Brown Bears of Katmai

Katmai National Park in Alaska is known for its rainbow trout and its brown bears (also called grizzlies).  These two species share a mutual interest in salmon.  Trout like to hang just downstream from spawning salmon in order to feast on loose eggs and rotting flesh floating down the river.  Bears also figured out eons ago that salmon are particularly vulnerable in their shallow spawning grounds.  As a result, when fishing for trout near spawning salmon, you have a pretty good chance of an up-close bear encounter.

Several years ago, I was fishing in Katmai with my teenage son, Tom.  We were standing in shallow water, casting streamer flies to dark shadows that represented big trout holding against the opposite bank.  In that place, the creek was no more than 25-30 feet across and thigh deep in the middle. 

After a while, a young adult bear emerged from the alders downstream.  Like Tom and me, the bear was on the river’s left bank.  The animal was about 50 yards away and started making his way toward us.  We decided it would be prudent to ease our way across the stream to the other side, allowing the bear plenty of room to pass us by.  This was a good plan, but it was disrupted when the bear became visibly agitated, looking nervously over his right shoulder and making woofing noises that got out hearts thumping.

What would cause a brown bear to be alarmed, as this animal clearly was?  The answer became clear moments later, when a much larger bear came out of the bushes not far beyond the first one.  The younger animal had nothing to fear from anyone or anything except an older and larger bear.  With the larger animal now hugging the left side of the creek, the smaller one apparently hit on the same defensive strategy that Tom and I were already implementing:  he began to cross to the relative safety of the right bank. 

During the time it took the first animal to cross, the larger one caught up to his position on the river, so that they were roughly parallel to each other, separated by about ten yards of water.  By this time, Tom and I had almost forded, but now we backed off to give the first bear some space.  We stood together in midstream, avoiding direct eye contact and being careful not to cause offense or otherwise provoke either animal. 

I somehow had the presence of mind to pass my fly rod over to Tom, freeing both of my hands to snap the picture of my son below as the smaller bear “photo bombed” by passing behind him.  Unfortunately for the implicit drama of the Kodak moment, the photo does not capture the fact that a much larger and more formidable animal was at that moment about the same distance behind my shoulder.

I also repeated a protective invocation that I often use in bear country.  It happens that my surname, and Tom’s, is derived from the Scandinavian word Bjorn, which translates as “bear.”  I gently pointed out this kinship to the two bears, vocally reminding them that we are cousins and assuring them that we meant no harm.  

It must have worked.  Although Tom and I were sandwiched somewhat uncomfortably between them, both animals passed us without incident.

Katmai Bear

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