For many years and to the enjoyment of countless visitors, the star of the Chilkoot corridor has been a coastal brown bear (essentially a grizzly bear) sow known locally as “Speedy.” This Chilkoot bear was so named many years ago in awe of the great distance she might cover in a short time. Speedy has always been a very well mannered, even-tempered bruin who could often be counted upon to display herself at any time of day. That is to say she was habituated to humankind and gave visitors the chance to experience a sense of wildlife in the wilderness of Alaska. Everyone wants to see a bear, and this Chilkoot bear had a reputation!
Since 2010 I have photographed Mama Speedy and her four sets of cubs. With concern, in 2020 no one has seen our Chilkoot bear. Through the years Speedy has oft made a late appearance which has often given rise to concern. One local naturalist has recorded her regular arrival during the third weekend of July. At the beginning of September 2020 she has not appeared. Speedy would be 16 years old in 2020, which is in the prime of life, but we are beginning to fear she may have passed on.
In this pictorial I would like to celebrate the life of our favorite Chilkoot bear with a few shots from each year, and give a few facts and stories, as well as sharing some of my favorite bear quotes from other authors.
2010 and her first set of cubs
In 2010 Speedy had a radio collar which allowed our biologist to gather data on dening habits and ranging of collared bears. Ear tags were also added to sows and cubs to aid in easy identification of the bears. Speedy had a green tag in the left year, and a yellow tag in the right year. As years would pass, she lost the yellow tag but the green tag remained. This has given us an easy way to positively identify her.
In 2010 Speedy had her first set of cubs. Bears give birth during hibernation. The cubs arrive at under a pound, hairless and blind, and begin nursing. By the time they leave the den, they will weigh an average of 35 pounds. During their first year they are known as “spring cubs.”
2011 – In the life of a bear
“Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 500 pounds and is guarding her baby.” -James Rollins, Ice Hunt
During their second year with mama, cubs are known as “yearlings” and will remain in the den through the following winter. Next season mom will kick them off and resume her breeding.
A bear can be impregnated by more than one boar, so cubs in a litter might have different fathers. Though fertilized, eggs will not implant on the uterine wall until mama is in hibernation. If she has put on enough weight to sustain gestation and nursing, the eggs will implant.
A brown bear is genetically identical to a grizzly bear. The difference is geography, and in turn, diet. Brown bears live on the coast and their diet is largely focused on fish. A brown bear will generally be selective by choosing female fish so that they can eat the roe (eggs) which are high in fat content. Skin and brains are also high in fat, and most of the salmon meat is then left to other scavengers.
2012 – a strange event with a strong connection
Curiously I could not find any good photos of Speedy for the year 2012. I did find this shot of a bear with a green tag in her ear, but given the fact that there is no collar, this is apparently one of Speedy’s first cubs, now on her own.
Something rather curious happened in 2012 which stretches our imagination and gives cause to reconsider just what, and how much we know of the world around us and how critters are connected.
Speedy kicked her cubs out early in 2012. Anytime they tried to approach mom she would aggressively drive them away. (Typical behavior). We watched the siblings playing by themselves, maintaining far distance from mom for months. Eventually the siblings separated. One stayed in the Chilkoot area, the other traveled ten miles to the south along the Lutak Inlet toward the town of Haines. He then traveled a few miles up the Chilkat Inlet (to the west with a mountain range separating the Chilkoot and Chilkat). Speedy remained in the Chilkoot, fishing the river and lake. The young travelling bear got too close to human kind, and was killed. As soon as this happened, mama Speedy was aware that something was amiss. She traveled quickly south through town and up the Chilkat in search of her missing cub. In the neighborhood of the Chilkat she meandered following the scent of her offspring before eventually returning to the Chilkoot. The evidence of dates and locations of this story was gathered from the data recorded in her radio collar.
Speedy had not seen her cubs in months, and though many miles away, she felt the tragedy of her offspring and made haste to the rescue. Though separated they were connected and the disturbance in the force was felt immediately by mama Speedy.
In 2013 our Chilkoot bear was back with a new cub.
“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” -Gary Snyder
2014 – free at last!
In 2014 Speedy’s collar had been removed. I found her doing an Alaskan pole dance on a spruce one day. Lucky me!
