“We have been repeatedly warned about the temperamental nature of grizzly bears and so it proved. Our grizzly project, which has been an incredible adventure so far, is on hold after a daunting encounter which Henry and myself are arguably lucky to survive… and Marie isn’t particularly amused either.” Dave.
Of course, at this time, as luck would have it, we weren’t filming anything. We’d anchored in Reid Inlet in extremely remote Glacier Bay, at the foot of the Reid Glacier which comes right down into the sea. We were totally alone, tucked nicely inside the shelter of a small headland spit with no other vessels in the vicinity. We’d only seen a small group of camping kayakers over the other side of the inlet and that was all. The location was about as perfect as we could ever imagine. This is what happened…
After a calm night on anchor the next day dawned in glorious sunshine and the three of us took the inflatable dinghy ashore to climb up beside the glacier… we found it much tougher going than it looked from Sänna’s cockpit… fording a number of fast flowing creeks which took far more time than we anticipated plus not inconsiderable effort for an ageing sixty-one year old mariner. Eventually we made it up high on to the glacier which was no mean achievement, believe you me. We all three stood quite proud, took pictures, drank the ice cold glacial water and made our way precariously down to our dinghy which we’d left pulled up on the shoreline.
We then dropped Marie back onboard Sänna to prepare lunch whilst Henry and myself headed over to the opposite shore to climb a dry creek gully leading up on to the prominent headland overlooking Glacier Bay – we figured we’d get a tremendous viewpoint from which to take photographs of the huge John Hopkins Glacier, one of only two in the region still advancing and calving into the sea. The approaching shoreline was quite rocky with a rising tide coming in so we made for a low rock-strewn beach, leaving the dinghy pulled up onto the side of the dry-creek bed with our long-line grapnel anchor buried into the rocks above the high-tide line to ensure the dinghy wouldn’t drift away in the rising tide to leave us stranded.
Beginning the climb up the gully I immediately spotted a large brown bear to my right not more than a hundred metres from us, it came out of the low scrubby growth and straightaway paused to weigh us up. I called loudly to Henry who’d climbed well ahead of me, which was no doubt due to his eagerness and his much younger stamina than mine. I warned him, telling him not to panic and that we needed to make our way back down to the dinghy as quickly as possible, pointing to the bear which was still standing still, studying us in the way we’ve learned that bears do when they are unsure of their situation. I wasn’t overly concerned at this point, bear encounters are quite frequent in this neck of the woods and nearly always result in everyone going their own way. But this bear for some reason stood its ground.
We had our bear protection with us, Henry carried the can of bear spray and I had our small taser which was as yet unproven… I’d been assured by Bob the Welder, from whom I’d purchased it for fifty dollars back in the bar in Hoonah, that these tasers were a dead cert as far as grizzlies were concerned. Of course, I was about to find out. A single grizzly isn’t usually too much to worry about… but just then two more bears appeared out of the tangled growth to stand facing us. I quickly realised these two bears were full grown cubs and we now had a potentially serious situation on our hands; we’d been warned repeatedly by local Alaskans the worst bear encounters are always a mother with its cubs and these two younger bears were almost the size of their mother. The mother will nearly always attack in these situations with full-sized second year younger bears invariably joining in the encounter. Both of us were now pretty spooked although Henry was cool enough to warn me not to run… running is a sign of flight and grizzlies then chase you down as prey. We slowly made our way downwards so as not to alarm them, but they were lower down than ourselves and still on the beach. All three bears started to make their way towards our dinghy, almost as if to intercept us and cut off our escape. Perhaps we were being stalked or they were simply trying to pass by to make their own way along the shoreline – at this stage it was difficult to tell. I quickly realised that if they came across our inflatable with its multitude of smells, and the way they were slowly moving they’d pass right besides it, they’d paw it, easily puncturing it rendering it useless. If nothing else we’d be unable to get off the shoreline and Marie wouldn’t be able to recover us either… we’d be stranded. Well stranded. We were undoubtedly in a precarious situation.
It would be useless to climb higher as it was steep and we’d again be in a flight situation, we simply had to somehow get to our dinghy, recover the anchor, launch it deep enough to lower and start the outboard engine whilst at the same time all three grizzlies were making their way closer. But we had little choice… we had to run for it. Then the larger mother stood on her hind legs and began to snort and huff, the first warning signs of an attack. The range was still too great for our taser and bear spray and so, in total panic we ran. What else could we do?
We made the dinghy just as first of all the mother and then the two younger bears charged towards us. First, I had to desperately dig out the grapnel anchor to free ourselves and then use our oars to try and row as quickly as possible to a depth deep enough to drop our outboard and then pull the chord to start the engine. Henry, with great fortitude for a fifteen year old, pushed the dinghy into the water and quickly untied the oars whilst I, rather in a panic, somehow freed the anchor and chucked it onboard – I could at least use it as a heavy weapon to try and protect ourselves if the need arose but we desperately needed to get offshore as quickly as possible to start the engine because brown bears are extremely accomplished swimmers. I grabbed the oars and rowed for my life… but we were still fast on the rocky bed of the creek and not going anywhere. Meanwhile the grizzlies quickly covered the ground between us and were now no more than twenty metres away. They were growling and snorting in a horrible smelly way, something I will forever remember my whole life and then I fired the taser. It was still out of range but the extremely loud clicking noise made them stop until the battery charge ran down. Then they came again. By this time we were free of the rocks and I was desperately trying to lower the outboard so that we could try and start it. The bears were now in the water and the engine wouldn’t start. Henry fired the taser which this time did nothing but the engine suddenly kicked into life and we were away. By this time the first bear was no more than a few feet away. We shot off faster than the Starship Enterprise.
The bears were still in the water but we were safe. We stopped and started to film them after we’d calmed down a little, they were by this time still swimming towards us quite fast and we got good media footage plus numerous photographs. Marie was calling loudly on the VHF radio to our handheld portable as she’d seen everything… so we returned to Sänna to collect her and then made our way back to a respectable distance to watch them for over an hour as they made their way around the inlet towards the glacier.
The next morning we spotted the same three brown bears on the opposite shoreline of Reid Inlet which meant they’d crossed the glacier. We thought about the kayakers who’d made camp in that vacinity, from the direction the grizzlies were making they’d pass right through the kayaker’s beach camp. We readied our dinghy to warn them but then realised the kayakers had broken camp at daybreak and moved on.
All was now calm and peaceful in Reid Inlet. The sun in the glorious blue sky promised another warm day and we decided to stick around a while longer.
Adapted from the contact report to Glacier Bay Park Rangers, Bartlett Cove – 25th August 2016.
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