Alaska: Bear's-eye view

By Brett Atkinson

Brown bears in Alaska. Photo / Brett Atkinson
Brown bears in Alaska. Photo / Brett Atkinson

It's a tough life being an Alaskan sockeye salmon. After being spawned as a tiny fry, your first couple of years are spent in blissful anonymity in a remote wilderness lake. Then the fun really starts. Look forward to a journey down river to the ocean past loitering bears with a definite taste for Omega 3, and then about four years dodging sea eagles, seals and sharks, and commercial fishermen.

If you do make it to sockeye seniority, a powerful sense of smell then charts your return to the same river, and another hungry posse of bears is ready to take you down. And if you're headed for Wolverine Lake in Redoubt Bay, you'll also need to get past an armada of aluminum dinghies crammed with Bud Lite drinkers armed with fishing rods.

The 50-minute floatplane flight 110km southwest from Anchorage to Redoubt Bay is a stunner, and at an altitude of around 3000m, Alaska's extreme scenery of multiple glaciers, snowcapped mountains, and meandering braided rivers rolls cinematically past like the South Island on steroids. From the cosy confines of Redoubt Bay Lodge, bear-viewing boats make the short 20-minute journey across the lake to the compact wooded semi-circle of Wolverine Creek.

Preparing to ascend the river, salmon gather in a piscine huddle under a steepish brook, and each fishing dinghy queues to have 30 minutes adjacent to this liquid mother lode.

Bear viewing is definitely a waiting game though, and the highlights of the first hour are spotting bald eagles and cheering on a trio of dreadlocked girls - definitely salmon fishing novices - haul in multiple, back-to-back fish during their allotted half hour. It's enough to make the grizzled regulars choke on their rapidly warming beer.

Eventually a shiny nose emerges from the undergrowth, and a 300kg brown bear effortlessly negotiates a steep and dusty track to the water's edge. Three more junior versions - still only the size of a medium-sized dog - follow, scrapping, rolling and wrestling all the way down. After patrolling the bank for a few minutes, the bear suddenly dives into the gathering of salmon just metres from the boats. It's a fruitless first attempt though, and glancing back at the trio of cubs, she encourages them to swim with her further around the cove. Aquatic skills are obviously in the family as the same bear earned the nickname "Michael Phelps" the previous summer. Fast forward a year, and the presence of the three cubs has forced locals to sheepishly amend the bear's name to "Michelle".

For around 30 minutes, Michelle and the kids explore the cove on land and in the water. There's no quarter given to the cubs, and still-growing legs need to be fully extended to traverse a tangle of boughs lining the bank. Occasionally a cub sits up to check on Mum's location before setting off in earnest to catch up. Regular play-fights definitely reduce the efficiency of the procession.

At the cove's eastern edge another bear - also with three cubs - emerges from the thicket. Even without binoculars, the curious sniffing of this bear, dubbed Goldilocks, is evident, and for a few minutes an ursine Mexican standoff develops as both bears become aware of the other. Apparently there's no real chance of aggression though, and after sometimes playing together, it's not unknown for cubs to occasionally follow the wrong mother for a few days.

With this kind of Animal Planet soap opera unfolding just metres away, the 8am start by floatplane from Anchorage is now making perfect sense, and virtually no one in the dinghies is taking fishing seriously anymore. Maybe this year, the sockeyes will have more of a fighting chance.


GETTING THERE: Air New Zealand flies direct to Vancouver and San Francisco, from where Alaska Airlines connects via Seattle to Anchorage.
DETAILS: Bear viewing in Alaska's Redoubt Bay is possible from mid-June through July.

The writer travelled with the assistance of the State of Alaska Tourism Office.

- NZ Herald

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