A Natural Born Climber

Eye-to-Eye With a Bear Cub

  • Black bear cub gracefully climbs slippery tree in the rain.

Black bear cub gracefully climbs a slippery wet tree while mom fishes.

The rain faucet remained open all day deep in the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska.  I was dripping wet. Green and black were the color themes for this wildlife photography adventure.  Lush vegetation glistened brightly in every shade of green under the darkness of old-growth Sitka Spruce and Western Red Cedar trees.  Black bears swatted at pink salmon in the rain-swollen creek.  Life here thrived in wetness.

Black bears (Ursus americanus) and an occasional brown bear (Ursus arctos, coastal grizzly bears) clambered around on wet boulders spying on salmon in the rushing creek. When a brown bear came into the area, all black bears hurriedly retreated into the thick forest.

Tall trees of the rainforest blocked the sky until they abruptly stopped at the estuary where the swollen creek met the saltwater. This was a place of transition.  Tides rose and fell while rain showers varied from mist to steady downpours.  The creek responded quickly.  Salmon congregated at the mouth, waiting for the rising tide to help push them into the estuary.  Harbor seals, bald eagles, humpback whales, and mink feasted in these waters.

  • A young bald eagle in flight in the rainforest.

A young bald eagle flying the creek with an eye out for salmon

Pink salmon traveled here from the vast Pacific Ocean to spawn.  A little creek draining this soaked forest was now the last struggle for the salmon.  To get to their spawning grounds the salmon had to get over a formidable waterfall, about 50 feet long as it plunged down through big boulders.  To me, it looked impossible for a fish to swim over this cascade.  This was natural selection at its toughest.

Every eddy along the whitewater below the waterfall was packed with salmon resting before trying again to jump the falls.  Some salmon gave up, too exhausted to try one more time, they chose to die on the rocks.  Every once in a while I would see a salmon successfully clear the falls and then bolt upriver in the gentler water above the falls.

Opportunistic black bears, grizzly bears (brown bears), mink, and bald eagles took advantage of this gauntlet for the salmon.  The concentration of high-calorie food resources for the bears was very high.  Bears came here from all over to take advantage of during the 3-4 week long salmon run. The pouring rain did not phase the bears at all.  Their wet fur coats glistened bluish-black.  Meanwhile, I was trying my best to “get used to” the soaking rain.

In weather like this, I get awful hungry.  The Top Ramen, rice, and bagels were not providing me with enough energy to really warm up.  Catching a few salmon on a fly-rod at the mouth of the estuary was too easy.  These salmon were fresh and strong.

A treat was to open one up right after catching it and eat the salmon roe, on the shore of the estuary, and then fry up the 3-5 pounds of fresh meat for dinner later.  Eating the “real food” the salmon provided us improved my wet attitude.

Mother black bears were cautious and responsible with their cubs by sending them way up tall trees while they fished.  Popular trees were stripped of their bark from years of bear cubs climbing up and down them.  Stripped of bark they were slippery in the wet.  The bear cubs were not phased by this though, they quickly and gracefully shimmied way up these tall trees.

One bear cub, in particular, caught my attention.  This little cub climbed about 100 feet up a tall tree directly in front of me.  From my position high up on the steep river bank, I was now eye-to-eye with the cub.

I could tell this was going to be a wonderful session observing the bear cub.  Nobody else was around and the cub was relaxed.

Pink salmon crowd an eddy in the creek, resting before attempting to swim up the falls.

Adult black bear with pink salmon on log.

Dinner for one.  An adult Black Bear heads into the dense rainforest with a pink salmon.

The cub was very high off the ground.  A fall would be fatal.  I was in awe at how calm the cub was on the wet tree branches.  Anyone who has stepped on a wet tree root knows how wet wood can be slicker than water ice.

Mother bear fished far below the cub in the raging creek.  The pair seemed accustomed to this situation as they were not always checking up on each other as I observe with brown bears.

From my vantage point, I could see the eyes of the cub perfectly.  Those eyes really told me a lot about its mood.  Bored in the pouring rain, curious about pieces of fern growing out the tree bark, interested in a belted kingfisher squawking nearby, and playfully looking over at me.

I was not reading the cub’s mind.  Instead, I was paying attention to the context (situation) and watching the cub’s reactions in response to it.

Black bear cub resting its head on tree branch in the rain.

Rainy day doldrums.

