The Griz Next Door

Posted In: Alaska, Blog, Canada, Destinations, Video, Wildlife

Everyone enjoys a good bear tale. So let’s talk about the time a wild grizzly bear marched right through our campground, even stopping to bite the picnic table next door. Sound like a tall tale? We have video evidence below that proves it really happened. This is one of those stories that highlights the way we travel with our Airstream. We frequently “go where the wind takes us,” following the recommendations of locals and fellow travelers as we explore.

Our Alaska bear encounter all started in the Yukon territory.

It all started in the Yukon Territory with this little teddy bear of a dog.

It all started in the Yukon Territory with this little teddy bear of a dog, here being held by his owner Bob.

We had been traveling south along the Alaska Highway. With the calendar approaching October, it was getting late in the season. We were trying to move our rig south into warmer climes before winter weather descended upon the area. There were already rumors of snow flurries, so we were well motivated.

After crossing the border from Alaska into the Yukon Territory, we stopped at a favorite campground for the night. We had stayed at this park previously, during our trek north, and really enjoyed it. The park itself was a quiet place. It was late in the season, and there were more empty than occupied sites. The grounds were decorated with various abandoned military vehicles that stood as remnants of the original construction of the Alaska Highway. It was like an open air museum of decades old U.S. Army machinery.

Our Yukon campground was populated by several vintage U.S. military vehicles that had been used in the construction of the Alaska Highway.

Our Yukon campground was populated by several vintage U.S. military vehicles that had been used in the construction of the Alaska Highway.

The interesting surroundings were made better by the people. Our campground owner hosts, a couple named Bob and Amanda, were incredibly welcoming. Thanks to the guidance of these two, the place was well managed, yet relaxed and laid back – which was just our style. “We don’t really consider this an RV park,” Bob explained. “It’s just a nice place where people stop and stay for a while.”

In addition to the campground, our hosts also owned a small dog named “Chunky” who sometimes wandered the campground.

Chunky was an aptly named furry little fellow who was probably some mixture of Maltese, Poodle, Shih Tzu, and Teddy Bear.

Chunky was obviously fond of food, so he probably tipped the scales at 15 to 20 pounds. Sure, the little guy was a little chubby, but he was not a large dog. Chunky was certainly vulnerable to the threat of wildlife attack.

This was grizzly country. It was not unusual for bears to enter the campground. In fact, we learned that Chunky’s late brother had been killed by a grizzly bear inside the campground.

“It’s true,” said Bob, “that was a terrible and sad day.”

This bald eagle had his eyes on Chunky!

This bald eagle had his eyes on Chunky.

Needless to say, my wife was captivated by little Chunky. He quickly earned the “cute” designation and received her affection whenever he made an appearance.

One morning as I enjoyed a cup of coffee outside our Airstream, I saw Chunky walking amidst the RVs in the park.

To my alarm, I also saw a bald eagle – and the eagle had clearly noticed Chunky.

In fact, the eagle was eyeing Chunky for an early lunch.

“Hey Chunky,” I shouted to the oblivious dog, “come over here, boy!”

Thankfully, Chunky heeded my call and trotted over to our campsite.

The eagle, meanwhile, flew close into a nearby tree with his eyes still squarely locked on the little dog.

With Chunky now safely under my watch, I grabbed my Nikon D7000 camera and fired off a few shots of the eagle perched atop the tree.

The campground host Amanda witnessed this exchange.

“I was just looking out for Chunky,” I said. “That eagle has been eyeing him.”

The host spied the eagle and nodded.

“Thank you,” Amanda said, “Yes, it’s true that Chunky could be a target for eagles.”

Just a few miles before Haines Junction.

Just a few miles before Haines Junction.

She noticed my photo gear.

“By the way,” Amanda said, “If you like to photograph eagles, you should go to Haines. It’s further south in Alaska.”

If you ever look at a map of Alaska, you’ll see that there’s a portion of the state that actually lies south of Canadian territory. Haines is located in this stretch of land, in the northern part of the Alaska Panhandle, near Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

“Of course I love to watch eagles,” I replied, “but what makes Haines so special?”

“It’s an eagle sanctuary,” she explained, “Every autumn, thousands of eagles descend upon Haines.”

So upon Amanda’s recommendation, my wife and I agreed to make a detour along our southbound Alaska Highway itinerary to visit Haines. This may have been the best decision we made along our Alaska adventure.

Haines Highway was a beautiful drive.

Haines Highway was a beautiful drive.

After leaving the campground, we drove south towards Haines Junction. This is a key intersection along the highway, where the Alaska Highway 1 and Haines Highway 3 converge. At the Junction we turned onto Highway 3 and headed further southeast, leaving the Alaska Highway and heading towards Haines.

Haines Highway was simply one of the most beautiful drives we’ve ever done. There are few people living in that corner of the world. Nature’s beauty lies mostly unspoiled, with rolling hills extending to the mountainous horizon. The landscape was replete with the most dramatic and beautiful autumn color I have ever seen. Trees were alight with brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and crimson.

We boondocked overnight in this turnout. You are free to camp pretty much anywhere you please in the Yukon.

We boondocked overnight in this turnout. You are free to camp pretty much anywhere you please in the Yukon.

