Admiralty Island at 1500 square miles is just slightly smaller than the state of Delaware. On this wilderness island in southeast Alaska roam 1500 brownies. And I am not referring to cookies or young girl scouts. The grizzly bears along the Alaskan coast are commonly called brown bears, coloquially known as brownies. This name distinguishes them from their smaller relatives, the black bears. Admiralty Island has the densest concentration of bears in the world, an average of one bear per square mile!
An early biologist once identified over 75 different species of grizzly bears just in North America. Now most taxonomists believe that the European brown bear, the grizzly and the Alaskan brown bear are the same species, Ursus arctos. Physical variations merely reflect different races of the same bear. Once these bears ranged across the northern hemisphere. But now Alaska and Canada remain the only significant refuges for these magnificent beings.
Grizzlies are the largest land carnivore on the planet. One Alaskan Kodiak bear weighed 1500 lbs and was over nine feet tall. However most grizzlies are much smaller than the coastal variety. This size discrepancy is primarily due to the difference in diet. The inland bears have no ready source of meat. Upon emerging from their winter sleep they feed on grasses, sedges and, if they are lucky, a winter‑killed moose. These grizzlies spend an inordinate amount of time hunting ground squirrels and other small rodents and may occasionally kill a moose calf. So even though the bears are considered meat eaters, 80% of their diet is vegetable matter or carrion.
The coastal variety of the grizzly grows much larger because of an abundant source of meat‑‑salmon. There are five species of this migratory fish that frequent southeast Alaska. Every summer millions move up streams and rivers to spawn and die. The brownies are waiting for them. Normally brown bears avoid contact with other bears except during the mating season. But during the salmon runs their interpersonal bear‑space decreases. They gather to gorge themselves on fish flesh. Later in the season they will only eat the skin, brains and roe for it is these organs that provide the much needed fat for the long winter sleep.
Last week I visited Admiralty Island. In grizzly country there is always an edge, a certain uncertainty. When hiking you must not carry food, you must not be quiet and you must not be unarmed. Fortunately human flesh is not considered haute cuisine by the grizzly but the animals are still unpredictable. Grizzly bears can run 50 yards in three seconds, they can swim rapidly, and they can easily destroy a small tree. There is no running and no escape from these bears. In this place the grizzly is king and only a gun allows humans the illusion of security.
In a two hour visit at dusk we watched four bears interact along Pack Creek, a well‑known bear and salmon spot. One small brownie (only 500 lbs.) ran down the creek chasing and then catching a large king salmon. As the bear ate the fish six bald eagles, two ravens and several crows flew in hoping for a piece of the action. Then we saw two other bears mate at the edge of the forest. A quick coupling.
Shortly afterwards the female from the pair caught a fish. Then the male chased off a large brown male that was exhibiting too much interest in the female. That large brown male in turn began to chase after the first small bear. It was getting hard to keep score. Unfortunately both bears headed right at us, the big one pursuing the little one. Pulses quickened, cameras clicked. Our guide quickly began to load his ancient double‑barreled shotgun and told us quietly and urgently to back up onto the tidal flat. I definitely did not want to be at the bottom of a bear pecking order.
The conflict soon ended amicably and the chased bear ran into the forest. Ecstatic we walked back to our skiff. To these bears we were just forked curiosities, neither dangerous nor tasty. I felt honored to be there and thrilled to witness brown bears going about the business of being brown bears.