Our two-day visit to Anan Creek south of Wrangell took place after the peak of the spawning run of pink salmon, but the waters were still black with fish on their way upstream. There was plenty of bear activity, especially in the afternoons, and the crowds of (other) tourists were much diminished by this time. So we could move around the observation platform easily, to wherever the viewing was best. We saw only black bears near the platform, but brown bears, including a female with two cubs and a lunge-feeding singleton, were regularly seen in the lagoon downstream.
Here are some of the more interesting observations:
A small bear, probably kicked out by its mother not too long ago, came watchfully down through the boulders toward the creek. Its favorite spot was a narrow crevice between boulders, just above the water. This crevice had a front door, opening near the water, and a top door or chimney, opening through the "roof." It was a big jump down to the front door, so every time this little bear came to its special place, it sat down near the chimney, dropped its little hind end through the hole, and slid down to the floor of the crevice. Then its nose would appear at the front door, as it checked for the presence of other bears and then tried to catch a fish.
It wasn't a very effective predator on the numerous pink salmon, so it often scavenged fish remains left by other bears. Some of those remains were pretty worn out: bleached, bedraggled, ratty and rotten. But, the little guy was making some kind of living and putting on weight.
One afternoon, a slightly larger, single bear come to the area and the two had a face-off. The little guy seemed to be dominant, and the bigger one backed away and wandered up the hill. It started to eat gray stink currants, and a few minutes later, the littler bear come up the slope and munched on another patch of currants not far away.
A larger, very rotund bear ambled down to a streamside boulder and stood elbow deep on a rock. It was a very effective fisher, snapping up salmon in its jaws with almost every try. It captured about twenty fish in short order, and about eighty percent of those were ripe females. These females were carried about ten feet away to a regularly used "chomping block." There, the bear stripped out the roe (eggs and full of fat), usually also ate the brain (also very fatty) and sometimes consumed part of the back meat. The remains dropped into a convenient hole below the eating site. There they accumulated, available for other bears to winkle out, a full forearm stretch. The few male fish the bear grabbed were usually bitten in the abdomen (perhaps to make absolutely sure they were not females) and released, either stranded on a big boulder or dropped back into the water.
A little later, an even bigger bear approached and occupied the same spot. This one just sat in the water up to its shoulders, looking around sedately. Occasionally, it snapped at a fish and usually missed. Its favored method of capture seemed to be trapping a fish against a front leg with the opposite paw. This bear did not seem to forage selectively on females, in contrast to the former occupant of the boulder. It captured as many males as females, and even ate part of the males (especially the brain).
A good-sized bear liked to hunt in a small eddy below a gigantic rock. A very effective hunter, it slowly walked up to the eddy and usually snapped up a fish in one or two tries. Flapping fish clenched in its jaws, the bear made its way to selected eating places directly below the observation platform. There it would lie, on a bed of slime and rotten fish parts, eating in peace and occasionally peering up at the human visitors through the cracks in the platform.
The best part was the route the bear chose to use for carrying its prey up to the chosen eating place. Did it use the easy path, which came up the slope gradually, around a clump of bushes? No. Instead, it came straight up a vertical route, swinging its hefty body around like a huge monkey, from one obviously well-known paw-hold on tree roots to another. And it went back down by the same route, but backwards, heaving its considerable backside around and swinging off the tree roots until it found familiar footholds, then dropping down to all fours and turning around.
The Anan Creek observatory is well worth a visit, and it is worth staying on the platform for more than an hour or two. Permits are required during the main season of bear activity, but they are limited in supply, so reservations need to be made well ahead of time. We rented the cabin on the shore, about a mile or so away from the observation platform, and walked up the trail each day, meeting the occasional bear. Food must be left in lockers at the cabin or the check-in point at the trailhead landing. Having been there once, I would happily go again.
Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.
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