I recently finished guiding six bear viewing trips for Natural Habitat Adventures on Alaska’s Katmai Coast. As usual it was a fantastic year for mother and cubs, and maybe one of the best. I counted at least 9 families in the two bays that we explored during the first half of the summer. I am going to split mom and cub highlights into two posts- first and second year cubs, and older cubs.
Many people are confused about the different age classes of bear cubs, and what each is called, so I’ll provide a little “bear cub 101” as well as show my favorite images.
All bear cubs are born around Christmas. Cubs in their first summer of their life are around 6 months old when they appear in June. First summer cubs are also referred to as spring cubs, springers or COYS (cubs of the year.) They are usually very dark in color and often show a patch of light colored fur on their chest known as a “corona.” Springers are awkward, playful and very curious as they explore their world under careful guidance by their mothers. They are typically around 15 pounds in June and double this by September.
One of the highlights of the season was spending several hours with a gorgeous blonde female who I have known for many years. It was the first time I had seen her that summer with the cubs, so I was certain that the cubs would be afraid of people. We sat and watched her from a distance for over an hour from 150 yards before she decided to come close to us and introduce her little ones to bear viewers. In this region it is important for bears to be comfortable with people because groups of bear viewers are often present in key feeding areas. Mother bears must obviously teach the cubs what is dangerous, such as wolves, wheeled planes taking off and landing on beaches, and other bears. In contrast, they also must teach them what to ignore so they don’t waste time and resources unnecessarily avoiding things that present no danger. In most areas of Alaska (and the world) where bears are hunted, people are the biggest threat to bears, so if a mother with cubs doesn’t think she can escape from people she can be extremely dangerous. There is no hunting in Katmai, so mother bears train their cubs that it is safe to approach groups of bear viewers.
Many season highlights came from another amazing bear family in a bay to the south. This female spent the entire summer on an island that lacked huge sedge meadows, but also lacked other bears, so while it wasnt as productive for food, it was very safe. We normally watched this family from a skiff as she grazed along the shoreline.
This year was obviously spectacular for spring cub sightings. Another batch of bears is born into a world where bears and people get along because people have treated bears with respect for so many years. The bears pay us back for this respect every day in the summer in this stunning frontier.
Here is another word on safety- No one should ever attempt to stay within close proximity of bears, especially mothers and cubs, unless they have years of experience with those particular bears. For example, my twenty years of experience with these bears are of little use in Denali, Yellowstone, the Canadian Rockies, or anywhere where bears do not trust people. I have seen what happens to things that threaten bear cubs- the mothers display an aggressive explosion of speed, power, fury and violence that cannot be described in words or compared with any other animal on earth. If you want to get images like this, even here in Katmai, you must do so with a guide with years of local experience, or you would be putting yourself and the bears in danger. Even here, where bears do not fear people, you can get yourself into serious trouble very quickly unless you know what you are doing! Here is another post I wrote last year about bear safety.
Stay tuned for my next post about mothers and older cubs…..