A trip to bear country

Posted: Sunday, August 05, 2007

As the float plane cleared the top of Admiralty Island, we entered a strange, new country.

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Pairs of brown bears played on patches of ice above the treeline. One sat by himself in the subalpine shrubs.

We flew southeast, crossing Pack Creek from above then veering sharply to land near its mouth.

Morning fog had delayed our flight, so we began our adventure by eating lunch on this island famous for its brown bears. We snacked under a hot sun on a barren beach, under strict orders to account for each crumb. A wildlife officer of some kind watched over us, holding a rifle. I was pretty sure that if I dropped some food and didn't pick it up, he would shoot me ... and then insist that no one feed me to the bears. All I had for defense was a water bottle and a Snickers bar, so I kept quiet.

Our tour group marched into the temperate rain forest in a quest for brown bears. Occasionally our guide would stop and point out a bear footprint, or claw marks. She showed us uprooted plants and fur left on bark when the bears rubbed their backs against trees. Add a few warnings about the dangers of spontaneous maulings, and the tension mounted.

After a hike, we reached a wooden lookout tower near pack Creek. I was prepared to wait. A true monster, after all, wouldn't just ... show up.

Horror, it turns out, is goofier than I expected. A teenage brown bear was the first to appear, gallumphing through shallow water churning with chum salmon. Awkward and unskilled, he lunged at fish that slipped away. He pounced and jumped, but he couldn't score. He bumbled through the ankle-deep water as dozens of chum scooted out from under him. After a few charming minutes, he gave up and wandered off.

Then a bigger bear splashed into view. Confident and purposeful, she moved through the water and onto shore. She disappeared behind trees and plants, but we could hear her growl.

Bald eagles flew in and out of the clearing, but no more bears appeared. Our guide took us back to the beach. As we left the forest, float planes were landing to drop off a few new visitors to the island.

Our group ate more snacks, and we got to know each other a little - by which I mean we looked the other way while people went to the bathroom on the beach. (It was too dangerous to go in the woods.) One guy was a journalist freelancing for an airline magazine. A young couple told us they were from Holland. I was there with my parents, wife and sister. I can't remember much about the other two people. Hopefully they made it back to civilization. If they didn't, I envy them.

The second part of our visit led us to a grassy field near the mouth of Pack Creek. We sat on a log and waited silently for bears.

The one that finally lumbered onto the scene was a fishing artist. He splashed through the creek, snatching a salmon and ripping it. He threw it away without eating it. He ambled closer to us, settling near a little pool and staring into it. With a quick move, he grabbed another chum. He peeled the skin off with one careful tug. Then he tore the fish open and licked out the eggs.

A second bear, a young one, stumbled out of the forest to watch us leave. Not too much later, we were boarding float planes to return to Juneau. It felt like we had been to a foreign land. They should have required passports.

• Contact Ken Lewis at 523-2263 or ken.lewis@juneauempire.com.

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