Friday, August 31, 2012

Misapprehensions About Bears

            Last week I ended up going to Seward to get a tooth looked at, which fortunately turned out to be fine.   I was in town for just over 16 hours, and went back to the Iceberg Lodge a day early because of the atrocious marine forecast for the following day.   The night I got back, the wind started blowing hard enough that the lodge’s broken roof cap (damaged by the heavy snowfall earlier in the season)  was flapping in the wind like a thunder sheet, lending a dinner theatre ‘dark and stormy night’ sort of atmosphere to the evening.   (At times, it also sounded like someone racking up a dozen of the world’s largest pool balls.)   Apparently, one of the maintenance men climbed up on the roof sometime after midnight and screwed down the flapping roof bit to keep it from breaking itself or anything else it was banging against.   In other news, the tarp over our kayaks is apparently shredded beyond all hope of repair, (and this was the assessment of someone who makes a habit of keeping around a lot of ratty, useless tarps).   I haven’t looked at it myself, since the beach was something of a no-go zone for most of the morning, due to the high winds.   There were sustained winds in the 40 mph range, gusting up to 70mph, which made it difficult even to walk around.   Also, those winds speeds are enough to turn ordinary beach sand into weaponized projectiles; the guys who were out scouting the beach were wearing ski goggles.   Fortunately, the wind died down enough for the boat to make it out here the following day, although they had a very rough ride coming out.   Now we have only 19 guests in camp, down from 38 the previous day.   That day was the last full house of the season, and it would have been very Iceberg-Lodge-typical if the last full house stretched into another night because we couldn’t get the departing guests back to Seward.   Sometimes, it seems like this place enjoys finding ways to screw us over – massive snow, epic rain, week-long gales, marauding wildlife, exploding septic systems, etc…. 

            Now that we’re back to very small numbers of guests, my job has gotten a whole lot easier.    I’ve had two great days of guiding, despite the fact that it’s been raining constantly.   Such as, nature hikes with only two people, and kayak trips with only one guest.   One of the guests was from Kenya, and a birder, who was talking about lions walking through his property last month…    Later that afternoon, I went out with just one guest, M, who is also in the tourism business.   We took a double kayak to the upper lagoon, and paddled as much open water as we could find.   The icebergs are close to being as melted out as they are going to get this season, so we were able to explore in a lot of nooks and corners.   There were also 50-60 seals in the water, and it was a really fun trip.  

            Then today, M and I went to Aialik Glacier, again as a solo trip.   It was a great trip for several reasons – trips with only one guest in no way resemble actual work, because all of the crowd control and group management issues magically vanish.   You just get to go out and paddle, and talk about seals, which is sort of what I do on my days off, anyway.   We were also able to get to a part of the glacier’s moraine that I haven’t been able to get to for nearly a month, thanks to a change in the glacier’s melt-water route, which has cut a new river right down the middle of our old landing beach.   (How that happened is a story worthy of its own blog post.)  Today, M and I were able to paddle around the melt-water and land on a sketchy, boulder-heavy part of the beach, which was manageable only because I only had one boat to worry about.   I dragged the kayak across the boulders and tied it off to a rock above the storm shelf.   From there, we were able to walk out along the moraine to a bluff overlooking the glacier, and up to the side of the glacier itself.   The glacier has been advancing along that side all summer, and is pushing a pile of rocks ahead of it like a bulldozer.    In June, there was a big quartz rock about thirty feet from the ice that we used as a ‘do not pass’ barrier.   That rock is now totally covered by ice.   I estimate the glacier has come forward by about 60-80 feet in the past three months.   That’s around 8 inches a day or something in that range.    The rubble pile in front of the ice is close to seven feet tall now, and it’s starting to plow through a small stand of alders, which are being slowly uprooted and buried.   It’s like watching a slow-motion bulldozer. Not having seen that section of the glacier for nearly a month makes the speed of the ice’s advance even more apparent.   Also, walking around and exploring on the moraine was good because it gave us something to do on land, as opposed to spending the whole tour sitting in a kayak, in the pouring rain.   

            Also at the Aialik moraine, we saw a calving event large enough to produce a wave high enough to prove my point about the danger of glacier-caused tsunami waves - but not high enough to actually wipe us from the face of the earth, which is nice.   (About one tour in a hundred ends up running for their lives rapidly evacuating to higher ground somewhere on the Aialik moraine.)    

            Also a bonus, there was a bear in the meadow all day today.   We saw him when we went out to set up the boats, where he appeared to vaguely pay attention to our ATVs.   Walking out with M at the beginning of our tour, the bear sat up long enough to give us a blank stare, and then lay back down even before M could take a picture.   Walking back to the lodge five hours later, he was still in the same place, grazing on grass in the rain.   Usually, guests here are afraid of bears up until the moment they actually see one.   Our bears are freakishly tolerant of people, and they spend a lot of time eating grass.   They are sort like cows, except with way better PR.   It’s hard to be mortally terrified of an animal that won’t even bother to sit up when you walk by.   Not to say that the bears aren’t dangerous, because they can be.   If you surprise a bear, or get between a bear and food, or a bear and cubs, then all bets are off.   But mostly, the bears aren’t interested in being predatory.   They’re just here for the salmon.

            The closest I’ve gotten to a bear this year was hiking a section of trail near Pedersen Glacier that we don’t normally use.   The bear heard us coming, and decided to climb up a spruce tree and wait us out.   Which was very sensible of the bear.   Unfortunately, the tree the bear picked was (a) not very tall, and (b) right next to the trail we were hiking down.   I didn’t see the bear until we were under the tree.    The bear let out a howl, probably because he thought we were deliberately going after him, and scrambled a few feet further up the trunk.   Instant chaos for about thirty seconds, as me and the line of guests behind me abruptly reverse direction and beat a hasty retreat.   We watched the bear for about two minutes from further down the trail, which was long enough for the guests to all take pictures, and for the bear to start making noises complaining about when we were going to back off and let him get out of the damn tree.    We bushwhacked through the alders for about thirty yards to detour around the bear at a safe distance.   The two young boys on the trip thought the bear encounter was the coolest thing ever, and were pestering me for bear stories for the rest of the hike.    Then back at the lodge, they were telling their very own bear story to anyone who would listen.

            The bears are one thing that makes living out here very interesting.   The bears are our neighbors, and they wander through camp like they own the place sometimes.   Also, bears are one of the big things that people from Outside associate with Alaska.   It came up a lot in New Zealand when I told people where I was from.   “Hi, my name is Mareth; I’m from Alaska.   Allow me to correct your misapprehensions about bears.”

No comments:

Post a Comment