PUBLISHED: 9:15 AM on Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Dundas Bay Bears
Exploring Southeast

Photo courtesy of Barb Turley
  The bears we encountered in Dundas Bay didn't mind having their pictures taken.
Just west of Glacier Bay is a long, narrow inlet called Dundas Bay that forks into three arms. Rugged mountains that line the shores shield the quiet green water from the winds that roil Cross Sound outside the bay. Although it is not a regular tourist destination, Dundas Bay is part of Glacier Bay National Monument. When John Muir visited Dundas Bay by canoe in 1880, he said of it:

A cold, drenching rain was falling, darkening but not altogether hiding its extraordinary beauty, made up of lovely reaches and side fiords, feathery headlands and islands, beautiful every one and charmingly collocated. . . . The view down the bay among the islands was, I thought, the finest of this kind of scenery that I had yet observed.

After spending six days there on our 24-foot Bayliner, my family and I can see what he meant. We can also attest that the rain is still falling. Our party consisted of our daughter Kathy, her husband Gerry Landry, their daughter Jessica, Kim and me. Wildlife encounters are always the highlights of such a trip. Glacier bears, the unique blue-gray colored race of black bears, are sometimes seen in Dundas Bay. They are not common, but we really wanted to see one. We knew our chances were better here than they would be anywhere else.

We planned to hike to a lake beyond the end of the north arm. As we were boating up this arm, we saw a couple of black bears on the shore. We looked at them closely. These bears were both coal black. The salt water ended in a mudflat bordered by lush green meadows. A glacier had dropped a few rocks, some as big as trucks. The beach and meadows were flat otherwise. We immediately noticed a black bear eating grass beside the creek. As we paddled from the boat toward shore, we spotted two other black bears in the meadow.

Brown bears are the ones that are most feared, and rightly so. They are big and can be very aggressive, but a black bear is much more likely to actually hunt a person and eat them. We therefore felt a great deal of respect for the bears before us in the meadow even though they were "only" black bears. We paused on the mud flats. The bears came in and out of view as they moved about through the grass. When we started hiking through the meadow, toward the forest, we called loudly to alert them. We expected them to quickly disappear. However, after many generations of living in a place where hunting is not allowed and where there are not many people, these bears merely glanced at us. They saw no reason to stop eating just because we were in the meadow, too. We would have appreciated this attitude of harmony more if we'd been entirely sure that we wouldn't be the next item on their menu. As we got closer and shouted more, the bear most directly in our path stood up and looked at us, then stepped out of sight into the edge of the trees. It soon appeared again for another look. Our march toward the forest and the lake beyond was definitely beginning to loose momentum. At that point we noticed a large bear on the right-hand side of the meadow. That made at least four bears we'd seen in the meadow though it could have been more the way they went in and out of sight in the tall grass. We suddenly realized that the latest bear to appear was not black in color, it was bluish gray. We'd found our glacier bear!

As the glacier bear slowly moved our direction as it grazed, and the black bears to the front and the front left that had stepped into the woods came back out into the meadow, we decided to abort the lake hike. Kathy, Gerry, and Jessica started back toward the Zodiac. Since I was holding a camera and telephoto lens in my hand, it was a given that Kim and I started moving in the direction of the rare glacier bear. Experience has led me to believe that the one thing in this world that Kim is not cautious enough about is animals. Therefore, we have a standing agreement that I'm the leader when we are involved in a wildlife encounter. This time, I let my desire for a good picture override my sense of critical distance just a bit, but fortunately with no bad consequences. We certainly didn't frighten the bear away. We were mere seconds away from it if it had decided to frighten us away. It simply continued eating grass and slowly moving closer to us. I don't know what thoughts were going through Kim's mind. As I snapped pictures, I was thinking, "If we keep this sort of thing up, we're wasting our time trying to figure out what we want to do when Kim retires."

Kathy, Jessica and Gerry were watching us from the top of one of the big rocks a few hundred yards away. Kathy told me later that Gerry had asked her if our wills were up to date. Kathy said that her thoughts had been on wondering where Kim had put the boat key. When I told Kim that we'd gotten close enough and it was time to leave (I believe my exact words were, "I'm out of film,") we rejoined the others by the rock. Within minutes, three bears had converged on the section of meadow that we'd just left. We then paddled out to the boat.

Gerry decided to take the canoe and paddle up the stream as far as he could, then hike to the lake. He'd be back in four or five hours. Kathy and I had hardly finished a game of cards before he was back. Soon after he got out of the canoe he'd seen a bear quite close to him. Instead of retreating, it had stepped out into the stream only about twenty feet from him. When he walked away, it walked toward him. He got back in the canoe and paddled away. Hiking to that lake certainly wasn't as easy as it had appeared on the map.

The next morning, nearer the mouth of Dundas Bay, we paddled the Zodiac near shore, enjoying views of intertidal creatures exposed in the shallow water of a -2.7' tide. As we were returning to the boat, we saw a gray animal on the shore. It moved like a bear, but the color was just right for a wolf. It wasn't until we'd paddled a bit closer that we were able to decide it was another glacier bear. We felt very privileged to see a second one of these rare animals.

Dundas Bay, with its long inland forks, offers many things to enjoy, on the boat or off it. If the weather is clear, there are spectacular mountains to see or to climb. If it isn't, the lush green forests and flower-dotted meadows are still beautiful. Moose, wolf, and brown bears all leave tracks on the beaches there. Sea otters, whales, and seals are all there, as well as a great variety of ocean birds. If you decide to do some hiking, however, don't expect the bears to be shy.