It has been an interesting few days as the Chilkoot River saga continues. I would like to share a few stories about the Chilkoot River bears, the people who watch them, and then I will delve into the devilish details of the hows and whys of some of the dynamics along the Chilkoot River.
Everyone has an opinion
It is Wednesday and our Holland America ship is in dock. This is a great day for Haines Alaska as we get to enjoy our one guaranteed cruise ship for the week. What Haines has for scenery, it lacks in economy. (The year after I bought property here, Haines appeared on the cover of Outside magazine under the title: “The 10 Best Places to live in America; provided you do not need to make a living.“) … but I digress. Wednesday usually sees a bump in visitor traffic along the Chilkoot corridor. I am coming down the road from the lake with my two guests when I see a bear fishing on the far bank of the river. Pleased at my eagle eye for bears, I pull over and upon approaching the curve, see around the corner the massive throng of focused pedestrians and parked cars that is the earmark of a wildlife moment. As we watch this bear from the comfortable distance across the river (150 yards perhaps) the throng engulfs us … no problem. Everyone is happy. I ask my guest if she is happy? Absolutely … she has seen a far distant bear in Denali, and loves being this close, but not too close. Her husband is merrily burning up his memory card with the aid of my big lens. The man next to me exclaims into our conversation: “You can never be close enough … I don’t care if you are using $20,000 worth of camera” as he snaps away with his $400 Nikon. I try to explain to him that in fact one can be too close. In addition to the danger it puts upon the people, and the bear inadvertently in turn, our presence watching their feeding puts stress upon the bears. This has been documented by our local bear biologist who has spent many years observing, measuring, mapping, and quantifying local bear behavior. Anthony Cupri has documented that “observed” bears eat more dead fish vs. live fish while bears who are not being observed gain more nutrition by virtue of eating live fish. My explanation was completely lost on the fellow who wanted to be closer. “Yeah, everyone has their opinion” he proclaimed. “Just like assholes” I replied and let the issue lie. It is not hard to tell whether reason is gaining purchase or falling on deaf ears.
Brown bear or Grizzly bear?
For the record, the bears along the Chilkoot River corridor are what we refer to as “coastal brown bears.” I know everyone wants to see a grizzly bear. Lucky hopefuls! A brown bear and a grizzly bear are the same bear, genetically. The difference is a matter of geography. In the interior we refer to such bears as “grizzly bears.” On the coast we call them “brown bears.” One big difference is diet. Brown bears eat fish. This is REALLY important to them, and I will discuss that point later in this blog. If you are in a hurry, read: ON THE IMPORTANCE OF FISH. I believe that it is generally safer to view brown bears than grizzly bears since we do not look like a fish, therefore we do not appear as a meal to them. Having said that, bears are unpredictable creatures of habit, and wildlife. Take nothing for granted.
Congestion on the Chilkoot River
The following day I returned as a photographer, and not as a guide. Perhaps as a volunteer. Before turning to my task of documenting some young eagles who have yet to fly out of their nest, I drive up the river to review what is going on near the weir. The bears are out, the people are out, and it looks like Alaskan combat photography again. I am pleased to see everyone respecting the Weir Safety Zone and staying out of harms way by remaining behind the limits of this restricted area. More later in the WEIR SAFETY ZONE. What strikes me is the number of vehicles parked along the road. Not just cars, but big trucks with big campers, some with dual wheels sticking way out into the road. Such parking practice along with a glut of pedestrians constrains a narrow road to a single lane and creates a real bottleneck for vehicle traffic. The Borough Assembly in their wisdom has created a moratorium on issuing new tour permits because of the congestion problem along the Chilkoot River corridor. This has compromised local free enterprise on several levels and has done nothing to identify or address the real problem of independent visitors who give little thought to the consequence of their behavior. I have seen people park their car directly in a traffic lane without any attempt to pull off the the side of the road and leave the car to go fishing in the river. Everyone can just drive around them or wait in line on the bottleneck while they get their fish. I found the line up of RV’s along the road today amusing at best. Sometimes I nod my head, other times I just shake it. The Bigfoot camper on the dual wheels at the head of the line-up was occupied by a lady sitting next to the window. Her husband sat across the table from her. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Watching bears!” she said smiling. “How long have you been parked here?” asks I. “Since 8 this morning.” That would be six and a half hours. And from reports I have received, this has been the case three days in a row with this vehicle. I appreciate the common sense and safety displayed by watching bears from your vehicle. Meanwhile, I am concerned that the practice seen in the photo is contributing to an ongoing problem and compromising the opportunity and experience of others. Most owners of the RV’s were not in their vehicles at the time. No easy answer here.
An unusual night
I returned to the Chilkoot River several hours later to engage in volunteerism directing and managing vehicle and foot traffic around the Weir Safety Zone. Several remarkable things happened this evening that left me glad and amazed.
When I arrived I could count five bears along the weir, including our mama bear “Speedy” and her three cubs. Another bear, possibly more (turned out to be the case) were on the far end of the weir. There was a sizable crowd at the far end of the Zone. A truck was parked directly in front of the weir watching Speedy and family. I came up heading the opposite direction and stopped next to him, blocking his view and told him he could not stop there but must continue through. “So why are you stopping?” he asked curtly. “To tell you to move … I work with the State Park and this is a no-stopping zone.” That seemed to work and we both went on our merry way.
