Fishing for Bears

Grizzly watching trip to favorite salmon stream a study in bruin behavior

Posted: Sunday, August 07, 2005


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  A mother brown bear and two yearling cubs keep a watch at the hillside near Chenik River last month. Photo by Ben Stuart, Morris News

Bob the bear frequently visited the bear viewers at Chenik River last month.

Photo by Ben Stuart, Morris News

Last month on the Chenik River, surrounded by brown bears in every direction, all Bob could think about was fishing.

After a good morning on the river, something else caught his eye.

He had visitors.

Standing on their hind legs at first, apparently to get a better view, a group of six eventually sat down on the bluff overlooking the river.

Bob went back to fishing.

The salmon-rich Chenik River empties over a short run of falls into Kamishak Bay on the east side of the Alaska Peninsula, across Cook Inlet from Homer.

These salmon support the world's highest concentration of brown bears.


Photo by Ben Stuart, Morris News Service - Alaska

A yearling cub rests while its mother looks for salmon near Chenik River last month.

Each summer, when the red salmon start running up the river, small groups like the one Bob noticed sit on the bluff to watch him fish.

For the most part, this group looked nonthreatening to Bob. They didn't move around much, were pretty quiet and, most importantly, stayed away from his fish.

But he decided to give them a wide berth, just to be safe.

Bob glanced back down to the red salmon stacking up at his knees and forgot about the group on the bluff for a moment.

With a surprising flash of speed and agility, Bob — a 700-pound brown bear — dove underwater and emerged with a wriggling salmon in his mouth.

A grizzled look

Derek Stonorov, a noted bear biologist from Homer and the guide for a four-day field course on bears, explained to the group of bear watchers how Bob got his name.


Derek Stonorov, center, and Carla Hart stop near Chenik River to watch a brown bear catch salmon last month.

Photo by Ben Stuart, Morris News

"You see that bite on his butt?" he asked the group. "Bite on butt, that's Bob."

At Chenik River, there are bears named Bob and Scrappy and Solstice, a blond female that is likely more than 20 years old.

Some argue that naming bears unfairly projects human attributes on them and makes people too comfortable around them (rarely are bears nicknamed "Killer" or "Fang," for instance).

People just like to name bears, Stonorov said, and it helps them recognize and distinguish them from other bears.

"And the best part," Stonorov said, "is one group can a name a bear one thing and the next can name it something else."

Like he has done during most of his 40-year career, Stonorov continues to introduce people to Alaska bears.

As an undergraduate student at Goddard College in Vermont and a graduate student at Utah State University in the mid-1960s to early '70s, Stonorov wrote two thesis papers, among the first of their kind, on Alaska brown bear behavior.


Carole Demers, left, and Derek Stonorov glass for bears along the hillside of Chenik River Falls last month.

Photo by Ben Stuart, Morris News

Through most of the 1990s, Stonorov worked as a wildlife technician at McNeil River State Sanctuary for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

From 1999 to 2003 he was contracted by Audubon Alaska to coordinate the public education aspects of Kenai Brown Bear Project.

Through this project, Stonorov wrote the popular guidebook "Living in Harmony with Bears." He also helped develop elementary school curriculum with the Kenai Peninsula School District and Fish and Game and worked on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant on several community outreach programs that helped teach people how to avoid bear problems.

Today, Stonorov, owner of Alaska Bear Quest Expeditions, guides professional photographers and bear enthusiasts each year.

Stonorov will be the first to tell you there is plenty more work that needs to be done on brown bears.

"There is remarkably little known about the behavior of bears, as far as I can tell. I mean there are no papers on vocalization. No papers on scent communication. I wrote the seminal paper on visual communication in 1971 and it's still the paper that's referred to because no one has taken the time to update it," he said.


Solstice and her two young cubs check out a group of bear watchers last month near Chenik River.

Photo by Ben Stuart, Morris News

"There's so much anecdotal information on bears and what people think, and there's no real scientific basis for the information that people regard as fact."

Sights to share

The Chenik trip in June was designed to give teachers a first-hand look at brown bear behavior, conservation and the science behind it so they can in turn share the information with their students.

Organized and sponsored by the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, the trip was offered as a one-credit biology class with the University of Alaska Anchorage, Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College.

The group of six — including Stonorov, three peninsula teachers, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game employee from Juneau on vacation and a reporter — camped out in tents at Chenik Lake from July 1 to 5, and spent eight to 10 hours each day observing brown bears.

The group usually woke around 7 a.m. for breakfast and coffee and spent the morning around camp watching birds and photographing wild flowers.


A large male brown bear fishes for reds in Chenik River last month.

Photo by Ben Stuart, Morris News

By noon the group packed, applied bug dope and sunscreen and hiked the two miles from the lake to the falls at the mouth of Chenik River, arriving there an hour or so before high tide.

The first one-half mile of the trail wound through 10-foot-tall alder trees and shoulder-high grass. Stonorov led the group each day singing to the bears, as he called it.