To our surprise, the highway into Haines was a stunning stretch of black tarmac. I’m not just talking about the scenery; I’m talking about the road surface itself. The asphalt was new, and a striking contrast to the pothole and frost heave ridden Alaska Highway. Even though we were in Canada, apparently the tab for this glistening road was picked up by American taxpayers. (Whether this Federal generosity was for reasons of national security, or just as a kind favor to our cash-strapped Canadian friends, we do not know.)

We camped one night alone in the wilderness along this tarmac. We just stopped our rig in a turnout. It was a wonderful experience in boondocking.

We crossed Porcupine Bridge near Haines.

We crossed Porcupine Bridge near Haines.

The next day, we awoke and drove the final distance into Haines, Alaska. When we finally arrived, we discovered the rumors of eagle-filled trees were true.

If you’re a red blooded American with a pulse, seeing a bald eagle will always be of interest. Seeing a wild bald eagle is even better. But imagine seeing dozens of wild bald eagles at once? It’s a magical experience. This is what you find in and throughout Haines. Trees are well laden with eagles.

Indeed, the areas around Haines were filled with majestic bald eagles. Eagles had descended upon Haines by the thousands, coming back to feast on salmon in the Chilkat River.

The annual spawning of the salmon, no doubt, was the driving force at work here. With the shallow waters of the river loaded with fresh salmon, there was more food than the eagles could possibly eat.

We were standing next to the river watching and photographing eagles, when a fellow traveler approached. We briefly talked about cameras and campsites. Soon our travels were to take another random turn.

“Where’s the best place to camp around here?” I asked.

“Go to Chilkoot Lake,” the fellow said. “It’s beautiful over there. But watch out for the grizzly bears.”

Just as the waters of Haines were a destination for hungry eagles, he explained, so they were for bears. The area’s many bears were lured into the open by the ready availability of salmon.

A common sight along the Chilkat River.

A common sight along the Chilkat River.

So we decided to camp at Chilkoot Lake with full knowledge of bear activity. Let’s face it: campers and bears have a complicated relationship. While many of us fear bears (which is not unreasonable considering that bears are among the most fearsome predators in North America), we also enjoy viewing bears. The mere sight of a bear, any bear, is cause for an adrenaline rush.

This is especially true with a full grown grizzly. There are few wildlife viewing experiences more thrilling than seeing a wild grizzly bear going about its natural business.

So we drove our rig through the small town of Haines (population:2508), and booked a $15 campsite at Chilkoot Lake.

The campground at Chillkoot Lake was one of those wonderful dry camping campgrounds with thickly wooded primitive sites. It offered few amenities. There were no water or electrical hookups at the site. There was, however, a picnic table. The campground was located right next to the Chilkoot Lake, a stunning basin of turquoise glacial runoff that connected to the Lutak Inlet (and ultimately the Pacific Ocean) via a small stream.

After we parked our rig, I grabbed my camera bag and went for a walk in search of wildlife. My wife decided to stay behind with our Airstream, where she would start prepping a few items for dinner.

I typically carry a couple of cameras with me at any time. On this occasion, I had my Nikon DSLR and also a Panasonic video camera.

I walked a short distance along the unpaved gravel road that stretched throughout the campground.

Bear-Emerges

I was strolling along the campground road when this bear lumbered out of the bushes and looked straight at me.

As I strolled along the road, I noticed a young mother also walking in the same direction with a small child. The child was no more than five years old.

“Ma’am,” I said. “You might want to be careful around here. There are several bears in this area.”

“Really?” she replied.

At this moment, as if on cue, a large female grizzly lumbered out of the bushes onto the road. The grizzly’s fur was wet; she had been feasting on salmon in the nearby stream. The grizzly was standing about 30 yards in front of us.

The young mother scooped up her small child into her arms. I could see the fear in her eyes.

“What should we do?” she asked.

“Don’t run,” I replied. “Whatever you do, don’t run.”

Of course, running can trigger a predatory chasing instinct in bears. A human being simply cannot outrun a bear. Even trying to run can cause the bear to take chase. When bear catches human, the results can be disastrous.

Thankfully, the woman heeded my plea for calm. We both slowly retreated away from the bear, reversing course back down the unpaved road. Meanwhile, the grizzly slowly meandered in our general direction.

The young mother made it to her campsite and took shelter inside her RV.

When I got back to our own campsite, I quickly alerted my wife to the situation at hand.

“There’s a large grizzly in the campground,” I said. “It’s headed this way.”

“There it is,” my wife replied. “I see it.”

I pulled out my Panasonic video camera and started recording this video clip.

VIDEO: THE GRIZ NEXT DOOR

Really, the video speaks for itself. The huge grizzly bear lumbered through the campsite next door, pausing briefly to smell and taste the picnic table.

We soon retreated inside our Airstream, and the bear traveled along her way.

Did we ever feel threatened? Not exactly. Although I am not naive, I felt this grizzly had a gentle soul. I knew she also had a full stomach, thanks to the plentiful supply of fresh salmon meat in the nearby stream.

A couple of days later, we left Haines by loading our rig on the ferry. We brought with us fond memories of eagles and bears – especially the grizzly that wandered through our campground.

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