A park superintendent’s memories
In 1998 I was the new superintendent of the four southwestern Alaska park areas—the eight million acres of Katmai National Park and Preserve, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Aniakchak National Monument, and the Alagnak National River—quintessential brown bear country.
Like all visitors to Brooks Camp, I had attended the required Bear Etiquette School. I was sporting the pin like a badge of honor. Once awarded, the pin must be displayed, demonstrating to rangers that the person in question has had the requisite instruction. I had the theory down pat, but that didn’t translate to on-the-ground experience. I’d yet to encounter a bear.
I decided to walk up to Brooks Falls in Katmai. I had visited the falls but never when the sockeye salmon were running and the bears fishing. I crossed the Brooks River on the pontoon bridge, the sound of my feet echoing between the water and the metal floats. Otherwise, it was eerily quiet.
The trail cuts through a low-growing forest. On either side, narrower paths intersect at odd diagonals, and I could see deep tracks made in the moss: Bear trails made by bears for bears.
At the time, construction for an elevated wooden skyway was still a month away, so I followed the bright flagging for the upcoming project. Popping briefly out of the forest, the trail wound through mounds covered in tall grass.
How far ahead were the falls? Maybe this hadn’t been such a great idea. Maybe I should be back at camp studying briefing papers.
Suddenly—a roar that rendered me weak-in-the-knees and seeing the air vibrating. More than one bear. Close. Really close.
In a split second, I reviewed the bear etiquette I had learned: Do not approach bears. Do not—do not—run. Do not make direct eye contact. Make yourself look large. Raise your arms. Make yourself look like a big boar. (Yeah, right, I thought.) Talk to the bear so it knows you are human. Back away from the bear. Slowly.
If the bear huffs or pops its jaw, you may be near death. Huffing or popping indicates a bear is stressed.
But I couldn’t see a bear. Could a bear see me?
I mourned an ignominious end to my superintendent tenure in Alaska. The headlines wouldn’t be pretty. The letters to the editor, worse. I was glad I wouldn’t have to read the editorial pieces. I even wondered if my etiquette pin could survive bear digestion and show up in scat.
For the record, I didn’t run. I walked very, very quickly with really long steps toward the raised bear-viewing platform at the falls. I might have been walking at the speed of a run but I did not run.
I reached the safety of the empty platform above the falls, relieved no one had witnessed my headlong arrival. I could now see who was making the hair-raising racket.
Two very large boars were brawling over a prime fishing spot at the base of the falls. A fish was involved but the altercation was about who was the biggest bear. The dominant one stood close to nine feet tall and had to top out at 1,100 pounds, the biggest of the big for a Katmai bear. A bloody flap of skin dangled off the shoulder of the second bear, who eventually gave up his cause, waded away and disappeared up the opposite bank.
Later that summer, I was “treed” in the women’s shower building in the employee housing area. At 4 a.m., I wandered over to use the bathroom. Afterwards, I stepped back onto the porch. Advancing ever so quietly and only 20 feet away, a bear shuffled toward me in that heel-toe, heel-toe walk necessitated by having four-inch claws. This was when I really woke up.
Retreating to the bathroom, I peeked out the window. The bear sat down in the path. I kept looking and the bear kept sitting. I reclined on the bench in the bathroom but feared falling asleep; I despaired being caught like a greenhorn in my pajamas by my more seasoned summer rangers. At some point, as silently as the bear had arrived, it departed. I peered carefully from the porch, and slunk back to my cot.
During my last summer in the park, I hosted Alaska’s former Lt. Governor, Fran Ulmer, who is well-known and has a long history in the state. It was August. As summer progresses in Alaska, the snow and glaciers melt, which means rising lake levels and narrower beaches. Fran and I were walking the Naknek Lake beach early one morning, talking and looking at our feet.
At the top of my vision I caught the movement of four brown paws. Paws attached to a bear. An unpredictable teenage bear. A bear that may or may not have learned manners.
Fran and I gave each other and the bear the side-eye. Don’t look directly at the bear. All three of us recognized that this was a situation. Fran and I linked elbows and put our outside arms up in the air. Look big. Look as big as you can.
Back away slowly. This was the problem. The beach was so constricted, very little backing space was available.
Talk to the bear. Fran and I both talk a good line, and we definitely talked to that bear. As I mentally reviewed the potential headlines in the Anchorage paper I also engaged in a little intercessory prayer. Please God. Don’t let the bear eat Fran. The absolute worst-case scenario involved me surviving and Fran becoming bait.
But we were of little interest. The bruin hooked a left turn and slipped into the woods bordering the beach. He vanished as quickly as he had appeared, part of the magic of bears.
Deb Liggett served as the superintendent of Katmai and Lake Clark
National Parks and Preserves from 1998 to 2003.