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Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Chilkoot River Brown Bears

Our family has been going to Haines for close to forty years to spend time in the summer near the Chilkoot River, about ten miles north of town. The lower corridor of the Chilkoot River was the site of the L'Koot (Tlingit) Village and is becoming an extremely popular bear watching area as it is on the road system. When I took my mother there, several weeks ago, we happened to arrive in the evening and within 20 minutes of driving off the ferry had seen nine bears. We saw a mother with three cubs, another mother with two cubs, and two other bears crossing at separate times in front of the car. As we drove along the road, we saw people strolling next to the river where the bears were catching fish twenty feet away from them, as if in a zoo with a plate glass window between them and the mother bears and their cubs. Unbelievable.

Look at the length of her claws! Photo taken by Amy Vlastelica
The next morning we saw even more bears - and many more people. I counted more than two hundred people who had arrived in large buses, in vans, on bicycles, in campers - all of them standing on the road along the river, holding cameras and grinning. You can't help grinning when brown bears are that close. It's a natural high. The viewers did maintain their distance, however, herded by the tour guides who cautioned them to avoid stressing the bears by getting too close.

How do the mother bears do it? For two to four years, they have to protect their cubs from the male bears who will kill and eat the cubs (somebody has to explain to me how that could possibly be a species survival strategy), feed them, teach them to fish and forage and survive. And keep them from drowning, falling off a cliff, starving, or getting shot - just plain keep them alive. 

Bear cubs like to play as much as any young creature. We watched as one of the the mothers fished in the swiftly flowing river, while her cubs played by the shore, tussling with each other, until they would get caught up in the current and float by us, their little bear heads held up high. It made me laugh. Apparently, it happened often enough that it was no cause for alarm to the mother, who didn't even look up.

Despite the crowds watching and the number of bears who show up every summer, there have been no incidents of injury to people. Although the bears seem oblivious, they also react by moving quickly when people get too close, a reminder that they can run up to 35 miles per hour. Their strength and speed and aggressiveness make them formidable inhabitants of the world we all share.

Note the collar used for tracking her. Photo taken by Amy Vlastelica

A group in Haines has established an organization, The Alaska Chilkoot Bear Foundation, in reponse to the growing numbers of visitors to the bear viewing grounds. Check it out.