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Alaska 2006
  • Territory: Washington State, British Columbia, Alaska
  • Time: April - August 2006, 6000 miles traveled
  • Vessel: "Teacup", Nordic Tug 37
  • Primary Activity: List things to be repaired when back in civilization. :)

Copyright © 2006, P. Lutus. All rights reserved.

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Bears and Tourists
Cute Bear Cub
Tourists Watching Bears
Bears Watching Tourists
I've been visiting some spectacular bear habitats in Alaska for five years now, and I've figured out how to get along with the bears. This doesn't mean I think I can wander among the bears with impunity (as Timothy Treadwell believed), in fact I am more cautious now than in the past, and I agree with those who say the worlds of bears and people are separate, and must always remain so.

I have made a few missteps in my time among the bears, most having to do with my naïve idea that I'm an invisible, pure observer without any effect on what I'm observing. A mama bear dispelled that notion a few years ago, when she tried to enlist my help in scaring off a pack of teenage bears trying to attack her cubs. That day I realized something — in nature, everyone is on one side or another, and if you refuse to choose a side, nature chooses one for you.

To some degree, we humans can live in a Platonic realm of pure ideas and forms, separate from nature, without attachment or passions. I personally think the ability to rise above a passionate attachment to a particular viewpoint is a sign of advanced evolution — as individuals, and as a species. Among other things, it's what makes science possible. If we care which way an issue turns out, we can't impartially weigh the evidence. As I see it, in the Platonic realm, the realm of pure ideas, if you don't understand all sides of an issue, you don't understand the issue at all.

There are people who think the true test of loyalty is complete attachment to one side of an issue and hatred for the other side. I think we must evolve away from that outlook — or we won't survive our own biological success.

End of digression. The other misstep in my bear experience has been to reveal in these articles specifically where I was visiting, and now the cat's out of the bag. This year, several large tour boats showed up, at the exact time and place I have described in past articles on this site. As the tide fell, scores of tourists in inflatable boats moved into the inner bay (too large for full-sized tour boats) and listened raptly as their guide interpreted reality for them. Since the first year I visited this particular site, I have gradually seen more human visitors and fewer bears.

Lest my readers think I am being insufferably pretentious, I am also a tourist. The difference is my experience isn't interpreted. And I realize that's a theme in my life — I try to sort things out for myself. And I prefer the Platonic realm to the everyday one where taking sides supposedly makes you a better person.

As in years past I've met a number of bears on trails this year, at close range. One afternoon I anchored near a promising hiking area, tying lines to shore to stabilize my boat. A few hours later some black bears came out of the brush and started playing with the lines, curious about this change in their environment. I could feel the boat moving slightly as the bears grabbed the lines, so I came out and yelled at the bears — "Hey! There's humans here!" — something of that sort. I did this because I wanted to test how comfortable the local bears were with humans. Well, they hadn't had a lot of human exposure, and they took off right away at the sound of my voice. I decided it was safe to hike there.

The next day, as I hiked toward a mountain, I met two bears. One of them ran off soon after I came into view. The other bear, a large male, smack in the middle of the trail I was on, stood his ground and watched me impassively as I waved my arms in the air and yelled "Go away!". He watched me with perfect indifference, as though I was an annoying pine cone. This bear reminded me of nothing so much as Travis Bickle, a character played by Robert DeNiro in the movie "Taxi Driver." You might remember the scene ... "You talking to me?"

Given this bear's impassive reaction, I stopped waving my arms and moved off the trail to avoid him. As soon as I changed direction, he bolted for the brush. The moral of this story is that you can only learn so much by reading bear stories, and you need to realize bears don't read the same articles and aren't responsible for your expectations. Also, it would be a big mistake to underestimate the intelligence of bears. Whatever you do, don't confuse bears with moose or elk, just because they all live out in nature, are furry, and don't have health insurance. Bears are smart. The more time you spend with them, the clearer this becomes.


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