Alaskan Bears

By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services

Bears on the runway?

“Routine,” says Gerry Winkler, the pilot of our six-passenger Cessna. Routine, that is, when you are landing on the beach at the edge of the 4-million-acre Lake Clark National Park and Preserve — a unique habitat close to the succulent grasses bears eat, the coast where the salmon do a major summer run and the spot where bears make their winter dens.

Welcome to “bear camp,” an outpost of the Kenai Peninsula fishing lodge Great Alaska International Adventure Vacations, where families come to hike, fish, raft and, of course, check out the bears. “We had 60 bears last night,” says our 28-year-old guide, Matt Vermillion, who gave up real estate and a cubicle in Virginia for Alaska. Today, from a platform 15 feet above the ground, we’ve got an amazing view into a bear nursery where a 3-year-old cub (all 300 pounds of her) snoozes about 50 yards from us, while a sow the guides have nicknamed Bossy and her younger cub, Lucky, graze nearby. A brown bear so blonde they call her Sugar plays in the meadow. Max Weinberg, 12, his friend Miles Singer, 13, and I are watching the “bear nursery” from a platform 15 feet off the ground at Horn Creek, which feeds into Chinitna Bay, the snow-covered peaks of the Aleutian Range reflected in its shimmering water.

It appears we’ve picked the perfect time to visit. Vermillion, who’s called Verm, explains there are more bears than there have been in years, including three sets of triplets and three sets of twins all born this spring — some no bigger than a Black Lab pup. The ash from the active volcano on Mount Redoubt, about 80 miles north, appears to be driving the bears slightly south — right into “our” meadow. “Every day is a different show,” says Caprice Stoner, a 44-year-old grandmother from Georgia, who teaches skiing in the winter. “You never know what you are going to see.”

“Did I mention the Bald Eagles, the moose, the fox who also call this bit of paradise home? Despite the hefty fees to visit here — check for packages — many families report their time at Great Alaska to be the highlight of their Alaskan trip. We have this privileged locale because Great Alaska has leased this land — ringed on three sides by this critical wildlife habitat and national park — from a 71-year-old homesteader named Wayne Byers who lives 500 yards from the eight-yurt camp in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing. The kids are amazed anyone would choose to live like this — No cable! No Internet! No hot water!

Our home for the night is a very comfortable yurt on a platform, complete with two cots and comforters, wind-up flashlights and very clean portable toilets plastered with Vermillion’s excellent bear photos, including one of a bear dancing in a creek. In the dining tent, we’re served chicken cordon bleu, salad, fresh rolls, potatoes and carrots, even wine courtesy of Dylan Hartford, the 19-year-old wilderness-loving culinary student from Washington State who confesses he, “didn’t even know jobs like this existed,” before he got offered this opportunity.

My two traveling companions, my 13-year-old cousin Max Weinberg and his buddy Miles Singer ask, “Should we be afraid of the bears?” The camp is surrounded by an electric fence and the guides have guns, though Verm tells us he’s fired his once in just four years. The guides also keep a respectful distance from the bears.

This is the wilderness, after all, not a zoo or theme park. But in the 12 years the camp has been here, there’s never been a problem. Still, anything could happen. “We are diligent every minute of the day,” says Stoner. “We want to have a benign encounter every time. We don’t chase them. We don’t run from them. We don’t cross the creek into their habitat, either.”

Just as big a challenge, I think, is keeping the kids amused with no TV, Internet, or cell phones. “Bear viewing is a patience game,” Stoner says, but concedes that 21st-century kids aren’t very patient. “I try to relate the bears to their lives. Everything the bears do is a life lesson,” she explains. The cubs wrestling teaches them to protect themselves, they learn not to get into someone else’s space and how siblings must watch out for one another after the mama bear “pushes them out of the nest,” typically at about age three. “They have to rely on one another,” she says. She talks about the mama bears teaching the young cubs — how to fish, how to protect themselves.

“Max and Miles are alternately fascinated and bored, focusing on my telephoto lens as much as the action in the meadow. “Interesting for about 10 minutes,” Miles says.

I can watch these amazing creatures, some 1,000 pounds, for hours as they snooze, graze in the grass, splash in Horn Creek and tumble and wrestle in the meadow — just like kids would. Three sets of sows are in the meadow with their twins, just like moms would head to the playground on a summer afternoon.

And what a playground! Crystal clear water, majestic, snow-covered mountain peaks, wildflowers (purple irises) and nutritious salt grass.

“Bear watching is boring,” declares Miles.

“Until something happens,” Verm says.

Just like life.