Sunday, June 22, 2008

Big bears

I've spent a lot of time over the years observing wild bears – black bears, polar bears and coastal brown bears – but I've always been especially fond of the Alaskan interior brown bears known as Toklat grizzlies, named for the braided glacial river that flows through the middle of Denali National Park and Preserve.

Toklats, living in the food-poor interior tundra, aren't big – averaging about 500 pounds, they are considerably smaller than the biggest male black bears in my home state of Pennsylvania, which can exceed 700 pounds. And compared with coastal brown bears, which can tip the scales at more than 1,500 pounds, they're pikers.

But what they lack in sheer size they make up in a solid presence and attitude, especially in early summer when the bears are still in their thick winter pelage, which highlights the distinctive tawny-colored body and dark legs typical of Toklat grizzlies.

In our time teaching at Camp Denali earlier this month, we saw lots of griz – one of the best (and occasionally alarming) things about being in the park. Along the partially frozen Savage River, we watched two caribou move nervously on the ice, unwilling to pass within a hundred yards of a sow grizzly and her two large cubs; when the female caught wind of the caribou, she came loping, but it wasn't a serious attack. (The next day, however, she had killed a moose calf in the same area.)

Along the East Fork of the Toklat, not far from the old ranger post cabin in which pioneering naturalist Adolph Murie worked while conducting his landmark wolf/Dall sheep studies in the 1930s, we encountered an adolescent grizzly, probably on its own for the first time, lying atop a red fox den in a thicket of willows.

At first, the bear was content to munch on mummified snowshoe hare carcasses lying around, but eventually it smelled food underground – fox kits – and began trying to dig through the tangled roots and rocks that protected the den.

Anyone who's seen a grizzly dig knows how much strength they possess in those massive forequarters. Once, along the Alagnak River, a guide and I spent three hours rolling massive driftwood spruce logs into a four-foot-deep gully and then shoveling several tons of gravel over top of them, to create a landing strip for a small plane. Then, while we waited for the plane, a bear came along and, suspecting food was cached beneath all that freshly dug earth, simply levered up the huge logs through all the gravel like they were jack-straws, while we watched, helpless.

So the foxes understood the danger, and attacked the teenaged bear, nipping the its flanks, barking and yowling, just barely avoiding the swatting paws and lunges. The bear seemed only half-interested, and kept wandering away, only to be lured back by the possibility of a meal, sending the foxes into new paroxyms of distress. The drama was still going on when we finally left.

I've had some heart-stopping encounters with grizzlies while on foot in Denali, but this time, the bears we saw while hiking were comfortably distant, and the close-up encounters occurred while we were in vehicles. One of the best came on our final day, when we and several Camp Denali guests were heading out of the park.

Just shy of the Eilson Visitors Center, we encountered a bear ambling up the middle of the one-lane dirt road, which in this area makes some stomach-lurching hairpins around thousand-foot-high bluffs (no guardrails). We ever-so-slowly followed, since we could hardly go around. Then, as the bear reached one bend, it met another grizzly coming the other way.

The bear we'd been following appeared to be a boar, the second one a sow – but the male gave way, scrambling up a steep slope, peering down nervously. The sow followed suit a few minutes later, and they faced off with growls and roars, baring their teeth and taking a few swipes at each other. Whether it was territorial aggression or courtship behavior is hard to say – both activities look a lot alike among bears. (The photo's a bit soft -- low light, rain and a hand-held camera.)

All photos ©Scott Weidensaul


Shakespere said...

Hi. I enjoyed your blog. Your pictures and adventures are wonderful

kgoysich said...

WOW!!!!! How cool is that!?

A quick note also, Camp Denali is featured on a PBS program called Great Lodges of the National Parks. The 15-minute segment airs on PBS Wed. July 2 at 8 p.m. (check your local listings). It's not just about bears, but it might be fun for you to re-visit the place.


Karen G. Read
Oregon Public Broadcasting
Producers of PBS's Great Lodges of the National Parks

Casey Tucker said...

The darker bear seems to have a green ear tag.

Scott Weidensaul said...

Yes, we noticed the ear tag at the time -- a number of bears have been part of a study on how traffic on the park road effects wildlife, and I assume this was one of them.

Casey Tucker said...

I remember when I was there in the summer of 2007 hearing about that traffic study. I know at one point there was discussion of opening the park to more traffic. I'll be curious to see what the results of the study turn out to be.

I didn't know if the tag would allow you to find some specific information about that individual bear, or not.

By the way, how was the new Eielson Visitor Center? It was closed and under construction when I visited in the summers of 2005 and 2007. I can't wait to get back someday.