Singing To Grizzly Bears - PassageMaker

Singing To Grizzly Bears

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As the shout of "bear" rose over the clatter of the anchor chain, all eyes aboard Home Shore turned toward a boulder-strewn spit. I glimpsed a mass of reddish-brown shimmering fur and rippling muscles as a grizzly bear dashed into a green copse and exploded out its other side. Moving at incredible speed toward the mainland end of the spit, the grizzly disappeared into another thicket, and, as it emerged on the far side, a murmur of relief rippled through the crew and guests. The infamous Lituya Bay's La Chaussee Spit was vacant for our exploration.

Or was it?

Inside Passage cruisers who explore wilderness shores face a hazard unlike any encountered by cruising boaters elsewhere in the world: North America's largest land predator, the grizzly bear. The wonderland of the Inside Passage includes the prime grizzly territory of western Canada and Southeast Alaska. When going ashore to enjoy a hot-spring soak, beaching a kayak for a lunch break, hiking a wilderness trail, or taking a dog ashore for a romp, cruisers have to be alert for these animals.

This is not to say brown bears are waiting on every beach; they're not. Many Inside Passage cruisers never see grizzlies and are more likely to catch a glimpse of their smaller cousins, black bears, which also may be dangerous.

A DIFFERENT DEFENSE

While typical protection strategies include carrying air horns, pepper spray, bells, or guns, we tested a different tactic during our visit to Lituya Bay.

Thanks to 85-year-old Audrey Sutherland, who has solo-kayaked more than 8,000 miles through Southeast Alaska in the past 26 years and has had many encounters with grizzlies, a group of fellow cruisers aboard Home Shore learned firsthand that singing also may be a defense against bear attacks.

Yes, singing. Ditties, barroom verses of the past, or just made-up songs.

Audrey insists that grizzlies are shy and that they understand her peaceful intentions when she sings. Wisely, she is cautious in bear country and is careful to give bears plenty of warning of her presence. She thinks bears are curious about fellow creatures. Singing reassures them, and, given a timely warning, most grizzlies will run for cover, she says.

Audrey's son, Jock, 55, reminds her that Timothy Treadwell, wildlife author and founder of Grizzly People (a grassroots organization devoted to protecting bears and preserving their habitat), was known to sing to bears to soothe them. That was before he and his companion, Amie Huguenard, were mauled to death and eaten by grizzlies in Alaska's Katmai National Park in 2003.

Still, singing seems to work for Audrey.

In a form of counting coup (a nonviolent demonstration of bravery once practiced by Native Americans), Audrey has been within 150 feet of a grizzly bear more than 50 times.

GREAT APPEAL

Compounding the danger of bears is their great appeal as a wildlife attraction. Visitors from all over the world come to western Canada and Alaska hoping for a close-up view of the magnificent animals. Boaters are perhaps in the best position to see grizzlies, because cruising takes them into grizzly habitat.

If visitors don't want to chance meeting a bear on shore, there are places they can go to watch from protected viewpoints, including Anan Bay, between Ketchikan and Wrangell; Pack Creek on Admiralty Island, south of Juneau; and excursions out of Prince Rupert.

We learned about Audrey's approach to wilderness safety, and about her unique bear song repertoire, after passengers and crew aboard Home Shore, a sea-kayaking mothership based in Sitka, Alaska, spotted 14 grizzly bears on an eight-day charter along the coasts of Chichagof and Yakobi Islands, north of Sitka, the week before visiting Lituya Bay. On the northwest tip of Glacier Bay National Park, Lituya Bay lies about 50 miles north of Cape Spencer, at the end of Icy Strait. Our first encounter served as a reminder that grizzlies likely thrive there.

Normally, I am working crew aboard Home Shore, instructing an Inside Passage training cruise with her owner, Capt. Jim Kyle, a veteran commercial fisherman of Alaska waters. We provide up to six charter guests minimum essential skills, knowledge, and experience to allow them to cruise their own boats safely and comfortably through the Inside Passage to Southeast Alaska. I had been hoping for nearly five decades to visit Lituya Bay, and when Kyle had an open berth, I jumped at the chance to go along.

PRECAUTIONS

Kyle and other boat skippers cruising grizzly country study bear behavior and take precautions to protect themselves and guests when going ashore. Now, it seems, singing may take on a larger role.

The National Park Service recommends singing as a method of keeping hikers from startling bears and thus helping to avoid attacks. Bears may perceive you as a threat if you startle them. "By making noise, such as clapping, singing, or even talking loudly, you can alert a bear to your presence, and it will likely choose to avoid you," the Park Service advises in its bear safety literature. Some say that bear bells, although a fun souvenir, may not make sufficient noise to alert a bear; singing may be more effective. (See the sidebar on page xxx for more information on bear safety.)

So, if you are thinking of cruising up north and want to see bears, you will want to be cautious, and you may want to invest in a can of pepper spray. And it might not hurt to brush up on those old verses and ditties that were so popular in childhood. Or you can always make up some.

