The Alaskan wilderness is my sanctuary. I find refuge in this vast land where the grizzlies still roam. As a professional grizzly bear photographer, I visit the bears each summer and always expect the unexpected. This is the true story of a grizzly named Baylee, a most unusual bear.
Wolverine Creek runs along the snow-capped mountains at the entrance to Lake Clark National Park, a vision of rugged splendor. Towering hemlock and massive Sitka spruce border the creek, which is fed by glacial waters that tumble down roaring waterfalls. With the exception of Redoubt Bay Lodge, my rustic home away from home that holds just eight overnight visitors, there are no public accommodations or campgrounds within 170,000 acres of wilderness.
Anglers, bear-watchers and photographers fly to Wolverine Creek daily via a 50-minute flight from Anchorage. Floatplanes land in nearby Wolverine Lake and tourists join their guides in waiting flatboats. There are no man-made hiking trails and no bear-viewing platforms.
Instead, fishing and viewing take place in the tiny boats, often within a foot or two of hungry grizzlies in search of salmon. The unusually close proximity to the grizzly population has also made the area a haven for wildlife biologists, who are responsible for naming the bears. The biologists assign each grizzly a research number as well as a call name. The first initial of each call name routinely follows the alphabet and often has a personal significance to a particular biologist. Baylee, for example, is the name of the lead biologist’s eldest daughter.
Having visited the creek since summer 2000, I have become familiar with many of its returning residents. The bears come to feed themselves and their young, yet rarely linger during the day. Conditioned to the heavily visited waters, they remain cautious and circumspect in the daylight hours when boats fill the creek. In the evening, however, with the tourists back in their Anchorage hotels, the bears come to enjoy their home. The light of an Alaskan summer evening is a photographer’s Eden, my favorite time to observe and photograph these fascinating creatures.
In this curious setting, filled with the clamor of tourists by day and the sounds of the wild by night, Baylee and her three cubs made their first appearance in summer 2002. The family was new to the area and their arrival was memorable indeed. Unlike the other bears, Baylee appeared to find comfort in the multitude of humans and easily coexisted. She spent the daytime hours in unusually close proximity to the tourists.
Over time it became clear that Baylee not only had conditioned herself to live with humans, but actually sought out their services. Adult male grizzlies tend to stay away from groups of humans, so the summer visitors became Baylee’s “baby-sitters,” protecting her cubs from the male grizzlies that might easily harm them.
As long as boats remained in the water, Baylee and her cubs were in full view. Having Baylee playfully grasp the edges of a tiny flat boat filled with tourists became a daily ritual, and it actually became common to watch Baylee nurse her cubs. In the evening, the human visitors disappeared and so did Baylee and her family.
Although atypical, past wildlife studies have documented these behaviors. The biologists who witnessed this unusual behavior unanimously agreed that Baylee’s actions were deliberate. Baylee purposefully remained close to the humans with the intention of keeping the dangerous male grizzlies away from her cubs.
But Baylee wasn’t the only newcomer that summer. There was another bear.
Having named their last bear “Dove,” the biologists were ready for an “E” name. Due to this other new bear’s small physique, the biologists mistakenly thought it female and named it Emma. Emma was a lone adolescent, about 3 or 4 years old. She seemed to long for the comfort of a family, and began tagging along behind the Baylee family. Where Baylee went, Emma was sure to follow. At first, Baylee would chase her off, yet Emma would always return and stare longingly at the mother grizzly and her three contented cubs.
One day toward the end of summer, Baylee went fishing. She returned to find her three cubs playing with Emma. From that moment forward, Emma became the fifth member of the Baylee family. And as the summer tourists departed, Baylee found a new baby-sitter for her brood. Emma would safeguard the three cubs, leaving Baylee free to fish for her growing family. Baylee appeared quite pleased with the adopted youngster and noticeably cared for her with complete devotion.
The five grizzlies went into hibernation and emerged the following spring as one large family unit. It was soon apparent that the biologists had been mistaken and Emma was in fact Emmett. He was enormous ” at least the size of Baylee ” yet their relationship remained that of mother and cub. Baylee continued to fish for him, nurse him and rescue him from all sorts of trouble.
The family was adventurous and would often explore the dense willows that grow in sections of the cove. The tall willows apparently fascinated Emmett and he spent long periods investigating them. The rest of the family would soon tire and move on, leaving Emmett to explore on his own. Ultimately, this led to cries of terror, until Baylee came to Emmett’s rescue. Baylee would nurse Emmett until he appeared calm. Only then would the family reunite.
Being older and therefore bigger than his three adopted siblings, Emmett was quite the bully, and made a habit of stealing salmon from the cubs. Baylee would immediately reprimand him, which would turn Emmett’s brown coat a bright crimson. One swipe from Baylee would have Emmett covered in his own blood. But the nurturing mother would clean his wounds and affectionately caress her wayward son, all the while nursing him.
Eventually Baylee and Emmett would return to the three waiting cubs, and the five grizzlies would take off on a new adventure. The family was last seen wandering into the wilderness last fall, perhaps searching for a cozy den in which to pass the winter months.
I spent those two summers under the bewitching spell of a captivating bear, her three natural cubs, and her adopted and somewhat inept son. It was a rare opportunity to view the complex personality of an individual grizzly and her family.
Photographs of the Baylee clan adorn the walls of my Carbondale home, a constant reminder of an extraordinary time in my life. The events that I witnessed during those weeks are indelible. The experience illuminated my spirit and humbled my heart, which remains nestled in the Alaskan wilderness with a grizzly bear named Baylee.
Amy Shapira is a professional grizzly bear photographer who sells notecards and prints from her home in Carbondale. She can be reached at http://www.grizzlycovegreetings.com
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