“Okay, link arms with someone near you; we are going to wade across this river” said Brad Josephs, a veteran Natural Habitat bear guide. He was leading us towards the Sedge Meadow in Hallo Bay, Alaska located in Katmai National Park. My group, eight eager bear enthusiasts from the US and Australia, were stuffed into chest-waders like sausages, but we were warm because of it. I linked arms with two of my tour compatriots and we stepped into the fast flowing stream and then up into the Sedge Meadow.
The brown (grizzly) bears of Hallo Bay are like no other bears I’ve ever encountered. Mama bears calmly roam around the Sedge Meadow, alternately nursing their cubs and eating the tasty, succulent sedges. Melissa, a bear that Brad has observed in Hallo Bay for nearly a decade and named after his wife, let our group hang out near her and her 2-year-old cub for several hours while they slept, stretched, occasionally looked around, and nursed. We were so close we could hear the cub purring while nursing, which stimulates the milk to flow. Through the zoom lens of my camera, I could see milk on the cub’s lips when she was done. It was an intimate moment in the lives of this mother-daughter pair.
Back the on the charter boat Ursus, we peeled off our rain coats and waders and migrated into the galley for chowder and homemade sour dough bread. I tipped my head up a little and sniffed the kitchen air like a bear, taking in the smells of hot, satisfying food after a long day outside. Our little group recounted the highlights of the day, including the moment when Melissa and her cub came very close to our seated group as they walked to the river. Melissa chose the proximity, not us. We all marveled at how much she trusted humans to bring her only cub so near to us. It’s the kind of moment you hope for, but cannot ever predict when or how such a moment might happen. I held my breath as the bears passed by us, not wanting to make a sound or sudden movement.
All my fellow travelers will remember that encounter for the rest of our lives. I can only guess that Melissa and her cub will also put that experience in their memory banks and continue to regard humans as safe. Without that trust, the intimate bear viewing in Hallo Bay would not exist. It’s thanks to guides, including Brad Josephs that the trust is maintained and renewed each summer.
At the close of the trip, my float plane pilot circled once high over Hallo Bay, the Sedge Meadow, and the Ursus. Brown bears dotted the meadow and the beach, and surely there were still more bears in the brush and trees that I could not see from above. I wondered which brown shapes were Melissa and her cub. Were they sleeping or nursing or playing? In a few weeks, Melissa will begin fishing for wild salmon in the streams and rivers of Hallo Bay and the Katmai peninsula; teaching her cub fishing technique and patience. I would gladly don waders and ford rivers to have the thrill of Melissa and her cub walk by me one more time.
By Heather Brandon, Senior Fisheries Officer, WWF Arctic Field Program
Check out more photos from Heather’s trip below.