The Water, The Air and The Bear

“I suppose you saw a bear,” commented my somewhat petulant husband after returning from a search for a beaver den. An unpleasant “death march” through boggy muskeg had yielded a look at beavers’ handiwork, along with a new collection of insect bites, damp clothing and a mild dose of irritation. Realizing my limitations—-or perhaps I should say my level of tolerance—-I had chosen to remain perched by the mouth of southwest Alaska’s Margot Creek while my husband and our guide slogged through clouds of no see ‘ums toward the promised beaver den. Happily observing sockeye salmon gather for a final push upstream, I couldn’t think of a better place to enjoy the solitude of the Alaskan wilderness than this particular creek in Alaska’s virgin wilderness.

During a visit to southwest Alaska for brown bear viewing at famed Brooks River Falls in Katmai National Park, my husband and I chose to take an afternoon off from watching bears hunting salmon at the falls. Hiring a guide and a boat, we were ferried to Margot Creek, a waterway located near the boundary of Katmai National Park. Margot Creek offers a different setting in which to search for bear than the protected wooden platforms found at Brooks Falls. At Margot Creek, it’s you, the water, the air and the bear!

Stepping off our small boat onto a pebble beach, rosy pink fireweed bloomed in profusion amidst driftwood and rocks. Aptly named, fireweed is generally the first plant to colonize a disturbed area after fires occur. Ubiquitous to the landscape of the North, this hardy flowering plant even thrives in arctic climes. Alaskans state that they know when summer will wane by watching fireweed’s progress; the flowers begin blooming from the middle of the stem, each successive blossom progressing to the top of the stalk. When fireweed’s vivid flowers reach the very top of the stem, their growing season and summer will soon be overtaken by Autumn’s chill. Widespread in its range, many think brilliantly colored fireweed should be deemed the state flower of Alaska.

Fireweed blooming on the beach near Margot Creek

Margot Creek

Lazily watching an immense number of salmon gathering at the mouth of Margot Creek, I mused on the relentless life force exhibited in front of my eyes. One of nature’s greatest miracles is the life cycle of wild species of Pacific salmon. Hatched from eggs laid by spawning adult salmon that return to the exact freshwater stream of their very own birth, sockeye salmon hatchlings feed and grow in freshwater lakes for up to three years before swimming to the ocean. Young sockeye salmon spend an estimated one to four years of their lives in the ocean, their streamlined silvery bodies becoming strong and sleek from a diet of zooplankton in the sea. What drives salmon to return from the ocean to their natal freshwater stream is one of nature’s mysteries. Can it be an innate ability to sense molecules of water unique to the streams in which they were born? Moreover, is their ability to return to the exact spot of their birth due to a built-in Global Positioning System employing magnetism as a compass directing them to the stream where their lives began?

Whatever the reason may be, thick rafts of returning sockeye salmon were gathering in Margot Creek, many of them already morphed from a steely silver into their brilliant red and green spawning colors. Male salmon sporting newly changed body shapes with humped backs and serrated teeth on their hooked mouths bided their time in the mouth of the stream alongside females heavy with eggs. Both sexes displayed their signature red and green breeding colors, signifying the sockeye were ready to complete their complex circle of life. Possessed of a powerful life force compelling them to return from the ocean to spawn and die, the salmon insure the continuation of their own kind while being a keystone species upon which other animals and the Alaskan environment depend.

As I gazed toward the spectacle at my feet, burbling creek water broke the silence while eager salmon occasionally splashed out of the water. Fish practiced leaping from the water to overcome waterfalls to be encountered later in their journey. Before our guide left me, one salmon beached itself upon leaping out of the water. The nimble guide deftly grabbed the fish with his hands for a closer look. Moments later upon releasing the salmon, the fish briefly wriggled in shallow water near my feet before darting off to the safety of his fellow salmon.

Sockeye salmon in breeding colors.

A group of five fly fishermen were working the water, moving out of range around a bend in the stream as they waded upstream. The Margot Creek salmon run had not yet attracted a huge number of Alaskan brown bear to the area although bear were in the vicinity. Across the creek’s mouth a wary mother bear was fishing for herself and her triplets while the cubs unconcernedly wrestled on the shore. Newly forced from their mothers’ solicitous care several sub-adult bears prowled nearby, splashing into the creek in search of a piscine meal, their clumsy attempts exemplifying youth and inexperience. If they were to survive a long, bone-chilling winter, the juvenile bears would find it necessary to quickly hone their hunting techniques.

Unsuccessful in its attempts to capture a sockeye salmon, this young bear must master its hunting technique or face a future of starvation.

Still wet from a failed attempt to capture a fish dinner, a sub-adult Alaskan brown bear heads to another part of Margot Creek where perhaps it will have better fortune.

Not a great deal else was going on so our guide suggested taking a walk through the brush near Margot Creek in search of a beaver house and dam. I quickly realized that the route was treacherous with slippery river rocks to navigate so I suggested I remain behind.

I should have known better. The guide should have known even better not to leave me alone in bear country. Lulled by the beauty of the setting with only thousands of brilliantly hued sockeye salmon for company, ten minutes after my husband and the guide left me I became aware of something behind me. I didn’t hear anything but rather felt a presence. Some long forgotten primal vestigial awareness in my body prickled as I sensed something was there and it was very close. Looking backward, a subadult brown bear stood 15 feet away from me, momentarily sniffing the air before commencing ambling in my direction! I was downwind of the bruin. Coming up from behind a small rise, the bear had not yet seen me nor detected me with its excellent sense of smell. Softly, sotto voce, I mumbled, “Oh GREAT!” In truth what I actually said was a bit more pithy but this being a ‘family friendly’ forum this less colorful exclamation must suffice.

