Grizzly bear, Icy Bay Wrangell – St. Elias National Park

Grizzly bear in a field of lupine, Icy Bay, Wrangell - St. Elias National Park, Alaska.

Hey Folks,

Part 3 of the disaster at Icy bay. So I get back to camp, and the bear’s still trashing my gear over in the woods nearby. I don’t know the full extent of the damage to my gear yet, and I don’t know what he’s planning on doing next. I don’t know what he did with one of my (hopefully) bear resistant cannisters of food, my stove and cookware. Fortunately, I carry a satellite phone with me on trips in to the backcountry now, and I decide it’s a good move to call the pilot who flew me to Icy Bay and ask him to come get me. It’s a tough decision to make, because it’s such a pricey trip to make and have to cut short, but I didn’t have a backpack with me, so I couldn’t really feasibly move my camp gear too far, and the bear has made it clear he’s not leaving, and that he’s unafraid of me. I figured he was moving along the beach when he found my boat and trashed it, and is most likely to continue with that once he’s done with the gear. Which likely means he’ll be heading my way before too much longer.

I called the pilot, explained the situation to him, and he said he’d come get me if I wanted. I wanted. He asked how soon, and I said ‘well, now’s a good time if you’re available’. He was, so said he’d see me in an hour or so. I packed up all the gear in my tent, and was just putting my camera gear together in a pelicase when movement once again caught my eye. The bear was coming along the beach, on the edge of the woods as I thought he might be) and was about 40 yards from me, 20 yards from my tent.

I’ve written on my guiding website how much I like my Mountain Hardwear Skyledge 2, and I really wasn’t in the mood to lose more gear, especially my beloved tent. At the same time, I wasn’t sure what I could do about it. I called to the bear, once more “Hey Bear” and he agreed to detour around the tent. By about 5 yards. He walked by it, thru a little stand of alder, and into a little field of lupine, where he took a few bites of the grass growing there. How could a photographer skip a chance shot like this? So I snapped off a frame, and asked him to leave – that’s the photo above. Instead, he started to approach:

grizzly bear, approaching, wrangell st. elias np, Alaska.

Which was kind of a bummer. I didn’t want him too close. And I decided he was too close. I backed up a little, and he kept coming closer. For the photographers out there, these images were taken at 200mm focal length (the first one at 100mm). That’s pretty close. He stopped and looked at me. I was already stopped and looking at him. We talked a minute, but couldn’t come to an agreement. I thought he should go away, and he thought he should not go away: an impasse with 500 plus pounds of grizzly bear. I told him I was going away, shortly, if he didn’t mind waiting. He said he didn’t want to wait. I stepped back, and he stepped forward. I stopped, and he stopped, his nose just a twitching. I was twitching too, but it wasn’t my nose. At this point I was a little uncertain what might be a good option for me. I knew the plane was still at least 30 minutes away, and wondered if the bear and I could sit and stare at each other for 30 minutes ….. hhhmmmmm?

All the while I kept talking with him. Finally, I decided I’d try something I never thought I’d do. Throw a rock at a grizzly bear. He clearly wasn’t leaving otherwise. So I slowly bent, picked up a hefty rock, and told him if he didn’t leave, I’d throw a rock at him. He didn’t leave. Bummer. I plucked up some gumption from somewhere, and tossed the rock into the brush in front of him. The bear turned and raced away immediately. I told him not to come back again, or I’d do it again.

Actually, one thing that was interesting to me was that he didn’t actually run ‘away’. He ran straight back over to his new kayak and dry top. I could hear him in the woods as I packed the rest of my duffel, and moved all my campsite gear down the beach to where the floatplane would arrive. Hopefully real, real soon.

It seemed like about 6 weeks later when I heard the drone of the engine, but I checked my watched and it was only 15 minutes or so. The pilot was hauling a**. He flew low over the area a few times, buzzing it loudly, and this seemed to run the bear off – I couldn’t hear him any more. The plane landed, and we loaded my gear into it, and then the 2 of us walked into the alder where the boat was. No bear. Cool.

