Spring Black Bears on the Yukon River

Posted May 26, 2020 at 8:14 am by

Image by 272447 from Pixabay

FREEZER BURNED: Tales of Inte­ri­or Alas­ka is a new reg­u­lar col­umn on the San Juan Update writ­ten by Steve Ulvi…

After grit­ting through anoth­er sub-arc­tic win­ter, there was cel­e­bra­to­ry plea­sure in first ply­ing the roil­ing, wood-strewn waters of the Yukon Riv­er in spring. The boat sea­son fol­lowed sev­en to ten days of heavy run­ning ice. The big show was over. Skim­ming the wide water was an inde­scrib­able feel­ing of freedom.

Of course, there was prepa­ra­tion: uncov­er­ing the old out­board, haul­ing riv­er water to fill a rusty drum, chamois fil­ter­ing stored gas, greas­ing the low­er unit, check­ing this and that, then with some nec­es­sary cussing get­ting it to run smooth­ly.   Then to wres­tle it over the ice to get it onto the tran­som. A canoe could get us to town in a pinch, but lin­ing back upriv­er wouldn’t be pos­si­ble for quite some time.

There was a reshuf­fled land­scape to be reck­oned with. After a high­wa­ter, bank to bank break­out 600 yards across, the riv­er can quick­ly drop sev­er­al feet as the melt­wa­ter surge sub­sides, leav­ing a jum­ble of car-sized ice blocks mashed along the shores and back sloughs to melt in place. 

Some­times the unsta­ble pal­isades were 15 feet high. Launch­ing even a small river­boat was ten­u­ous, chop­ping and tum­bling ice to ease a hull to the water. Once on the water with the 1960s two-stroke Evin­rude hum­ming, find­ing a good place to land was dicey.   Round­ed hunks of sol­id ice ride low in the water, mature trees with roots cart­wheel down the shore, ice walls col­lapse, sat­u­rat­ed silt can suck your gum­boots down and there is lit­tle on which to tie a boat. You nev­er knew what you might find, until you got there.

Check­ing the mail at the post office that served the area pop­u­la­tion of 175 (infor­ma­tion cen­tral) and buy­ing treats for the kids who stayed at home, came first, but the casu­al min­gling in the vil­lage and small town was reju­ve­nat­ing after a month of seclu­sion. The “riv­er grapevine” was vital to under­stand­ing how peo­ple had faired at oth­er remote homesteads. 

Grim tales of folks up in large trees, or hud­dled on a cab­in roof with their dogs for a day or two while flood waters inex­orably rose and then rapid­ly drained leav­ing much of what they owned in sog­gy ruin, were not uncom­mon. Canoe­ing to high ground through the for­est was an option for those who had pre­pared for dire straits. With the long grav­el road open from town to the Alas­ka High­way since late March, there was also region­al news, some unfa­mil­iar faces, and a few mud­dy rigs with out of state license plates.

The warm, damp air was rich with renewed odors. Greenup for the expans­es of bank wil­low, paper birch and poplar was still to come. Bare limbs rat­tled in the riv­er winds. Cool nights, most­ly ethe­re­al twi­light real­ly, made a crack­ling camp­fire feel good on a damp back­side. Hap­pi­ly, there were still weeks of respite before the first pes­ter­ing by over-win­tered mos­qui­tos. Scat­tered flights of water­fowl raced by on whistling wings. Orga­nized skeins of honkers and con­stant­ly reform­ing flocks of Sand­hill Cranes, unchanged for ten mil­lion years, pep­pered the sky. Small gyres of song birds flowed like smoke along the tree line. Most of these exu­ber­ant birds were head­ing to age-old nest­ing areas far­ther north still.

About the time that the riv­er was rot­ting out in the relent­less warmth, drip­ping water and inter­nal bio­log­i­cal clocks wak­ened the crea­tures of the taiga that have evolved ele­gant phys­i­o­log­i­cal strate­gies for elud­ing death in win­ter. They emerged reborn into the bright light and new sea­son­al cycles. Among them, bears are the largest crea­tures to hiber­nate, with cubs born in the dank­ness of the den.

