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”)

You can support the San Juan Update by doing business with our loyal advertisers, and by making a one-time contribution or a recurring donation.

No comments yet. Be the first!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

By submitting a comment you grant the San Juan Update a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution. Inappropriate, irrelevant and contentious comments may not be published at an admin's discretion. Your email is used for verification purposes only, it will never be shared.

Receive new post updates: Entries (RSS)
Receive followup comments updates: RSS 2.0