Everybody loves bears...right...right?
Well I know I do, but generally at a distance where I can't hear them breathe and I can't really smell them. The following is a recent encounter I shared with a good friend and a curious bear, well... actually three bears.
First a little background; I was born and raised in remote Alaska, living everywhere from Chichigof Island (more brown bears per square mile than anywhere else on the planet) to Prince William Sound. My friends and I have spent weeks exploring the rivers of Western Alaskan, specifically the Yukon-Kuskokwim drainage. We are regularly in close contact to several populations of coastal brown bears. Genetically, they are the same as "grizzlies" but entirely different in social behavior and temperament. The brownies are a lot easier to deal with, especially in proximity. My buddy and I fish all over the state.
Picking out flies.
Spurred on by a recent, rewarding trip to the fabled "Good News River", we hatched a plan for the next adventure. Bored of a couple months of "the normal life", we set out to hike up to Russian River Falls on the Kenai River drainage and wade fish the three miles down to the confluence.
This is the home of "combat fishing" for sockeye salmon. Folks stand shoulder to shoulder attempting to cast a fly into the jaws of a willing salmon. Limit is 6 fish per person, per day for the hundreds of people lining the river daily at the peak of the run. Bears, however, are not beholden to quotas and are commonly in competition with their human counterparts. Interestingly enough, there are very few bad encounters and even fewer injuries.
So September 14, cold and wet, coffee in-hand, we head up the trail to the mighty Russian River. The older I get, the quicker I find that I lose my wind and pace after some epic trip. A mere 2 months off and I'm dying half way up this trail. Ah... the joys of "maturity".
Humbled by the hike, we soon made it down to the river. Rolling down the rock face to the water we commence chucking flies at willing rainbow trout.
We leapfrogged each other for about a mile, when my buddy waves down river to two brownies, a sow and a second year cub, playing and feeding mid-stream. They were occupied. While we kept an eye on them, experience would say that they really didn't care if we were on the bank or not.
We watched them for a bit as we fished from 75 feet or so away when we both notice another bear coming down the trail on our side of the river. Typically, a couple of casters on a narrow area like we were in would cause a bear to detour into the river or back into the brush to avoid us, but this dude was having none of it. He came at a steady pace until he was within 30 ft or so and just stood there sniffing at us.
To buy us some insurance, we climbed up a very steep rock face and got perhaps 15 ft above the trail. Just as soon, the bear moved directly below us and continued to express interest in us...to an alarming degree. We yelled at him (assuming "him," as the young males are typically more "aggressive") and stood side by side as tall as we could. Ninety-nine percent of the time, this is enough to make them turn and run, but our bear decided we weren't that scary I guess.
Over the next 10 minutes, we shouted this bear off of trying to climb up to us 3 separate times. He eventually got in the river and continued up stream following the pack. We always carry bear spray and man we were thankful for it this time around.
This just reinforced for us a couple of key points.
1. Situational awareness...it is easy to get distracted by the scenery, the fish, or even other bears. and as on the Russian River often it is very loud.
2. Even with the amount of interaction we have had over the years, bears can throw you a curve ball, act in a manner you don't expect and change course both figuratively and trail wise in a heartbeat. Be aware of them 100% of the time when they are in proximity.
I hope to have many more years out on these rivers, soaking in the wildness of it all and experiencing the give and take of the watersheds.
Stay safe and tight lines.