We came to know black bears as a fas­ci­nat­ing and ben­e­fi­cial crea­ture in our expan­sive neigh­bor­hood of riv­er, mixed for­est and rum­pled uplands crowned with a few sculpt­ed peaks. We called them “black­ies” or “for­est pigs” with respect. Along with the sto­ried griz­zly bears, they wan­dered tire­less­ly fol­low­ing their incred­i­ble sense of smell (many times more sen­si­tive than a blood hound). The larg­er, hump-shoul­dered griz tend to spend more time in the more aus­tere sub­alpine, unpeo­pled and where ground squir­rels bur­row and gyre fal­cons slash into ptarmi­gan nois­i­ly feed­ing in wil­low patches.

Black bears are clas­sic omni­vores who ingest almost any­thing (ants, lar­vae, bird eggs, rush­es, berries, rot­ted car­rion, mush­rooms, fish, the new­born of moose and cari­bou, axle grease, snow machine seats, cab­in goods, and very rarely a human, and so on).   They are gen­er­al­ly timid and small­ish as might be expect­ed giv­en the cli­mate: aver­ag­ing 250 pounds, liv­ing about 15 years, and birthing 1–3 cubs every oth­er year. Boars are soli­tary and about one in three bears is a “cin­na­mon brown” col­or phase. Since there are no salmon streams for long stretch­es of the mid­dle Yukon Riv­er, bears do not gorge on spawn­ing fish nor tol­er­ate con­gre­gat­ing. More impor­tant­ly to us, their rich flesh and fat was unsul­lied by a fishy tang.

This vast riv­er coun­try is the tra­di­tion­al home­land of Atha­paskan groups where bears, espe­cial­ly griz­zlies, are pow­er­ful crea­ture spir­its to be treat­ed with great respect.   The taboos are many and to be close­ly fol­lowed. Some groups, or even dif­fer­ent vil­lages with­in the same area, may not active­ly hunt bears for food depend­ing on spe­cif­ic cul­tur­al prac­tices, per­son­al pref­er­ences and avail­abil­i­ty of fish, moose or caribou. 

Some vil­lagers search for dens in late win­ter and kill the bear as it comes out in reac­tion to being wak­ened by being prod­ded with a pole. A bit dicey to say the least. How­ev­er, many peo­ple shunned bear flesh say­ing that a skinned bear reminds them of a human body. Few native peo­ple or town dwellers active­ly hunt­ed black bears, while many of us liv­ing out on the riv­er inten­tion­al­ly sought them. Need­ed them. Espe­cial­ly in the spring after hav­ing lit­tle fresh meat for months.

Then there is the all-impor­tant geo­mor­phol­o­gy: the Holocene glac­i­ers were mon­tane and not in the big val­ley due to extreme­ly dry-cold weath­er which result­ed in an ice-free cor­ri­dor up the Yukon Riv­er drainage. The long, south­east­er­ly trend­ing val­ley, vis­i­ble from space, led from the fabled Bering Land Bridge to the tem­per­ate zone. The with­ered extent of “arc­tic steppe tun­dra”, a tree­less veg­e­ta­tive com­mu­ni­ty that once sup­port­ed the huge mam­mals of the Pleis­tocene, exists today in rem­nant patch­es on south-fac­ing slopes too hot and dry for for­est incur­sion. These are per­fect, “blow the intesti­nal plug” habi­tat that attracts emer­gent black bears from as far away as 20 miles. The heat of the longish days of May finds the bears, still with un-shed win­ter coats and often plen­ty fat, laz­ing in the shady patch­es of for­est and wait­ing for cool­er evenings to graze.

Choos­ing a camp site was all about good views of this type of slope habi­tat. Bonus points for a fresh water stream and ground­ed-ice near­by, dry stand­ing fire­wood and an easy boat land­ing. Some­times a rest­ed rifle shot could be made from an island camp, but usu­al­ly not. Often, the best approach was to qui­et­ly motor upstream, then silent­ly drift by. Some­times there was no choice but to care­ful­ly (an alu­minum hull is a drum) go ashore to stalk a bear that could no longer be seen feed­ing some­where above. 