For musical variety, Audrey has accumulated a small repertoire of bear songs. Her favorite is a French drinking song titled "Chevaliers de la Table Rond" ("Gentlemen of the Round Table"):

"Let's drink to see if the wine is good; If it is, let's drink some more.

I drink with a woman on my knee Knock, knock sounds upon the door; I suspect that it is her spouse.

If it is, then the devil sent him to disturb me in my pleasure.

If I die, I wish to be buried in a cave where there is some good wine.

And the country's four biggest drunkards will carry me in my black shroud.

My two feet upon some partition, and my head right beneath the tap.

On my tomb I would have written, "Here asleep lies the king of drunkards."

Now the moral of this story is to drink while you are still alive."

Audrey also likes "Alouette" and "Waltzing Matilda," as well as this present-tense version of the classic "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," to encourage bears to shoo:

"Oh, bear go over the mountain, bear go over the mountain, bear go over the mountain, to see what you can see.

To see what you can see, to see what you can see.

See all that you can see, see all that you can see, on the other side of the mountain, the other side of the mountain, the other side of the mountain.

See all that you can see away from me."

A CLOSER LOOK

While Home Shore's skiff was being launched in Lituya Bay, notorious for its water and land hazards, we speculated about what we might find. I had first heard of Lituya Bay in July 1958 when I read of an earthquakegenerated, 1,720-foot wave that scoured the trees off the bay's mountainsides. Later, I read of the French explorer Jean-François La Pérouse, who lost two boats and 21 men at Lituya Bay's tricky entrance in 1786. For centuries, native canoes and fishing and recreational boats had been lost while attempting to navigate that entrance, where currents sometimes run up to 12 knots. I wanted a closer look.

The benign appearance of the entrance to Lituya Bay only adds to its aura of menace. Upon examination, its potential for disaster is obvious. Open to the west to the Gulf of Alaska, the bay's entrance is unprotected. It is clear that an outgoing 12-knot current opposed by windblown waves could create perilous seas.

With a narrow channel and shoals on both sides, loss of control could prove instantly disastrous for a boat. When La Pérouse lost his 21 men at the bay's entrance, none of the bodies was recovered. (For more on Lituya Bay, see PMM Sept. '05.)

Mark and Susie Fabian, a couple in their 40s from Lewistown, Montana (a "lower 48" home to grizzlies), also wanted to experience as much of Lituya Bay as they could absorb in our planned four-day stay.

Ben Kyle, Capt. Kyle's 32-year-old son and our kayaking guide, advised us to stay together and wait at the shore for the arrival of the second group to be ferried ashore.

"Don't go off by yourself, stay within sight of the others, and stay away from the small woods that dot the spit," he said, motioning toward two thickets between the point where the skiff would land and the entrance end of the spit.

There was a tacit understanding that bears could be wandering about. Some in our group shifted uneasily in their PFDs and multiple layers of clothing. Others rehearsed the lyrics of our bear songs, such as this one, my personal bear song, titled "Bear, Bear, Bear" and composed by my wife, Shearlean, at St. James Bay, Alaska, when we cruised our 1977 Mainship 34, Sweetie Pie, from Bellingham, Washington, to Glacier Bay in 2002:

"Bear, bear, bear always aware. Bear, bear, bear always aware. Bear, bear, bear always aware.

They may be neat But you don't want to meet. Bear, bear, bear always aware.

They may look slow But oh they can go. Bear, bear, bear always aware.

Quick on their feet, Don't run, can't beat A bear, bear, bear.

Looking for bear, always aware. They may be neat but you don't want to meet a grumpy old bear.

Strolling on shore Bears we adore. When we're safe on our boat We watch them and gloat.

That's the way to view bears."

I recalled that Shearlean had penned our song, based on the Park Service's bear education brochure, in a competitive response to a neighboring boat's bear song:

"Hello, bear, we don't have a care. Hello, autumn, we love you to the bottom. Hello, Mr. Moon, we'll see you soon."

Though we had not yet seen a grizzly on our trip that year, Shearlean had thought we should be prepared with a decent song for our next trip ashore. A few days after Shearlean composed our song, it proved to be an essential part of our Alaska cruising safety inventory. In July 2002, I made the following journal entry while anchored in Excursion Inlet: "Woke up to see our first grizzly bear at 0640. Appeared young. Strolled up the rocky beach right in front of the boat. Disappeared around the point at 0715."

We had taken the dinghy to that beach the previous evening and had taken the same stroll as the bear without even thinking we might be in grizzly territory. Afterward, we learned that grizzlies enjoy beaches every bit as much as people and spend a lot time foraging along the shore. We began singing our bear song every time we went ashore, whether on an open beach or along a path deep in the woods.

In 2005, I had come to a firm realization that bear encounters are real when I was sent ashore alone in Ford's Terror, off Stephens Passage in Endicott Arm, to take a photo of Home Shore from a nearby bluff.

"Ford's Terror" is not the sort of name that inspires confidence. Though the name has nothing to do with grizzlies, it toys with your mind, allowing disturbing thoughts to creep in. (The impressive tidal rapids are what terrified Ford.)

