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!

The Water, The Air and The Bear

Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)

Palos Park, United States

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Artist's Description

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

Artwork Comments

  • Debbie Roelle
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