On the trail with bears

Remember to be aware but also to share while in the great outdoors

Posted: Sunday, July 03, 2005

When I first came to Juneau, I quickly learned of the many hiking trails in the area. But I didn't yet know anyone in town who also liked to hike. So I had to go alone - sure there was a bear behind every bush!

What to do? I chose the Perseverance Trail, which is used by lots of folks, so I'd have some company in bear country. Up the trail I went, bird-watching, flower-gazing, and listening for ominous rustlings in the brush.

It was July, the blueberries were ripe, and I stopped to sample them. As I reached out for a few more, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a largish black critter hustling up behind me. It did not move like a dog. In a microsecond, there flashed through my brain the thought that this is a big bear cub, its mama is right behind it, and my Alaska adventure is about to end abruptly.

That black critter came up beside me and promptly started plucking blueberries, one by one, and popping them into its mouth. When my bewildered brain processed what my eyes were beholding, I realized that bears do not pick berries one by one with their hands, nor were they likely to stand right next to a human while doing so. My astonished gaze was encompassing a chimpanzee! The chimp and its companion human, coming up the trail behind it, were both visiting Juneau and enjoying a good hike.

Since then, I've walked most of the Juneau trails, alone or with friends, and seen bears or evidence of bears many times. We've sat on a snow bank at the entrance to Granite Basin, entertained during lunch by two cubs frolicking in a steep gully still full of snow. They'd run to the top of the gully and launch themselves down the slope, and scamper back up to do it all over again. They did belly-floppers, butt-slides, barrel rolls, and somersaults, and sometimes even mama joined in.

Over in Tenakee Inlet, we hiked from the beach up over a berm to explore a large meadow. But as our heads rose over the berm, we saw the meadow was already occupied by a dozen or so large, brown, hump-backed beasts, grazing head-down. Buffalo?! But no, they are brown bears, and we should exit quietly and leave them to their lunch.

A hiking friend encountered a black bear, sitting in the brush beside a local trail. It was an uncommonly warm and sunny day, and the hiker was ready to head for home and some iced tea. Growing impatient with the face-off, she finally said, "I'm hot, and you're hot, and I'm going home." And so she passed right by this very mellow bear.

It is a marvelous thing to live in a place with so many easily accessible trails that are shared with wildlife. It is probably a good thing to be reminded that when we are out on the trails, we are not necessarily the most powerful creatures around. It pays to stay alert and aware of what's around you. One is advised to let any bears that might happen to be nearby know that you are there, by talking or singing so you don't startle them. This, however, is incompatible with bird-watching or simple enjoyment of the sounds of nature. So it is a tradeoff. If you do encounter a bear, try to give it the right of way and lots of space, and retreat slowly (do not run). Be aware but share.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired ecology professor and a Trail Mix board member.

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