Across 20 feet of ankle-deep water, Charlie Land stares at a brown bear sow.
The bear stares back. She scratches her side, then lunges at Land. He fills the shrinking gap with a pink cloud of hot-pepper aerosol, a sort of natural tear gas, and the bear wheels back to her side of the stream.
Again she scratches. Finally she ambles off across the tidal flat.
Land back-steps up the gravel spit he was defending, then turns to the three people waiting a dozen steps behind him.
“She didn’t mean it,” he says. “She wasn’t serious.”
Part of His Job
Land shrugs off such confrontations as part of his job with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, enforcing an uneasy truce between man and bear at one of the few places where the species willingly meet.
Pack Creek flows into a narrow ocean inlet from a steep valley on Admiralty Island, about 30 miles south of Juneau. The island boasts the greatest density in the world of Alaska brown bears, a larger version of the grizzly species.
Late each summer, about 30 bears congregate at Pack Creek, splashing through the shallows after spawning salmon and grazing in the surrounding meadow like a herd of cows.
The interlopers, game officials say, are the increasing numbers of wildlife watchers whose eagerness to capture bears on film is crowding this corner of wilderness.
Pack Creek is one of only three observatories in Alaska where people can readily watch brown bears. The two others are so popular the state has a visitor limit at one and a lottery for permits to the other.
Now Pack Creek is being overwhelmed.
Up to 60 people a day hunker on the gravel spit. Yachts congregate offshore; bush planes buzz in and out steadily. In 1981, 100 people came to Pack Creek. Last year the visits topped 990.
Chased Each Other
Until this year visitors and bears chased each other around the meadow at Pack Creek, the people in pursuit of photographic trophies, the bears guarding prime spots on the salmon stream.
But gradually, the bears have grown bolder, and less intimidated by humans. They have chased people off the spit and carried away packs and food. Biologists learned from maulings at Yellowstone and other parks that once had garbage dumps that bears become most dangerous when they associate people with food.
“We think we have a bomb there and it’s ticking,” says Ken Mitchell, U.S. Forest Service director for the Admiralty Island National Monument.
Mitchell backs a plan, designed by the Forest Service and state game officials, to designate the spit as human turf and leave the rest of Pack Creek to the bears. The authorities hope the boundary will keep people from being mauled and bears from being killed.
A few bear watchers are furious.
“The bears are all used to people and they’re busy fishing. They don’t mind you,” says John Tillinghast, a Juneau attorney who visited the creek one recent weekend.
Tillinghast said it used to be easy to come away from Pack Creek with a standard prize: “Mom and cubs with a 50-millimeter lens . . . and you didn’t have any baby sitter from Fish and Game watching you either.”
Cause of New Rule
The bear that lunged at Land--called “Pest” with reason--prompted the new rule. In 1987, a Forest Service letter file grew fat with reports of bold advances by bears along the creek, mostly Pest:
--Three wildlife watchers reported Pest circled them chomping and growling, then jumped toward them. She was turned away by hot-pepper spray.
--A San Francisco man told the Forest Service he was chased into the loft of a woodshed. “The only reason that I did not shoot was that there was a similar problem yesterday” and the bear did not attack, he wrote.
--Tourists abandoned a pizza on the spit while fleeing from an approaching bear. A researcher recorded the bear’s reward, down to the cheese hanging from its snout and paws.
Forest Service staffers at Pack Creek pleaded with Mitchell to do something. “None of us wants to see Pest killed, but we feel some action must be taken soon to prevent more incidents,” they wrote, suggesting that the creek be closed to people.
In July, 1987, the Forest Service and Alaska Fish and Game announced that Pest would be killed. When the anticipated roar of protest came, they began work on the less drastic plan adopted this year.
Enter Stan Price, an irascible 88-year-old who loathes government officials on principle and who has become a rallying point for others opposed to this particular government plan.
Raised Orphan Cubs
Price built his cabin and floated it onto the remote banks of Pack Creek more than 30 years ago. In the decades since, he has shared the creek with dozens of bears and raised orphan cubs.
“It burns me up,” Price says of the new rules, which he feels allow game officials to harass the animals. “I can’t say what a bear’s worth. I can’t say what a bear’s good for. But I know they were here before we were.”
He reports little conflict with the bears that wander into his cabins and woodsheds. Price calls them tame and says he was injured by a bear only once, when he mistook a strange animal for a familiar one and was swatted on the shoulder as he approached.
Price believes the Forest Service and Fish and Game have trumped up tales of danger so people will believe they need official protection at Pack Creek. Then in the name of safety the agencies can charge admission and turn the creek into a money-making Yellowstone, he says.
Price knows the bears by name and lineage and becomes distraught at thoughts that they might be shot or relocated.
State and federal officials have said that if the boundary system doesn’t work they will relocate Pest and, if she returns to Pack Creek and causes trouble, she’ll be killed.
Limits Commercial Tours
The Forest Service hopes to exercise some crowd control, too, by limiting commercial tours, which now account for more than half the visitors. Officials are considering a fee to cover the government cost of monitoring Pack Creek, estimated at more than $20,000 a year. They say there is no intent, as Price suggested, of making a profit.
Someday, Mitchell predicts, there will be need for an observatory where hundreds of people can go to watch the bears’ annual fishing binge.