The dark bear marches towards us, her powerful front legs swinging in a bowlegged walk. A large, lighter colored male follows her. The corners of his mouth curve upward in a sort of permanent smile. But the foam on “Smiley’s” lips and his clacking teeth make the situation less amusing. The large hump between their shoulders leaves no doubt that these are grizzlies, or brown bears as they are known in this part of the world.
From the corner of my eye I can see our guide and a ranger at the corners of the viewing area, which is little more than a square outlined with logs that are better seats than barriers. Their rifles rest in the crooks of their arms, pointing slightly upwards.
I track the bears through my camera lens. As the female fills the frame, I’m surprised that I’m not scared. I’m . . . mesmerized. Or maybe paralyzed. The bears are now about 30 feet from us, but they ignore us as they lumber past the viewing area. There’s a collective exhalation from us humans, and excited whispers and nervous grins at what we just witnessed here at the Pack Creek Zoological Area, a unique brown bear preserve on Admiralty Island in Southeast Alaska.
Fortress of the Bear
To understand Pack Creek, you have to understand Admiralty Island. At 1600 square miles, Admiralty is the seventh largest island in the United States. In addition to brown bears, it is home to a large population of bald eagles, many other bird species, Sitka Black-tailed deer, marten, mink, otter, and all five species of Pacific salmon.
Admiralty provides everything a bear requires to flourish: alpine denning sites, abundant water, and lots to eat. Pack Creek itself descends from an elevation of 4000 feet through grasslands, spruce and hemlock forest, and rich sedge meadows, until it reaches the tidal flats of Seymour Canal. The bears follow the grasses, insects, berries, bulbs, roots, shellfish, and of course salmon, in an elegant dance with the seasons.
The native Tlingit name for Admiralty Island is Kootznoowoo, Fortress of the Bear, leaving no doubt as to who was, and still is, the dominant species. Today, it has the largest concentration of brown bears in the United States, with an estimated 1500-1600 bears. Even with hunting permitted on 95% of the island, their numbers hold steady. That’s about one bear per square mile if you’re doing the math. Compare that to the total human population of about 650.
Where brown bears originated—and when—is a mystery, though fossil evidence shows their presence on the island for thousands of years. What is known is that the mitochondrial DNA from bears from Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof Islands is different from those of other grizzlies, with studies showing possible linkage to polar bears. This may account for the brown bear’s larger size compared to other grizzlies, though an ample food supply helps too. Whether bears swam or crossed ice bridges to Admiralty is anyone’s guess. For reasons unknown, no black bears ever made it to the island.
That the Pack Creek preserve exists at all is due to the unexpected convergence of its prime bear habitat; an intrepid adventurer named Stan Price; and unusual cooperation between multiple government agencies.
The Bear Man
Stan and Edna Price moved to Alaska in 1929. They worked at numerous jobs, including mining, logging, and fish canning. Stan was a renaissance man, able to build and fix anything. In 1952, after an unpleasant encounter with the IRS, the Prices towed their floating house, called a wannigan, to Pack Creek. They added outbuildings and gardens to create a self-sustaining homestead. Over the next 38 years Stan lived among the bears, first with Edna until she died, and then with his second wife, Esther.
Stan loved all animals, allowing deer into his house to nap on the bed, and bears to nap in his wood shed. He explored Admiralty Island, armed only with a stick, getting to know the island and his “neighbors.” Female bears especially became accustomed to him, and brought their cubs to the homestead as a way to avoid aggressive males. Stan and Edna also raised a couple of orphaned female cubs, who in turn brought their cubs to the homestead. This lack of fear of humans, known as habituation, was passed on to generation after generation. While some rangers thought that Price was too friendly with the wildlife, without him Pack Creek would not be what it is today.
Habituation is the reason we are able to observe the bears in such close proximity. It can be a good thing: Jane Goodall would never have made her groundbreaking observations of the chimps at Gombe if they hadn’t accepted her presence. But habituation can be dangerous, especially when food is involved. For decades, tourists at Yellowstone National Park—and some staff who should have known better—used food to lure black bears in for photos. Food can make animals aggressive, and both bears and people can be hurt or killed (It’s unbelievable that this practice continued until 1967, but that’s another story). Edna Price said they never let their guard down around a bear. They loved the bears, but were never complacent around them.
Word got around about the Prices’ unusual living situation and people flocked to Pack Creek to see for themselves. Stan enjoyed sharing his stories about living among the bears with countless visitors. His respect and admiration for them was contagious, and people came away with a new perspective. It wasn’t always so.
In the early 1900’s, logging companies set their sights on Admiralty Island’s timber, which put them in direct conflict with brown bears. The Alaska territorial government actively supported eradication of bears to make way for mining, logging and settlement. In 1929, a bear killed a young Forest Service employee, which further turned public sentiment against the bears.
The bears did have a small contingent of advocates. President Theodore Roosevelt attempted to set aside Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof islands as a brown bear preserve. The plan failed, but others took up the cause, recasting brown bears as majestic, intelligent and resourceful creatures rather than ruthless killers. But it was a human catastrophe, the Great Depression, that gave the bears a brief respite as timber contracts dried up.
