversed by the railroad, a road and Portage Creek, which flows from the lake into the saltwater of Turnagain Arm.

Portage Lake on the Trail of Blue Ice. May, 2011.

Smaller streams feed into the creek and ponds dot the landscape. Up high are hanging glaciers. Then there's the Trail of Blue Ice. I started at the parking lot near the lake, winding through the forest past a campground, parking lots and ponds. Though never far from the road, it was easy to forget the road was nearby. I saw a family riding the trail that morning. I'd also seen a pile of bear scat near where I'd begun my ride.

After riding to the end of the trail and chatting with some visitors from the Lower-48, I turned around to head back. Though it was late May, the leaves hadn't opened on all the trees and shrubs. Riding into a clearing, I could see a black shape through the brush. I stopped and snapped a photo, not sure of the figure, then it disappeared. I rode a little farther up the trail. Then I saw the black bear in that clearing and I did the wrong thing.

I stopped again, pulled my camera from its case and snapped a few more photos. It was my third bear encounter in two weeks and at the moment I wasn't afraid. Lucky for me, the bear did the right thing and ran back into the brush. It was only then that the adrenaline hit me and I started getting nervous. I needed to get out of there; I hoped the bear wouldn't change its mind and give chase.

Black bear; Trail of Blue Ice. Portage Valley.
Soon I was riding past a pair of moose browsing in a pond, then made it back to the parking lot. I realize it was a pretty foolish move on my part just to get a few images. I've been close to many black bears on the trails around Anchorage. That doesn't make it any safer for me than it does for anyone else. To say they are unpredictable creatures is probably wrong. I'd say, bears are predictable: when they see you, they very often will run away. But as with may other predictions, you could be wrong. Best to back away, leave the area.
To clarify, grizzlies and black bears respond differently to any given human behavior. If you're inclined to go into the backcountry, or even one of our municipal parks, it's best to learn to recognize behavior, know how to respond and learn how to use bear spray. Here's a place to start. Be safe.


Diana said...

I have a few similar pictures of black bears. I've even chased one out of our campsite at Eklutna by banging a pot and pan, while just a few feet from our camper door. And, was face to face with a Yosemite Black Bear at the front of my tent. (I jumped from front to back of tent at Olympic Speed,and said bear moseyed back to his posse and continued their campground raids)

This man at Denali stopped for over 7 minutes taking pictures of a Brown Bear. A completely different animal. I imagine had you seen a brown bear in the clearing, you'd have reacted very differently. It upsets me that he took a very dangerous photo op, despite going through a required bear safety program, losing his life in the process, the bears life, and worse yet, the horror his family must be feeling losing a family member is such a gruesome way. This bear encounter should of ended when he noticed the bear, and turned around and headed in other direction. They would both be alive today.

don said...

One morning while riding my road bike on an old highway along Flathead Lake in Montana I came around a corner and noticed a large black bear crossing the road so I stopped. It was 150 yards away or more and I thought it would continue to cross the road and go down to the lake but it noticed me. It Went up on its hind legs and stiffed the air. Then it came down and started to wave back and forth, then it charged. It all happened in a few moments.

I had some distance so I rode my bike the other direction back around the corner and I had a down hill so I wound my bike up to speed and went as fast as I could. I figured I could keep my distance at least for a while even though I know they can run really fast. Then an oncoming car got between me and the bear. I looked back but the bear must have given up the chase when it lost sight of me as it never came around the corner. Or maybe the car detered it. I had pepper spray in my jersey pocket, but I didn't want to wait around to try and use it. I felt lucky I had that hill to bomb down. I was also glad that car came along when it did.

The odd thing was that it seemed like a fairly safe distance when I came around the corner and first saw the bear. I guess not..