The Cessna 207 Skywagon descended through the cloud layer and we were shown a landscape of fog shrouded cliffs and miles and miles of mudflats. And in those mudflats were clams. And hunting those clams were thousand pound coastal brown bears, newly awakened and searching for food where they might find it.
On the coast of Katmai National Park, you are about as far from civilization as you can get, so there was no runway. But down we went anyhow, and a long, straight, slightly sloping beach was sufficient for the pilot at Hallo Bay Bear Camp to set us down gently. As we stepped off the plane, a cold wind off the cold water greeted us, so we bundled up with all our clothing and set off down the beach.
A large female brown bear wandered in the distance, and we slowly made our way toward her. The meadows were not yet green, and the salmon had yet to start running to the streams, so these bears on Katmai were focusing on the intertidal delicacies. Razor clams and butter clams were hiding within the mud, and this enormous bear was meandering the flats, sniffing the air for the hidden bivalves. When she got a whiff of one, she would slowly dig down, bring up a clam and then lay herself down on the ground and go to work delicately prying open the shell with her massive paws, careful not to ruin her treat with the grit of sand.
In addition to the clams, these huge bears will also scrape off and eat mouthfuls of tiny barnacles and pacific blue mussels when the rocks are exposed at low tide. In a few more weeks, the sedges (a grass like plant) will green up and they will soon comprise close to half of the bears’ diet at that time. We are awed by these creatures because of their size, and they are defined in our minds by their enormity, yet for the first few months after they wake, they thrive on the most diminutive fare imaginable. They are biding their time, though, for soon they will feast on salmon.
We were lucky to be able to sit near a number of bears that morning, and I commend the guides at Hallo Bay for their diligence in bear interaction etiquette. No animal ever changed its behavior or altered its direction because of our presence. They knew we were there; they saw and heard and smelled us of course, but we became just another component of their daily environment. Not a threat, not a challenge, perhaps a curiosity at most. Just another challenging day of work here at Tutka Bay Lodge.
*A video of a brown bear digging up some clams will follow in the coming days*