Sunday, September 4, 2016

Eastern Black Bear - Anan Bay, Alaska

There are an amazing number of subspecies of black bear, including five found in Alaska. Surprisingly, one of those subspecies is the Eastern black bear which is found from Alaska all the way to the Atlantic coast. It is large-bodied bear and almost all of them have black fur. A rare few have a white blaze on the chest.

In researching our trip to Alaska I ran across information about Anan Creek as an amazing place to see bears. Anan Creek is on the mainland just across from the south end of Wrangell Island. It has the largest pink salmon run in Southeast Alaska which attracts lots of bears, black and brown, but mostly black. The Anan Wildlife Observatory is run by the U.S. Forest Service as part of the Tongass National Forest. It includes an observation platform and a photo blind right next to the falls on Anan Creek where the bears go to catch salmon. It is downstream quite a distance from Anan Lake. It is only reachable by boat or float plane and involves a half-mile walk inland from Anan Bay. The Observatory is limited to 60 people a day, with permits issued by the Forest Service.

I found Family Air located in Ketchikan that had permits for Anan Creek on a day we would be visiting on the Island Princess. I made arrangements for them to pick us up from the boat, fly us by float plane to Anan Bay, then pick us up again after we had spent several hours observing bears.
A picture of the Island Princess docked in Ketchikan from our float plane. 
The plane in Anan Bay after dropping us off.
The plane as it catches air and leaves us.
Ketchikan is south of Anan Bay on the southeast end of Revillagigedo Island. Anan Bay is a 30 or 40 minute flight by float plane. The pilot landed in the bay and coasted to land, dropped us off and told us the time to meet him back at the same spot. A ranger, stationed at the bay, met us and gave us instructions about how the Observatory worked and precautions for our half mile hike to the Observatory. The half-mile walk was inconsequential, but we were walking through an amazingly lush tropical rain forest full of hanging moss from trees, ferns and moss on the ground. The Observatory was surrounded by a low wooden fence and had lots of people inside milling about and looking over wooden handrails at the stream below. I worried about getting access to views to see bears. A covered wood stairway went downhill to the side of the creek and a covered wood blind, with room for four people, was at the bottom. Shifts in the blind were limited to 30 minutes and we had to sign up on a list. A small wood structure with a roof, open doors and windows and a few benches rested on part of the platform.

The next few hours were filled with wonder as we watched a number of different bears come into and out of the area, catching salmon and herding cubs. I think it was my favorite experience of a trip that had many incredible experiences.
One of the first bears we saw was this mother bear with two cubs behind her.
Mama left the cubs to go find salmon, crawling down a large rock.
One of the cubs eventually emerged and followed her part way down the rock. The cub squalled and wailed for awhile, wondering were mama was. 
Eventually the cub climbed back up a rock to join its sibling, whose feet are just visible at the top left of the frame.
The two cubs huddle together waiting for mama to return.
Mama looks back up toward her cubs. Note the white blaze on her chest, something that these bears rarely have. 
Eventually mama grabbed a salmon and headed back up to her cubs to feed them. Unfortunately, the greeting and feasting took place out of our sight. 
This big, beautiful black bear with some brown in its fur came trudging in from across the creek upstream of the falls. 
It was distinctive as the only bear we saw with brown fur.
The bear stationed itself upstream at a spot where salmon would come up and patiently waited.
It looked this way, then that. It was also distinctive in that it had a gash on its upper nose underneath its right eye.
Here the bear lunges out into the stream toward a salmon.
Success. Salmon in mouth, it went into some bushes to eat its catch.
The same bear on another unsuccessful lunge into the creek for a salmon.
Lots of wet, but no fish.
The dripping bear emerged out of the creek on to its rock....
Then shook itself violently to rid itself of the unwanted water, just like the family dog. 
From the blind we could see salmon in the creek.
If you look closely, you can see lots of salmon congregated.
This bear successfully caught one of the salmon by the tail.
It got a better grip on the salmon....
Then headed up the rocks, away from the creek....
We watched it negotiate rocks and fallen logs...
As it headed toward some unknown destination...
Away from the creek. Perhaps cubs?
Another series of pictures. This bear stands, beautiful claws exposed.
It moves down the rocks by the side of the creek.
Powerful shoulders.
It peers into the water looking for salmon.
Intense.
It starts an unsuccessful lunge after salmon.
Emerges, stands, and gives somewhat of a shake.
One last series of pictures.
We watched this big bear traverse the length of the creek.
It was fun to see the bear from different perspectives.
Despite going into the water after salmon, like us, they tried to stay dry. Here the bear balances on a small rock before it jumps to another rock. 
It climbs up and over the rocks to avoid getting wet.

It peers into the water, but made no attempt for salmon.
It was fun to watch these mini-dramas unfold at a distance where we could clearly see what was going on. We spent a little over two hours at the Observatory. I would have liked six hours, but was so happy we got to experience this magical spot. 

2 comments:

  1. If there weren't so many other people on the observation deck, I would call this a National Geographic experience. However, everyone was quiet and shared the space well. It was incredible to watch the bears. They either didn't know we were there, or they didn't really care. It was a highlight for me as well.

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  2. What fun to see a momma bear in action! I can't almost hear her say, "Hey kids! We're having fish for lunch! Wash your paws!"

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