Miss Chevious and Friends

This post is about my favorite Charismatic Mega-Fauna in three sizes: big bears, little bears, and in-between sized bears. I’ll start by introducing you to Miss Chevious (also known as “Bad Girl”, but that seems too harsh) – a small 3 year old bear who was kicked out by her mother this spring (a sub-adult). These young bears are still trying to figure out their world – they’re the bears I watch most carefully since they can be less predictable.

Miss Chevious was definitely curious and a bit pushy, but she was also smart and not a brat. I spent several days hanging out with bears on Chichagof Island, and they kept me on my toes.

A professional photographer and her husband were around while I was there, and they had a bad habit of leaving their big camera rig unattended while they moved to a different spot with a different camera. Any bear can be curious, but this little gal made a bee-line for the very expensive rig as soon as she saw it without humans around.

I had just come ashore and saw where she was headed, while the owners of the $30,000 camera weren’t paying attention. Fortunately I was able to catch up to her and suggest that she go back to catching fish in the stream.

Every day I would come ashore in the kayak, tie it off to a tree with a long line, and keep it floating out in the water so bears wouldn’t bother it. One morning it got caught on a rock and was stuck at the water’s edge, and when I checked on it… there was Miss Chevious again!

She just sniffed it, and tasted the bow a little… no harm done. I had to tell her to leave it alone a couple of times, but everything was okay.

While all this was going on, we were watching a sow and her three little first-year cubs, another sow with two second-year cubs, a pair of sub-adult (but a little older) sisters who constantly play-fought, and an array of other bears that came and went as the tide changed.

As always, the youngest cubs were just adorable, making funny faces, chasing fish (but not really able to do much if they caught one), play-fighting, and rolling around.

At one point the sow with the three cubs flopped down in the grass fairly close to us, and we thought she was going to nurse them… but no, the cubs kept bouncing around and exploring, and the sow just wanted some rest. The expression on her face describes life with three little cubs perfectly.

I had a ball, just sitting and watching bears for days and days. Sometimes the tide wasn’t right and the action would be pretty quiet, but then you never know when a bear might wander down to check the creek. Other times, the falling tide would trap fish among the rock pools and there would be 8 or more bears in the stream at the same time. They can come from a number of different directions, so we have to pay attention. I tend to watch bears like a bear – let me explain. When bears are eating, they’re constantly scanning their surroundings. It’s how I know that they’re okay with me – they see me in their scan, but they don’t dwell on me, so I’m okay. If they start to pay attention to me, it means that I’m making THEM nervous – so I will back off until I’m just part of the background. I do the same thing when I watch bears – I scan all the time, because if there’s a rich supply of salmon in the stream, there will be more bears coming out of the woods.

Miss Chevious made a few other close approaches to us, but whenever she started to get a little too close I just had to say “that’s enough!” and she turned and ran off. Are there more bear photos? Yes, an obscene amount of them. Will I inflict more on you? We’ll see. Bear with me…

Charismatic Megafauna

Although the title of this post would make a great name for a rock band, it’s a phrase used around here to describe my favorite kind of fauna – big furry bears. Whales would also fall into the megafauna category, but I can’t say that they share the same expressiveness that bears have. Sorry whales, you’re awesome, but not what I would call compellingly cute.

So where have we been, and why has been almost exactly a YEAR since I last posted? There’s no big secret – we’ve just been super busy. We’re fine. Nothing bad happened, and I hadn’t planned to stop blogging. I just ended up with a huge pile of photos and videos that became overwhelming, then we got back to town and had to get the boat ready for winter, and we did a little traveling, and then the holidays, and then… well, you get the idea. And still, that big pile of photos needs weeding out and editing. In addition, I really want to re-format the blog to a more contemporary style, and I need to fix the email notification subscription thing since the old service went away… but all that takes lots of time to work out, and time is the one thing I’m perpetually short of.

Lately I’ve been working hard just to keep up with what I’m shooting this summer, and the June trip to Glacier Bay is still a work in progress. Living in a rainforest has its advantages, since pouring-down-rainy days are perfect for long sessions working on photos. But this summer has been pretty dry, which means I’m out taking photos instead of dealing with them. So that’s our story…. now, back to bears.

Cubs fighting

We were up at Pack Creek on Admiralty Island a few weeks ago, visiting our favorite rangers and watching for bears. The fish hadn’t come into the streams yet, but the bears were clamming at low tide and eating berries in the forest the rest of the time. Little cubs were brawling in the tall grass. Once high tide passed and the water started to ebb, bears would come to the stream to check for fish – so seeing them was very hit-and-miss, though persistence pays off. We hiked the trail to the observation tower and encountered bears in the woods – a sow and her skittish little first-year cub, and the two sub-adult sisters – the brats.

This is the brattier of the two sisters (above). We had been calling out “hey bear” as we were hiking, as one does in bear country – best not to surprise them. We stopped and heard rustling in the brush just off the trail, and got cameras ready. This gal walked out to the trail, pretended to sniff at something else, then turned towards us. She’s a sub-adult – a teenager – who wanted to test us to see if she could push us around. We had to say “NO bear!!” loudly a few times, and didn’t budge when she took a step towards us. She finally figured out that she wasn’t going to get her way, and went back into the brush for more berries. A moment later her sister came out, looked at us, and when we said “NO!” she went back into the brush without a fuss. “Good Bear!” we told them.

Many of the places we go to see bears are areas where they’re habituated to humans, to some degree. Humans stay in the human areas, and that leaves the rest for the bears. If we respect them and their space, there’s no problem. It’s all about ethical bear viewing that many of us practice… and groups like National Geographic absolutely don’t! I’ve seen irresponsible behavior by all their boats up here. They bring gigantic groups of people ashore to a bear stream, stand in bear trails, and effectively chase all the feeding bears away until they leave. Local guides try to educate them, but they ignore and disrespect them. The bears only have the summer to pack on the pounds they need to survive the winter, so depriving them of their prime food source (fish) with crowds of tourists is shameful. We feel pretty strongly about respecting our wildlife around here.

The curious first-year cub in the photo above is a great example of the reward for ethical bear viewing behavior. About 90 minutes after one of the obnoxious NatGeo groups left, the bears started returning to the stream to feed. This little first-year cub paused to look at me and a guide with her small group – we were sitting quietly in a tight bunch. The sow had just walked right past us, along with the cub’s sibling. But this one pretended to take a great interest in a clump of grass so it could get a better look at us. Breathtaking!

In other places where bears are not accustomed to seeing many humans, they’re very shy and harder to photograph. I spotted this good looking bear in Takatz Bay, and was able to photograph it from the kayak. Once the bear saw me, it was a little more cautious, so I backed away to give it more space, and then it ignored me.

Eventually the bear got tired of fishing on that side of the creek, and jumped in to cross the frigid water, climbing on the bank and heading up the waterfall, out of sight.

We’re having a good summer so far, and it’s evaporating quickly! The days are growing noticeably shorter, and it’s dark enough at night to see stars. The rainy, foggy, more windy fall weather pattern is starting to appear, with fronts coming off the Gulf of Alaska. We got spoiled with very light winds we’ve enjoyed for most of the summer so far!

I’m still conflicted about what to do with this blog. Does anyone read it anymore? Is it worth the effort to maintain, or should I just post photos on Instagram? Opinions are welcome. In the meantime, I’ll try to keep it up for a while and see how it goes.