As spring blooms, don’t overlook obvious signs of bear activity
“Suddenly the can of bear spray in your hand
feels very small and insignificant,
yet somehow comforting.”
Almost 20 years have passed since the grizzly bear killed Marcie Trent and Larry Waldron one ridge over from my house after they stumbled on the carcass of a moose the bear had cached. The bloody tragedy happened on a warm, sunny day at the start of July in 1995, but the memories always come rushing back in May.
May is killing season for the bears. They are not long out of hibernation and hungry for fat and protein, and the moose are starting to drop their calves. Some bears get very good at slaughtering calves, and they’re happy to kill an adult moose if they can get one.
A family of grizzlies – a sow and two yearlings – that cruised our neighborhood last spring got very good at this. One day they killed an adult cow, ate a lot of her and buried the rest for later in a big pile of sod, alders, dirt and grass in the middle of a neighborhood trail up valley.
The dog and I found it on an afternoon hike. We had come across the creek on a makeshift bridge built of spruce blown down in the incessant winds of fall on the Anchorage Hillside, and started uphill past an alder thicket toward an old homestead deserted long ago. A mixture of old, brown grass and new, green grass filled the clearings where man had decades back ripped out the spruce forest that once dominated.
As we moved up the hillside, there was more and more bear scat in and near the trail, and patches of matted grass where big animals had bedded down to rest. These sights pushed forward the thought that, “Damn, but there’s an awful lot of bear sign around here.’’
And then, the last thing one wants to see on a hike popped into view – that pile of what looks like overburden pushed aside by a bulldozer in a place where you know there have been no bulldozers. Or at least not those of the manmade kind.
Having known people who died after stumbling upon a scene like this only miles away, such a pile really catches your attention. Suddenly the can of bear spray in your hand feels very small and insignificant, yet somehow comforting.
No matter how undergunned you might be, it’s better to go to a gunfight armed than unarmed.
Biologists can debate at length whether there are more bears in the Anchorage area now than 20 years ago, but it’s really a matter of opinion given there is no data on which to settle the argument. All I know is I regularly see bears where I never saw them before, and it’s not because of new development pushing into bear country. The places I roam are as wild now as they were two decades back and wilder than they were two decades before that. There are good reasons to believe it was harder for a bear to survive on the edge of civilization in 1973 than it is in 2013. We are a more tolerant people now than we were then.
We like having the bears around, too, except when we don’t like having the bears around.
Philosophically, it’s nice to know they are out there. Psychologically, the heightened alertness required when hiking in bear land can grow old.
The anxiety that comes with this always seems worst in May. Maybe it’s because we’ve gone all winter without thinking about bears. Or maybe it’s because we know they’re on the hunt at the start of summer. Or maybe it’s just that they’re more visible before everything greens up jungle-like in the 49th state.
Where we worry about the bears we see in May, we walk right past the bears invisible in July.
Well, usually. The ‘invisible bear’ in the alder thicket at close range huffing and popping her teeth still can get one’s attention.
It’s the Big Wild Life as the tourism folks who market Anchorage like to proclaim.