Bears of Haines, Alaska
I cast my lure upstream in the Chilkoot River, let it bounce down with the current, and reel it back in…over and over until a salmon or a dolly varden strike.
What a thrill to land one! Sometimes I catch the limit, other times nothing. That’s why they call it fishing, instead of catching.
I watch eagles catch fish so big that they cannot fly away, and have to swim to shore with it. It matters little if I do not catch a fish. Simply being along the Chilkoot River feels like pristine paradise.
Four times in the past week, a brown bear and her two first-year cubs came strolling down the shoreline. During our first encounter, I wasn’t fishing with my “head on a swivel,” and my eyes briefly met with mama grizzly’s eyes.
She was about twenty feet away. I slowly back away, not turning my back to her. I make it up to the bridge, look down and watch her teach her kids how to fish. She’s much more effective at fishing than I. So are the Eagles.
Photographers and hordes of tourists on foot and in vehicles appear out of nowhere when the bears arrive. Hopefully they keep a good distance, and leave the bears a wide exit path. Otherwise, the bears get stressed, could get aggravated, or not be able to eat.
One professional bear photographer from Ontario says to me, “I’ll never come to Haines again. They allow people to kill bears here.” He shakes his head. “The penalty is less than a slap on the wrist.”
I partially agree. The “Chilkat Valley News” recently reported that a Haines resident was cited for three counts of violating hunting season, and fined $1500. He left the windows down in his truck which held bags of groceries he apparently forgot about. When a mama bear and her two cubs sniffed it out, he shot them dead on the spot. The reduced charges were a result of the man being “honest” about it.
Just the other day, another Haines resident dressed up in a convincing brown bear costume. He harassed two cubs, and then scared the bee jeepers out of a family sitting in a car, by attacking the driver side window. Young children inside were traumatized. It may be humorous to some, but this man is still on the loose, and I’d love to unleash my bear pepper spray on him next time he’s in costume! Now, that would be funny.
When fisherman bring their coolers to the shore, and then have to scoot out quickly when bears appear, coolers are often left behind. This irresponsible behavior teaches bears to associate humans with food. Leave the cooler in your vehicle. The extra steps to and from are good for you.
All these activities eventually lead to the bear and cubs being shot. “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Since our last summer in Haines three years ago, we know of at least three bear families that have met this lethal fate.
Our Ranger says that back in Valdez, when they have to euthanize a bear, it costs the community about $25,000 in lost tourist/photographer tour revenues. In Haines, that estimate climbs to $125,000 per bear because of the many visitors the bears draw. Of course, for Mare and I, and others who appreciate the unique wonder along the Chilkoot River, the loss of life has nothing to do with money.
I continue to cast my lure upstream, and let it bounce down with the current in hopes of catching a fish. I take in the beauty that surrounds me, breathe fresh, cool air, and watch eagles dive for fish. When the bears show up, I make my way through the onlookers, look down at forgotten coolers, and say a respectful goodbye to the remaining bears. Hopefully, they will live and prosper and continue to amaze. Ron Mitchell