The Adorable Bear Cubs of Alaska

Let’s face it: who doesn’t love a bear cub? They are cuddly, playful and oh so cute. The brown bear cubs that I encountered on my most recent trip to Katmai National Park in Alaska did not disappoint!

One of the most dangerous animals in the world is a mama bear with her cubs. Female bears will do anything to protect their young, so when hiking or camping in Alaska, or any bear habitat for that matter, one should be extremely cautious and prepared for an angry bear encounter.  Well, that is not necessarily the case in Katmai National Park: instead of attacking the humans with long lenses who are way too close to their cubs, the mama bears have decided to use us as babysitters! Read on to learn how what began as a photography adventure turned into the ultimate babysitting adventure…

Last week, I posted about my first encounter with a huge brown bear while on a photography trip in Katmai National Park. Once we were settled in, with shutters clicking away, I was able to absorb all that was happening around me. We were surrounded by sea birds, diving for salmon in the braided river and picking up scraps left by bears. A few single bears roamed through the water upstream, constantly on the lookout for that flash of silver that would become their next meal. And then there were the cubs… So many cubs! 

I was shocked at how close the cubs were allowed to come to us. The older and more experienced mama bears, like “Sandy Sow”, were very comfortable with the humans, and knew we meant no harm to their offspring. In fact, they would occasionally leave their cubs sitting on the shoreline very close to us, as they ventured further upstream in search of lunch. This behavior indicated a level of trust – – they trusted us to watch over their babies. They knew if the cubs were close to the humans, they would be safe from the larger male bears. Adult male bears are known to kill cubs that are not their own – – this can help ensure their own offspring will flourish, and it can also lead to the possibility of mating with the female sooner. We noticed that one particularly large male, “Scarbutt”, would often venture closer to Sandy Sow’s cubs. Interestingly, Sandy never seemed to care that Scarbutt was near; we learned that Scarbutt was Sandy’s brother, and it became obvious that she trusted their uncle would not harm her cubs. 

We took our role of cub-sitters very seriously, keeping a close eye on them. We spent a lot of time watching over Sandy Sow’s cubs. These three chubby bundles of fuzz were healthy and thriving, as their mother was an excellent provider, always ensuring the cubs had plenty of salmon to feed on. They would likely survive the winter; other cubs were not so lucky. One mama bear, “Betty”, did not have Sandy’s fishing skills. She wasn’t as successful, and rarely shared her catch with her cubs. Betty’s cubs were quite small in comparison to Sandy’s cubs, and it’s unlikely any of them would survive the long winter.

It was interesting to watch the interaction between mothers and cubs. Occasionally, the mama bear would return to the cubs, catch a fish right next to them and allow them to fight over it. Other times, she would be way upstream fishing and would decide it was time to call her cubs to join her. She would turn and face the cubs and proceed to “huff” in their direction. The cubs would immediately start the long trot to join her, often passing just a meter in front of us. On one occasion, one of the cubs veered toward me, curious to sniff my pack that was laying on the ground beside me. Our guide shoo’d him away – – she didn’t want the cubs to get too comfortable getting close to the humans.

Spending time with the brown bear cubs of Katmai was an experience that will forever stick in my mind. I plan to return to Katmai National Park to catch a glimpse of these very special cubs yet again. Brown bear cubs will stay with their mothers until they are two and a half to three years old – – so if I’m able to visit later this year, it’s very likely I will have the opportunity to see Sandy Sow’s cubs triple in size!

Have you ever spent time watching bear cubs play??

To learn more about Katmai National Park, visit:

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