On the last stretch of our late-September hike to the top of Kincaid Park’s Bluff Trail, I noticed that Denali’s attention kept being pulled to the right. My collie mix wasn’t sniffing the air as she sometimes does when other animals are nearby, but her steady gaze seemed to penetrate the thick stand of alders that blocked our view.
Something was there, but nothing in Denali’s demeanor suggested the presence of a critter that made her nervous. I figured it was most likely a squirrel, or maybe a hare, or a moose foraging in the dense growth of shrubs and trees.
Still, she showed no inclination to leave our company and check things out. That in itself should have been a hint.
A short distance below the dune’s top, Jan Myers and I noticed a late-blooming rose. Wild roses being Jan’s favorite flower, we lingered a few moments to admire its pink form, not yet fully opened. Then I decided to take a picture of the rose.
While we stood there, an animal began rustling the branches and leaves of a nearby cottonwood tree, while making a hissing kind of sound. At first we thought it was a porcupine. But as the animal’s shape and color revealed itself, we recognized it to be a smallish black bear.
Farther off in the woods, we then heard a second, louder rustling, something that resembled grunts, and the snap of branches.
“We’d better go,” Jan said rightly. She began moving up the trail, followed closely behind by her small dog, Guido.
“I’ll be right there,” I replied, trying to locate the second bear. I felt in no immediate danger. But I didn’t want to push things, either, if the more distant animal was mother to the one that squirmed nearby.
Denali remained calm and quiet beside me, the two of us looking and listening. Only a few moments more and I saw the second bear, clambering around a larger cottonwood, perhaps 100 feet away.
It seemed strange that a mama bear would climb a tree while her cub was fidgeting in a different tree some distance away. Maybe this second bear was a sibling to the first. Their relative sizes were hard to judge, since both were partly hidden, but the second didn’t seem substantially larger than the one near us.
Maybe there was a third bear I hadn’t yet spotted in all the commotion. Or perhaps these were adolescent siblings already weaned from their mother.
I’d seen enough, there was no reason to rile the bears further.
I snapped a picture of the rose with my iPhone, then Denali and I followed Jan and Guido up the trail.
The surprise appearance of the two black bears enlivened our day, made our walk more memorable, as bears have a way of doing. They had posed no threat and in fact their behavior suggested that our presence had startled and worried them.
More than anything, perhaps, I was most impressed by the fact that Jan and I—and maybe Guido—had no inkling that bears were nearby, one of them only 15 feet away, if not less. We would have walked right past them if the rose hadn’t caught our attention and prompted us to stop, which in turn made that young black bear anxious enough it began fidgeting in the tree.
It was a striking example of what bear researchers often tell the public: that when traveling through bear country, especially in wooded areas with limited visibility, we humans often share the landscape with bears and pass near them without realizing it.
The bears, of course, are usually keenly aware of our passage. Their continued quiet presence—except in rare instances where they feel threatened or are being protective of offspring or a food source—speaks to their remarkable tolerance of humans and their desire to avoid interactions with people whenever possible.
I’ve long wished that we humans could show as much tolerance—and, I suppose, respect—for bears as they do for us. It’s to their advantage, and well-being, that they move among us largely unnoticed.
Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org