The Bear Whisperer of Hallo Bay

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You'd be tired if you had triplets too!

You’d be tired if you had triplets too!

Finally, the moment has come when I tell you all about my time with the bears. Unfortunately, my camera broke and I don’t have any pictures of them, so all I have is words. NOT!! I took over 1500 pictures but I want to spare you all of them so I have whittled it down to 300. My next 20 posts will be all grizzly bears, all the time! Just kidding! It’s going to be very hard but I will restrain myself and not subject you to endless bear photos.
Derek (who I think of as the "Bear Whisperer") our pilot and guide, gives us instructions for our safety.

Derek (who I think of as the “Bear Whisperer”) our pilot and guide, gives us safety instructions.

In my last post I left off with us making our beach landing and getting organized for our time with the bears. The first thing we had to learn were the Rules. While we were really very safe there is no getting around the fact these are one of nature’s largest and most powerful killing machines. The National Park Service has many years of experience with the bears of Katmai NP and they know how to strike a balance of people experiencing them and staying safe. There are no Rangers at Hallo Bay, but they were still in charge and we followed their rules. So before we headed out the pilot, who was also our Naturalist Guide laid down the law and said if we followed these rules, we would be safe. Here they are:

  • Never run: No matter how close the bear gets, even if it touches you, stay calm and stay still. After decades of giving these tours the guides knew the bears were so comfortable with humans around they might possibly approach very close to us. But it wouldn’t be an attack, it was an accident. If we stayed calm, the bears would realize we were there and turn away but if we over-reacted and ran the bears chase instincts would take over and one of the best moments of our life would turn into the most life-threatening danger. If the bears came too close, the Guide would move in front of the group and shoo the bear away.
  • Walk single-file behind the guide: bears are very sensitive to size and if we walked abreast we would appear very large to the bears and that might threaten them. At best that would mean they would be afraid and shy away from us and we couldn’t get close. Or at worst, it might provoke their dominance instinct and put us in danger. By walking single file we made ourselves as small to the bears as possible and still be able to walk around.
  • Stay together: If we wanted to stop and take a picture, tell him and the whole group would stop. As long as we were together and with him we were safe, but alone we were not.
  • Kneel, don’t stand when watching the bears: When we approached bears, and were going to watch it for a while, the guide would kneel down and we were to get down on our knees behind him as well. This is for the same reason we walked single file, to make ourselves as small as possible and not disturb the bears. They’d given us hip waders to wear, so we could kneel in the wet grass and trudge through the rivers and mud.
One of the most important rules, is to walk single-file. We all got gold stars next to our names!

One of the most important rules, is to walk single-file. We all got gold stars next to our names!

You’re probably thinking, “You should never encroach in bears space like that!” And normally that’s true, but you have to remember, there are so many bears in this area, you can’t stay away from them. The rules say that we couldn’t approach closer than 50 yards, which we never did. But one bear that started 75 yards away kept meandering while we watched them and ended up 6 FEET from us. In fact at one point we tried to back away from her cub and he just kept following us! Our guide kept shooing him away and he wouldn’t go. It wasn’t fear or aggression, it was just simple childish curiosity; “What are these strange things that keep showing up every summer?”
This is another smaller group from the plane watching the same bears we were. Notice they are kneeling to take their photos. Also notice another bear has come up on them from behind. Their now surrounded. He's a young male and he wants to kill the cub and mate with the mother. This  turned into quite a dangerous situation I'll tell you about  the next post.

This is another small group from our planes watching the same bears we were. Notice they are kneeling to take their photos. Also notice another bear has come up on them from behind. They’re now surrounded. He’s a young male and he wants to kill the cub and mate with the mother, so they are running away. This turned into what looked like quite a dangerous situation to me. I’ll tell you all about it the next post.

Another reason mother bears would approach people is because they know that the male bears want to kill their cubs but they won’t approach humans. So when male bears come around, the female will move her cub closer to people to find sanctuary. That actually happened to us; we were watching a mother with a cub and a young male approached them. The mom moved her cub between us and another group from our planes and just sat and watched the male bear. If we hadn’t been there, she probably would have quickly rushed the cub to safety and probably would have had to fight the male. This is one of those rare places that humans improve the welfare of bears.  Plus, there are bears everywhere, and while we were stopped watching one bear from a safe distance, several others wandered over quite close to us. At one point we were effectively penned down by bears all around us. More about that later. When bears started to get too close, our Guide quietly reminded each of us to not run and we would be fine, so we were all as solid as rocks.
That's another group from the plane heading a different direction. That's Hallo Glacier behind them.

That’s another group from the plane heading a different direction. That’s Hallo Glacier behind them.

Once we knew and understood the rules, we headed out. There were three groups, one from each plane, and we went different directions, again, three small groups disturb the bear’s less than one large group. When sharing space with bears, small is good! They stayed in touch with each other with radios so we often watched the same bear, just from different spots. I have several photos of other groups watching the same bears.
This was one of the first bears we saw. After he got his drink he promptly went to shore and fell asleep.