"Hey bear," clap, clap. "Hey bear," clap, clap. "Here come the people."

If the group ran into a bear, it would be on the trail, he said. And a surprised bear can be dangerous.

Everyone in the group joined in the song.

While no bears were seen near camp, their presence in the area was obvious.

Bear scat lined the two-mile trail toward the falls and on the fourth day a red salmon with its head bitten off appeared less than one-quarter mile from camp.

At night, back at the camp at Chenik Lake, most conversations began or ended with bears.


Prints mark the travels of brown bears on the beach of Kamishak Bay last month.

Photo by Ben Stuart, Morris News

Henry Anderson, a second-grade teacher in Nikiski, told a frightening tale of a fishing trip several years back where he had to shoot a black bear that entered his tent at night.

Others talked about the recent fatal mauling of a couple on the Hulahula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge last month and the death of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, in Katmai National Park two years ago.

The trip appealed to Anderson and his wife, Barb, a high school biology and math teacher at Kenai Central High School, because a scientific study of bears was being conducted at the same time.

Karyn Rode, a 31-year-old doctoral student at Washington State University, joined the group and collected data for her study on the effects of ecotourism on brown bear ecology and nutrition.

The study is designed to understand the best way to manage people — whether they are hunters, anglers or bear viewers — and brown bears.

Rode spent her bear-viewing time observing and recording salmon catch rates of bears while they fished at Chenik Falls. Each time a bear made an attempt at catching a fish — and each time a bear was successful — Rode noted it in her book.

Stonorov was intrigued by her study, noting it was the first of its kind.


A mother brown bear and two yearling cubs keep a watch at the hillside near Chenik River last month.

Photo by Ben Stuart, Morris News

So much of today's information regarding bear ecology is anecdotal, he said.

"Any time people have a new idea about (the science of) bears, I always say, 'Show me the data,'" he said.

Barb Anderson said she was going to use the experience of the trip and some photos in a PowerPoint presentation in her classroom this year. Using bears as a hook to get students interested in science, Anderson plans to incorporate bears into units such as scientific methods, ecology and scientific names,

Mother of all views

On the first day of the trip, Stonorov thought he saw the bear named Solstice on a high rock outcropping during the two-mile hike into the falls from the camp at Chenik Lake. Through his binoculars, the bear's bright blond coat stood out in the sun against the dark brown and green background of the rocks.

Later that afternoon, on a full run, the 500-pound bear bounded down the mountain, carving a wide swath through the alder thickets. To the delight of the group, which was watching from more than a mile away, she had two spring cubs in tow.

The nervous-looking cubs popped up and down on their hind legs like dark brown prairie dogs checking out the scenery, attached by some invisible tether to their mother's side.

"She's the matriarch around here," Stonorov said. "Last year she would run off every bear here."

Stonorov has watched Solstice grow up. In the mid-1980s she showed up at the falls as a 5- or 6-year-old with cubs. And every couple of years she has returned with a new set.


A large male brown bear takes a seat near a group of bear watchers last month at Chenik River.

Photo by Ben Stuart, Morris News

When she is without cubs, Stonorov said, she acts like the dominant bear in the area. But, this year, with young cubs she was more wary.

She avoided Bob and another large male fishing at the river and was chased back up the bank by a smaller bear when she tried to grab a couple of red salmon.

Eventually she found an opening and dove into one of the deeper holes in the falls and came out with a fish she shared with her two cubs.

With 15 to 20 bears in the area, Solstice looked nervous most of the time. But when it came to people, it was a different story.

"She'll probably come by and sit with us," Stonorov said that first day.

On day two she did, less than 30 yards up stream.

Sometimes Solstice and her cubs would sit down overlooking the other bears while waiting for an opening. On the last day, she sat across the river from the group, laid on her back and allowed her hungry cubs to nurse.

For many in the group, including Carole Demers, a teacher at Chapman School in Anchor Point, the nursing behavior was one of the trip's highlights.

"It's just amazing that she was that comfortable," Demers said.

Still surprising

On the last day of the trip, Bob made an early appearance.

The group had just sat down to observe the bears, when he waddled over a ridge and sat down on a spot Solstice and her cubs usually occupied. Near the end of the day, Bob, once again walked by.


A female brown bear and her cub stroll by a group of bear viewers last month at Chenik River.

Photo by Ben Stuart, Morris News

He walked up the bank and followed a trail directly behind the group at roughly 15 yards. The group turned around to watch, and Stonorov rose to his knees.

As he turned away, Bob started what is called "a cowboy walk," a sort of John Wayne-esque waddle with his back legs and urinated on the ground.

The display surprised Stonorov, who noted that it usually signifies nervousness.

After more than 40 years of watching brown bears, they still surprise him from time to time, he said.

"Our generation uses the word 'awesome' so much that it has lost some of its meaning," Barb Anderson said. "But to me, this experience was truly awesome."

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