Letters from Charlie...

Letters from Charlie...

September 8, 2004

Enjoying summer in July with the ever present Kambalnoye Volcano. The cubs are a lot bigger now!

All five cubs are drawn to a rock in the lake where Kamchatka rhododendron are growing.

Reno is a Swiss Chef with papers to prove it.

Sheena and Sky use the top bunk and Geena is on the floor.

(Click on any Image to see a higher resolution version)



Hi from Kambalnoye Lake,

This past week I have been asking myself why I keep doing this? We had come to the critical time in this reintroduction process when the cubs are very vulnerable. It is that time when they are not safe on their own, but insist on being independent. The inevitable bittersweet outcome of working with bears the way I have chosen to do in Kamchatka, has weighed heavy all week. They had almost forced us to give them some freedom and it turned out to be an extremely stressful few days for all of us.

I mentioned in my last letter that there is one male bear’s territory that includes the lakeshore near the cabin. Now that the pine nuts are ripening, he spends time in the pines around the cabin and the cub pen. If it were not for his obvious interest in the cubs, I would say that he had perfect manners. We walk by him to get pails of water from the lake and he pays us only polite interest with no sign of aggression at all. But he seems to be looking for a chance to get our cubs.

Once when we left for a walk in the evening with them, he came in behind us on our trail and followed. When we ran to try to get far ahead, he ran to catch up. When we tried to make a circle to get back home he cut across the arc through the alders and showed up at our side, cutting our home route off and turning us away again. He stays about 30 meters away. This is not the only time we have had aggressive encounters with males, and this time as usual the cubs got very afraid and came close to us, milling around our legs. Their behavior was perfect. Whatever we said to them seemed to register and it is very interesting being treated like a mother grizzly at critical times like this. Eventually we ducked around a hill and got back to the cabin and their electric fenced pen. They understand that the cub yard provides them safety from such bears but lately has created a paradox for them, because there is also a strong need to be free. Finally, we worked out a way to get away from the cabin and the lake where he and four other males hang out, to where we can walk for many kilometers and rarely have encounters.

Buck has been a problem. He gets very lazy and refuses to keep up unless the male is on our trail. His sister, Sky often worries about him and will go back and try to get him to catch up. She will move in behind and chase him or say something to him, then go on ahead and he will than often follow. It is very disruptive to our walks, but we all love him. He is a character.

One day Sky dug out under the fence and we found them in the lake swimming and took them on a long walk, which extended almost to darkness. Finally with about 1 1⁄2 km yet to go they refused to go any farther. It was a definite statement that they wanted us to leave them be on their own. We knew the time had come when they had to be given that freedom. We reluctantly left and spent a worry filled night and day waiting for them. Twenty-four hours later, they all came home. The next time was the same, and we again let them stay out because that area was almost devoid of other bears. They were all at the lake eating salmon. The next day was clear and we went to find them, but there was no sign.

The following day a storm rolled in with thick fog. Late in the evening, using our precise knowledge of the area so as not to get lost, we went out on different routes calling into the gloom, but with no luck. However, when we returned to the cabin Geena was there alone and very nervous. Where were the rest? From the roof of the cabin we called at the top of our lungs into the darkness and fog and eventually we saw Sheena’s black form standing on the trail, barely visible. She was afraid of her sister when Geena tried to greet her and they both disappeared into the blackness. In absolute darkness at midnight we heard them come back and we went out with our flashlights to see if the others were there too. They were not.

The weather got better and in the morning we shut the gate on the two bears we still had and spent the day hiking and looking, but did not find the other three. At 9 PM I was warming up some leftovers when Reno called from our lookout on the roof. “I see them” and I was up there in seconds. High on Rosie Mountain, across the lake, two cubs were heading up hill while a black male followed some distance behind. We grabbed our pepper spray and ran for the boat. As fast as we could we sped for the opposite side of the lake.

Reno will now tell you what happened next from the pages of his log.

Saving Sky and Wilder
It was shocking and sad to think that a predatory male bear may have killed Buck. But Buck, Sky and Wilder being siblings, they usually stayed close together. However, after observing Sky and Wilder across the lake from the cabin on the high scree slopes of Rosie Mountain, with that male luring below them our conclusion was the obvious one; he had been killed. These were certainly hard hitting and sobering news but at the same time it felt very invigorating to have found at least two of the missing three cubs again.