This was one of the first bears we saw. After he got his drink he promptly went to shore and fell asleep.

The first bear we came upon was a mother with three spring cubs. Bears mate in June and give birth while they are in hibernation in February. Then mother and cubs emerge in the spring, so these cubs were very small and incredibly cute! You’ll notice that she has her head down and is grazing on the grass in most of these shots. All the bears did that the majority of the time and I just tried to grab a shot whenever they lifted their heads. The Guide said they could eat as much as 20 pounds of grass a day and actually gain weight on it. We watched them for a while but they stayed far away and were in tall grass so we moved on looking for another bear.
 this is one of the few shots I got of this mama with triplets. They stayed in the grass and the cubs never stayed still, they were everywhere.


This is one of the few shots I got of this mama with all the triplets at once. They stayed in the grass and the cubs never stayed still, they were everywhere. 

The second bear we came across was a fairly big male but as soon as we saw him he walked into the stream, got a drink, then walked out and laid down in the mud. It was a beautiful clear day and actually on the hot side, so the mud must have been cool. Our guide said that he could lay there without moving for the rest of the day, so we kept going.
This is the largest bear in the area and he's known as "Rightie" because his right ear is all mangled from a fight. He's very, very interested in this female bear! She's still playing hard to get, but eventually he' going to get some!

This is the largest bear in the area and he’s known as “Rightie” because his right ear is all mangled from a fight. He’s very, very interested in this female bear! She’s still playing hard to get, but eventually he’s going to get some!

Next we came across a large male courting a smaller female. This was a bear that they called “Rightie” because his right ear had been chewed nearly off in a battle and gave him a distinctive look (yes, there is also a “Leftie” with his left ear partly chewed off). He was also the largest bear in the area and you can see compared to the female he is huge. Bears are very solitary animals so normally they wouldn’t be this close to each other, but hormones make all males in the animal kingdom do very strange things!! We watched these two love-birds for a while and then moved on.
This is the mother and cub from the Disney movie "Bears." We spent   a lot of time with them. Derek, the Guide, know they would safely get very close to us so we waited for them.

This is the mother and cub from the Disney movie “Bears.” We spent a lot of time with them. Derek, the Guide, know them well and that they would safely get very close to us, so we waited for them.

Then we came on the mother bear and her cub that were the stars of the Disney movie “Bears.” In the movie she has three cub but two died and now she only had the one. The Guide knew her well and knew she had the habit of walking right up to them so he told us we were in for a treat. We moved in as close as was safe and settled in. She and her cubs would glance at us occasionally, but for all practical purposes we didn’t exist as far as she was concerned, it was like we were a walking bush or tree.
We were watching them so long, we took a lunch break!

We were watching them so long, we took a lunch break!

We’d been in the air for 2 hours and on the ground for 2 so the Guide suggested we get our food and water out and take a break because we would be here for a while. It was hot so I took off my day-pack and pulled out my drink but I was scared to eat; I mean, we were 50 feet away from a wild mama bear and her cub!! Why tempt fate? But my guide assured me it would be safe as long as we didn’t have fish. Multiple times they had warned us to not bring anything with any fish smells so none of us had. To be honest, I was still reluctant, but the Guide insisted it would be fine, so I did! He was behind us so I turned to him and said, “This is the best lunch out I ever had!” He offered to take my picture so I gave him my Nikon AW 110 point-and-shoot and he took this picture:
Mama was oblivious to us and just kept grazing her way closer to us. Here she is about 15 feet away and Derrick the Naturalist Guide is still kneeling beside me. She's too close for my good camera so I'm using my Nikon.

Mama was oblivious to us and just kept grazing her way closer. Here she is about 15 feet away and Derrick the Naturalist Guide is still kneeling beside me. She’s too close for my good camera so I’m using my Nikon. She’s so close he pulled out his GoPro video camera.

They were both very active grazers and moved around a lot. She steadily moved closer and closer to us until she was about 12 feet away. At that point the Derrick the Pilot/Naturalist/Guide quietly reminded each of us not to run and then moved out in front of us in the path of the bear. He switched into Bear Whisperer mode and when she was about 10 feet away he started talking softly to her saying things like “That’s far enough mama … go back now, junior needs you”
She just keeps grazing closer and closer to us. The whole time Derrick the Bear Whisperer is talking softly to her reminding her she needs to turn back and go a different way.

She just keeps grazing closer and closer to us. The whole time Derrick the Bear Whisperer is talking softly to her reminding her she needs to turn back and go a different way. Strong the Force is with young Derrick! He has mighty JU-JU!

I know how hard it is to believe, but to this bear we didn’t exist other than as a part of the landscape. You have to remember that when she was a tiny cub, there were people here just like we were here now. Every summer of her life people had shown up and done this exact behavior. She didn’t see us as food because no human had ever fed her, besides, she already had plenty of food and didn’t need more.
Finally. when he just can't let her get any closer, he stands up and invokes the magical incantation. "That's far enough now mama, go back to your cub!" No simple bear brain is any match for the Bear Whisperer so she jumps back and promptly returns to her cub.

