“Welcome to the second least visited National Park: Lake Clark” said our host as we walked off the piper cub onto the beach. It was cool in the summer weather but not cold. As we walked towards the lodge, a group of five other travelers passed us and boarded for the 45 minute return trip to the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska.
For the next 24 hours we were staying at the Bear Mountain Lodge. It was pricey, but when would we get such a close encounter with Grizzly bears ever again. The Grizzly bear, is extinct in California and its range pushed farther and farther north. We saw one in Yellowstone National Park six years earlier, but that was far off. Our girls were old enough now to follow directions and we believed they were ready for a Grizzly encounter.
After a quick intro at the lodge and putting our packs in our room, we headed to the beach. A small yellow bus drove north up the beach and stopped a mile from the lodge. We got out and were given the following instructions: “Stick together. Do not stray from the group. Be still and move slowly. ”
Our small group stood shoulder to shoulder as a mother bear and three grown cubs walked within 100 meters of our position down to the beach. We learned these bears developed a particular taste for razor neck clams. They would dig and eat the large clams, shells and all.
We watched in amazement as the mother slowly and methodically started to dig holes to allow her cubs to finish them. Two of the older cubs caught on, but the youngest kept grunting and mewing and bumping it’s mother. It didn’t want to dig, it wanted to nurse. After a few more holes, the mother relented, leaned back on her haunches exposing her underside so her youngest cub could nurse. We were so surprised that the mother “trusted” our group enough to do this in such close proximity. We learned later that this particular mother and three cubs were the subject of Disney’s Bears.
We drove down to another section of the beach to enter the edge of Lake Clark. In a large meadow we saw quite a few bears forging. They gave themselves generous space, almost 200-500 meters. Then the bears stood up on their hind quarters, and promptly ran off. A male wandered into the meadow, and no bear wanted to be near. The guide explained that people cannot outrun Grizzlies: “Running triggers the predator prey instinct. If you cannot keep yourself from running….run towards it. You’ll fair better to play dead. A full grown male can be eight to nine feet long and can weigh over a thousand pounds (Fact Check on Grizzly Bears). You won’t win. Black bears however are smaller, and you’d have a fighting chance against them.”
We drove south down the beach 2-3 miles, seeing plenty of bears along the way. We got out. It was low tide and there were plenty of bears digging and looking for clams. A grizzly walked by out to dig for clams. When it was far enough off, I compared my size thirteens to their footprints.
Back at the lodge, people exchanged stories about what they saw, their cameras, and pictures. I was confused about how it was that this lodge was in the park. The owner told me about Alaska building codes. There is no planning commission. If you want to build a house, then buy land and build. Need power, figure it out. Get a generator or go solar, or use alternate fuels. Need water? Pipe it in from the many springs fed by snow melts. People are pretty much on their own. They had to barge the bus over to this shore along with excavator/loader equipment. However, the park doesn’t own the beach. The beach is private property.
That night, I had the pleasure of showering in glacial water as the solar powered water header wasn’t working. Sharleen and the girls laughed hysterically as I screamed and roared my way through perhaps the coldest shower EVER. Then it was Sharleen’s turn to enjoy the second coldest shower EVER. The girls decided to wait until we got back to the mainland to shower.
The next morning we got one more excursion down the beach to commune with the bears. We all watched quietly, listening to the grunts and growls at they dug for clams with out caring what we were. The guide explained that 40 years ago this wasn’t possible as people freely shot and hunted bears here. They would have run off at the sight and smell of humans. It had taken decades of moratoriums and discipline to earn back the trust of these amazing animals. Perhaps there is hope for us yet.
Edit: 7/26/2019: Apparently, these aren’t Grizzley Bears, but Brown Bears. Ooops. Everyone was calling them Grizzly Bears including the ranger, so I was confused. My good friends at Inaturalist has pointed out that Grizzly Bears are not near Lake Clark, but are more inland.