By Arctic Wild guide, Ron Yarnell
It was one of those typical days on our June 2009 Utukok Basecamp trip. Sun was up. (Of course it never
really sets here in June, 175 miles north of the Arctic Circle). After a leisurely breakfast we ferried folks across the river in one of the canoes we had assembled for the river trip that was to follow the base camp. We had already taken several hikes on our side of the river and decided that today we would climb the ridge across the river to see what we could see on that side of the valley.
After successfully getting everyone across, we climbed the tundra-covered ridge. Wildflowers were
everywhere. A few caribou were still passing through the country on their way to meet up with the cows and calves that were, by now, farther to the east in the Kokolik River drainage.
From the crest of the ridge we could look up-valley to Driftwood Creek, a major tributary
of the Utukok headwaters. Beyond the foreground hills rose the snow-covered peaks along the Arctic Divide that separate the north-flowing drainages from the west flowing Noatak River.
Peaks in this part of the Brooks Range aren’t as dramatic as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the Central Brooks Range. This is a land of expansive landscapes with long-distant views. You can see for a hundred miles. It is also remote. It took us nearly three hours to fly here from Coldfoot, in the Central Brooks Range, itself an hour’s flight north of Fairbanks.
And the walking….. Its incredible. For such rolling country it is surprisingly dry. (Where are the tussocks)? I assume it has something to do with these long linear ridges, which go on forever. The one we were on this morning goes for over 30 miles, all the way to the Kokolik River.
“What’s that across the side valley? That splotch of brown on the green tundra, near those bushes.” Sitting down on the ground and using my knees as a platform to hold my binoculars, I was able to confirm that we had something animate in those bushes. Sure enough it occasionally moved. Walking on up the ridge for a better view we confirmed that it was a grizzly bear. Then it morphed into two grizzlies…..then three and eventually four. Now this was unusual.
We had already seen a few grizzlies in the vicinity, most moving east, where the caribou were going, following the same ridges we were. Did they have caribou calves on their minds?
But four grizzlies all together. It wasn’t the berry season. Was it a sow with three cubs? (Very unusual this high in the arctic). One did appear to be a bit larger. And they were all piled on top of each other. In fact that is what made it so difficult to determine the final number. It was one big mass of brown fur, from which a head or two would occasionally materialize.
This puzzle required a better viewpoint. Slowly, and crouching, the six of us moved to a location several hundred yards from our grizzlies. Then after watching them for 5 or 10 more minutes we moved to a better location, about a hundred yards closer, where we could be more concealed. Unfortunately in the process one of the cubs spotted our movements. It was incredible. A hundred yards is a good distance for a bear to see. Especially considering the fact that we were crawling on our hands and knees, at a very slow pace. This one cub got up and ran up onto the tundra above the others. It wanted to leave, but wouldn’t leave “Mom”.
Of course this alerted the other three. They looked in our direction. Everyone froze. Mom went back to playing with one of the siblings. She didn’t see us and wasn’t the least bit nervous.
For the next several hours we watched these four bears playing on the snow field. The one nervous cub never did get over it. Numerous times he tried to convince “Mom” to leave, but she would have nothing to do with it. Once in a while one of the others would look our way, but by this time we were well concealed below the tundra, with only our heads visible. They played and played. Sometimes “Mom” would disappear down to the creek, and we would all get nervous, because she was out of our sight and might come up on the tundra, on our side of the creek, 50-75 yards away, a distance I was uncomfortable with.
These three cubs must have been three-year-olds, as they were practically the size of their mother. (Here in the arctic, grizzlies keep their young three or even sometime four years). It is hard to believe “Mom” could do this, raise three cubs this far north. But there she was constantly playing with the one cub. They all seemed healthy, and certainly had the energy to play endlessly. At one point they found the perfect slide, where they could slide down the snowbank and off the cliff into the creek.
Finally we decided we needed to have lunch (it must have been four in the afternoon by now), so we slowly backed up the ridge, leaving the bears to play on the snow field. It had been a good day. We had experienced one of those rare moments in arctic wildlife encounters that will be burned into our minds for the rest of our lives. This land needs to be protected for future generations of grizzly cubs and caribou calves. Hopefully, 100 years from now, other groups like ours, will still be able to sit on the tundra and watch a family of grizzlies playing on a snow field.