My tragic bear tale occurred in the mid-1980s during our summer bear-viewing trips. My husband, Mike, and I were walking down the beach with five guests. We were finished bear viewing for the day, and since there were no bears in sight, we were talking quietly. Mike looked up on the hill above the beach and saw a sow watching us. Mike knew immediately that she was agitated. She popped her teeth, and foam frothed from her mouth. Mike yelled at us to get back, and although I had never before been frightened around bears, the sound of his voice made my legs tremble. I repeated his orders to our guests, who were trying to understand the situation. Mike yelled at the sow again and then pumped a shell into the chamber of the .375 H&H rifle he always carries on our bear-viewing trips. Normally, the loud, metallic sound of a shell being injected into the chamber of the rifle is enough to deter curious bears, but it had no effect on this bear. She stomped her front feet on the bank and lunged from side to side, while she continued to foam at the mouth. Mike fired once into the dirt in front of her, a maneuver sure to make her flee. She stood still for only a moment and then flew down the cliff straight toward Mike. He shot again, and she dropped six feet from him.
At the time, I didn’t realize what an impact those few seconds would have on the rest of my life. All I felt then was grief and sympathy for her two yearling cubs. Mike was so distraught over the experience that he considered never taking another bear viewer into the woods, but he knew brown bears rarely charge humans, and this probably never would happen to us again. The following day, Mike skinned the bear and turned the hide over to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). A biologist determined that the sow had been 23 years old, and both the biologist and Mike believed that at her advanced age, her senses may have been impaired. She’d probably been asleep, and when she awoke and heard us walking down the beach, she considered us an immediate threat to her cubs and didn’t hesitate to charge. The biologist believed the cubs had approximately a 50% chance of survival through the winter. Not only would they have to avoid being killed by larger bears, but they’d need to build up their fat reserves, find or dig a den, and survive hibernation without the aid of their mother.
For many years after the sow charged us, I was terrified every time we took a group of guests bear viewing, and I was especially wary of sows and cubs. Looking back, I now believe I suffered from a form of post-traumatic-stress disorder, and it took a long time to overcome the trauma of that sunny, July afternoon. The experience heightened my respect for the speed and power of Kodiak bears, and it was also a crash course in understanding the differences between a bluff charge, often seen with sub-adult bears, and the real thing.
I no longer dread getting close to brown bears. On the contrary, I love sitting on a riverbank watching bears chase salmon, and seeing a sow interact with her cubs is a special treat, but after that July encounter so many years ago, I will never be complacent around brown bears.