Up close with Alaska’s bears — but not too close

KING SALMON, Alaska — The day before I flew to Alaska to fish and to photograph grizzly bears, one of the bears killed a photographer who was hiking in Denali National Park.

Richard White, 49, of San Diego, had been backpacking alone along the Taklat River on Aug. 24 when a bear grazing in the brush suddenly attacked him.

Officials later looked at White’s camera and discovered he’d photographed the bear for about eight minutes before it attacked him. They said he’d been within the 50-yard cushion recommended for safety. Officials shot the bear to prevent it from attacking someone else.

Bears are frequent companions for anglers and hikers in the Alaskan bush. During my trip in late August, I saw five grizzlies on a single day while fishing for char and rainbow trout on Margot Creek in Katmai National Park in Alaska. The creek feeds into Naknek Lake.

I was accompanied by Dave Brown of Portland, a paramedic who spends part of his summer guiding for Rainbow Bend Lodges on the Naknek. Later, I talked with Don Baumgartner of the Seattle area about his experience with bears. Baumgartner’s brother, Tom, of Portland, owns the lodge.

Their grizzly bear safety tips:

“Number one is to be aware,” Brown said. “Keep your eye’s open. It’s easy to get focused on fishing and lose yourself. You look up and there’s a bear right in front of you.”

That’s indeed what happened to me on Margot.

Four times I looked up and there was a bear ambling toward me upstream. As big and fat as they are, I hadn’t seen it coming or heard a thing. The fifth time, I saw the trees alongside the creek shaking violently and figured out what was making that happen.

Since the creek was covered with willows and underbrush, we made a lot of noise as we walked along the bear trails so that our arrival would be no secret. Brown said some people put bells on their shoes, but we just talked a lot.

We also fished only on gravel bars in the creek so that we’d clearly be seen by the bears at a distance. And our group, which also included Jamie Thornton of Portland, fished close together.

“It’s important to stay together,” Brown said. “Bears will be less aggressive with a larger group.”

When bears showed up on our gravel bar, we stopped fishing and gave them the right of way by slowly backing away toward the far side of the creek.

“You don’t pressure a bear,” Brown said. “You don’t invade their space. You never know what’s too close for a bear at any given time.”

We also released all the fish we caught so the bears wouldn’t associate us with their food.

The tips seemed to work. I’m sure the bears saw us, but they ignored us completely as they walked down the river catching sockeye salmon.

The absence of an ample food source might be one reason the bear attacked White. Our creek was filled with salmon, and the bears ate one of them every few minutes. The bears generally appeared uninterested in us.

“It’s a risk,” Brown said of the bears. “But there are ways to mitigate that risk.”

Nobody knows why the bear attacked White. But bear attacks are rare. The Denali death was the first in the nearly 100-year history of the park.

Don Baumgartner, a retired police officer, has been guiding people from Rainbow Bend for 11 years. He said this year was the first time he’d ever had to use bear spray.

Baumgartner said he was at Contact Creek with a client and his 12-year-old son when two bears came up behind them in the brush. They talked and clapped their hands and the bears left.

The bears soon returned and came closer, clicking their teeth and showing signs of being agitated. One of the bears came within about 20 yards.

Baumgartner said the wind was in the bear’s face so he fired some pepper spray even though 20 yards is a good distance.

“It had an instant effect,” he said. “He left fast.”

He said bear encounters generally occur when someone has a fish on the line.

“I talk to the bear and stay out of his way,” he said. “Backing down is the thing. Saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got the (fishing) hole,’ seems to solve the problem.”

He. too, likes to take his clients onto sandbars to offer “360-degree awareness”.

“We don’t let people get ahead of us and we keep people fishing close together,” he added.

He also said you should never run from a bear or “get in a stare down with him” — meaning don’t look bears in the eye, something they view as a threat.

Baumgartner stressed that bad encounters with bears are rare. He said they mostly avoid people.

“Tom and I have each sprayed one bear in thousands of encounters,” he said. “You play the game on the bear’s terms, you have a plan, and you know how to deal with it.”

Up close and personal

For the safest grizzly bear viewing experience, visit www.explore.org.

The website has cameras installed at Brooks Falls, where you can watch grizzly bears eating salmon heading up Alaska’s Brooks River to spawn.

From June 1 to Sept. 17, the National Parks Service also operates Brooks Camp, a park where you can camp, take tours guided by a naturalist, and take photos from three platforms with views of the falls and the bears.

Most visitors get to the camp by hiring a small plane in the town of King Salmon, Alaska.

Bear viewing is best in July and September.

For more information about Brooks Camp, visit www.nps.gov/katm.

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