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Unclear motives

9/28/2009

I knew the bear was coming. I just didn't know when.

He wasn't the biggest or most menacing grizzly I had seen in my eight consecutive falls of hunting Alaska, but he was certainly big enough to make my life miserable.

PHOTO GALLERY

Launch Gallery

And if this one acted like a dozen others I had encountered, he would eventually catch my scent and succumb to curiosity. My only hope was that our next inevitable meeting would end peacefully since I didn't have a bear tag in my pocket.

Four hours earlier my partner and I hadn't a care in the world. A bush plane had just dropped our gear and us into a remote mountain river valley in Alaska's Brooks Range.

Our plan was to kill a couple boomer caribou, catch a couple char, and eat freeze-dried meals to our heart's content. Bear encounters weren't part of our plans.

On our first anticipatory stroll out of camp, we headed for the nearest 500-foot rise and climbed its barren, gentle slope. At the top it ended abruptly with a shear cliff.

The river below was the same one our tent was guarding less than a mile away, and beyond the river sprawled a previously unseen willow flat more than a mile-wide.

Our first scan revealed no caribou and the reason why.

A large brown blob was working his way across the plain, rooting for anything edible. The interior grizzly was headed our direction, but didn't know he was being watched.

We returned to camp undetected, but both knew the wind would eventually betray our campsite.

Three hours later, I interrupted lunch with a frantic "bear, bear bear!"

The bruin we watched a mile away had made his way around us and popped up over a small rise only 20 feet away.

When he stood on his hinds to get a look at us, my hunting partner and I started scrambling. He grabbed his rifle and I grabbed my camera.

As we yelled at the intruder, he dropped back to all fours and began circling us. When he got to the opposite side of the tent, I told my friend to hold fire and instead try to tag him with a rock.

His perfect throw caught the bear square between the eyes, which immediately stopped his gradual movement in our direction.

Then the bear did something I've never seen a bear do while less than 20 yards from a human.

After inspecting the offending rock, he dropped to his belly and rolled over. He proceeded to roll around in front of us for all of five minutes.

Throughout most of his display he kept an eye on us, but a couple times he just stared into space. He seemed completely unimpressed with us, and clearly had no respect for modern ballistics.

"If he takes another step our way, I'm really gonna shoot this time," my friend informed me, a little frustrated that I didn't let him shoot the first time.

I agreed, but to our delight, the bear ended his display by sitting up on his behind for a second, then just walking straight away.

The bear facts

Had this bear, or any of the others I have had close encounters with in Alaska over the years, wanted to attack, we would have likely lost the battle.

Grizzlies can reach speeds nearing 35 miles per hour in a split second and can cover 50 yards in less than three seconds.

At only 20 yards, it would have been unlikely that we could have placed a killing shot on the bear before he reached us and attacked. Only a solid hit to the brain or spinal column would have stopped the bear in his tracks. Both are small, difficult targets, even on a standing bear.

Though I never trusted the bear, I quickly decided he was not a threat. Had we run, it would have likely ended differently, however, prompting the bruin to instinctually chase and attack.

After hearing about our bear encounter, Larry Van Daele, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist for Kodiak Island commented.

"If that was a young bear, you likely confused him when you tagged him with the rock," he said. "Perhaps for the first time, he met something that had a much longer reach than he could understand."

In fact, I judged the bear to be maybe only seven-foot squared, and around 500 pounds. Not small, by any means, but not a monster, even for an interior grizzly.

Van Daele went on to explain that grizzly bears have an intelligence level somewhere between a dog and a primate, and added that they certainly all have their own personality.

"That bear might have been playing, but he also might have been deciding whether he should charge or not," he said.

I believe this year's bear was just curious. Like so many other bears that have approached me in Alaska, this one detected a foreign smell in his valley and had to check it out.

Happily for my partner and I, he was satisfied to just show us his behind and make a lazy retreat back to his willow patch.