I threw all the trash into a duffel, and hauled it to the plane, and the 2 of us hauled the boat out as well. I searched high and low for my second canister and couldn’t find it in the woods – I began to wonder if he’d eaten it. πŸ™‚ Seriously, I knew he couldn’t eat it, and a gnawing thought in the back of my head told me exactly where it was. Sure enough, a walk to the edge of the brush and a look out over the bay told the story – there’s this little black thing bobbing in the ocean a 100 yards off the shore. We packed the rest of the gear, and then floated the plane around to that area, and by now the canister was on shore. It may be ‘bear resistant’ but it’s not ‘bear proof’. The lid has a hole in it where a really big sharp pointy canine tooth punctured it, and the canister had half-filled with water – salty dinner for me! I was glad to find the canister, but kinda bummed that the bear threw it in the ocean. Who knew bears were so vindictive?

Next up, fly back to Yakutat and check out the damage.

Cheers

Carl

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9 thoughts on “Grizzly bear, Icy Bay Wrangell – St. Elias National Park

  1. Pete Zwiers

    Wow! That’s a bear story for the ages Carl!!! Hands down, beats anything we’ve ever had. HOOOOLLLLLYYYYYY CRAP!!!

    Bummer about the trip being cut short. But, in a year the story you have will beat anything you might have had with ten more peaceful days up there. πŸ™‚ Makes for a good chapter, eh!

    – Pete

    PS. Good job getting a photo of him! πŸ™‚

  2. Neil Donohue

    Yes Carl, it certainly is an amazing story and a graphic reminder of the dangers and risks you face when you go out into wilderness on your own- its certainly not ‘all bear and skittles out there.’ Also a reminder of how unpredictable wild animals can be. Very glad that the story had a happy ending though and that the photos I was looking at were of damage to your property, and not of your remains.

    But you were trespassing, you camped on his property and swam in his pool without asking his permission, so I guess he felt a little peeved.
    Your (relieved) Father

  3. Ron Niebrugge

    Hey Carl,

    After hearing the story on the phone – it is fun to see the images. Fun, knowing it had a happy ending! You obviously weren’t exaggerating! Glad it worked out well – except for that shiny new red kayak.

    Hey, at least you got of cool shot of a Wrangell-St. Elias brown bear!

    Ron

  4. Carl Donohue

    Hey Pete,

    Yeah, it’s probably my best bear story. It was pretty wild – bear encounters are always an education – it’s interesting to me that although it’s such a huge event, at the time, nothing actually happened other than some gear got trashed – yet it FEELS like so much happened. Kinda weird.

    Hey Dad,

    The bear probably is thinking about how unpredictable people can be. And don’t worry, I’m glad the photos are just of my gear, too. Really glad. And you’re right – I was trespassing, and I did park my boat on his beach. So he ate it.

    Hey Dave,

    Thanks man – Yeah, I was glad I got a decent photo of him too. I do wish I’d had more of a chance to get some others, but under the circumstances, I’m fine with this.

    Hey Ron

    Why on earth do you say ‘You obviously weren’t exaggerating’ – I never exaggerate. Never! πŸ™‚

    Hopefully my stories from the coming trip to the arctic will be a little milder. I hear it’s snowing up there about now.

    Cheers

    Carl

  5. Mark

    Best damn story I have read in a long time Carl. Quite suspenseful! πŸ™‚ I am glad it was written as first person versus third. Seems you had the start of a beautiful relationship going there. It would have been classic if when you threw the rock, you then saw the boat fly out of the woods at you. ha! πŸ™‚

  6. Carl Donohue

    Hey Mark,

    Thanks man, glad you enjoyed it. I like your version better though .. maybe that’s how I’ll modify it for the future – not, mind you, that I’d exaggerate things, Mr Ron N. πŸ™‚

    Cheers

    Carl

  7. Beth Lunsford

    Damn Carl, that was TOO CLOSE!! I just sent you an e-mail about the bears this year. They are EVERYWHERE & HUNGRY. And they seem to be totally unafraid of people. Please be careful!! That’s a beautiful bear, a great picture, too. Were you in camp when he came in? Maybe in Yakutat you will see the blue bear, the glacier bear, right in the russell fiord. Good Luck!!

  8. Beth Lunsford

    To Carl’s Dad, Neil Donohue: Obviously, you’ve done a great job teaching Carl as a boy & young man how to handle such situations. Carl is very smart,too. I’m just breathing a sigh of relief myself!!

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