Finally. when he just can’t let her get any closer, he stood up and invokes the magical incantation. “That’s far enough now mama, go back to your cub!” No simple bear brain is any match for the Bear Whisperer so she jumps back and promptly returns to her cub. He insists that the stain on his backside was there before and is from the outside, not from the inside! We humored him and went along with that story!

You can see in the pictures that she gets within 6 feet of us; I know that because when she was as close as he would allow he stood up in front of her. By then she had moved too close for me to be able to use my Canon DSLR with its telephoto lens so I took out my smaller Nikon and started to take pictures with it. In the picture I took at the moment he stood up his shadow goes all the way out to her. He was about 6 feet tall and it was mid-afternoon, so she was almost exactly 6 feet away from us. Fortunately, Derrick had warned us that this exact thing might happen, but that it had happened numerous times before and it had never been a problem, so we all held still and let the drama play out. I kept myself busy with my picture taking so my mind was busy and I never had time to be scared.
When she was 6 feet away he stood up he said in a sharp, firm voice, “That’s close enough mama, now go back!” or some words to that affect—it all happened really fast so I’m not exactly sure. You can see in the picture how surprised and startled she looked but it really doesn’t capture it. I have never seen any animal or person as flabbergasted as that bear was. She reared back on her rump with an expression on her face that I can’t describe except to say it was a jolt of extreme shock and astonishment. It was like he had miraculously popped up out of the ground. What else would you expect from he Bear Whisperer?
She literally turned on her heels and ran right back to her cub.

She literally turned on her heels and ran right back to her cub.

At that moment her reaction could have gone one of two ways: 1) she could have been enraged and killed us all, or 2) she could treat it like something that has happened many times before and simply back away. She chose number two and just backed slowly away. She went back to her cub and kept grazing like nothing had happened. Just another day at Hallo Bay!!
There was one more very tense moment while we were there but this post has already gotten too long so I’ll save that story for my next post.
They resumed grazing like nothing had happened.

They resumed grazing like nothing had happened.

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20 Comments

  1. David Carter

    Great post.

    • Bob

      Thanks David!
      Bob

  2. Calvin R

    I would definitely want a guide like that! I’m also glad you did not have anyone in the party who would break the rules. That could be fatal, but there are people whose fear gets out of hand. The results are beautiful. Thanks, Bob!

    • Bob

      Calvin, absolutely! It’s just human nature to run away from something like that. However, as far a I know there has never been an injury there, so most people can handle it.
      Bob

  3. jonthebru

    What an amazing experience and magnificent day. Photos great as usual! And you have related it so well!
    Topped yourself again Mr Wells.

    • Bob

      jonthebru, thanks for your kind words!
      Bob

  4. Ming

    wow, it’s like you’re living inside a documentary! I always envied those guys who study wildlife and wished that I could get that close to animals. Thanks for showing us one way to get that experience with bears. Once again… Love the photos!!

    • Bob

      Thanks Ming. At the end of the flight I told my guide that if I was 20 again I would dedicate myself to becoming a pilot and getting a job just like his! And I think I mean it!
      Bob

  5. Linda Sand

    I could not have stayed calm in this situation. Sure glad you are willing to share the details with us so I’ll never be tempted to try going myself.

    • Bob

      Linda, it isn’t for everyone!
      Bob

  6. Gloria Brooks

    What a super WOWING experiencing! What crisp photos on such a glorious day! What a life changing experience! I almost felt like I was there! I’m so excited to read more as the posts come!

    • Bob

      Thanks so much Gloria!
      Bob

  7. Dave Burdick

    My pants got brown from the inside out just reading this…are you kidding me? What a life this guy leads, and a totally once in a lifetime experience for you two! –Dave (GoingRvWay.com)

    • Bob

      I should have been scared Dave, but it all happened so fast and I stayed busy with the camera that I was never afraid. In retrospect, I should have been.
      Bob

  8. Camilla

    Scared me just to read about it and I’m no weenie!!!!! I probably would have done it myself in my younger days but I don’t think I would now. Kudos to you Bob and thanks for the photos! I adore that first photo of Momma and three babies. Too cute to believe!

    • Bob

      I like the idea of taking everyone along who probably can never do it themselves. I know you would if you could!
      Yes, those three cubs were exceptionally cute. I also thought mom was extremely beautiful. But I’m not sure why I think that. Maybe just the angle of view.
      Bob

  9. Bill

    Thanks for the bear all report. Looks fun!

    • Bob

      You’re welcome Bill!
      Bob

  10. Peggy

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading your story and seeing your sensational photographs, Bob! Jealous!! It sounds like this was close to a life-changing experience for you. I’m pretty sure I’d be o.k. with remaining calm but I’d be a little concerned that somebody might freak out and endanger everyone. Anyway, this is something that I’d love to do!

    • Bob

      Peggy, it is a concern. Especially since there were some pretty young people there. The other couple had three teenagers with them.
      Bob

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