Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Books: "Watch the Bear" On The Brown Bears Of Alaska


Watch the Bear: A Half Century with the Brown Bears of Alaska

By Derek Storonov

Bison Books; paperback, 240 pages; $21.95; available today, Wednesday, March 1st

Derek Storonov  is a retired wildlife biologist and guide working out of Homer, Alaska, who has educated hundreds of students, photographers, filmmakers, scientists, and tourists about brown bears. He has written articles for Natural History magazine and produced booklets for Alaska Fish and Game, the Nature Conservancy, Alaska Audubon, among others. He has written and directed several films, including the award-winning Way of the Bear.

As a research scientist and guide in some of Alaska's most beautiful wild places, Storonov spent the better part of fifty years watching brown bears. His interest began when he was a dyslexic kid who was more interested in hunting and cars than academics. He collected objective data, as well as make observations and insights about what he learned to call "the community of bears."

Watch the Bear begins in the 1960s, when salmon were plentiful, and Storonov could spend an entire summer watching hundreds of bears without seeing another human being, and continues to the current era, when bear guiding companies are ubiquitous and solitude in bear country is a whole lot harder to find.

This compelling read mixes memoir, anecdotes, and science, and he Storonov provides an inquiry into brown bear communication and social behavior, as well as advice on living in harmony with bears. It's good science made accessible with stories, and it offers readers a breath-taking journey into the world of a legendary but often misunderstood species.

Storonov writes in this excerpt: "Late September. I'm alone and sitting on a tundra-covered hillside at the eastern end of Lake Becharof, Alaska, watching Slade, a huge, fully grown brown bear, who could weigh close to a thousand pounds. He's walking along a bear trail that connects two creeks, each full of dead, dying, and spawned-out red salmon. His new winter coat catches the light from the low-angle fall sun, which gives his dark brown hair silvery highlights. If he continues, he'll pass about a hundred feet from me.

Queen Elizabeth and her two yearling cubs are eating blueberries near the trail Slade is using. I've been watching for several hours, taking notes on their activities. I've been hoping for another bear to come along the well-used path so I can see some sort of interaction, envisioning that one of the area's legion of 'subadult' bears might wander by and Queen Elizabeth, being a protective mother, would charge and chase.

Instead I get Slade, a real treat, and a bear I don't see every day. When Slade is still a few hundred yards from the bear family, they stop eating and slowly amble off. They give no indication, other than their timely departure, that they sense his approach. Likewise, Slade shows no sign he knows they are there, continuing his characteristic, head-down, pigeon-toed walk.

A steady wind blows from Slade's direction toward the mother and cubs. I can guess, but certainly not prove, that Queen Elizabeth caught his scent, recognized it as coming from a male, and moved away, wishing to avoid physical confrontation and possible predation to her cubs.

When Slade nears me, he stops and lifts his head. His face gives no hint of tension, his ears remain up, and his mouth stays closed. His eyes seem to lock on mine and we give each other a long, hard stare.

Abruptly he drops his bottom jaw, his large lower canine flash, and for a brief moment he raises his right nostril and tosses his head before quickly turning away and disappearing down the bear trail toward the creek.

I remain sitting, doing my best to write down objective notes of our interaction - distance, time, weather, wind direction, and behavior - but while I am writing I am also thinking: Did Slade just sneer at me?...

when I began I had no idea how to go about being with bears. I'd never seen a brown bear. I didn't know what they would allow or what I should do. However, I soon realized that being in the presence of bears required a certain level of responsiveness on my part and a willingness to abide by rules the bears so clearly showed me.

Somewhere along the way I put away my misconceptions about aggression and started treating bears as bears. The more I watched them, the more I understood the fear people had was an overreaction. It was almost as though humans perceived bears not as bears, but as dangerous people.

Year after year I went into the field. I watched and followed. I quietly sat while Slade and Queen Elizabeth and hundreds of others walked by and did extraordinary things. Sometimes I was part of the landscape, other times the focus of their attention."

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