Night Bear Meditations

Jul 28, 2021 | 0 comments

July 28, 2021

Another two weeks, another sit-down at the laptop to try to remember the blur of days gone by. Thank goodness July is almost over. Rumor has it, things get better in August, but we shall see. It feels like a marathon: I’ve put my head down and I just keep on keeping on, despite the repetition of the days and the daily dread of bear encounters and near-misses between people and bears. It IS getting easier, but it’s all I can do to keep my head in the game sometimes.

What’s new to report on? The fireweed has begun to bloom! Now it’s really starting to feel like Alaska, even more so than the long daylight hours of solstice over a month ago now. Although the days are getting shorter, the procession of summer wildflowers feels like the real change of seasons to me.

Last night, I volunteered with the park’s bear biologist for an overnight bear monitoring session at the falls. It was the first time I’ve slept outside this summer, and got to see how not-actually-dark it still is, even in the dead of night. 

We met at 10:15pm at the falls trailhead, and made our way up to the elevated boardwalk just as the last parties of bear viewers were exiting the trail for the night (most of them were park staff, with a few overnight visitors mixed in).

It was still gently light out, cloudy, and not too cold. On our walk in, I was briefed on what to expect: we’ll set up our sleeping bags in the Treehouse first, and then head out to the falls platform. No talking once we get there. I was to count jumping salmon for one minute every 15 minutes until it got too dark to see. This data would later be added to the bear behavior data. Then we’d nap for a few hours, and head back out when it was light enough again, around 4:20am.

I threw a mosquito net bivy over my sleeping bag, and we carried our Crazy Creek camp chairs and notepads out to the falls platform. I was instructed quietly to park myself at the opposite end of the platform from the biologist, where I could see the full length of the falls. We settled into an easy silence, watching bears as light faded in the cloudy sky.

Every quarter hour, I set my watch for a one minute timer and counted all the salmon I could see jumping up from the froth across the length of the falls, until I felt my watch vibrating, telling me my 60 seconds was up. Hundreds of fish were jumping, so I was counting in tens or twenties as best I could, wondering how wildly off I might be in my estimates.

There were about 18 brown bears fishing the length of river between the falls and the riffles for the first part of the night. Some I recognized from previous visits, and others seemed new to me. It’s well known that there are certain bears at Brooks Camp that simply won’t come out in the open when people are around, so this is why the park closes the falls platform at night, and why the two of us had to be as quiet and motionless as we could for the data collection.

Time passed quickly, and by about 11:30pm I was squinting at my notepad in the near-dark. The biologist caught my eye and motioned to me to pack up and head back to the Treehouse for the night. When we got back to our sleeping bags, she said she’d wake me up around 4:20am. I put on more layers, and settled in for a chilly night in my sleeping bag under the bug net. 

Sleep came and went with restless dreams. I heard bears roaring and moaning out at the river, and occasionally rustling through the grass below the treehouse platform. Every time I woke and peeked up at the sky, it was still glowing a late-twilight blue. For a while, I thought I wasn’t sleeping, but a few hours later I was woken by the biologist repeating my name. “Andrea. Andrea. Andrea! It’s 4:17,” she said. I must have been sound asleep.

We quickly rolled up our sleeping bags and packed everything up so we’d be ready to peace-out at 7am when the platform opened to visitors again, and then headed back out to the falls once more.

It was noticeably darker at 4:30am than it had been at midnight when we’d gone to bed. I couldn’t even read my own writing on my notepad when I wrote down the time for my fish count, but I could see well enough to count the black flashes of salmon against the white froth of the falls. I could only make out the shadows of 2 or 3 bears in the water. Most had disappeared into the night.

Minute by minute, the sky grew lighter. The clouds thinned slightly, and the moon shown through, even as the sun was rising in the east. It was damp and cold out even through all my layers, and there were enough mosquitoes and white socks by now than I had to put on my head net—overall, considerably less comfortable than it had been a few hours ago, but at least it was getting brighter now.

Again, the hours rolled by quickly, as I watched bears and salmon in silent meditation. It was so calming. All I had to do for hours and hours was watch, and count.

At one point, a handsome porcupine waddled right underneath my spot on the platform, evidently on a mission to go somewhere important.

It was so nice to not have to think about doing anything other than where I was and what I was seeing. I watched bears fight in the water like sumo wrestlers, their full, rotund bellies weighing them down clumsily. I watched cubs splash through the shallows, trying to pounce on salmon. I watched how the gulls followed the bears, ready to pick up discarded scraps. I watched how salmon hurled themselves up the falls, often flutily—but when one actually made it, it wriggled forth with such triumphant determination I felt a little flutter of hope for it.

As much as I enjoyed the watch, I was relieved when the biologist came up to me around 6:45 and whispered that we should start wrapping up. I was chilled to the bone and my toes were numb in my boots. I got back to the Treehouse, swung my backpack over my shoulders, and began the 20 minute trudge back home, grateful to be getting some blood flow back into my toes.

It was just barely 7am when I got back out to the trail, and already large groups of people were on their way out to the falls. I could hear them before I saw them, the swish of their heavy gear, the bustle of their bulky cameras and tripods and bags. I couldn’t help but wonder how the more impactful presence of this mob of people might affect the behavior of the bears we’d gotten to watch so unimpeded overnight.

I enjoyed a hot shower, and then a hot cup of coffee, eggs, and biscuits when I got home, and spent the rest of the morning reading and baking rhubarb muffins. A good start to my weekend, though I do feel a bit like a zombie with the 2-ish hours of sleep I got last night. Perhaps a nap later today.

Other highlights from the last 2 weeks:

  • I’ve done three Valley Tours total now. The second one was the best so far.
  • I’ve started getting weekly COVID testing, since cases are on the rises in Bristol Bay. Even though I’m fully vaccinated, I want to know if I do get a breakthrough infection and avoid spreading it.
  • Besides the fireweed, berries are starting to pop out. Crowberries are beginning, and low-bush cranberries are emerging, although they’re still not ripe yet. I’m also seeing a lot more mushrooms out.
  • I finally got a glimpse of the wolf that lives out here! I only saw it’s butt as it disappeared behind some bushes across the falls, but I’m hoping to get to see more of it. Apparently there was also a family of 6 wolves out on the Valley Road while I was out giving my tour last week. Unfortunately, they were long gone by the time we got back to that section of road.


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