Eleven years ago I was working for a company in Juneau called Alaska Discovery. I was still fairly green and was leading mostly day trips. The lion’s share of the trips were sea kayaking day trips around three islands north of Juneau. Benjamin, Sentinel and North Islands were the three and wildlife was abundant around them. Benjamin Island had a stellar sea lion haul out and seeing two to three hundred of them daily was not uncommon. Sentinel Island had a lighthouse and was a harbor seal haul out. Humpback whales were frequently spotted and we once saw bubble-netting humpbacks on one particularly memorable trip. That trip just happened to be with a film crew doing a syndicated environmental news program called “Environmental News Syndicated.” Great footage was made during that trip and I had my TV debut as a result.
Another of my guide duties was to lead day trips on Admiralty Island for brown bear (the Tlingit word for brown bear being Teikweidí) watching. For those not familiar, Admiralty Island holds claim to having the world’s highest concentration of brown bears, with a little more than one bear per square mile. On these day trips we would fly in via floatplane from Juneau, pick up canoes at a cache, and paddle over to prime bear watching areas. We would then spend the day taking advantage of bear sightings, photographing the bears and being within 10 to 20 feet from dozens at a time.
On one memorable trip, I had to take two clients to an area known as Windfall Harbor. I had drawn permits for this area and the rules of the island, a National Monument, are extremely regulated. Usually, Pack Creek would be the area we would go to, but today was different. Windfall Harbor is known to have larger, non-human habituated boars (male bears). This is a challenge for any guide, let alone a younger guide as I was at the time.
We flew in, got into the canoes and enjoyed a wonderful paddle over to the area. The weather was unseasonably hot, with temperatures approaching 85F degrees and blue sky. This is not exactly prime bear watching weather. Think of it this way, if you had a fur coat on, would you go out in 85F weather?
We found plenty of fresh tracks on some tidal flats, but no bears. It was getting time for lunch and we decided to head over to the designated lunch area where we had tied off the bear boxes containing our food.
We ate, joked, chatted and decided to head back out to the tidal flats in hopes of sighting the bruins. My clients pay top dollar for these trips and I feel a huge level of responsibility to get sightings. As we walked on the flats one of my clients spotted what he thought were two bears from a distance away.
Sure enough, there were two bears cresting a small knoll. Excited, my clients began reaching for their camera gear and began setting up. I watched the bears coming towards us. Knowing that bears’ eye-sight is poor and thinking there was no chance they knew we were here, I told the clients to enjoy and get ready for the bears to get very close. I had experienced numerous bear charges and knew that 99% of all bear charges are ‘false’ charges. These are bluffs from the bears where they charge to within 10-feet (give or take), stop, look at you and continue with their business.
Something in me told me these two meant business. They were about 1,000 feet away and both of them were running full speed in our direction. I told the clients to get to the tree line, and if possible to get up a tree. I also told them not to run, so of course they ran. I turned towards the bears, and in the first and only time on a career that has now spanned almost 18 years, I brought my shotgun up into the ready position and advanced a round into the chamber. The bears were coming and all I had was five-rounds in a shotgun. I knew I had little to no chance. I remember thinking, “I quit. I don’t want to guide anymore.” Still, here were the bears and I had no choice but to deal with the situation. The bears stopped about 300-feet away. They stood for a couple of long, drawn out minutes and I was shaking but trying to hold ground. The time passed and I thought it was bluff charging and I would be fine. Then all hell broke loose.
The bears started coming at me full tilt. Against all training and better judgment, I turned and ran. I was about 60-feet from the tree line and I went for it. I swear I covered the distance in three steps. I made it to the trees, and was about eight feet past the tree line. I found a small dogwood tree and feebly tried to hide behind it. It provided a psychological barrier even though it would do no good to hide me from the bears.
The bears were at the tree line but for some unknown reason wouldn’t come into the trees. They showed all the classic signs of aggression: popping jaws; flipping the hump; and pounding the ground. I was horrified. I also had to find the clients. I turned and looked into the trees and saw them, each up small dogwoods. What snapped me out of my fear and into anger was seeing one of them taking pictures of the whole affair. I was pissed at the thought of them profiting from my death by selling pictures of it. I barked at them to listen to me and gave instructions on what we would do once the bears left the area.
I waited five-minutes, a very long time in a situation like this, and then had to go out onto the tidal flats to see if they were still there. I summoned all my courage and went out. The bears were gone, and I told the clients to get down. We made it to the canoes, paddled over to the rendezvous spot, waited for the floatplane and made it back to Juneau.
Once in Juneau, we parted ways. I had paperwork to fill out and had to give a debriefing to the Monument Rangers. The clients and I arranged to meet at the Red Dog Saloon in the evening. When I met them, they had developed the film and gave me a set of the prints. To this day those are some of the most cherished pictures and possessions I own. Having a visual record of this bear charge is a gift. One of the clients then gave me three crisp, fresh hundred-dollar bills and a business card. It turned out he was the manager of the Waldorf Astoria and told me anytime I was ever in New York City to look him up. Two years later, I did end up taking up that client’s offer as my now ex-wife and I had eloped to Istanbul to get married and when en route back to Alaska our flights took us to New York City. We ended up staying at the Waldorf and reminisced with the client. You simply cannot put a price on where the experiences shared in the backcountry will eventually take you. We should all be so fortunate.
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