The Kahn Of Katmai

Today's story comes from Salsa storyteller Bjorn Olson and took place in a very special and unique environment, and with proper training. Do not attempt this type of interaction on your own!

His caution was impeccable, speed unbeatable, and alertness always. He'd just escaped two roving boars who'd seen him as a prize meal and he was flagging from the effort. Napping with his chin resting on a log afforded him a brief and guarded respite from the cruel, friendless world that surrounded him. 

While guiding in Katmai a few years ago, I took this photo of one of the most remarkable bears I've had the opportunity of observing. The previous year, this cub and his sibling were under the protection of their full-sized and fiercely protective mother. I witnessed her ferociously defend them many times. Once, the pair sought shelter behind me in my camp as she fought off a hungry boar, eager to eat the defenseless cubs. I felt honored.

When I saw them the next season, only one cub had survived winter—the one known as Max. For the first half of the summer, Max and his mother were never seen apart. Well into his third season, he was still suckling at her tit and living within the security of her defenses. 

“Do you want to go see the bears?” I asked. On a sundrenched mid-summer evening I led a group of newly arrived clients into the meadow. Within five minutes and a few scant yards from our electrified campsite, we saw the rotund mother and her sturdy cub sauntering in our direction. Being familiar with a bear is not the same as being comfortable with a bear, so we stopped to see what they'd do. With no trepidation about our close proximity, the massive ivory-brown sow approached and casually eased down onto her rump, patiently allowing Max to suckle on her nutritious extract.

I whispered to my four companions, “This is really special that she feels so comfortable.” The still, warm air, filled with chirps from a spritely Fox sparrow and bathed in low light from the midnight sun, produced a palpable sense of well-being. It appeared that the bruins shared the same spirit of ease and calm. Expensive cameras with even more-expensive lenses feebly attempted to capture the magic.

A few minutes later, Max had drunk his fill. Both sow and cub stood up and marched slowly toward us. Although we'd just witnessed her tremendous capacity for compassion, I'd also seen her battle. This sow was the queen mother of the region. She was massive and wonderfully gifted in the art of intimidation in defense of her offspring. Even a fool knows not to get between a sow and cub—no matter the species.

As they approached, my heart beat quickened. At an arm’s length away, she finally stopped and began giving our assembly a thorough sniff-down. Breathing seemed to cease; my index finger curled on the pull chord of my hand-held defensive flare. "Don’t make eye contact," I whispered as the sow’s head lifted from ankle to chest height, sucking short, quick sniffs of our hominid reek. We were standing shoulder to shoulder, with me in the middle. The middle-aged European woman on the far left of our group was having her pheromones detected by one of nature’s greatest noses, which was attached to an exceptionally large specimen of the largest brown bear populations on the planet.

Is this it? I wondered. Will the hubris of my profession be wickedly exposed in a nightmare explosion of violence? Sweat coursed through the palms of my hands, a rush of blood flooded my ears and I wondered how effective the flare would actually be if she was half as determined as I’d seen her in other circumstances. 

After several disquieting seconds she appeared satisfied. The giant mother had taken in her information, and she casually ambled away with little Max dutifully in tow. Client and guide alike shared the exhalation of air and the ear-throbbing, metallic-tasting surge of adrenaline as they retreated. 

We saw the pair again the next morning on our foray through the sedge meadow. This time, however, something remarkable happened. In the blink of an eye—a glimpse that we were on-hand and charmed to witness—little Max's life was forever changed.

A randy boar pursued the mother, and this time, unlike every time in the last three years, she did not decline his love-hungry offer. She was ready to mate again. Before our eyes, the mother-son bond was broken forever. The little bruin had been brought up, cared for, nourished to perfection, and protected from a cruel, uncaring world by a potent protector. But in an instant he was alone. Worst of all, he was now a vulnerable victim within the Ursos arctos pecking order. 

For the rest of the season I watched this bear evolve into his new rank and position, and I have never felt more certain of a creature’s scrappy adaptability. He had been trained by the best.

It's been a few years since I've seen this remarkable animal. I like to imagine that if he's alive, he's become the Kahn of Katmai.

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