Bears in the Darkness: Encounters with a Real Alaskan Giant

I woke up to the sound of a large brown bear crackling through the brush near my tent. It was early April and I was guiding a small natural history film crew to an island in southeast Alaska. At the beginning of the three weeks of filming, our main objective was to capture a video of brown bears feeding on a humpback whale carcass. I grabbed my flare gun and my .44 pistol, unzipped the tent, and crawled out into the dark night.

The bear stopped at 7 meters, then took another step. He showed no signs of agitation. His breathing was regular. There was no huffing, snapping of jaws or growling. He knew he was safe and had the advantage of darkness. Another step or two and I would have slowly stood up and gently suggested that he leave. But I felt the bear turn away. Branches snapped and cracked as he slowly sank deeper into the rainforest. I waited outside the tent for 10 minutes, listening to the silence of the falling snow.

I wondered if the bear had been “the giant”. I had seen huge brown bear tracks nearby when my two companions and I had set up camp a few days before. The prints were bigger than any tracks I had ever seen – and I’ve worked with brown bears for over a decade, starting by guiding wildlife photographers and working only with natural history film crews over the last years. I spend most of my time in Southeast Alaska, but have also explored parts of Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula, where the largest brown bears live in North America. The giant was an anomaly, a mountain of bears, a beast more often seen in nightmares than in reality.

In the gray dawn, I studied the tracks of previous visitors in the snow and on the nearby black sand beach. It was early in the year for the bears. Most of those we had seen so far were adult males, who wake up the earliest. Females, especially those with young, usually emerge from their dens in May. Last night’s camp visitor had been a very large buck – probably a 9ft bear – but it wasn’t the giant, who was easily a foot taller.

Huge schools of herring had spawned in the strait and turned the water milky. The beach near our camp was covered with a few feet of herring roe. Eggs are traditionally harvested by Southeast Alaska Native people and commercial fleets and they are a delicious delicacy, so I was concerned that the bears would congregate to feast. Last night’s bear had walked through the egg piles but hadn’t eaten any. Amazingly, we wouldn’t see any evidence of bears feeding on herring roe in the days to come.

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We were exposed to the stormy expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Wind and snow alternating with rain hammered us for the first 10 days. We endured the elements, staking out the whale carcass when the wind was blowing from the south. When the wind shifted to the north, we changed location and hid downwind of a dead sea lion that the stormy sea had thrown high on the beach. The bears came out mostly at night. We saw half a dozen at dusk and dawn, but couldn’t get any usable footage. Some were big bucks, but none were the giant.

The weather broke and spring arrived overnight. Hundreds of gray whales have arrived to feed on herring eggs attached to any solid surface under the ocean. We met two guys who work for fish and game keeping an eye on winter kill deer. They were blown away by the number of gray whales. The migrating shorebirds were resting and picking up the egg mounds. The Sitka black-tailed deer emerged from the forest and skimmed the high tide line. It looked like they too were eating kelp covered in herring roe. The bears are generally most active at dusk and dawn, so we would generally do the 2 mile hike from whale carcass to camp in the dark. Sometimes we were treated to the Northern Lights filtering green above the snow-capped mountains.

With each passing day, I thought more about the giant. Every night I prayed for him to come out of the woods. Big bears are usually very shy, but I figured he would visit the whale carcass once in a while. We met a couple from a nearby community who had traveled to the island by boat to hike. Both were carrying large handguns and seemed a bit concerned for our safety. When I mentioned the giant they knew exactly which bear I was talking about. They hadn’t seen him, but they had come across his tracks over the years. They had also heard stories. One was how he harassed deer hunters who said he looked like he had a small head because his body was so huge. At night, I fell asleep thinking of him. I imagined his carcass moving in the dark and wondered what he was doing at the time.

The film crew had gotten a lot of good stuff, but morale was a little low because we hadn’t gotten the bears to feed on the whale yet. I had filmed dead whales for the past two years, later in the season, and they were crawling with brown bears. It was early but I was surprised there wasn’t more bear activity. We spent long hours hidden 70 meters behind a pile of logs near the whale. Often you could hear something in the brush. Sometimes a big bear would stick its head out, survey the beach, then disappear again. This big bear was probably keeping the others away. I wondered if it was the giant.

Alaskan Brown Bear (3)

On the 17th day, just as the sun was setting, two bears emerged from the forest and headed for the whale at the same time. One was a good sized male and the other was smaller, probably 7 or 8 years old. They were nervous; it soon became apparent that the source of their fear was another bear just inside the guard wood. The bushes creaked as the invisible bear moved to where it had probably been lying for some time. I guessed it was the giant. The two bears coming towards the whale were using us as a buffer. They thought the giant would leave them alone and give them a chance to feed with us there. The larger of the two claimed the whale and began to feed. Every now and then the smaller bear would approach and try to feed, but the larger bear would push it away.

The bush creaked. I could viscerally feel how pissed off the giant was about other bears eating his whale. The smaller bear approached us. I hoped the bushes would explode and the giant would swoop in to claim the whale. But he was too smart for that. We filmed until it was so dark we could barely see, but the giant never showed up.

A few days later, on one of the last evenings, we were staked by the whale when a gigantic bear poked its head out of the wood 300 meters away. It was just after sunset and he was panting hard, a sign of restlessness that was 100% related to our presence. Once again I guessed he was the giant, though I couldn’t be sure. It was way too far and it was too dark to film.

We were on pins and needles, hoping it would come out in the open. He just sat there, panting, occasionally lifting his nose to the breeze and waiting. Minutes passed as the falling darkness slowly erased our hope. With little light left to see, let alone film, he descended from the forest like a towering shadow moving through the darkness.

Alaskan brown bear (1)

There was no hesitation or much bluster. A lot of grown men walk like cowboys, but he knew he was king. He climbed on the whale and stared at us for long moments before lowering his head to eat. I shouldered my heavy bag and then backed away, watching the giant tear the carcass until I could no longer distinguish him from the darkness.

Helen L. Cuellar