“Mother Nature is our teacher—reconnecting us with Spirit, waking us up and liberating our hearts. When we can transcend our fear of the creatures of the forest, then we become one with all that is; we enter a unity of existence with our relatives—the animals, the plants and the land that sustains us.” ― Sylvia Dolson, Joy of Bears
“What mattered was not so much the bear herself as what the bear implied. She was the predominant thing in that country, and for her to be in it at all meant that there had to be more country like it in every direction and more of the same kind of country all around that. She implied a world.” -John McPhee
2015 – a new set of cubs
And in 2015 Speedy appears again with two spring cubs. One has a distinctive “natal collar” (a band of light colored fur around the shoulders). She has come to be known as “Lulu” and continues fishing (now wearing a radio collar) in the Chilkoot in 2020.
“Oh, Bear. Its always been you. It will always be you. I love you, and that’s why it will always be enough” -T.J. Klune
Late in the season bears go into a period called hyperphagia, when they eat 24/7 in order to put on the reserves necessary for hibernation. The set of photos of Lulu above were taken two months apart from each other, during hyperphagia. Spring cubs can easily gain one hundred pounds of weight from the time they leave the den until their return for their first real hibernation.
In 2016 Lulu and her sibling have grown as big as Speedy by the end of the summer season. In the photo above, Speedy is the bear closest to the camera. It was a rare moment to get the whole family gathered for a group shot with them looking up and not down to the ground buried in fish. They had been fishing at the weir (those pipes are part of a Fish & Game fence stretched across the river to help F&G count salmon) and heard a plane go overhead, causing them to pause and look up.
This is one of my favorite shots of our Chilkoot Bear. It feels like a fetish.
“If you’re a bear, you get to hibernate. You do nothing for six months. I could deal with that. Before you hibernate, you’re supposed to eat yourself stupid. I could deal with that too. If you’re a bear, you birth your children (who are the size of walnuts) while you’re sleeping and wake to partially grown, but cuddly cubs. I could definitely deal with that. If you’re a mama bear, everyone knows you mean business. You swat anyone who bothers your cubs. If your cubs get out of line, you swat them too. I could deal with that. If you’re a bear, your mate expects you to wake up growling. He expects that you will have hairy legs and excess body fat. Yup, I wanna be a bear.” ~ Author unknown
“Connecting with the wilderness allows us to live in the flow of a meaningful, joyful life. Embracing this state of connectedness or oneness with other living beings including animals, as opposed to feeling an “otherness” or “separateness” brings a sense of harmony and enables us to be at peace with oneself and the world.” -Sylvia Dolson, Joy of Bears
I rarely take photos of bears on the road, or walking away from me, but I could not help myself with this shot of Mega Speedy toward the end of hyperphagia. Biggest butt I had ever seen. I was thinking we would have to change her name from Speedy to Waddle. (If memory serves correct I took this with an iPhone through the car window, so please forgive the quality, or lack of.)
Having entered hibernation with such a big butt, our Chilkoot bear appears in 2018 with three spring cubs. Her fourth (and biggest) litter.
We were all quite surprised that in 2019 Speedy chased her yearling cubs off. Normally they would spend one more season and hibernation period with their mother before the cubs would be sent on their way. The previous season had offered a very poor salmon run, and perhaps mama did not have the physical reserves to continue their nursing? Or did Speedy know she was not well and might not make it through the upcoming hibernation? Two of the siblings remained in each others company and foraged for gunnels along the Lutak Inlet. The third went solo. One of the cubs continues foraging for gunnels at the same location in 2020.
“The gypsies believe the bear to be a brother to man because he has the same body beneath his hide, because he drinks beer, because he enjoys music and because he likes to dance.” -Ernest Hemingway
At the end of the season Speedy looked quite healthy and we expected see her return in 2020 with a new litter. Regretfully this has not happened. The photo below is the last photo I took of Speedy and sadly seems a bit prophetic in spirit, as she gazes out longingly upon her beloved Chilkoot.
Alive, the grizzly is a symbol of freedom and understanding – a sign that man can learn to conserve what is left of the earth. Extinct, it will be another fading testimony to things man should have learned more about but was too preoccupied with himself to notice. In its beleaguered condition, it is above all a symbol of what man is doing to the entire planet. If we can learn from these experiences, and learn rationally, both grizzly and man may have a chance to survive.”
~ Frank Craighead
Many of the photos and quotes are from my book: Bearoness of the Chilkoot; The book of Speedy. If you would like to preview its contents you can do so at: https://www.blurb.com/b/8935417-bearoness-of-the-chilkoot
Online prices for self publishing are somewhat prohibitive, but I am glad to offer the book at a discounted price if ordered directly from me. Other books can be similarly offered, and seen on my web:
I am happy to offer private nature and wildlife tours in the Chilkoot country and around Haines Alaska. https://timenspace.net/photography-workshop/chilkoot-river-private-tour-haines-alaska/