I knew while I was climbing up the steep north slope of Rosie Mountain that I had to be careful so not to scare Sky and Wilder anymore and as a result push them higher up. For all we knew this predatory male bear had been chasing them for two days or even more. It seemed difficult to find a good medium between hollering and screaming at the male bear trying to make him turn away from pursuing the cubs and from reassuring Sky and Wilder with a friendly voice that we were there to bring them home. But I think that they had well identified us and therefore understood why we were scrambling up this steep slope, while screaming bloody murder at that mean predator. Finally the male could not take our insults, containing surely some of the foulest language ever to echo off the mountains surrounding Kambalnoye Lake, any longer and veered off the cubs’ trail. He quickly disappeared over the next ridge in an alder choked gully. While Charlie was puffing his way up from below on his way to catch up, I gingerly approached Sky and Wilder, constantly talking to them, hoping they would trust us enough to lead them safely off the mountain and home.

Sky and I have developed somewhat of a special relationship over these past weeks and it was her that approached me once I had reached the two bears. I held out one hand for her to smell and identify me. She liked what she smelled and in turn held out her paw for me to lock fingers with the claws, our usual greeting. But this time she kept holding up that paw and did not want me to let go.

A Spectacular Setting
Yesterday will likely remain one of the most memorable days of this summer for me. Besides the extreme excitement of first locating and than retrieving Sky and Wilder again from the top of Rosie Mountain, the landscape below and all around us was soaked in a most mellifluous light.

The leaves of bear berry changed from dark green to a deep saturated red as we gained in elevation. Far below to the west the Kambalnoye River was snaking its way through the tundra aglow in a warming mauve, with the setting sun dipping slowly below a fog bank that stretched along the west coast of the Sea of Okhotsk. The perfect snow capped cone of Alaida volcano, one of to the first three Kuril Islands, hung suspended between a glittering sea and the orange sky on the distant horizon. A swimming bear was sending ripples across the still surface of Kambalnoye Lake while snorkeling for fish. The tranquility was absolute. There was magic in the air wherever I turned.

The day ended gloriously, even with the loss of our friend Buck. Having four of five cubs again after the last few days of worry was almost more than what we could have hoped for.

Buck’s Amazing Reappearance
This morning as I was writing down my thoughts about yesterdays drama on the flanks of Rosie Mountain, I asked Charlie if he was planning to mention Buck’s tragic disappearance in the next web update. We both thought that it may be a little premature but agreed that in case “Bucky” would make an unexpected and miraculous reappearance we could always send out an update in the following web entry. You have to understand that in our books, Buck did not have great chances to survive for very long. He has been a lazy bear, without showing much enthusiasm, joy or energy over the previous months. There wasn't a walk where we did not have to wait for him to catch up. These qualities are fine to have for an adult bear, but being a cub with these traits, chances to get away from a large male would be almost zero. But today during an afternoon walk with Geena, Sheena, Sky and Wilder the miracle occurred.

We were moving along the lakeshore at the base of Biscuit Mountain, located across the lake from where we found Sky and Wilder, when Sheena found a dead spawned out sockeye salmon in the surf. The fish had already lost most of its bright red skin pigmentation and was dripping not only with water but also with its own decomposing flesh. Like a good French citizen that likes his cheese ripe to the point where it is running off the plate, bears often like their salmon ripe. With the fish in her jaws, its tail flapping against the cubs’ face, Sheena sped through a meadow of tender green ferns and purple geranium, trying to defend the catch against the rest of the gang.

They all ended up-slope from shore just above one of the last remaining snowdrifts around the lake. While the four squabbled over who would take the first bite, Charlie spotted a single bear far above peering down at us. The animal looked like a young, curious bear that was interested to find out what the co-motion was all about. Soon the cubs’ keen noses picked up the scent of this bear. To our surprise they lost interest in the slimy fish, dropped it and began to pursuit the invisible scent trail of the bear above. Soon our cubs had reached the ledge this bear was standing on at which point we realized that it was no bigger than our own cubs. Now it began to dawn on us that this bear may indeed be Buck. Our last doubts faded after the five bears met with much excitement and descended back down to us. Charlie and I were in awe and after high-fiving like two teenagers after a home run we kept repeating to each other this most astonishing fact that Buck was back.

So while the day before we drank a toast to Buck, our lost friend,this evening we lifted our glasses full of vodka to welcome him back to our happy family.

Bye For Now,

© Pacific Rim Grizzly Bear Co-Existence Study, 2004