Encounters with the Grizzlies of Admiralty Island, Alaska

BY ASIA CHIAO

5:00am.

The sun was already high in the sky when I stepped out of the hotel, clutching a bagel hastily smeared with cream cheese in my mouth, both hands struggling to zip up my windbreaker. It had been almost a week since we first landed in Juneau International Airport, but I still wasn’t used to the seemingly constant sunshine, which warmed my face as I walked out towards the van that awaited me and a few of my relatives.  My family and I were on a summer holiday here in Alaska, and my mother, a wildlife enthusiast, had insisted that we couldn’t leave without meeting some of the area’s most famed residents – the grizzly bears that inhabited Admiralty Island.

Admiralty Island is located just off the coast near Juneau, and is home to the highest density of brown bears in North America, which outnumber humans on the island nearly 3 to 1. A federally protected area, covered in pristine old-growth temperate rainforest, we would be some of the lucky few to visit the island that summer, as all visitors are required to bear licenses in order to enter the reserve. When we arrived at the docks, a petite, muscular woman with tanned skin and bleached blonde hair introduced herself as our guide, and outlined our itinerary for the day: we would kayak across the strait separating the island from the mainland, hike up to some of the prime bear-spotting territory, then have lunch at one of the look-outs before kayaking back to Juneau. I could already tell that it was going to be a good day.

As we launched our double-kayaks into the water while our guide outlined some basic safety instructions, my mom suddenly started pointing frantically behind me, rocking the kayak violently in her excitement. I swiveled around as quickly as I could, just barely catching a glimpse of a shiny silver head slipping beneath the surface of the water, leaving ripples on the surface of the windless sea. “Harbor seals,” I heard our guide chuckle, “They get curious when people are around, and will probably start following us if we’re lucky.” We were lucky; as we crossed the channel, the seals would silently surface a safe distance behind us, their round dark eyes watching our every movement as the sun glinted off of their whiskers and spotted pelts. Even as we beached our canoes, they lingered in the cove, watching us as we shouldered our backpacks, tightened our laces and headed off inland towards bear country.

As it turned out, reaching bear country didn’t take a lot of walking; tracing the jagged coastline, we soon reached the edge of a rocky inlet where we encountered another small group of visitors crouching with cameras and binoculars behind a stony hillock. Motioning us over with fingers pressed to their lips, none of them had to point out what they were looking at; the bear stood right in the middle of the pebbly beach, preoccupied with digging for clams in the mud. If he knew we were watching him, he gave no sign of it; he industriously scraped away at the ground with his front paws, his blunt muzzle pressed close to the sand in anticipation. All of us held our breaths as we watched, quietly passing binoculars and camera lenses back and forth, humbled by the magnitude of the moment.

That night, looking at the photos we had taken, we all congratulated each other on becoming real wildlife photographers – in some of the shots you could see the individual tufts of wet hair on the grizzly’s flank, and the piles of wet sand and mud that he had excavated. Yet thinking back, years later, there was something about that moment on the island that no nature program has since been able to replicate: feeling my biceps ache from all the paddling that we had done; the smell of salt-sea air mingling with the warm odor of humus and moss blowing in from the forest; my ankles sore from my new hiking boots; seagulls squabbling overhead as my elbows scrape against the stone on which I’m crouching. Even though the bear wasn’t charging at us, or doing anything particularly interesting other than dig sand, I discovered that day that there’s something about the discomfort, the sense of awe, and the feeling of being a mere spectator in those moments that make such sights incomparable.

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