A low angle light bathed every­thing, cloud shad­ows bruised the bluffs and band­ed cliffs erod­ed from tor­tured earth his­to­ry.   Often tra­di­tion­al nest­ing sites of pere­grine fal­cons graced these heights. From them fal­cons fold­ed on tucked wings and slammed migrat­ing ducks from the air over the riv­er. Wings pump­ing, corkscrew­ing up and up, yel­low-talon feet grip­ping the prey, the burly female returned to the eager kaak-kaak­ing of her mate echo­ing off the rock. The descend­ing flute-like song of the Swainson’s thrush rip­pled, repeat­ed by scores of their kind, up and down the the wide riv­er in the wee hours. That melan­choly trilling is still my oth­er­world­ly link with spring bear hunting.

First to show in the per­sis­tent dusk or dur­ing the pass­ing of a cool­ing rain show­er, might well be a hun­gry sow with tum­bling cubs, seek­ing fresh bulbs and grass­es. A plea­sure to watch and not legal or eth­i­cal to hunt. Hours of care­ful scan­ning with 10X binocs and a rifle scope, from dif­fer­ent van­tages near camp, reveal many details to a hunter.   Steep, unsta­ble slopes, espe­cial­ly those hun­dreds of yards high, dis­cour­age a dif­fi­cult blind stalk, maybe side­hill butcher­ing and two dicey trips pack­ing hide and meat down. A mean­der­ing bear on the shore, or one emerg­ing from the riv­er, was a more like­ly gift.

When liv­ing among large, dan­ger­ous ani­mals a woods­man near­ly always has a rifle at hand, so bears unex­pect­ed­ly wan­der­ing into camp, dig­ging in the gar­den or try­ing to get into cached fish can become food. But don’t think for a moment that these chance encoun­ters were all easy; dogs ‘bear bark­ing’ with laser focus toward an invis­i­ble place 70 yards away, wind lash­ing the big spruce in the black­ness of an over­cast August night, eas­ing between trees with a flash­light and a car­tridge cham­bered, toward heav­i­ly-laden fish racks on the riv­er bank look­ing for eye-shine. Bear eye-shine.

For us, spring black bear was a prized meat: the dark flesh was juicy and tasty, the intestines per­fect for camp­fire cook­ing on a stick or as sausage cas­ings, the hide still lux­u­ri­ous. Beyond the edi­ble organs, the icing on the cake was plen­ty of hard fat, at best over 2 inch­es thick, per­fect for ren­der­ing into clear, notice­ably sweet cook­ing lard. Bear sausage and canned meat made for deeply sat­is­fy­ing stored food. Home-made donuts or fry bread were cooked in a ket­tle of super-heat­ed bear lard on the wood­stove with­out smoking.

Of the many bears that we crossed paths with, hunt­ing them most­ly in the spring and some­times around fall berry patch­es, a favorite mem­o­ry is of boat­ing home after a few days away one spring, and being sur­prised by my wife, Lynette, and our infant daugh­ter, Lena, with a “bad news, good news” tale. Cha­grined, Lynette point­ed to the charred out­house that she had inad­ver­tent­ly torched. With per­fect tim­ing while I stewed, she smiled and steered me over to the creek ice where a ful­ly butchered cin­na­mon bear and all the good­ies were neat­ly laid out.

The sto­ry? She had been at the riv­er bank in our visqueen-cov­ered pole green­house when she noticed a bear stand­ing near the gar­den beds. The bru­in retreat­ed into the trees while she intent­ly strode back up to the cab­in (where our infant daugh­ter napped) to quick­ly grab her old fam­i­ly rifle and unchain a dog. Walk­ing soft­ly along one of our trails, she caught a slight move­ment from the bear screened by leaves, intent­ly watch­ing the dog. Despite the rifle fore­arm com­ing loose, she dropped the loi­ter­ing bear with one shot, and made sure with a cou­ple more, before return­ing to the cab­in for knives, plas­tic sheet­ing and our plucky daugh­ter, all to be hauled along in the wheel­bar­row. As usu­al, there was no one for many miles around, so they had the whole excit­ing sto­ry to them­selves, until my hap­py return.

(next: Water every­where in a sub­arc­tic “Desert”)

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