I was alone, surrounded by brush so thick I had to use all of my 225 lb. to push through it, and faced with terrain so steep and difficult I had to focus on every step in order to move forward. A grizzly could have been a step or two in front of me, and I would not have seen it before it saw me. Though I saw no bears, it was then, utterly alone in the wild, that I first took singing my grizzly surprise song and other bear precautions seriously.

By now, as I prepared to come ashore on La Chaussee Spit with the others in Home Shore's kayaking group, I had come to terms with sharing the wilderness with grizzlies and seriously practiced procedures for avoiding a confrontation.

We watched uneasily as Ben Kyle worked a pepper spray holster onto his belt and handed a second canister of pepper spray to Kristin Hoelting, Home Shore's 25-year-old cook. Kristin grew up in Petersburg, in the midst of grizzly country, and offered her version of her favorite bear song, "Bear In Tennis Shoes": grizzlies, it toys with your mind, allowing disturbing thoughts to creep in. (The impressive tidal rapids are what terrified Ford.)

I was alone, surrounded by brush so thick I had to use all of my 225 lb. to push through it, and faced with terrain so steep and difficult I had to focus on every step in order to move forward. A grizzly could have been a step or two in front of me, and I would not have seen it before it saw me. Though I saw no bears, it was then, utterly alone in the wild, that I first took singing my grizzly surprise song and other bear precautions seriously.

By now, as I prepared to come ashore on La Chaussee Spit with the others in Home Shore's kayaking group, I had come to terms with sharing the wilderness with grizzlies and seriously practiced procedures for avoiding a confrontation.

We watched uneasily as Ben Kyle worked a pepper spray holster onto his belt and handed a second canister of pepper spray to Kristin Hoelting, Home Shore's 25-year-old cook. Kristin grew up in Petersburg, in the midst of grizzly country, and offered her version of her favorite bear song, "Bear In Tennis Shoes":

"The other day I met a bear In tennis shoes-a dandy bear.

I met a bear in tennis shoes, The tennis shoes, a brand new pair.

He looked at me, I looked at him. He sized up me, I sized up him.

He said to me, "Why don't you run? I see you ain't got any gun." So I ran away from there But right behind me came that bear.

Ahead of me I saw a tree,

Oh lordy me, a great big tree.

The lowest branch was 10 feet up. I'd have to jump and trust my luck.

And so I jumped into the air But I missed that branch, o-way up there.

Now don't you fret, and don't you frown 'Cause I caught that branch on the way back down."

Walking up La Chaussee Spit's boulder beach proved challenging. The stones were too big to walk on, forcing us to clamber the sloping beach to where a mat of brush covering the rocks made walking upright feasible.

This was tiring for everyone, particularly Audrey. On the ridge of the spit, she settled out of the wind between two large boulders, pulled her hat over her eyes, and rested while the rest of us hiked to the bay's entrance at the end of the spit.

Her son, Jock, said he would stay with her, but knowing that Jock was eager to explore, Ben sent Jock with the rest of us while he found a comfortable seat near Audrey.

REVELATION

As I stepped carefully from rock to rock, I paused to scan the two thickets straddling the ridge. I studied the foliage, trying to detect movement as wisps of windblown bear songs and staccato shouts of "Hey bear!" erupted periodically to remind any forgetful bears that we still were there.

Looking down to see where I could safely step next, I saw that I was standing in an 8-foot circle of flattened grass and brush. It formed a shallow depression, surrounded with partially buried rocks. Piles of fresh bear scat rimmed the circumference of the circle. I looked around warily. I noticed that this spot was high enough to afford a prostrate bear a nearly 360-degree view of the spit. It was somewhat reassuring that the scat looked a lot like a horse's road apples, which indicated a vegetarian diet. But, of course, I realized that could change instantly.

I looked again at the nearest thicket. Signs indicated more than one bear probably had been there recently. Clearing my throat and taking a deep breath, I sang out in earnest, "Bear, bear, bear always aware," and hurried to the spit's end. But I never saw a big brown bear. Back aboard Home Shore after our exploration, I watched the skiff cross Anchorage Cove, ferrying back Ben, Jock, Audrey, and Kristin. Ben's color was high, and his eyes were bright with obvious excitement as he reached the deck after helping Audrey aboard.

"Well, what was that Audrey? Coup number 54 or 55?" Ben asked. Not understanding at first, Audrey gave Ben a quizzical look. "Oh, that bear?" she said, trying to suppress a gleeful smile. "Something like that."

While the rest of us were at the spit's end, a hidden grizzly had broken from the cover of one of the thickets and had run past Ben and Audrey, hightailing it for the mainland. "He gave us a good look as he ran by, but never slowed up," Ben said. "He passed within 50 to 100 feet of us."

We exchanged looks of wonder and satisfaction that our songs apparently had kept the bear in hiding until it thought we were gone. For an instant, the grandeur and perils of Lituya Bay were eclipsed by the realization that we had been able to share a small piece of wilderness with the mighty grizzlies.

Sing their praises.

And may all of your encounters be peaceful.

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