Matt Dickerson: Posts from Alaska Part 2: Bears and Brenden on Bird Creek

A long day of class in Alaska had ended. I’d spent at least 10 hours hiking, observing stream ecosystems, working on writing, and eating breakfast, lunch and supper with my Middlebury College students. About three evening hours remained for my own recreation. At 7:15 p.m. I arrived at Bird Creek after a 30-minute drive southeast from Anchorage along the beautiful Seward Highway tucked along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet beneath the south ridge of the Chugach Mountains. By 7:45 p.m., I have my fly rod rigged and am standing in the river closer to the eastern bank in the midst of a crowd of anglers, hoping to catch a salmon. With me is my fellow teacher David O’Hara and two of my students, Brenden and Michael.
And around 8 p.m. I am nervously moving back over to the west bank of the creek because a brown bear — the kind commonly known as a grizzly — has lumbered down out of the woods and is standing about 15 yards away from the river in the tall grass on the eastern bank. For the next 30 minutes the bear stays there, alternately lying down invisible in the tall grass, and standing up on its haunches to survey the scene. I am more nervous when I can’t see the bear. But I am surrounded by other anglers, so I continue to fish.
Just as my brother Ted and my son Peter arrive in a separate car and start down the trail to join us, the bear ambles off and disappears. They don’t get to see the bear. Ted catches a few pink salmon. The rest of us come up empty.
I return a few days later. The students are not with me this time. It is just Peter, Ted and my sister-in-law Susie. I have a better selection of flies and I am willing to work my way up to a more ideal spot at the very top of legal fishing area. This time we all land several pink salmon, including some fresh, fat females. Peter lands his first ever salmon on a fly. We have five on a stringer in the water when a black bear arrives. He begins snuffling around the shore, apparently hoping for some free salmon that doesn’t require him to go fishing. I am thinking about the smoked salmon I want to bring home, and so I run over and pick up my stringer and begin wading to the far shore hauling some 20 to 25 pounds of fish.
The black bear runs off. I think my sudden movement must have scared him. Then I see a more likely reason for his departure: A somewhat larger brown bear has just wandered down out of the woods to the river. He shows no sign of nervousness and begins to move steadily downstream along the eastern riverbank. We all quickly get out of the river on the western side. The anglers on the eastern shore all retreat as far as they can until they are backed up to a boulder. One of the anglers pulls a .44 out of his holster, but the bear at that point decides to turn.
This is bad news for us as he (or she) is now crossing the river below us over to our side. He sniffs the air and seems to catch a whiff of the salmon I am holding. At 30 yards away, he takes a couple steps in our direction. For the first time in my life I have my can of bear spray out, with the safety off. But then the bear turns and heads toward the woods and the trail down which we had come. Though the bear has disappeared, we hop back into the river and return to the eastern bank where we work our way down the trail-less shoreline in the mud of tidal flats. I am still holding the salmon.
Over the weekend my family takes a bike trip to a ski area where we ride a tram to a restaurant at the top for lunch. Since the trail starts and ends at a campground by Bird Creek, I get yet another opportunity to cast for some salmon. I land about 10 pinks. I also foul hook several others and lose some flies in fish. But I am now hoping for silvers, which are larger, more acrobatic fighters, and better tasting than pinks. I don’t catch any silvers and I don’t keep any pinks as we already have enough to smoke. We see one more bear from a distance.
When I return to the campus where we are staying, Brenden is disappointed to have missed out on both the bears and the very successful salmon fishing. So I return one more time to Bird Creek on the final evening before our class leaves Anchorage. Several students come along this time just to watch. We have two cans of bear spray and we stay together in a big group.
Brenden has some new flies, and some new advice from me. More importantly, he manages to get one of the best positions on the stream. Before long he has hooked a salmon. The smile on his face when he lands it is almost immeasurable. It is his first Alaskan salmon, and his first salmon landed on a fly rod.
Before our two-hour excursion ends, Brenden has landed at least half a dozen fair-hooked salmon, and another half-dozen fish hooked somewhere other than the mouth. He is ecstatic and can’t wait to send photos to his father and grandfather. I land three, but mostly I’m happy to watch him fish and talk with my students.
“Now I just need to see a bear,” Brenden says, as we walk off the river. I, by contrast, would be quite a bit happier if I don’t see any more — especially when I am with my students.
Middlebury College professor Matt Dickerson is teaching a four-week nature and environmental writing class in Alaska this summer.
BRENDEN EDWARDS, A sophomore at Middlebury College, poses with a Dolly Varden char—the first fish that he caught in Alaska.
  Photo by Michael O’Hara

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