Upon parking, disembarking, and working the crowd of on-lookers, everyone seemed to be quite happy to have someone pretending to have some authority on board and many good questions were asked. Along the way, “OH LOOK THERE’S ANOTHER BEAR!” This could have been one of Speedy’s former cubs who has been showing up lately and behaving a bit confused about his place in the bear queue. He wandered around for a bit along the road with a lost look about him. “OH LOOK THERE ARE MORE BEARS!” A sow with a small single cub comes out on the road toward the far end of the Zone and ambles toward the weir. Somewhere along the way, Speedy gave way to the new sow and came up on the road with her cubs, where she hangs out looking rather content and full of fish. She settles down on her haunches to get in a good scratch. Along comes the 4-year old again and she perks up, not in a particularly good way. She starts wandering toward us and the young bear. The young bear heads up the hill into the woods, and Speedy continues to approach the viewers, as we all back up the road giving her some more space. On two occasions Speedy actually ran toward us. I kept reminding people: NO RUNNING IN BEAR COUNTRY. (Them, not the bear.) I knew Speedy was running at the young bear, but the people on the road did not know this. We kept backing up and vehicles were blocking the road since one does not drive through the Zone when there is a bear present (unless you are the fool in the VW bus who did just that later … and got the stink-eye from everyone). A few interesting things happened around this time. Speedy came toward us and stopped exactly on her side of the white line. It was like … she could read the signs, thank you. I felt she might like to move up the road, (bears are crowding bears) but vehicles and people were blocking the way. Someone suggested to me that people should load up into their cars and clear the road. At the time, I thought such a request would be like moving a mountain. After a few minutes I thought “why not?” and I asked the crowd “How many of you have a car parked here?” All hands went up. “How about we all head for our cars and clear the road so this bear can walk up the road if she wishes?” To my amazement, everyone agreed, and got into their cars. We got the vehicles blocking the road to pull over and within five minutes the way was clear for Speedy to head up the road to the lake. Of course she turned around and headed back to the weir.
It was perhaps the most gratifying evening I have spent in the corridor. Everyone got their fill, no one suffered, and all humans went home shortly after with a smile on their face and an expression of thanks and gratitude. Sometimes the magic works.
A bear’s job is to eat. Much of a bear’s life is spent in hibernation. They have a limited season to put on the weight and reserves they need to carry them through the long months of winter. This is especially important for a female bear, who may need the reserves to successfully reproduce. Bears experience a phenomenon known as delayed implantation. Females can have their eggs fertilized by more than one male bear. Our Speedy’s cubs could conceivably be fathered by three individual males. Though the eggs have been fertilized, they will not implant upon the uterine wall until mama bear is in hibernation. If she has the reserves to carry gestation to term, the eggs will implant and the pregnancy will proceed. If not, the eggs will not implant, she will not become pregnant, and she will resume her mating attempts the next season. As such, it is of paramount importance that bears have every opportunity to feed while they have the chance.
When the cubs are born, they weigh less than a pound. It is unlikely that mama bear will even awake during the birth. They feed on mother’s milk and will generally put on 35 pounds before they appear from the den in the spring. Before they go back into the den after their first season, they will generally add another hundred pounds. They will remain with mom in the den for two winters after their birth. At this point the following spring the mother will run them off and resume her mating. In late summer and fall they will enter into a period of hyperfagia when they will eat 24/7 and really pack on the pounds. A lot of people think Speedy looks a bit skinny at the present time. Based on my observations, I would suggest this too shall pass.
The weir is a staked fence extending across the Chilkoot River designed to prevent fish from freely swimming upstream before they are counted by Fish and Game. A Fish and Game technician will stand out on the weir and count the fish that come through an opening provided by the technician. His job is to differentiate the count between varieties of salmon and occasionally take a salmon for measurements and samples. This allows the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to regulate commercial fishing in the open waters that lead to the river, and assure a sustainable population of salmon (particularly sockeye) in the lake.
Sockeye salmon travel up the river to spawning grounds in the Chilkoot Lake. They run primarily in June and July and early August. Pink Salmon run in late July and August and spawn in the river. As these salmon spawn their life is coming to a close, and the river hydraulics push them downstream where they get trapped against the upriver side of the weir. This makes for easy harvesting for bears, and is why bears are often seen at the weir. The bears attract visitors who want to see the bears. Alaska State Parks has set up a Weir Safety Zone designed to protect the bears, the tourists, and the Fish and Game technicians. Bears come down from the wooded hillside next to the road to access the weir. If people are standing around the weir, bears could come out among the tourists, or the tourists might effectively prevent the bears from freely traveling to the weir. If bears are out on the weir and people are standing around the weir watching (as pedestrians or in vehicles) the technician on the weir cannot effectively haze a bear off the boardwalk and back to the woods. This has potentially placed the technician in danger and some technicians have quit their jobs rather than face the risks that ill-considered tourists place them in, off-hours when the State Parks monitors are not present.
This is the second of an ongoing series on the bears of the Chilkoot River. You can read the first installment at: Chilkoot River Bears
I have devoted a gallery to the bears of Haines and Alaska on my Smug Mug Gallery for Bears/Wild Things.