The first week of the summer season got off to a slow start, but finished out with an eventful day today. I’m starting to settle into the routine of rotating schedules that alternate between operating the visitor center, roving trails, giving bear orientations, and working on program development. As more visitors are beginning to arrive at the park, the pace is starting to pick up, with more people to talk to and answer questions and more bears around.
Fishing season opened on the river at midnight last night, and this morning when I crossed the bridge at 7:15am to open the visitor center, the mouth of the river was dotted with anglers swishing their fly rods and waiting, waist-deep in the chilly current. A light rain drizzled down.
Later in the morning, I returned to the bridge to rove for an hour or so before lunch. “Roving” is basically just walking around an area for a time to talk with visitors and keep an eye out for wildlife or other happenings.
I wandered down to the south side of the bridge and watched a couple visitors walking up the dirt road from the spit back toward the bridge, evidently returning from a hike. Across the other side of the bridge in the woods, a heard a loud branch snap. I reflected for a second that any sound I hear, I automatically assume it’s a bear, but I scanned the edge of the woods, nonetheless. To my surprise, I saw a tan-colored body flash by for a moment behind the trees. That’s weird, I thought. Why would a fisherman be in the woods right there?
A moment later, a brown bear poked its head out of the forest at the edge of the water. It WAS a bear! It was the same scrawny subadult I’ve been seeing every couple days in this same area. It looked quite curious about all the new people who had showed up in the river overnight. I immediately looked back across at the visitors on the dirt road, who had not yet seen the bear. They were getting closer. My heart hammered in my chest for a moment, wondering which way the bear was going to go, and trying to remember all my training.
Fortunately, the bear was more interested in foraging up the river, so it moved away from the bridge.
For the next hour or so, I monitored the bear as it moved upriver, eating grass, laying down, standing up again, watching the anglers (most of whom were unable to see it from where they were standing, low in the river). We talked about these scenarios in training, but now that I was out on the bridge all by myself, it was incredibly stressful watching bears and anglers in the distance, unaware of each other. What we learned in training held true, though: bears are not really interested in bothering people.
This bear was mildly curious, but too afraid to get too close to anyone. As anglers caught sight of it, they moved out of the way. At one point, the bear tromped into the shallows between the riverbank and a grassy island, and stomped down right on a fish and caught it! The visitors I was standing with all gasped and looked at me incredulously. No one could believe we just saw a bear catch a fish this early in the season! The bear looked just as surprised as we did, but it grabbed the flopping fish in its jaws and laid down in the grass to eat it.
At that point, I had to take off for my lunch break (very important! :), but when returned the bear was still in the river, now on the other side where the anglers had been. It was prowling around in the grass, and even tried to pounce on a gull that landed near it! It worked its way closer and closer to the bridge, eventually passing right under me and followed the bank around toward camp.
By now, I was heading back toward the visitor center, and eventually met up with a group of visitors who had just seen the bear pass by, on the beach. When it got far enough away, we walked out to the beach to watch it, as it ambled passed float planes and boats pulled up on the shore.
Across the way, we could see a sow with two cubs coming from the other direction. They were pretty far away, only visible through binoculars. As we were watching the bears approach each other in the distance, we noticed a couple bald eagles swooping down toward the lake from the forest.
Then we realized what was happening: the bald eagles were hunting a family of mallard ducks floating in the lake. The mother duck was quacking and striking at the incoming eagles, circling her young, while the eagles took turns swooping in on the ducklings. One eagle managed to grab a duckling, and flew up into a tree to eat it. Harsh, I know, but what a thing to see!
“That was a lot of Alaska happening right there,” I said wryly to one of the visitors who had seen all the action. He busted out laughing. Here we were, standing next to two float planes, watching brown bears walk down the beach, while bald eagles hunted ducklings on a pristine lake surrounded by epic mountains and spruce forest. I only wish I’d had my camera!
That’s one of the things that I think will be difficult about this job, is getting to see these incredible nature moments, but not really getting to capture them, except in words. I’m trying to do my best to write things down at the end of the day, at least so I don’t forget them. I don’t think this day is one I’ll likely forget though. It was one of those days that reminds me why I love this work so much.