Home Back Forward June 13th 1999: An Amazing Chase

Chico and Biscuit examining the tracks of the chase

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I realize that I'm hogging the web page entries but thought I would continue the story of my trip to Kambalnoe. Maureen is asleep. We had a light that was switched on in our room and when the electricity came on at 3 am, I decided to take advantage of it because it is normally on for only 3 hours at a time and not at all yesterday.

Back to Kambalnoe... I watched the two remaining cubs, Chico and Biscuit, from a distance every chance I got. I had to go down the lake almost a mile to be able to see up the valley where they seemed to spend most of their time. They couldn't have been acting in a better way regarding dispelling the preconceived ideas that Vladimir Mosolov imagined out loud that he and his colleagues insisted they would be like before we got here. They showed up at the cabin only three times in the week that we were there and when they did they only stayed about fifteen minutes before carrying on. They never gave any indication that they wanted food even though I had yet to see them eat anything more than a small amount of green grass from a very few patches of bare ground that had melted out where the wind had kept the snow thin. They just seemed to want to say hello once in a while. Vladimir wanted me to not encourage them by continuing a friendly relationship, so I had decided that I wouldn't argue about it, just wait for some opportunity to demonstrate to him how wonderful they really were.

One day I did ski up the valley that was out of sight of the cabin to finally say a proper hello. When I called to the cubs, they jumped from their beds and came sliding down the steep snow to me and rubbed their faces in the snow where I had been standing. I put my hands in the snow and they really rubbed in the scent there. This was the same behavior as they had the previous year upon our first meeting. They then began running around me in circles and sliding down the snow, just missing taking my feet out from under me. Chico came to where I was standing and stared digging a hole in the snow until she almost disappeared. She was completely trusting with her head away down in the snow and her hind feet only two feet from me. I could have spent hours with them but thought that if I stayed too long Vladimir would figure out what I was doing. He was starting to indicate that the whole scene here was much different than he had imagined and I didn't want to push things too fast.

We spent a lot of time watching the male bear that I alluded to in the last entry because he was definitely a predator bear and I had never seen one in action before. Across the narrow end of the lake, directly in front of the cabin is a steep pointed peak that we have called Rosie mountain. Two years running, different female bears have used the top as a refuge to keep their spring cubs out of the main steam of bear traffic because of the habit of some males to make a meal of them. I had seen where this happened but had never observed this macabre behavior. There seems to be a critical time in the early spring that they are the most vulnerable and if they get through that time they have a good chance of raising their cubs. Also the size and age of the female must make a difference. The female the previous year had seemed to be successful but it was a different story this spring.

The first encounter we saw how the female detected the male before he saw her and her family. She looped around the top of the peak as he followed their scent and then slid halfway down a steep snow drift, then took some devious routes back up over cliffs and up to the top of the mountain again. He was following her sent trail and got carried away on the drift and slid all the way to the bottom before realizing his mistake and was too lazy to go all the way back up. The next day Fedor spotted one cub sliding down the same drift alone and we could see the other two huddled together at the top without her mother. There had to be something very wrong as this just doesn't happen that cubs are left on their own. I correctly summarized that the mother and the male bear were fighting out of sight over the top of the mountain. Just as the lone cub had made it's way back up to its siblings, the mother showed up on the ridge. The cubs spooked at the sight of her and they started running up hill. (Our cubs would often even spook themselves by one getting separated and showing up in an unexpected place). In this instance, the three small cubs ran right into the maw of the male as he also came over the sharp ridge above them. The female tackled him just as he caught one cub and the three of them tumbled down the steep slope. It was clear that the game of life was over for that little bear. Perhaps the female had also been injured because she did not leave the area while the male ate the cub completely in one sitting. That same afternoon, he caught and ate the second cub. This time the female did seem to leave the area.

Two days later we were sitting on the cabin porch watching fourteen different brown bears on a sunny evening. One male walked along the lake towards the bay where our cubs hung out and disappeared around the corner. Shortly after we saw three bears running on the lake and with the binoculars, I was horrified to see that it was Chico and Biscuit being chased very hard by what now looked like the same male that had killed the other cubs. The male had singled out one but I was too upset at the time to identify which one it was as we were watching the event from about mile away. The other veered away while the chase went on in a big arc on the frozen lake in plain sight of us. The cub who could have gotten away, instead, cut across the arc and deliberately put herself with her sister who was only a very few yards in front of the male, just holding her own in the race for her life. When they disappeared into the bay I was a wreck! I was trying to get the skis on so as to ski around the corner to see what had happened but in my mind I was sure that the outcome would be very hard to take.

I was soon across the lake to where I could see up the valley and found the race was still not over. The cubs were just then disappearing over the top of a high ridge and they now had a bit of a lead. I knew what was on the other side of the ridge because it is a basin that is visible from the cabin and I was sure now that they would know the terrain well enough to be able to get away. Before I skied around the mountain to intercept them, I took a close look at reading the tracks that were all very visible in the bright angled light. I could see where the cubs had made a try to get over the ridge to where they had just gone, much earlier in the chase but at the top of the snow filled gully that they chose to go up, they ran unexpectedly into a band of pines that had recently melted out of the snow which hadn't been there the last time they took this route. They chose wisely, not to try to go through it as a larger bear would be able to make better time in this rough going. Instead they had to run down another gully and it looked from the tracks that this was where they almost got caught. The bigger bear had a longer reach on the downhill if it was snow covered. It looked like the cubs had to go up the other side of the valley, which is not where they wanted to go. It was at least uphill, which was to their advantage, but this meant that they had to make a huge loop around to the top of the valley in order to get to where they felt safe. I was looking at about four miles of tracks and the race was not over.

I found the cubs coming around the corner back out onto the lake near the cabin. The male had given up and was laying on the snow near the top where they had come over. As I skied along with them they were very tired but didn't seem upset. Perhaps this was a common occurrence in their lives this spring with this killer bear specializing in eating cubs. The obvious question was how could they outrun a bigger bear which was on a high protein diet when they hadn't had a full meal for over six months? It now seemed obvious what had happened to Rosie. The cubs and I walked slowly back to where the chase had started. It seemed important to them that they take the time to study how it had all begun, how the male had surprised them at such close range and what his tracks smelled like. I forgot about what our procession must look like to Vladimir as the cubs laid down almost on my skis to get their breath. The whole episode was so emotional to me that I had a difficult time leaving them.

Later, Fador indicated that Vladimir seemed to be softening a bit and admitting that what he was seeing was making him think. We are now back in the City, about to have another umpteenth meeting and will soon know whether what I learned is going to make a difference to how our program is viewed from here on.


© Lenticular Productions Ltd. 1999