Bears are often regarded as unpredictable, threatening and dangerous animals. They have the power to topple a tree, break through the wall of a house, or even tear a human to bits with relative ease. However, after years of working closely with the Kodiak bear, I’ve found them to be very intelligent and gentle giants. Numerous times, I’ve witnessed that bears are both inquisitive and contemplative, and also very tolerant.
One September day, I was filming in a forest when a large boar came meandering down the path. Bears are creatures of habit, and he probably walked that path everyday. It was like a picture from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The boar kept a respectful distance, and I understood that it would take some luck and a bit of preparation in order to capture him on film. I decided that I would be there early the next day, set up my camera and wait for the bear to appear.
I returned to the forest just before sunrise and, with great anticipation, focused on the path. He could show up at any moment. It was incredibly quiet in the forest that morning. Only the wind whispered mournfully in the trees, declaring that winter was approaching. Birds and squirrels awoke at first light and began eagerly preparing for winter, but my attention remained riveted on the path where the bear could soon emerge.
When the day was half spent, I dug out my sandwich, consuming it without taking my eyes from the spot where I expected the bear to appear. Afternoon waned into evening, but the bear never showed up. Disappointed, I packed up and hiked back to my tent.
Why hadn’t he come? Could he have already left the area? Had I missed him by one day? Hoping for better luck, I decided to return early the next morning.
Frost glistened in the grass and the air was crisp. The spruce forest slept quietly in the darkness when I set up my camera and sat in solitary silence by the path. When the sun’s rays began to seep through the spruce branches, the forest came to life as the birds and woodland creatures resumed their activities. With each passing hour it became increasingly difficult to remain focused on the path, waiting for a bear that might never return.
Midday, I took out my sandwich. Sitting there quietly chewing, I became aware of a squirrel rushing back and forth quite close to me. He was burying seeds, mushrooms, and cones in small holes that he had dug between the spruce trees. He was so intent on his work that he seemed completely oblivious of my presence. It was entertaining to watch him eagerly filling his winter pantry.
After observing him for a while, I took the camera off the tripod and, placing it right next to one of the squirrel’s holes, settled down to wait. It didn’t take long before he was back, stuffing more winter provisions into the ground. I got some wonderful footage. Lying down across the path, I pushed the camera a little closer to the holes. When the squirrel returned with another load, he nearly jumped into my lens.
The solitude, which had begun to be oppressive, was quickly transformed into curious camaraderie. Another fascinating citizen of the forest had replaced my obsession for the absent bear. I filmed that little squirrel for about two hours. Completely absorbed by his antics, I was unmindful of any movement nearby.
I was waiting for the squirrel to return with another load of seeds when I suddenly perceived that I was being watched. Furtively, I turned my head and glanced over my right shoulder . . . and there he was! The bear stood a foot away, staring down at me where I lay stretched out over his path.
I have often lectured hunters and nature enthusiasts on how to act if you meet a bear in the woods, but this was an unusually close encounter. I concentrated on remaining calm. With my camera in one hand and the tripod in the other, I slithered over the squirrel’s pantry, keeping one eye on the bear. His puzzled gaze followed my peculiar movements. Half expecting him to pounce at any moment, I raised myself to a crawl and then, in a crouched walk, proceeded in a large half circle to return to the path about 30 yards in front of the bear.
Back on the path, I noticed that the bear hadn’t moved. I set up my tripod, but when I tried to attach the camera, my hands were shaking so badly I couldn’t slide it onto the base.
After two days of waiting, I finally had my chance to capture this bear on film. It was now or never. Exerting great self-control, I managed to still the shaking enough to slide the camera carefully onto the base until it clicked into place. With my eye to the viewfinder, I located and focused on the bear. Just as I pushed the button to start the camera, the bear began lumbering toward me. When he came close, he stopped and waited while I retreated 30 yards to set up and started filming again. We did this three times before the bear proceeded down the path to the river to fish.
I’ve often thought about that bear and wondered how he felt about our encounter on the trail. He was undoubtedly just as surprised as I was and probably also curious about this strange creature stretched out over his path. I’m convinced that he also contemplated just how to react. Bears have an unforeseen ability to think and solve problems, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he realized that I had been waiting for him the whole time.
(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q)
Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.