A brown bear forages for food in the Alaska Range at Denali National Park last fall. The park is one of the areas highlighted in Stephen F. Stringhams new book, Bear Viewing in Alaska.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Between brown bears, black bears and polar bears, Alaskans and tourists to the 49th state don't have to look far to see wild bruins in their natural habitat. Knowing when, where and how to observe them safely can be a little more complex, but a local biologist has written a new book, "Bear Viewing In Alaska: Expert Techniques for a Great Adventure," that he hopes will lend insight to this subject.
"There's a lot of books on bear safety, but a lot of these books aren't specific to Alaska, so they offer advice such as 'Avoid trails with signs of bears on it.' Well, in Alaska that would mean staying home, because here it's not a matter of if you will run into a bear, it's a matter of when will you run into a bear," said Steven Stringham, of Soldotna.
Stringham is well versed on the subject of bears. He holds a doctorate in behavioral and population ecology; has taught courses on bears, bear safety and big game and furbearing mammals at the Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su campuses of the University of Alaska Anchorage; and has nearly 40 years experience working with brown and black bears in Alaska, where he has conductedmuch of his field research from a distance of less than 10 yards from wild bruins.
This is Stringham's second book on bears, but unlike his first work, "Beauty Within the Beast: Kinship With Bears in the Alaska Wilderness," which came out in 2002 and was largely a journalistic account of his experiences raising bear cubs, this newest book was designed to be a practical guide for those participating in an activity he describes as having grown from "the hobby of an eccentric minority into a mainstay of many local economies."
"Until now, dedicated bear viewers had little resources available to them," he said.
Stringham said his new book, which grew from a compilation of notes he developed for his students over the past 10 years, answers many questions.
"I wanted people to understand where bears can be viewed closely and where it would be inappropriate. The book lists over 60 places to view bears — most of them in Alaska — with explanations of how viewing conditions differ from place to place," he said.
Above, a brown bear forages for food in the Alaska Range at Denali National Park last fall. The park is one of the areas highlighted in Stephen F. Stringham's new book, "Bear Viewing in Alaska." At right, April Walker uses binoculars from the safety of a vehicle to get a closer look at nearby bears in Denali last fall.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
For example, Stringham said, in Katmai National Park on the Alaska Peninsula, plentiful food sources draw in large numbers of coastal brown bears and makes them more tolerant of each other and two-legged onlookers. These bears can be viewed grazing like cattle in the wide-open sedge meadows that offer them the opportunity to see humans from a distance, and grow somewhat acclimated to their presence and persistent following.
In contrast, Stringham said in the Interior sections of the state where grizzlies are more aggressive, widely scattered, and difficult to locate, they can not be viewed with the same techniques or same level of relative safety.
"Things people get away with in Katmai would be far more dangerous in the Russian River area, and downright suicidal in the Interior," he said.
Stringham said that is the reason his book addresses issues such as: different styles of bear viewing (from plane, observatory platform or roaming among them); how long can bears be watched and from how close; whether or not a guide needed; and how safe is the viewing, and what can be done to minimize risk.
Stringham said he also focused on when bears are best viewed at different sites and what activities are likely to be seen, since some people may want to observe bears engaged in a particular — and often seasonal — behavior.
"Catching salmon, digging razor clams, eating berries, mating, caring for cubs — there's only certain times of the year when it's good to see certain activities," he said.
Stringham said that while this book is comprehensive, he has three more works coming out soon to go along with it. Of these other books, one will have a more in-depth explanation of safety for bear viewers, another will be tips for avoiding bear encounters while fishing, hiking and camping, and the last book will focus on causes and defenses for bear aggression.
"I want to make information available to people that is easy to access and understand," he said.
More information on Stringham's book and additional bear viewing advice can be obtained by visiting the Web site www.bear-viewing-in-alaska.info.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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