Walking with Giants
I stood on the gray sand in the misty rain watching a mother brown bear with her spring cubs snuggled together in the distance. Suddenly she stood and then dove into the tidal waters, returning with a salmon in her teeth. One of the cubs ran to her and snatched part of the fish. The toothy ball of fur began to run toward our group with her brother in hot pursuit. As the cubs neared, I glanced at our guide Jim who motioned for us to take a few slow steps backward. He kept his eye on Mama who was concentrated more on fishing than the company her kids were keeping.
“Sometimes they use us as babysitters.” Jim whispered.
The cubs were less than 10 feet away, too close for my telephoto lens to accommodate. Their fierce, guttural snarls were in stark contrast to tiny fuzzy bodies as they sparred over the sand-coated bits of flesh.
Splash! Mama bear landed another salmon and they ran back to her.
It was only hours before that my husband and I were flying over Cook Inlet along with two fishermen from Germany on a charter plane bound for Lake Clark National Park. We were headed for an overnight stay at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, famous for bear viewing and popular with photographers.
Bob Seger’s “Kathmandu” played through the headsets and our pilot told us how lucky we were with the weather. Rain and storms the day prior had grounded him and his clients for most of the day. We could overhear the chatter of his flight plan: the fisherman would be delivered to the south airport and we would be landing at the north airport. We soon learned that both airports were the beach.
The plane glided onto the sand and through the windows, we got our first glimpse of the coastal brown giants we came here to see. Staff from Silver Salmon Creek Lodge greeted us, our gear was loaded onto ATVs and we were delivered to our cozy but spacious cabin that would be our home for the night.
A short while later, our small group loaded back onto the ATV to search for more bears. We found a lone female with a glowing cinnamon coat grazing on grass, yellowed by the autumn. Jim remembered her from the year prior, she had no cubs then either. She looked well-fed as the winter was closing in. We stood still, tolerating the small bugs buzzing in our ears—not the time for swatting and sudden movements with a 500 pound ursine 20 feet away. She neared a shallow pool of water and we all angled for that perfect water reflection shot.
After a family-style dinner at the lodge, our group went out for our last bear viewing session of the day. We spotted two sub-adult bears lumbering up the beach. They reminded me of lanky teenagers, probably siblings who were sticking together during their first year away from mom.
We admired the size of the size their prints in the sand, then I noticed another set—wolf tracks. In all of our trips to Alaska, the wolf had always eluded us. Jim told us wolf sightings at Silver Salmon Creek have been infrequent and none so far that year.
Dusk fell and a streak of motion in the brush caught my eye. Jim stopped the ATV, expecting a bear to emerge. We watched as the wolf’s lean body slid effortlessly through the grasses and over the ridge. He moved with determination and focus. I imagined him alone, turned out from his pack as a young wolf and now searching for a mate and a pack of his own. He trotted toward us and then he stopped as if to pose. With shutters clicking all around me, I pulled my camera away from my eyes as he stared right at me. My breath held, and then he was gone.
The sun rose on a crisp fall morning as we prepared to leave. Our plane arrived and we said our goodbyes. As we soared over the beach I looked out at the bears on the tidal flats below with the surrounding mountains and yellowed aspen. The wolf was somewhere down there too. I could still feel his piercing golden stare.