The fifth and last morning at camp we set out on a hike down to the far side of the bigger island in search of the elusive Sunshine Gang, three 3-year-old female bears who were hanging out together. It seemed the two days before, the big aggressive males had dominated the meadows after probably gorging themselves on the dead whale for a couple of weeks and the females weren’t really around in the meadows. It was kind of disappointing that we hadn’t seen more babies – we hadn’t seen much in the way of spring cubs that week other than that one mother and cub way far out on our first night. But the sun was finally shining with clear blue skies so we at least, for the first time all trip, had weather on our side.
After wading across the slick low tide channel inlet (I took a spill when I got stuck but managed to save the lens from going right into the mud thankfully) we got to a sandstone rock formation and it was clear that a mama and her babies had been staying around that area – there were beds dug out of the hillside on the far side of the rock, lots of poop, and flattened grasses and footprints in the sand. But no bears. It was also around the time for the bears to start making their way to the river a few miles away, as the salmon were starting to run upstream for their annual trek to spawn at their birthplace.
Our awesome guide, Brian:
But then, emerging right out of the shrubbery that we had just walked by not 10 minutes prior was a mother and three spring cubs. BABIES! Headed our way. We all scrambled up the rock structure to a perfect flattened out view of the low-tide streams where mom was walking. She kept her distance out in the middle of the mud flats but did stop directly in front of us to clam.
We stayed there for probably two hours, and she must have eaten about 100+ clams during that time – big, fat clams bigger than the size of my entire outstretched palm. One of the babies was “helping” (and Michele has an amazing photo of one of the little stupids figuring out what to do with a clam he got from his mother, I’ll post it once she’s done editing her photos.) The other two decided clamming was boring and not for them, so they settled down for a nap. It was windy as hell, so they cuddled right up to sleep piled on top of each other, the third eventually joining in.
From the north, a massive adult male emerged onto the beach from the far side of the island. He started making his way toward us down the beach in that slow, deliberate pace that looks so sluggish but covers a surprising amount of ground in not a lot of time. A sandbar prevented him from seeing the mother bear, and vice versa.
My stomach knotted up: would she smell him in time? Would he attack the cubs? Literally the last thing I wanted on my last day was to finally spend time with babies only to see them mauled because nature is a cruel existence that I will never fully understand. Thankfully, for whatever reason, by the time she smelled him and he saw her it was enough of a distance for her to move away safely – and the babies clinging to her the whole time. He ignored them, making his way over past us to the west meadow – but not before he saw us ahead of him on a direct collision course. We had the high ground, but no where to go past that.
He sniffed the air, clacked his jaws once (a warning), and stared at us (another warning.) I was so intent on getting “the shot” I wanted while I was there I didn’t realize he was so close until he was *so* close. I stopped shooting and just like one of the baby bears went to scramble for higher ground – he was 15-20 feet away, and I was the lowest on the rock of the group. Had he charged, I’d have been screwed. But everyone remained calm, I may have peed a little, and he passed by us on his way to the meadow.
But I got my shot:
He was a big bear. After that, mom moved further north to clam with the babies and we had to start making our way back to camp to pack up and wait for our plane. We had the big male in front of us by a couple hundred yards, but when he went into these shrubs and started standing up and rubbing himself on them and shaking the branches and snapping them – a sure sign telling us, “Hey, stop following me. I’m a big bear, okay?” Brian had us hang back a bit more and give him even more space.
Overall it was the perfect end to the trip – I got all the shots I had come for and left a very happy camper. These bears are now all for the most part a few miles away over at the river catching salmon – and you can see the Grizzlies on the other side of the mountain range fishing on Explore.org’s Bear Cam: http://explore.org/live-cams/player/brown-bear-salmon-cam-brooks-falls
Donate a few bucks to them if you can – it’s a great service and a wonderful way to experience nature from afar.
I’ll be making one more “total bear” gallery that’s shareable and talking a little about the actual experience from day to day of shooting and techniques, etc. for anyone who’s curious about what I learned in terms of gear (what I brought, how it worked, etc.) It seems from the bear photos that it was all just so easy, but what you don’t see in the past three blogs are the hikes in the rain, the mud, getting stuck in quicksand (actual low tide quicksand), the back aches, the foot aches, the waders cutting into the sides of your calves, pooping on a beach as fast as you can so you’re not caught by a bear in a compromising position, having your shots interrupted by bears, and middle of the night wolf encounters when you wake up to go pee.
Still, I loved every minute of it and there’s more soon – I haven’t even posted about the whales yet. ❤ The full gallery is below.