I had a hunch when Shelly and I were planning our 59 National Park in 59 weeks tour that wildlife would be center stage. I knew that the buffalo would roam in Yellowstone, that the tropical fish would dance in the Virgin Islands and that the alligators would swim in the Everglades. I wasn't so certain about bears. I knew that we would be in their neighborhoods. I also knew that they were elusive, hard to see. In my years as an outdoors adventurer I had seen exactly one Black Bear. He was the local dump bear in the Western Ontario town of Hudson. Hardly a romantic vision of bears in the wild.
Nevertheless, we were "loaded for bear" bringing our best cameras and zoom lenses when we first departed for the National Parks. The first best opportunity for bears was at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. The Park delivered.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
We saw six Black Bears in four days at the Smokies. We were so exited to see the first one, less excited as we hit the trails. We had no "bear experience" while hiking but were armed with the following advice:
*Make noise on the trail.
*Keep food under wraps.
*Never feed a bear. A fed bear is a dead bear.
*If we encountered a bear, back away slowly. Never run from a bear.
*If attacked, play dead. (For Grizzlies fighting back is suggested)
*Never get close to a bear. 100 yards was the suggested distance.
We did not carry bear spray.
We saw and photographed six bears in the Smokies. This male (photo at top of blog post) was cooperative as he stayed in an open meadow and scavenged for at least thirty minutes.
Excited, we didn't think we would be able to top this sighting.
Shenandoah National Park
Virginia has bears? We didn't know. Almost immediately upon entering the Park for the first time pay dirt! We spotted some black spots in the still barren Virginian April forest along Skyline Drive. A sow Black Bear was tending to two cubs. These bears were approximately 300 yards away. The female was climbing trees to nibble tender new leaf growth while the two cubs clamored for her attention. At one point, she came to the bottom of a tree to nurse them.
This was such an incredible capture, we thought that we had our shot, nothing could improve on this once-in-a-lifetime moment.
On our final day at Shenandoah, we drove back to camp around dusk on Skyline Road. In the distance we noticed a couple of black spots high in a tree. As we drew closer we knew it was a female bear with a cub.
At the exact point the bears were at the road was elevated. The tops of the trees were at eye level along the road. As we pulled up, the two bears were right there, maybe fifteen feet from our passenger door. The whole encounter lasted maybe twenty seconds. The mother bear took Junior and they got out of there. We managed to capture this:
While we were close (maybe too close), we were in the car at all times during this episode. No one, including the bears, was in any danger.
We left Shenandoah National Park having photographed nine bears in four days. Later in the Summer, we would see eight bears in Alaska in three weeks.
Glacier National Park
We visited Glacier National Park, Montana at the end of June--before most of the Going to the Sun Road had opened. We were told the bears were still up high. Our chances of seeing any bears, much less a Grizzly were limited.
We traveled to Glacier with our 17 year old niece and one of her youthful friends in tow. They were bored. No social media. As we pulled into the Two Medicine area they voiced their displeasure with no bear sightings. I told them that this looked like the perfect area and that if I was a bear that this was the where I would live. Be patient, I urged. They are nice young women and I was glad that they didn't verbalize what was really on there minds. Fortunately they didn't have to wait long. This large male Black Bear rumbled in from the woods and crossed the road immediately in front of us. How did you know? they asked in amazement.
This hungry male put on quite a show for us by turning over rocks and foraging in a creek for food. We was gone in about 30 seconds.
Denali National Park
Denali National Park is on another level. Mt. McKinley dominates the landscape and the abundant Caribou and Moose made us forget about seeing bears. The place is so breathtaking that we forgot about our bear quest. Still, Denali delivered with eight bear sightings (all Grizzlies) the day we shuttled the 92 miles across the Park. This bear shadowed our bus for several minutes.
For each bear sighting, we and everyone else was in a Park designated shuttle. No one was ever in any danger.
Katmai National Park
Katmai National Park, Alaska is the Brown Bear capitol of North America. (FYI Browns and Grizzlies are the same animal. Grizzlies, like the ones at Denali live inland and are largely herbivores. Alaskan Brown Bears live along the coast and gorge on Salmon each year. They can weigh 800 pounds more than their inland cousins). Katmai is the home of Brooks Falls below. You have seen the photos and videos of bears as they congregate to catch the migrating salmon here, right?
The bear safety briefing upon our arrival to Katmai was in a word, disconcerting. The Ranger sternly warned us how even the slightest scent of food on the trail to Brooks Falls would attract hungry Browns. That the Park picnic and camping areas were secured by electric fences didn't help with our anxiety either. I swear each Ranger was packing three cans of bear spray. We considered waiting in the Visitor Center until our plane left.
That day, at the most iconic place in America to see bears, the Browns had deserted Brooks Falls. We didn't see or photograph one bear. We recognize that bear sightings are not guaranteed. We were happy with just being in such a magical place. Others, especially Park guests from other countries, expressed their dismay loudly to the Rangers and to the tour operator. Remember if you book this pricey tour to Katmai to enjoy the moment whether the Brown Bears are active or not.
It turns out that Canada has bears too. We spotted this one east of Skagway, Alaska as she dined on berries along the side of the road.
We do believe this was a female with at least one cub. We saw something small and black rattling around in the brush just behind her.
Sequoia National Park
We went to Sequoia to see the "Big Giants"--the 1000 year old Sequoia trees that dominate the landscape. As we arrived to see General Sherman we noted quite a large crowd near the head of the trail. We suspected immediately that it was a "Bear Jam".
This Black Bear was in fact brown in color--fairly typical of California Black Bears. She had two cubs one black, one brown. On a cautionary note, we admit to getting to close to these California bears. Is was obvious that they were accustomed to seeing people. They stayed around the crowd for quite some time. As we jostled with the crowd to get a better vantage point, we became uncomfortably close. We backed slowly away with purpose. They eventually left unconcerned and unharmed.
As of this writing, Shelly and I have visited 49 of the 59 U.S. National Parks since April 1st, 2014. We have seen and photographed 34 bears. Incredible. We are finishing up our journey in Alaska in June at Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic National Parks. Perhaps we will see a few more bears there. If not, no problem. Our National Parks have so much to offer. We would continue to write glowingly about them even if every bear stayed in its den.