I have been here for a week now, and not a day has gone by without at least one moment - usually marked by a spontaneous and prolonged grin - when I consider with wonder and awe the fact that I somehow ended up in one of the most beautiful places on Earth this summer. It is actually, physically unbelievable at times. For example: looking down from Mt. Dumpling onto an endless expanse of crystal blue lakes surrounded by snow covered mountains and punctuated by our tiny camp, watching the mating behavior of an arctic tern and knowing that he just completed a 12,000 mile journey from Antarctica to get here, standing by as a 500 pound brown bear slowly meanders down the beach about 20 feet in front of you.
Speaking of bears, we were lucky enough to see our first one the day we arrived. It is still early in the season, before the salmon begin to run, and most bears have not yet made the Brooks River area their home yet at this time of the year. But sure enough, as we turned the corner on our orientation tour we saw a lone bear furiously digging at a gravel sandbar in the middle of the river. From 150 yards away, though, there was still something of this encounter that resembled watching a nature program on the Discovery Channel. It just didn't seem quite real from that distance.
That was not a problem on my next encounter. I happened to be standing with a 6th year Bear Technician named Imes, newly arrived from King Salmon, when we got word of a bear on the beach. So we went out to the beach to behold this beauty slowly walking toward us, ambling along the shore as if she owned the place (she does, until bigger bears show up). Imes had answered my first questions, telling me that the bear was a subadult female in about her 4th year, so possibly ready for breeding this season. I asked him how he could tell so much from 100 yards away and he said, "Because I know that bear, that's Divot." Divot is a distinctive sandy blond colored bear who, as we had unknowingly witnessed the day before, likes to dig. We walked up the beach to get out of her way and let Divot pass right in front of us, maybe 15 or 20 feet away. She was totally disinterested in us, and had it not been for the fact that she had to have seen us and be aware of our presence, you might have thought she didn't even realize we were there. She never so much as glanced out way as she walked by onto a trail through the forest. But believe me, when you can see the individual hairs on a bear's back, and the look on their face, there is no feeling of being trapped in an Animal Planet TV show. It feels real, very real, for lack of a better word.
Yesterday Divot was decidedly less popular as she decided to take a nap on the side of the trail that leads to the bridge across the river. When this happens, whoever is trying to cross the bridge gets stuck and has to wait -- in this case myself and the rest of the people who had just finished boat training on the far lake. Many people had to wait to get back to camp for over an hour. This is a common occurrence during the summer, and apparently this becomes a big deal once visitors arrive and they have multiple hour waits to get to their lunch, or a bathroom, or their flight out of Brooks Camp. A primary part of my job will be closing trails when they are blocked by bears, and explaining to visitors (who are often not happy) why we allow the bears to live, fish, and sleep naturally instead of moving them for the enjoyment of people. In any case we ended up having to do that after I was there for about 15 minutes, and so from across the river I watched Imes storm up to sleeping Divot, clapping his hands and yelling, forcing her to flee the trail. She didn't go far, and I wanted to stay and watch her more after we crossed the bridge, but we decided that it was best for us all to leave and let her use the river and trail for whatever somnolent purpose she pleased.
Well I still have to tell you about what life here in Brooks Camp is like and what I have been up to for the past week, but that will have to wait. Coming up: pictures from my climb up Mt. Dumpling (as soon as I can mail the film to someone to get developed and put on the internet). For now, meet Divot:
* thanks again to my coworker John Castor for this picture of Divot and the previous picture bears fishing (from last year). John is a semi-professional photographer who has been nice enough to let me use some of his pictures while I try to figure out a way to get my anachronistic rolls of film developed. You can check out his blog, with lots more good photos, at jonnyhorizon.blogspot.com.