Originally posted on National Geographic 6/14/2013: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2013/06/14/gyre-expedition-day-5-bearing-witness-witnessing-bears-act-1-wednesday-june-12/
In the “morning” of the never-ending daylight, as the sun has swung round to the east and climbs the sky once more, we awaken in our windowless cabins. We’ve spent the short night at anchor in Hallo Bay. We head shoreward, trying to beat a dropping tide.
We partially succeed. Enough of the half-mile mudflat is already exposed that we have to get out of the skiff and walk a hundred yards, splashing our way ashore. We will stay through the low tide, then get picked up when the water returns. This day will take form around the rhythms of nature.
Gulls calling across glass-still water sound like morning.
We walk off the beach to scan the picture-perfect meadows, set by snowy peaks and sheer rock palisades. In the distance, a brown bear is grazing on sedges. Mark Dion and I decide to investigate some bird songs in nearby alders. We pick up a Wilson’s Warbler (yellow with a black cap), a Yellow-crowned Sparrow (black head with a yellow cap), a Varied Thrush (like a Robin painted by a child), and two regular American Robins, fighting. Such is life.
The bear walks onto the shore, does little, and dollies back to the sedge. That’s when we notice that about a mile away there’s a bear with two cubs digging clams on the newly exposed, blue-shimmering flat. We start off in that direction. From behind a rock bluff that meets the beach, a lanky, leggy young bear, about two years old, gets a surprise by meeting us. It hurries out to the flat where it can keep an eye on things. It seems nervous. There’s a big bear—a male—in the willows atop the bluff. We continue toward the clammer-bears. Eventually, though she remains several hundred yards away, my legs and my binoculars bring her close enough for a decent look.
Her head, blond, looks enormous, with a crease along the crest of her crown. A big shovel of a head, like an overturned spade. She weighs a few hundred pounds. The bears here are among the world’s biggest Brown Bears—same as Grizzlies. Males here weight about 900 to 1,000 pounds.
Her little cubs are the size of just her head. With each clam, they frequently surround her muzzle, close by her lips. She isn’t just randomly digging; she’s sniffing and snuffling, perhaps even listening for a clam’s withdrawal as she pads and paws along. She seems to dig in specific places as though she has detected a certain clam. She rakes into the flat with her pitchfork claws, frequently finding success. She lifts her head and a clam, already extracted from its shell somehow, hangs momentarily before she slurps it. She seems to leave some for her cubs, who lag a few paces behind, eating, before hurrying to catch up.
After a long time, we leave her and head back in the direction we came from. That lanky juvenile bear is sleeping on the flat. It wakes and moves off. There’s still a male up on the bluff above us, not far. As the lanky juvenile moves farther out on the flat, it stumbles across a big flounder, and its harried demeanor acquires a new saunter; it seems quite pleased.