Keeping itself occupied while mom fished the creek far below was no problem for the little cub.  The bear cub became very interested in a sprig of fern growing out of the tree bark.  I watched the cub focus on the little fern and then bite off a piece of it, drop it, and try to catch it as it fell.

To the cub, I must have also been interesting.  The cub would peak around the sides of the tree of at me, switching from side to side of the tree as if it were playing “peek-a-boo” with me!

This was an incredible thing to witness.  I kept quiet and just smiled at it as this went on for a couple of minutes.  It is hard to say exactly what the cub was thinking, however, it sure seemed like intentional play on the cub’s part.

As mom fished in the creek far below the cub in the tree she cached salmon in a crevice in the rocks.  There were other black bears present, but not in close enough proximity to steal the cached fish.  Eventually, the mother signaled to the cub with “woof” sound, barely audible over the noise of the waterfall.

The cub down-climbed the tree, carefully looking directly at its feet like an experienced rock climber does.  Together, the mother and cub hurriedly ate the salmon while fish crows and gulls encircled their dining area, cleaning up the scraps.

Experiencing this bear cub in the way I did was something I will remember forever.  Mom was already very healthy and well fed, and it was only August.  It was the tail end of the pink salmon run on this creek.  Their sources of food would now change to the blueberries just starting to ripen, vegetation, insects in the decaying logs, and seafood obtained at low-tide in the estuary.

During the coldest parts of winter, they would likely hibernate together in a den or inside one the trunk of one of the many downed trees.  When I left the rainforest it was an unusually warm and sunny day.  The happy little bear cub and mother sat together in the warming sun.  It was a great way to say goodbye to the Tongass National Forest.  I look forward to seeing this mother and cub here next summer.

Peeking around the tree trunk at me.  The cub did this on both sides of the trunk for a couple of minutes.

The playful tree climber cub and mother enjoying the warmth of the sun.

Learn More About Black Bears

Today the black bear occupies only about one-half of the area it used to in North America.  Black bears favor forested areas since their tree climbing ability provides them safety.

Read More

How to Help Black Bears

Man is the biggest threat to the black bear.

Humans move into bear habitat and are irresponsible in the way they manage sources of food for bears.  Whether it is garbage, crops, or fruit, irresponsible behavior on the humans part results in “pest bears” being killed.  All it takes is one sloppy household to kill many bears.  A fed bear is a dead bear.

Read More
10 replies
  1. Norma Davies
    Norma Davies says:

    Ed I loved this blog, I felt that I was watching the Black bear cub playing in the tree and its mother catching the salmon. Also thank you for the information on black bears and their habitat, I only hope that the generation coming through will change the wrongs that the generations before them have done. I pray there will be Bears for them to see.

    • Ed MacKerrow
      Ed MacKerrow says:

      Thank you, Norma. I am glad the article made you feel like you were there. I too hope that we can do a better job living with wildlife, sharing the land, instead of living against wildlife. You are so right about the future generations of humans!

  2. Margaret Lewis
    Margaret Lewis says:

    What a heartwarming experience. All the cold rain and hunger were worth it. Such a cute interaction with the cub. Thank you for making your readers aware of the peril facing bears around the world.


    • Ed MacKerrow
      Ed MacKerrow says:

      You are welcome, Margaret. Thank you for reading the article, including the section on human impact on bears! Yes, the soaking wet parts of the experience were worth it in order to experience these bears.

  3. Dave Brooks
    Dave Brooks says:

    What an outstanding story and so very well conveyed that I feel like I am there. Your photos of the story really go to the heart.
    Congratulations on this wonderful piece of shared life. May we all have long futures full of more opportunities to appreciate our time in this magical place that is too often overlooked or missed by so many. Hope you have dried out to a comfortable condition, not sure how you kept your lens clear for the images.

    • Ed MacKerrow
      Ed MacKerrow says:

      Thank you, Dave. I am glad you enjoyed the article and photos! You are right, we are often too busy, or distracted, to simply look around at the beautiful world we live in, and share with other beings. Keeping the camera equipment dry was a challenge and sometimes I ended up getting moisture inside a lens or two. This required drying them out afterward for days. A microfiber towel and rain covers for the lenses and cameras helped a lot too.

  4. Leslie A Seal
    Leslie A Seal says:

    Ed, you are such a treasure, to take everyone on a journey to places most dream about but never have the opportunity to experience. I always look forward to reading about your adventures and am anticipating the time when I too can go on these glorious journeys. For now I will live through your eyes in aww, thanks so much!


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