this post brought to you by the letter S. as in, “so far this month we’ve had ten feet of snow. holy sockeye!”

spoiler alert: there are finally some pictures! it took a lot of conniving to format them reasonably in the post, and the theme i have here makes this the largest bearable size. but if you click on the pictures you can see the full size.

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august. i think. bears on chilkoot river are at their prime. there is something worth knowing about this. when people come to alaska, particularly via cruise ship, they have a tendency to demand that they be taken to a magical viewing platform only a two minute walk from the dock where bears, eagles, moose, dall sheep, caribou and wolves will be paraded past them at a five foot distance, pausing for photo ops, with a glacial backdrop. i have heard, firsthand, people complain about how during their trip to denali or their drive from the yukon they only saw a herd of reindeer, two black bear and a bunch of swans. how disappointing.

but alaska is not a zoo, or even a state park. it is a huge wilderness one third the size of the contiguous united states. the animals may not always be inclined to run along the highway keeping pace with cameras pointed out windows. hey, if i was only going  to be viewed through viewfinders or digital screens, i’d stay clear of people too.

all this to say that haines has something really unique and highly desirable to offer. one mile long chilkoot river runs from glacial fed chilkoot lake to the lutak inlet of lynn canal. it’s fast, wide, beautiful and only ten miles from downtown haines. salmon return to spawn and die in the lake, which means they swim up the river in hoards almost every day for months, and then float downstream as they die and decay. all those fish. defenseless. in a swift current, but shallow river. it’s not much of a shocker that brown bear sows and cubs practically live here fattening up for hibernation, is it?

quick side note 1:
brown bear = grizzly bear that lives near the water. no genetic differences.

quick side note 2:
the amount of cubs a momma bear has is directly proportional to the amount of weight she puts on for the winter. i’ve been told that, but have no idea if it’s true. it’s certainly strange.

all these factors add up to guaranteed bear viewing. obviously, certain times are better, such as low tide, or days when lots of fish are running. but to be able to give guests simple directions, or to load up a bus full of cruise shippers, and provide close up pictures of bears catching fish yards from people catching fish, cubs following their mothers around the icy cold water, and fellow tourists ignoring ranger instructions and approaching bears, is GOLD. literally. well, if we were actually on a gold standard it would be. because although there’s no (legal and safe) way to draw wildlife to a highway pullout, being in proximity to nature’s own pattern tends to bring in the bears, birds, sea lions and whales.

not being in possession of a motor vehicle myself, and being tied to the inn for the majority of the day during the summer meant that i didn’t get out to see the bears much. of course, i had biked out to the lake numerous times, but once i started hearing guests report double digits of bears out there, something about being so exposed was a bit off-putting. it would be very easy to unknowingly get between a sow and her cub  for a split second on the road, one on the shore, the other in the woods, and i don’t think i can out pedal an angry bear.

thus, when one lucky evening a friend in temporary possession of a truck and i were both free, we decided to take off for some premium bear viewing. we saw 13 bears total, one sow even had four cubs. it was great just watching them, mostly with a pane of fiberglass between us. my camera doesn’t have a very powerful zoom, which is bad for pictures, but good because it means i focus on watching rather than capturing a shot that has been taken millions of times before in higher quality. the pictures i take just end up being to remind me of what i saw.

how many bears can you find in this one?

the weir enables lazy bears, who can just pick the fish out from between the wooden slats.

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about half an hour after being dropped off i received a call.

“hannah, it’s been about thirty minutes since i dropped you off, right? i’ve had the craziest thirty minutes.”

turns out while driving down 3rd ave (i live on 2nd) a dark figure passed through her headlights. first reaction, she thought it was a dog. not til it was passed did it register that it was a black bear. black bears are smaller than brown, but they’re still bears. and one roaming through town across the street from the library is dangerous. after some minor panicking and giving rides to people in the library who should probably not walk home, the police were notified.

trekking out to chilkoot isn’t necessary to see bears. for about two straight months, 80% of the police blotter was reports about bears breaking into dumpsters, vehicles and garages or being sighted all around town. these are the big male bears. normally the cops are able to scare them off, but occasionally one won’t give up and has to be shot.

despite these experiences and knowledge, a september day came along that just begged for a bike out to the lake. see? looking up to the top of lutak where the mouth of the river is.

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thankfully, no bears were met, but we saw many sea lions that we probably would have missed had we not been cycling. they look like chocolate labs with just their heads floating about water. don’t be fooled, though. they are very large powerful creatures. but playful :)

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this is a stellar jay at the lake. these are really beautiful birds, with brilliant blue feathers. they’re also hilarious because the hop around on the ground with such attitude.

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on the way back, we came across this flare on the road. at first i thought it was dynamite. as if there aren’t enough mudslides, avalanches and bears out to get us. oh, alaska.

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