by Hugh Bevan

In an average year the coastal grizzlies of Southeast Alaska begin appearing on the beaches in mid to late April. However, this past winter was very warm and spring vegetation that normally emerges in late April was up and green at the end of March. 

Last Monday my friend Lee and I walked up one of our river valleys to check for signs of bear that had been digging skunk cabbage and other spring root plants. When bears leave their winter dens they seek certain plants that have enzymes that will re-start the bear's digestive system after  it has been shut down for the winter. 

Grizzly trail and rub tree

Several miles up the valley there is a meadow that has an ancient bear trail crossing it. By stepping in the exact same tracks year after year the bears have worn holes in the ground six inches deep.

At the center of the meadow is a bear marker tree. Brown bears mark certain trees by rubbing on them so they will leave a scent trail for following bears. This behavior helps the usually solitary sows and boars find each other during the spring mating season. And it helps sows with cubs discover the presence of a nearby adult male so they can avoid him. Males eat cubs.

Grizzly rubbing on tree

Over the past few years my Karelian dog has found two yearling grizzlies that were ripped to pieces by larger bears. It is a sobering experience to come upon one of these kill sites in the rainforest.

But the really interesting part of this particular bear trail is that it ends at the edge of a very deep pond, so deep the water appears black and you can see it on Google Earth. The trail does not go around the pond so the only conclusion I can make is the grizzlies intentionally swim this little lake.

Grizzly trail ends at lake

Situations like this remind me that the brown bears of Southeast Alaska are directly, genetically linked to the Polar Bear. Our bears are great swimmers, maybe not Polar Bear great, but swimming a half mile-wide ocean channel between islands is not a big deal for the rainforest grizzly.