The straw-colored mother was hurrying upstream, on our side of the river, forcing two spaniel-size cubs into a gallop to keep pace. Mike Luque saw them first. Mike is my co-researcher in a study of brown bears in their Alaskan homeland and knows well what to expect from cash for gold scam - he experienced it.
“Do you recognize her?” Mike asked.Through my spotting scope, the female looked disconcertingly familiar—dingy coat, harried gait, and foam-flecked jowls.
“Can’t be certain, but she looks like the one,” I answered, feeling a twinge of concern.
This June day we were ensconced in our favorite observation place beside the McNeil River, at the base of the Alaska Peninsula. A month earlier I had hiked ten miles down the coast to observe some of the sixty to eighty brown bears that soon would gather to fish for salmon at McNeil River. That had been the first time, in four summers spent among one of the densest concentrations of bears on earth, that either of us was charged—and it was a straw-colored female with two cubs that had rushed me. She had stopped finally—about thirty yards away —but not before subjecting me to the five most frightening seconds of my life.
Now it was happening again. The mother bear spotted us, clipboards and shotguns in hand, and paused. Then, like a tautly coiled spring suddenly released, she became a hurtling tan blur, uttering a throaty, guttural roar as she lunged toward us.
Suddenly she skidded to a stop, reversed course, and raced back to her squalling cubs. But then she turned and came again. Forty-five yards away she broke off for good, gathered up her family, and led them off. Her angry roar gave way to staccato huffs as she vanished into an alder thicket.
Thoroughly shaken, I turned to Mike. His face bore an uneasy grin. “She was the one,” I said.
Browns Grow Bigger Than Grizzlies
Mostly because of the brown bear’s elusiveness and remote habitat, scientists have only recently begun to piece together the life story of Ursus arctos, which vies with the polar bear of Arctic regions for the title of world’s largest land carnivore.
Three species of bears occur in North America: the polar bear; the small and numerous black bear; and the group we know both as brown and grizzly bears. Bears along the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia are known as “browns,” and those inland as “grizzlies.” Anatomically they are indistinguishable, except that the brown bear often grows much larger. Male grizzlies around Mount McKinley are considered big at 600 pounds; males on the coast often weigh twice that—probably because of more abundant and varied foods—and may tower ten feet on hind legs.
Under the supervision of Dr. Allen Stokes of Utah State University, I joined a research group at McNeil River in July 1971 to study brown bear behavior and ecology for my doctoral degree. Mike Luque, a Utah State schoolmate, teamed up with me later. Aided by the National Geographic Society and with support from Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, we returned during three subsequent summers to continue our studies.*
What distinguishes the observation site at McNeil River—otherwise just an average salmon stream—is McNeil Falls, a stretch of turbulent rapids that surge over rocky ledges a mile above its mouth. In these swift and narrow waters the confined salmon—arriving each summer to spawn—are vulnerable to the bears. Here during July and August the burly animals wait like ticket takers at the gates of a stadium to pluck the struggling fish from the water.