In the 1930’s bear viewing became a popular pastime for visitors from Juneau. In 1934, the National Forest Service and Alaska Game Commission created the Pack Creek Bear Preserve, and in 1935 the Civilian Conservation Corps built an observation tower upstream from the mud flats. Hunting closures for 20 square miles around Pack Creek further protected the bears. But these were small victories. In 1947 Congress passed the Tongass Timber Act, which pitted bears against loggers again. Bears were in the cross hairs for the next 25 years.
When the tide turned for the bears, it was almost as if to make up for lost time. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared Admiralty Island a National Monument using the Antiquities Act. National Monument designation didn’t change existing land uses, but did limit new activity. In 1980 Congress created the Kootznoowoo Wilderness, which covered nearly all of island. Wilderness designation is the government’s most comprehensive protection, safeguarding watersheds, habitat, and outdoor recreation.
After Stan Price’s death in 1989, the state of Alaska created the Stan Price Wildlife Sanctuary, which protected the estuary. The state is responsible for its management. In 1997 the U.S. Forest Service created the Pack Creek Zoological Area, 66,000 acres of habitat off limits to hunting. It is co-managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest Service.
This seems like a confusing jumble of management, with a lot of layers. But it is impressive how all of these separate entities work together. No human or bear has been injured at Pack Creek since it has been actively managed, and the agencies have a strict protocol to keep it that way. That means permits are required to visit during critical times, and there are limits on the number of visitors per day. There are also professionals out there to keep visitors from doing something stupid.
Among the Bears
There are only two ways to get to Pack Creek: by boat or by float plane. We arrive by skiff. It’s early June, and Sitka spruce and hemlock pop with bright green new growth. It starts out cloudy, but the sun gradually makes an appearance. As we motor towards the island, we see a female bear with two cubs trailing behind. She turns occasionally to chase them away, which our guide tells us is natural, but I can’t lie, it is unsettling to see. After meeting up with a ranger on the South Spit, we walk along the mud flats towards the viewing area.
The sedge meadow is lush, bear-belly high in some places. Immediately we see Smiley and his intended. There are four other bears in the meadow as well. We’re lucky, because often by now the bears have headed back into the forest or up into the mountains to wait for the salmon to come in early July.
I’m drawn to Granny, who is thought to be between 30 and 35 years old. She has a pronounced limp in her left hind leg, either from an old injury, arthritis, or both. She looks underweight, her skin sagging a little, and her coat rough. Still she manages to eat and move around, and I can’t stop taking photos of her expressive face that has either a scar or a big smudge of dirt on it.
Two cubs, a blonde female and a light brown male, graze on sedges. I think they are the same ones we saw on the shoreline. Cubs stay with their mothers until they are about three years old. When the female is ready to mate, she drives the cubs off, first to protect them from males, and second, because it’s time. The cubs stand up often on their hind legs, scanning. The female seems to be the bolder of the two, often leading the way. Farther out in the meadow another adult female grazes, likely the mother of the cubs.
Smiley is doing all he can to get the attention of the dark female: He army crawls closer to her, rolls over on his back, sits on his haunches like a dog, always staring at her. She alternately dozes and grazes, once in a while casually scratching with the immense claws on her hind foot. Suddenly she decides to move on, and that’s when we have our close encounter of the bear kind. They circle around the viewing area and end up in the meadow south of us, closer to the other bears.
Smiley again lies down on his belly, hind legs splayed out like a frog. He’s in a shallow puddle, watching as the female grazes. A crow pecks at the mud around him, getting quite close, but Smiley only has eyes for the dark female. Granny casually skirts the action, munching sedges as she goes. The cubs are new to this scene, and fall over themselves to get out of the way.
Meanwhile, another male materializes out from the woods, crosses the creek, and ambles towards the momma bear. She crosses the creek to get away from him, and then crosses again. He follows. She disappears into the woods. Twice rebuffed, he looks around, and sees Smiley and friend, making a beeline for them. I worry that we are going to witness a fight. But Smiley backs off, and in an instant, the dark female hooks up with the interloper. I am not kidding, it was that fast. And startling.
Smiley takes a couple of steps towards them, and then seems to think better of it. He retreats into an alder thicket. While the other bears are doing their thing, he grabs an alder sapling and wrestles it to the ground, stomping and shaking it.
Scientists frown upon attributing human feelings to other animals, but it’s hard not to see Smiley’s alder smackdown as frustration. It’s hard not to get caught up in this bear soap opera. I feel sad for Granny, likely in her last summer, and think about all she has experienced in her life here. I worry for the cubs now that they are on their own, and I sympathize with Smiley, as all his hard work was for naught, this time.
I wish I could have known Stan Price, walked the island with him, learned what he knew so intimately about this place and its inhabitants. I see him in my mind’s eye, striding through the sedge meadow with his stick. He chose a life that was no doubt hard, but it was a life of meaning and connection with the natural world. Because of him, we get a glimpse into a world so different from the human-centric one most of us inhabit. As outdoorsman Brendan Leonard wrote, “Bears don’t care about your problems.” They just go about their bear business as we saw today at Pack Creek. This is still the Fortress of the Bear; humans are only transitory visitors.
Note: Friends who visited Pack Creek the next summer said that Granny didn’t appear, and is presumed dead. It seems that I indeed captured her in her last summer.
Shannon Finch is a writer and aspiring photographer. She lives on a small farm in Stanwood, WA with her husband and many rescue animals and enjoys photographing wildlife and landscapes.