Too Close for Comfort

Outside of Alaska, people often ask if I am afraid to live in such close proximity to bears. Honestly, I find comfort in the fact that these creatures still exist and I cherish the notion of such large predators roaming the expansive wild that is Alaska, my home. I couldn’t imagine living anyplace else and not having this allure surrounding me. By choice, I do not carry a firearm when I hike. That is not a statement against guns, simply my decision not to carry one in the backcountry.

Of all the different species that I have photographed since I first picked up a camera nearly 20 years ago, I have spent more time with Alaska’s brown/grizzly bears than any other animal. Only on a few occasions did I ever feel there was a clear and present danger, despite being so close to one of the world’s largest and most powerful predators, yesterday was one of those instances.

Over the past few days, I have watched this bear’s behavior become increasingly aggressive toward people viewing her while she is fishing. She appears somewhat desperate with winter approaching, trying to pack on as much weight as possible before denning. Most of the salmon she picks up are dead and decaying and after a few bites, she moves on to find another, apparently hoping it will taste better than the last. Just one week ago, while leading a fall photography class, she didn't pay us any mind as we observed and photographed her going about her business for more than an hour. Since then, on more than one occasion, she bluff-charged at us (myself and a fellow ERNC volunteer) as well as Nature Center visitors while we were on the viewing decks.

Yesterday evening I walked down to the smaller deck by myself in hopes of once again taking advantage of the opportunity to photograph her before she seeks higher ground for winter slumber. When she appeared, I immediately sensed that something was awry. My heart was beating loudly, as if I felt her exasperation. She followed her normal routine of splashing around in the creek and trying to pounce on live salmon. As usual, she picked up a rotting fish to gnaw on but quickly lost interest, at which point she seemed more intent on acknowledging my presence and asserting her dominance. She walked closer to the deck, which sits on a slope overlooking the waterway. The front of the deck is only about 5 feet off the ground with a wooden rail and open at the back, offering no protection should she decide to pursue. As she approached, she turned her gaze toward me and started walking toward the deck, following the footpath that leads around to the backside. Initially, I was expecting her to bluff charge, as she has done recently, but when she locked her eyes on me it no longer felt like a bluff, this time it felt real. She continued toward the deck until all that separated us was about 20 feet and the wooden handrail. I slowly back pedaled, saying “Hey bear” in a calm voice until I was out of her field of vision, at which point she turned and walked back down to the creek and I breathed a huge sigh of relief, my heart pounding inside my chest.

As a result of the bear’s recent behavior, Chugach State Park has closed off the Rodak Nature Trail and the viewing decks until further notice. While I am disappointed in the loss of this wonderful photographic opportunity, this is the best decision for both the bear and visitors to the Nature Center. With her growing intolerance of humans, it could be a matter of time before she decides to attack somebody she sees as a threat to her fishing grounds.