I knew this day would come. My first Road Bear. Correction: Road Bears, plural.
It started on my way home from work on Saturday. I got off at 4:30 and was walking home as I normally do, when I encountered bears on the Valley Road for the first time! I’ve heard most other rangers talk about encountering bears walking down the road before, but it had never happened to me. Yet here they were, Bear 435 Holly and her yearling cub (rangers unofficially call her “Meatball”), taking a stroll toward me. I knew what to do, and knew this day would come eventually, but even still, my heart pounded in my chest and my adrenaline spiked. I stepped off the road and into the woods to the right. I got off a little too far though, and lost sight of them for a moment. When I peeked back out, I saw them disappear into the woods on the same side of the road I was. Shit.
I made a quick decision to scamper across to the other side of the road, in case they were trying to get to the falls, in which case, I would have been in their way. As soon as I did so, they popped out again, and continued to amble in my direction. I talked to them as they came closer so they’d know where I was. It felt like eons before they finally passed by me, giving me some side eye and meandering on their way. I waited until they were a great distance down the road before emerging, my heart hammering. Well! I thought, my first bear run-in on my way home from work. What a day!
I had no sooner gotten back on my way and walked maybe two more minutes up the road, singing loudly, when I see not one, not two, not three, but FOUR more bears walking toward me now: a sow and three curious spring cubs. I’m pretty sure my soul momentarily left my body. Are you kidding me? What are the chances? I began backing away, because there was nowhere good to get off the road here. The woods were so thick with deadfall in this spot, I had to back up a considerable distance before a found a spot to step off into and get behind some short spruce trees. I had no idea what these spring cubs would do—only that they are very curious at this age.
I talked out loud while I waited for them to pass by, hoping to god that none would try to approach me. If I had to spray a cub, I’d risk pissing off their mom. As the bears drew parallel with me on the road, I continued talking, saying some silly nonsense like, “Hey bears, please keep moving, don’t look at me, please go away…” To my dismay, they stopped right in front of me and decided to graze on the grass across the road from me. Two of the cubs bobbed their heads and stared at me the whole time, while mom and another cub poked around in the grass, just feet away from me, completely unconcerned with my presence. Eventually they took their leave, the three cubs looking intently in my direction as I continued to plead for them to move along; the mom glanced my direction, but kept going. I was shaking like a leaf from head to foot by the time they left!
A couple days later, I was alone up at the maintenance shop using the computer when I heard bears roaring and moaning somewhere nearby. I looked out the window, and saw three large bears—a sow and two older cubs—just outside the fence! I later learned this was bear 708 Amelia with her two-year-old cubs. Her cubs were almost as big as she was and trying to nurse, and she wanted nothing to do with it, so they were all roaring at each other. It was such an eerie sound. I waited until they ambled down the road and out of sight before I left the building.
Salmon are starting to make an appearance at the mouth of the river.
Ever since then, the bear encounters have multiplied almost exponentially. Yesterday, June 28, the salmon finally started arriving at the mouth of the river, and I think the bears were cued in. In some previous years, they’ve showed up right at solstice, but anytime between the end of June and beginning of July is considered normal timing.
There aren’t huge numbers of salmon yet, but there was a large school of them swirling in the crystal clear water. And today, there were several even larger schools. They’re not jumping up the falls yet in massive numbers like they will be soon, but instead, they’re kind of starting to stage themselves out at the mouth of the river before moving upstream.
Bears have thus been moving through camp with increased frequency and drive. We’ve had a very spicy subadult poking around, who has learned that it can swipe at people to get them to move out of the way. That’s pretty scary. Bear 435’s cub has also been particularly precocious, and came running at me out of the woods yesterday, which was quite a startle. I learned there not to ever turn my back; as soon as I turned to face her, she backed off. (It helped that one of the bear techs was there, too, and we debriefed after, since he saw it happen).
Then today, that same subadult approached during one of my bear orientations, and not long after, two bears came racing through camp, just inches away from me, chasing each other. They nearly ran into two other rangers, zoomed around some buildings, and came flying back through, sending us all leaping out of the way. “Bears running through camp! Bears running through camp!” The bear tech was yelling, while sprinting after them to shoo them away and warn visitors, and also calling out their location on the radio. The bears were totally focused on each other, but they run incredibly fast and with such force, you have just a split second to move out of the way.
In the last two days, visitation has increased wildly, bears have increased wildly, and our staff… has not. We have about half the normal staff due to COVID, but we seem to have even more visitors than in the recent years prior to the pandemic. We’re pretty much giving nonstop bear orientations through large chunks of the day, and often radioing for backup when bears are moving through, or crowds are gathering in problematic places. July is going to be a busy month.
I guess the good thing about it is that the days go by fast, but I’m worried about the safety of having so many people with so few staff around to help respond to situations. Plus, there’s just no down-time during the day; up until now, we’ve had a lot of “project time” where we can work on our programs or do computer work. But now, it’s pretty much nonstop go-time for 8 hours a day. I haven’t had a shift on the falls yet, but that seems like it’s even more hectic.
I just have to remind myself to take it one day at a time. I’ve been practicing mindfulness more actively these days, which helps. But I’m also trying to remember to take time to write everything down so I can remember it later, even on days like today when I come home exhausted.
Speaking of today, we had swiftwater training this afternoon, which was a welcome relief from the camp-side chaos (unfortunately no photos though, because I was in the water the whole time). We donned waders and dry suits, and spent the afternoon in Brooks Lake and on the river, learning how to use throw bags to rescue stranded victims, and practicing crossing fast-flowing water. It was great fun, a little cold, and a little wet, but a beautiful, warm sunny day to get to play in the river and practice crossing in a safe environment.
It’s finally my weekend now, so I’m very much looking forward to a little down time. The Valley Road has opened up again, so soon I’ll be leading my first Valley Tour, and will hopefully have some opportunities to hike and camp in the Valley on some of my off-time as well.
For now though, I’m just going to take it one day at a time, keep practicing mindfulness, and enjoy the adventure.