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GYRE Expedition – Day 5- Bearing Witness; Witnessing Bears. Act 2 (Wednesday, June 12)

A mile down the beach and a mile out on the flat more-or-less, another mother trails three cubs from clam-hole to clam-hole. When she spots a big dark male headed her way from half a mile away, she moves off, in a hurry and a worry, frequently glancing over her shoulder and occasionally breaking into...

Rest and Reassurance Photo: Carl Safina
Rest and Reassurance
Photo: Carl Safina

A mile down the beach and a mile out on the flat more-or-less, another mother trails three cubs from clam-hole to clam-hole. When she spots a big dark male headed her way from half a mile away, she moves off, in a hurry and a worry, frequently glancing over her shoulder and occasionally breaking into a slow-bounding run that her cubs work hard to match.

Males sometimes kill cubs. For about 45 minutes she continues moving while he, frequently sniffing their trail, follows, closing the gap. He looks huge, the hump on his shoulder thick and high as a buffalo’s. I’d be scared to see him trailing me. And she shares that sentiment.

She goes pretty far down the beach and he gives up his idle pursuit and comes up the beach and over the berm and into the meadow, where we lose track.

She immediately relaxes, and starts digging clams with what’s left of the low tide; rising water is swallowing her shellfish buffet. In binoculars and camera, I admire the blond shine of her head and the dark burnished back of her neck to the deep fur of her dark shoulders.

All the activity has tired out her little cubs. They take little naps, resting their chins on their paws, as their mother digs. As she moves, they rouse and trail her closely, then as she digs again, they plop again. They’re exhausted.

Everybody's Tired Photo: Carl Safina
Everybody’s Tired
Photo: Carl Safina

Kip Evans, J.J. Kelley, and I walk down the beach toward her, duck over the berm so as not to bother her, and re-emerge at the point where she is straight out from us on the flat 100 yards away. She seemed so hopelessly distant when we first saw her, and now here she is, coming toward the beach as the tide eats up her dinner table.

The cubs nap more, and then she, too, lies down and closes her eyes. Every few minutes she checks her world. You know she worries about males; males are all she has to worry about right now.

The tide wets her cubs and wakes them. Then rouses her.

The whole GYRE shore-party plus rangers has now caught up with us, and we’re all assembled in one group.

The mother bear walks directly towards us. A grizzly and three cubs, walking directly towards us. A ranger tells us to bunch closer.

She comes right over the berm with her babes, immediately alongside the logs we’re sitting on, just a few feet from us all, looking enormous and gorgeous, her cubs perfect and adorable and curious. She move a little past and stops to graze less than 60 feet away.

She is stuffing her jaws with salad as her babies look over at us, standing for a better look in the tall grass. One of them, seeking a height advantage, climbs its mother’s back for a better look at us.

The mama bear is completely relaxed, and I have an idea why. I think she came to our group for the same reason we’re grouped: safety in numbers. In our presence, she can let down her guard. Any male would think twice about coming over here with all of us around. Calmly she munches, again moving a little closer.

And of our group, I am closest to her. I feel not the slightest fear. She is completely mellowed out. A little bit of a meeting of minds, perhaps? Perhaps not. But the proximity is her choice, and it’s my preference, so yes, perhaps.

She is now very close. I can clearly see the flies she’s scaring up, that’s how close. And the deep pile of her fur, and the scruffy light hairs on the cubs’ capes.

After eating a while, she decides to go from us, walking along a deep bear trail across the meadow, her cubs in a trailing train. She tops a rise, and when she gets over, it’s over.

I turn. Andy is streaming tears. I give him a hug. He puts on his sunglasses, turns away, and wipes his eyes. J.J.’s eyes are wet too. At least half our people are wiping their faces, breaking into nervous laughs. The chatter of humans returns.

What a gift, in this national park, where people come to bear-witness and no person hunts or seeks to harm them and they understand they are safe from us and they respond accordingly. Soon the salmon will come running and summer will turn fat enough to grow the biggest Brown Bears on Earth, in some of the densest numbers. These bears have hit the lottery. They are rich and privileged bears. And lucky ones.

Curious About The World Photo: Carl Safina
Curious About The World
Photo: Carl Safina

Our relationship with nature is so distorted and often so full of harm and hazard. I did not mind an unnatural encounter so full—for a change—of peace and appreciation. If that could be all that was unnatural, I’d be all for it. I was grateful that our mother bear did not seem to hold against us the tons of trash we’d sent to her babies’ beach. Nor did she thank us for removing it. Nor should she.

That’s the way it should be.



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Meet the Author

Carl Safina
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.