A history of my favorite bears

There’s Otis and Grazer (featured in our July/August issue) and a bear that guides used to call “Old Sow” until someone said that wasn’t very nice, and they changed it to Looper. At one point I thought a bear was named Starbucks, which I kind of liked, but evidently, I heard it wrong. His name was Scar Butt, which makes sense when you see him. There’s Crimp Ear and Broken Ear and Foster Mom. Also, Peanut, Lefty, Sister, Agro, Blondie, Holly, Backpack, and 747 (like the jumbo jet—you get the picture). And then there are ones I’ve named by watching them: Snorkel, Social Services, Yoga Bear. You might think I’m talking about characters in a Disney movie, but nope, these are monikers of Alaska’s bears—bestowed upon them by rangers, biologists, visitors, and guides over years and miles. It’s also possible that when bears traverse from one area into another, say from McNeil River to adjacent Katmai, that the same bear might come to be known by two different names—sort of like a traveler using two different passports under an assumed identity.

The bears I’ve mentioned so far live in and around McNeil River, Kodiak, Katmai, and Lake Clark. Most return to successful fishing and breeding grounds year after year and have distinct markings or behaviors that make them identifiable in some way. Here are a few of my favorite bears over the last decade, along with a tidbit or two about what I’ve learned from watching them.    

Scar Butt has a white patch of missing fur from his rump. He prefers fishing from on top of Brooks Falls in Katmai, but he runs off quickly when other bears arrive. Over time, he’s learned which bears will let him stay, and he demurs to them. In this image, the infamous Grazer and one of her cubs allow Scar Butt to fish next to them. 

Yoga Bear enjoys sitting and stretching in the sun on top of the rocks in the river, occasionally leaving asana to eat. His spot in front of the lower platform at Brooks Falls keeps him relatively safe from the larger bears who dominate the falls upriver. It’s a solid strategy for a younger bear and extremely entertaining for viewers.

Sister is a McNeil River bear who got her name because she tagged along with her brother, Fisher, while he caught dinner for both of them. Siblings sometimes remain together for a year or so after being emancipated by mom or until they reach sexual maturity. Sister was a very curious juvenile sporting a prominent scar on her nose for easy identification.

Foster Mom got her name for adopting a yearling cub who had been abandoned by Agro and somehow managed to survive the winter. Foster Mom nursed the larger cub along with her spring cub and kept them with her for two seasons. The size difference between the cubs is noticeable. As an adoptive mom myself, I photographed Foster Mom and her cubs in 2020, as did my son, as we trekked around Lake Clark National Park without the crowds because of the pandemic.

Old Sow, a.k.a. Looper, was probably one of my favorite bears to photograph. This stunning female in Lake Clark likes to fish standing up. She rises on two legs to get a better view of the fish swimming in and around her before collapsing with the force of a demolished high rise on top of the salmon below. A chase ensues. If she’s successful, she devours her catch. If not, it’s back to standing position, stretched out magnificently with water cascading from her claws.

Senior editor Michelle Theall leads wildlife tours at wilddepartures.com, and her debut novel, The Wind Will Catch You, is available now at amazon.com.

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