Brown Bears of Lake Clark, Alaska
Brown Bear or Grizzly Bear
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a brown and grizzly bear - well I have!!
"Brown" and "Grizzly" are common names for the same species; the difference between the two is geographic location, which influences diet, size, and behavior. Those that live in coastal areas are called brown bears, while typically inland bears that have limited or no access to marine-derived food resources are called grizzlies.
Both have the distinctive large shoulder hump (which you will see in the pictures below), long curved claws, and a wide head with a concave profile, often described as "dish-faced." In Lake Clark, both coastal and inland bears are of the subspecies Ursus arctos horribilis, and all of them are generally referred to as brown bears, although either term is acceptable.
On our first day of exploring, we had the pleasure of encountering this beautiful mother bear and her cub. We had set up camp, it was mid afternoon and we didn't really expect to see any bears until later in the day. We only ventured about 200 metres into the field behind our camp when we saw the mother sitting in the bushes.
Slightly to the left of her, and sitting patiently in a patch of grass the mother had flattened, was her gorgeous cub. The cub always knew where the mother was, and whilst very relaxed, as soon as the cub heard a sound, would seek out its mother quickly.
We encountered these two on many occasions during our stay at Lake Clark. One evening we were walking up the beach to where the salmon were running and I had a sense of not being alone. When in bear country you are always watching for signs of bear activity, bear scat (poo) or any markings a bear was present or had been there recently. I glanced over my shoulder and saw the two of them casually sauntering up the beach behind us. We moved out of their way, sat and allowed them to pass.
You could often find the mother in the water searching for salmon. She was very efficient at catching her fish and never left the cub for very long at all. There were several times when the other bears, also fishing for salmon, would get too close to the cub. Whilst the mother never appeared to have her eyes on the cub, whenever another bear got close, she was instantly beside the cub. We had been told by some of the locals that although initially the mother had two cubs, she disappeared for a few days and only returned with one cub.
On one of the evenings along the peninsula where you could find many bears searching for salmon, we were watching the mother and her cub cross the water, which meant they were coming closer to where we had positioned ourselves. In bear country you respect the bears and ensure you do not disturb them or their surroundings. We had set up our position in a very suitable location.
After they crossed, the cub assumed its position on the beach again, moving up and down the side of the water as its mother searched for fish. Something spooked the cub and it started making loud erratic and panicky sounds. The mother turned, the cub fled towards us and then realised as it got closer, that we were right there and very close.
The cub stopped in its tracks with the mother speeding towards us. This was the most volatile situation we had encountered. Slowly and cautiously we moved backwards, sat as low as we could and quietly took in the scene. The cub looked at us and we looked at the mother who was still running and almost beside the cub. We didn't move. The cub must have felt more relaxed as its squealing stopped and its behaviour changed. The mother went to it and they both moved back towards the water. I'm still not sure what spooked the cub but the entire scenario happened very quickly. We take bear safety very seriously as any silly mistakes by humans, place the bears at risk of being killed.
I had so much fun watching this young male bear. He was the only bear in the water, the tide was still quite high and there were many salmon splashing around everywhere you looked. I had to contain myself so many times from laughing out loud as he raced up and down, dived into the water, floundered every time he plunged to try and capture one of the fleeing salmon. After about one hour, as the tide dropped slightly, he finally got his reward for all the effort he had put in. A nice fat juicy salmon, which he very quickly rushed into the grass to eat, as three other huge bears were approaching the water from the other side.
Ben and Beryl (affectionately named by my husband) appeared as tiny specs on the horizon when we first saw them. They slowly walked across the open plains towards us, in no particular hurry or direction. We weren't even sure they would end up making their way to our vantage point.
They must have been extremely hot from their laborious walk because they promptly found a puddle of water in front of us and splashed around before finding a stick which provided them with vast entertainment. They took turns, biting, chewing and moving it through the water. Then suddenly the stick was lost and their mellow play became a series of pushing, biting and growling. This is when you acknowledge the strength and force these bears can display and these were tiny bears.
You ask how I knew they were male and female bears - we didn't know, my husband just named them. The only sure way to determine if the brown bear is male or female is to either see the penis sheath or wait long enough to observe urination.
Strength, determination, a sense of direction and on a mission, were these four big, strong looking bears. As soon as we saw them coming, we knew they would put on a display. They knew what they wanted and that was salmon, which they caught easily. When one bear would upset one of the others, they didn't hold back and chaos ensued until one won out.
The twins....apart from the scar and blood on the head of one.
This was the only time I caught a bear napping. This was about 11pm at night and we had watched this particular bear feed constantly on the salmon she had been catching. Then, as if nothing else mattered, she left the water, perched herself on the sand and fell asleep.
I had wanted to photograph the bears at the Spit, which meant night time shots - as when it approached around 10pm numerous bears would venture to the waters edge to feed. As I couldn't use any type of lighting, flash included, I had to experiment with all of my camera settings and managed to capture these magnificent animals as they hunted for their late dinner.
We arrived early, somewhere around 7pm and watched as the bears started congregating towards the water. These were big brown strong bears and it was a magical time watching them throughout the night as they romped through the water, stood upright looking for fish and frequently glancing our way, knowing we were there, not so much by sight but by smell. A bear will know you are around before it can see you, due to it's enhanced sense of smell.
And this is what it's about....the reward after a hard day's fishing.
Whilst we were certainly lacking in sleep, from many hikes during the day and watching the bears at night, after a night at the Spit, I needed to go back again and spend time watching these massive, memorizing creatures. I could sit for hours and just watch their antics.
Welcome to the Bears of Lake Clark