Its been said that one of the most dangerous situations when around bears in the wild, is when its a mama with her cubs (or cub). We were lucky enough to witness a couple instances of mamas with cubs while out at McNeil River Game Sanctuary. One of them constituted one of the few times where I was a little nervous about the surroundings. For the most part, for the 5 days, at no time did I truly fear for my life, but there were a couple times that the tension was a little stronger than others. This was one of those times.
While out for the day visiting the various “hot spots” to see if there were any bears out feeding, we had stopped by Mikfik Creek. It was near the tail end of the reds (red salmon) running up Mikfik, so the bear activity was sporadic at best. While setting up there for a quick break, we spotted a mama bear with two cubs heading our way. They were yearlings, which means they were born the previous year. Cubs generally stay with their moms for two summers before going out on their own.
Mama bears are very protective of their cubs especially around other bears. Thankfully as they moved in it wasn’t that busy, bear-wise. There were a couple of sub-adults playing in the river off to our rear, but not much else. It was cute, whenever the bears in the water would splash, the mama would stand up on her hind legs and check out the scenery and the cubs would mimic what she was doing. They eventually moved in close to where our group was. They came within about 25 feet of us, and began to roll around in the tall grass in a playful manner, the cubs mimicking her the whole way. Someone asked if it was normal behavior this close to humans. I can’t recall if the guide said it, or someone else, but it was theorized that the mama’s actually felt safe around the humans, because the males would tend to stay away from the interruption of the human presence. Seems like a good enough theory. Either way I was getting some great shots of them up close…..or at least potentially.
It didn’t last for long though. Along with it being toward the end of the reds running, it was near the end of the mating season for the bears. We had begun to notice a big ol’ male that was exhibiting what the guide called “following” behavior. There was a female moving along slowly, but steadily, while trying to graze on the sedge grasses. The big male seemed to be more interested in other endeavors, and was tracking her, following her every lead from about 20 feet behind her. We watched them cover a mile or two zigzagging back and forth across the open field, slowly making it towards us, AND the mama and cubs. The male was going through a series of grunts and groans and making aggressive jaw popping noises.
All I could do was sit and watch what appeared to be a collision in the making. An aggressive male chasing a female towards us with the mama and the cubs in between us. Behind us were the sub-adults in the water. Exits were limited for the mama and cubs, so I was worried about what might happen. You could see the mama and cubs were getting antsy. I actually remembered getting a little bit nervous. The guide mentioned not to worry, 99% of the time the bears make the smart decisions, meaning, they would assess the situation and make the right choice to leave without incident. Thankfully, they did. They moved off safely, avoiding us and the oncoming bears.
It was an amazing experience to have them in close and see the interaction. Also amazing was the behavior and interaction of the male and female bear. Anyway, here is one of my favorite shots from the encounter. This was taken early on. I hope you enjoy.