Adventure, Northern America

Into the wild

Dennis-Donohue

In July last year, a ‘bear cam’ was set up in Alaska to livestream bears hunting for food. But it does not compare to the real experience.

Manamana(1)

When you have trekked into the wild and find yourself standing close to a giant bear, there are a few things you should remember. Firstly, that these are among the wild’s most dangerous creatures. Note that they are excellent swimmers, frighteningly intelligent, with a better sense of smell than dogs. They can weigh up to 680kg. Think you can run away? Forget it: in short bursts, bears can run up to 65 kilometres per hour (40 miles). “These are wild animals, and you need to really respect that,” says John Quinley, assistant regional director at Katmai National Park, in southern Alaska. “You don’t want to sneak out a sandwich in front of them.”

Viewing wild bears is the quintessential Alaskan experience. It symbolises the raw and untouched nature of America’s isolated state; the wild forests, the giant glaciers, the ice-clad mountain peaks. (The United States actually bought it off Russia in 1867 for $7.2million (£4.75million) in gold.) Only 730,000 people live here, making it America’s fourth least populated state, and easily the least dense. And that is ideal for animals. “There are no roads, so the bears are only accessible by planes,” says Simyra Taback-Hlebechuk, a tour guide at Hallo Bay Wilderness Camp. “You don’t have thousands of people going there disrupting their environment, which is key to why Alaskan bears are thriving.”

Saraporn-Bamrungchart

And indeed they are. The absence of human intervention has left nature to take care of its own. Of the three North American bear species, none are anywhere near threatened. In some areas, they are found with a density of one per square mile (2.6 square kilometres). The smallest and most common is the black bear, of which there are an estimated 100,000 in Alaska. Polar bears also live here, but only in the very north. Then comes the king: the brown bear, of which there are around 30,000, and of which the grizzly is a member. (The difference being that grizzly bears hunt in the north, while brown bears reside along the south coast, where most bear expeditions take place.)

The habits of these bears are fascinating. During winter, when food is sparse, they spend up to eight months in hibernation. Their body temperatures drop, and they sleep for long periods. They neither eat nor drink. In this period, they can lose up to 40 per cent of their body weight. When spring arrives, they leap out and start hunting. Initially, green vegetation is a dietary favourite, alongside animals killed during winter – the bear’s equivalent of a ready meal. When summer comes, they switch to salmon. “These are pretty well fit bears,” says Quinley. “They’re packing on a lot of pounds, and you can see that there are some big ones out there.”

To capture this process, the management at Katmai National Park last summer teamed up with Explore, an NGO, to set up a ‘bear cam’. It enabled people to watch bears hunt salmon via a live web stream. “It’s been a tremendous success,” says Quinley. “Our web traffic has gone up by tens of thousands of people, and we are going to continue the partnership over the next couple of years.”

Dennis-Donohue

Yet nothing compares to the real-life experience. The Katmai National Park has a rule: visiting groups must stay a minimum of 50 yards (45 metres) away from male bears, and 100 yards (90 metres) away from females. This is because mothers are extremely protective. But the bears can come closer to humans. But, says Taback-Hlebechuk, only if they know who they are dealing with. “I’ve been out there for 11 years now and they know my scent, so you can see them almost recognising who I am when I walk out,” she says. “If the group was on its own, they wouldn’t recognise the smell, and walk away because they would feel uncomfortable.”

The matter of familiarity is an important one. “Bears like consistency in their environment; they like things to stay the same,” she says. “So we walk on the same trails, we sit on the same locations, we don’t change our behaviour because that makes the bears nervous. They’re like people; they don’t really like change.”

And so by walking with a guide, visitors ensure that their company is greeted with a sense of acceptance. The only things to remember are to act wisely and enjoy the moment. “Trust your guide,” Taback-Hlebechuk advises. “Sit back, relax, and enjoy where you are. Moments like that don’t happen too often, and there are so many other parts in the world where wildlife is being decimated. These things can end in a heartbeat.” Bear that in mind.

Photos: Dennis Donohue, Manamana, Saraporn Bamrungchart [all via Shutterstock.com].

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