I lived in Alaska more than ten years before I saw a bear. Evidence was everywhere. Paw prints and scat on the trails in Chugach State Park continually reminded us of our proximity to one of the wilderness’ most iconic creatures. Bears also made plenty of appearances closer to home. The whole neighborhood was abuzz one afternoon when a large brown bear meandered down First Street, stopping for a moment to peer into our open garage. I always seemed to arrive ten minutes too late. Photo albums from our first years in Alaska are stuffed with pictures of moose in the yard, but no bears. Not even in the wild. Finally, on a late evening drive near the Eagle River Nature Center, I watched a black bear sow lope across Eagle River Road with her two cubs. What a treat to see their black fur shimmering in the sunlight. At long last I’d caught a glimpse of an Alaska bear.
While nothing may ever compare to the magic of those McNeil River bears, this summer marks a record year for random encounters. The first was in Bicentennial Park, in Anchorage. Riding with Bill and Diane on horseback, we came upon a black bear whose big rump was the most we saw as it crested the hill and disappeared. Less than a week later, on a trail near the Knik River, we encountered a black bear grazing on a grassy hillside. We watched it for some time before it saw us; Diane even had time to snap a few photos before it loped back into the shadowed forest.
A few days later, in the Brooks Range, we saw a brown bear sow and her two cubs. The mother bear woofed at her youngsters, who scrambled up the hill behind her. The twins stood on their hind legs and peered at us with curiosity. Mother was not amused however, and there was an edgy moment between our group and the bear. We shouted at her to leave, but it wasn’t until we moved our horses forward that she decided not to tangle with us.
And then yesterday, my friend Katie’s horse alerted us to a black bear peering at us on its hind legs less than 50 yards from the trail. We kept a respectful distance and grinned at our good fortune to see yet another one of these fascinating and colorful envoys of Alaska’s wilderness.
With September comes a change in seasons. While we rake our yards and harvest the last carrots and cabbages from our gardens, the bears will be fattening up on late-run silvers and seeking dens to spend the winter. This seven-bear summer will be one to remember – both for lasting friendships and for the bears. A summer to remember with gratitude.