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  • Writer's pictureEmerald Air Service

Every Photograph Has a Story

Updated: Oct 31, 2019

This story is written by Lance Bassett, one of Emerald Air Service’s Naturalist Guides.

This particular one has drama, tension, heart strings being tugged, sadness, and elation all in a matter of 10 minutes, truly exhausting.

Alaskan Coastal Brown Bear and cubs in Katmai National Park and Preserve
Photo Credit: Lance Bassett, Emerald Air Service Naturalist Guide

Setting the Stage

Let me set the stage. It was a normal day at Moraine creek during the last days of July. Sun not quite overhead but it is warm. The smell of the tundra permeates the air with the distinct fragrance of Labrador Tea under foot. There is a slight breeze blowing, keeping the nagging bugs at bay. The sound of the creek bubbling in the background as it dances over the rocks. An occasional loud splash is heard indicating a chase is on between bear and fish. The sound of gulls fighting over fish scraps left by hungry bears. Endless incredibly vistas of hills, valleys, snow patches. You can say, “heaven, just pure heaven.”

The Drama Begins

We approach the bluff cautiously, as there were other people looking at something, presumably a bear, close aboard at the bottom of the bluff in Moraine creek. As we get closer, to our amazement a sow with three spring cubs, all of six months old, come into view. We all look at each other with huge grins growing even wider. How can anyone not love seeing a cute cub? There she was, momma, in the water with red torpedoes darting all around her. Her three spring cubs very close by waiting for her to catch a delicious and much needed sockeye salmon. Eyes fixated on the salmon; she quickly moves left then right deciding on which fish to chase. Then, out of the corner of her eye she notices him, a big boar headed her way. She stops and quickly fixates on the boar as decision has already been made.

A mother and three spring subs eating salmon on the bank of a creek in Katmai National Park and Preserve
Photo Credit: Lance Bassett

Too Close for Comfort

Too close for comfort for her and her cubs. She immediately pops her jaw, calling her cubs as she is walking quickly towards a trail, her exit. She looks back at the menacing boar as her cubs frantically run under her to hide. All huddled together you can’t tell where one cub ends and the next begins. The male seems interested either with her or her cubs. She wheels around and starts heading up a trail to our right, close to where we are sitting. Since she is getting closer to our position and we don”t know which direction she will go, we back off the edge of the bluff by about 30yds, to allow her to maneuver unhindered by our presence. As we lose sight of her we know she is coming up fast, her cubs scared and confused in tow. We sit and wait, not knowing if she was going to stay on the trail, turn and fight, or go a different direction. We are all on edge—you can feel the tension as we wait. The best thing for us and the bear is to stay where we are and let her decide what she wants to do. She then tops the bluff, one, two, three cubs with her. She immediately looks around to asses her situation and stops with her cubs underneath her. She stays at the top of the trail and sits down; her cubs huddled around her. She gazes down towards the male then across the bluff for a few minutes. To our amazement, when she finally decides what to do, she doesn’t follow the bluff trail and leave the area. She goes back down the trail towards the boar with cubs in tow. We all let out a gasp, wanting her not to go, as if our thoughts can change her mind.

Three spring cubs running in Katmai National Park and Preserve
Photo Credit: Lance Bassett

Cubs in Danger!

The cubs, the cubs—oh no, the cubs are in danger! We stayed where we are until she and her tiny cubs disappear down the trail. Immediately a loud bellowing growl pierced the air, then another, and another. Our hearts racing, we all want to go see but not really wanting to see what may have happened. Then there was silence, we all looked at each other. Should we go over to look? We had to; we need to know what happened. So many things are racing through our minds. Are they ok… did the boar kill a cub, are we going to see a cub being eaten, are they going to be running, is a cub hurt, is momma hurt, is the boar in pursuit… what, what happened? Not knowing was killing us, so we had to go and see. I motioned to our guests that we can slowly go to the edge of the bluff to see what happened but if the bear are still right below, we will back off. Those next 30 yards felt like a mile as we slowly walked towards the bluffs edge. Step by step, hearts pounding, adrenalin flowing we slowly gaze into the unknown, hoping not to see nature at its worst. Our eyes took us to the left then the right, where are they? Did they make it? Momma, momma where are you!? Finally, we see her around a bend. Where are the cubs? We can’t see any!

Looking for the Cubs

We walk slowly along the edge, straining our necks to see around the corner. One step, two steps, three, four, straining to see—but what would we see? Did we really want to? Then, the next step, a cub—there is a cub—but where are the other two? Okay, deep breath, deep, deep breath, and we look further around the bend. There, there, one more cub! Okay, that is two. Now, the third—where are you? Please be here. Well, momma hasn’t run off, that’s a good sign—or is she standing over a dead or hurt cub? Where is the third cub?! We look and look, and finally we see the answer. There, behind the clump of grass, there is the third cub. Our hearts sank, no, this did not happen! We all thought the worse occurred. Our earlier grins have now turned to frowns, elation to sadness. Then there is movement, wait, wait. No, she is moving, that silly cub was camouflaged behind some grass—she is fine—romping around on the bank! A cute little fur ball that scared us half to death.

Don’t Mess with Momma Bear!

Because we didn’t see what exactly happened, we have to assume momma let the male know what was best for him and he backed down pretty quick. Don’t mess with momma bear was the lesson of the day! So, with this encounter, everything turned out ok but it isn’t always like that. She is a very good mom and has had numerous run-ins with big males where her first instinct is to leave the area as quickly as possible. This time she chose to confront the male and educate him on what kind of fury can be unleashed by a mother bear. Hopefully he remembers this lesson on self-preservation and gives way to momma in the future.

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