Sub-adult brown bear stopping by for a “chat” at Margot Creek.

Young brown bear sizing me up.

Blaring newspaper headlines danced through my head…“TOURIST DEVOURED BY BEAR…SHOULD HAVE GONE ON DEATH MARCH WITH HUSBAND!” I didn’t panic, having the presence of mind to collect my pack and camera tout suite—-in the many scrapes I’ve gotten myself into over the years, my motto has always been “Save the camera!” Rising slowly, in a good-natured tone of voice I spoke to the bear, graciously suggesting the bear go thattaway while I purposefully made my way in the opposite direction. Thank goodness I had been around bear before and kept my head. Never run from a bear, never! Thank goodness this bear was habituated to humans. An even bigger thank goodness this bear was not a sow with cubs nor a big dominant male boar.

The bear ambled to where I had been relaxing, nosing over to the exact spot where the salmon had been released back into the water before moving upstream. When the bear moved off, there was nothing to do but to take a deep breath, sit down and begin counting passing salmon once more. A few minutes later my husband joined me, saying the visit to the beaver dam had been an unpleasant slog through the muck. He remarked that now I’d probably tell him I had seen a bear simply by staying put at water’s edge. With great flourish I announced that indeed I had seen a bear, rather too close for comfort. Eyes wide, my concerned husband’s next question was “Did you get a picture????” Touched by his evident solicitude over my safety, I laughed it off. After all, that’s what bagging that image of a lifetime is all about.

It makes one think……..of returning to bear country ASAP!!!!

Leaving fly fishermen behind while coming in for a closer look, a young brown bear gives a cursory glance at humans busily occupied with getting out of its way as quickly as possible. Just one more photo—-I couldn’t resist!

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A close encounter of the bruin kind in Alaska’s wilderness.


alaska, animal, bear, gina_ruttle, ruttle, travel, water, whalegeek

It is my sincere wish that visitors to my portfolio experience the beauty and wonder of nature. Moreover my hope is that my photographs will inspire viewers to be proactive toward the protection of wildlife and its habitat, those efforts ultimately making a far better world for all beings.

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  • Debbie Roelle
    Debbie Roelleover 5 years ago

    Great story, Men!!! Did you a picture!! What was he thinking. What a wonderful experience you’d had encountered. I think I would of need a change of underwear. Thank you for letting me enjoy your experience from here!! great picture by the way.=D

  • Thank you, Debbie. Actually, everyone I told this story to wanted to know exactly the same thing…did you get a picture? It didn’t matter whether it was a male or female. Everyone just wanted to know! Debbie, I’m very happy you enjoyed this essay.

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • Jenny Dean
    Jenny Deanover 5 years ago

    Great story, and thank goodness you and the camera are safe and sound with some fabulous bear shots!

  • Save the camera, JennyDean! I think I’ll have my motto chiseled onto my tombstone some day. I agree with you. It’s good to have all my limbs intact and working! Thanks so much.

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • Barbara Burkhardt
    Barbara Burkhardtover 5 years ago

    I think I will rename you Indi-ANNA-jones!
    Wonderfully written, took me into the landscape, took me into the moment, took the heebeejeebees out of me. Self note "must take rear vision mirrors)
    Great story and pics – Congratulations Geeko.

  • Barbara, you are clever….MUST PACK REARVIEW MIRROR when in bear country. Actually, I was kicking myself for not being vigilant. Very dumb on my part as it could have had a terrible ending for me and the bear. Your enjoyment of this essay means very much to me. Thank you for taking time to comment.

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • elphonline
    elphonlineover 5 years ago

    Enjoyed the story and the pics. How scary that would be.

  • Elphonline, it didn’t seem very scary at the time but later on I pondered about what could have happened. Glad you enjoyed the story!

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • Mariann Rea
    Mariann Reaover 5 years ago

    Oh wow!! What a story! That was a little too close I think but yes, luckily the bear was in a good mood ;) I met a big elk over the weekend, pics and story coming soon :P
    But for now your journal entry is going to my favs ;) and I’m off to comment on your pics :)

  • Will look forward to your account of meeting up with Mr. Elk. That can also be fraught with excitement. So happy you took the time to read my story and have a look at the photos! Thank you for the Favorite, too. Your support means a great deal to me.

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • akaurora
    akauroraabout 5 years ago

    WOW, what an AWESOME story!! And the pictures, well let’s put it this way….you didn’t need words to tell the story as the pictures did a great job on their own. Gotta love those men…it has to be a man thing, they always ask ‘did you get a picture’ why is that? They must know that us being woman, that of course we did, and we saved the camera to boot! This is really a FABULOUS read, it is going to our fave’s and I plan to make sure that my husband reads it at the first opportunity that he gets (most likely in August after his shoulder surgery….he will be going nuts, this will give him some enjoyment for a few minutes anyway). Take Care ~ Rick & Deb ~ :)

  • Thank you! I always enjoy your fun, observant comments. Glad to know this didn’t bore you to tears either. :-)))

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

  • lorilee
    lorileeabout 5 years ago

    What an enjoyable read – thanks so much sharing such an incredible story!!!! And the pictures, well, they’re quite wonderful!!!!!!!

  • Thank you so much, lorilee. It makes me happy to know you enjoyed this little ursine slice of life story and images. All the best!

    – Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)

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