May 19, 2021
Heavy wind and spitting rain is buffeting the log walls of my cabin outside. The white spruce out my window are bending in the gale and the dry grass shakes and shutters with each gust. Today is what is known at Brooks Camp as an “East Wind Day.” When the wind changes direction and comes from the east, it tears through camp with icy gusts of up to 40 mph, turning Naknek Lake into a choppy seascape with whitecaps. Float planes can’t land there in this kind of weather, so they’ll come around and land in Lake Brooks on the other side of camp, which is sheltered by the trees and is much calmer.
During the week, we’ve been learning how to give “Bear Orientations,” which is a short 10-minute program that all visitors attend upon arriving to Brooks Camp. In Bear Orientation, visitors learn how to behave around wild brown bears, how to properly store their food, and park regulations.
When the wind changes direction though, we have to station a ranger out at Lake Brooks to give Bear Orientations on that side of camp, so visitors get their needed training as soon as they arrive. What I learned today is that East Wind Bear Orientations are generally same as they are on the other side of camp, but it involves having to be aware of bears coming from different directions, and knowing what to do if they happen to approach as planes are landing and visitors are arriving.
As the day progressed, the wind grew stronger and training continued. We got checked off on learning to drive the “gator” (basically a beefed up golf cart that we use to haul materials around camp), and spent a good chunk of time talking bear encounter scenarios around the bridge. We use range finders to get an estimate of distance, and have been spending a lot of time learning landmarks and honing our skills in judging distance so we can tell when a bear is too close to people and how to describe various locations and situations over the radio.
During the bear training today, while two staff members were down on the ground acting as bears in some practice scenarios, an actual bear began to approach us from across camp. We first heard it on the radio: “Bear in camp, heading down generator trail.” It was far enough away, so we continued on.
“Bear heading down beach, toward visitor center,” the radio crackled. Getting closer. We continued our scenarios.
“Bear heading toward gravel bar.”
I turned and looked, and sure enough, across the river from us, a big, light brown bear was ambling toward us on the gravel bar. At this point, our training scenarios stopped, and we all oohed and awwed at the bear for a while.
It was a different bear than we saw on Monday—this one appeared to be a full grown adult, with more proportional features, though it was about the same size as the subadult we saw before. It was minding its own business, digging in the sand, foraging about. It stayed so long we went back to our training scenarios, keeping an eye on it on the side. At one point it stopped and licked a cottonwood tree for a moment, stood on its hind legs to reach up into the tree, and then ambled back the way it had come. The radios crackled back on as the bear technicians reported its inbound return to camp.
Scenes like this are only going to become more and more common as the summer progresses. Except soon, we’ll be having to manage crowds of people and dozens more bears all across camp, instead of just one or two a day.
Right now, the thought of that feels totally overwhelming, but I’m trying to just take it one day at a time and take in as much of everyone’s advice and experience as I can.
On top of managing human-bear situations, we’re also working on developing interpretive programs to provide throughout the summer, a 7-hour tour of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, and some online programming as well, in the form of articles, live chats, and mobile app tours.
In addition to the bears, there are so many amazing flora and fauna here. Common mergansers, brants, tundra swans, greater yellowlegs, bald eagles, and osprey are all common at the mouth of the river. Inland, I’ve seen gorgeous white-winged crossbills, white-crowned sparrows, yellow-rumped warblers, magpies, and robins darting through the woods. The willows are starting to leaf out, and red shoots of fireweed are pushing through the ashy soil.
Spring is on its way, although right now it feels like we’re in the middle of a winter storm with this powerful East wind slamming through the valley.
Another day, another adventure!