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Daily Trip Log

By Peter Brewster

The Kingdom of Nachvak Fjord

Wednesday, July 18, 2001


 NACHVAK FJORD: Every so often in life you get be to a witness. A bystander with ringside seats, watching events unfold. An unneeded extra on the great set, with no lines to say.

 So you watch. And take photos.

 It happened at mid-afternoon, turning a low-key, easy-going day on Nachvak Fjord (if there can be such a thing surrounded by this kind of scenery) into something truly memorable

 There were four polar bears, and hundreds of caribou.

 But that's just the very broad strokes.

 Let's go back to the beginning, and try to re-capture the scene as it was played out.

 Did it start with the bacon we fried up to accompany cornmeal pancakes? I doubt it, but damn, those crispy strips were good, as befits brunch on our first day to lie in.

 Naturally there was maple syrup, a first and second pot of coffee, and much lolling about.

 When we finally did lay on the paddles it was late -- but then, as Andrew sagely reasoned later, if we'd been off at a decent time we'd have missed it all.

A mother polar bear and her two cubs emerge from the waters of Nachvak Fjord and pass by a line of caribou walking near the shore. Michael Peake photo

 As we approached the first headland on the south shore through the Narrows into the fjord, Andrew spotted a line of caribou coming out of the gorgeous, sweeping valley to our left.

 There were caribou by the score, in single file along a game trail likely centuries old, heading for a rocky point.

 It's not clear whether they diverted because they had seen us, or whether their leader's plan called all along for the herd to climb up a towering scree and over the top.

 Paddles were shipped as we drifted and watched, the herd snaking from the distance like a train along a curving track.

 They were still moving when we let the east wind take us, Sean and Geoffrey in the lead.

 Half a mile down the fjord, the herd appeared again. They'd cut over the top of that hill and were moving west.

 It was then that Sean raised a paddle in very dramatic fashion, and kept it there.

 I pulled the 10x25 binoculars out of my life jacket pocket and scanned the shore.

 And there he was, like a giant yellow-white dog, sprawled on a gray rock, head drooped lazily over the edge.

 The bear looked up (I'm guessing it was Papa) and lumbered off the rock. But we were all so fascinated -- and excited -- that we didn't at first notice another bear and two second-year cubs just back from the shoreline.

 It was at this juncture that the lead caribou arrived on the scene, about two hundred yards above the family of bruins.

 Our canoes were about 200 yards offshore, and the only noise was the clicking of shutters as the Nikons went into overdrive.

 There, right in front of us, were the real residents of Nachvak Fjord. It was just that they hadn't planned to bump into each other.

 The caribou started instantly, spinning and turning in something that if not panic was certainly disarray. Following the leader, they scrambled up an impossible-looking slope and milled around at the summit, more animals spilling onto the lower level all the time.

 Strangely, the bears paid little heed to the herd, but were definitely not impressed by the six members of the HACC.

 The largest bear, bigger by far than the other adult, made a speedy exit stage right. Mom and the cubs moved steadily but without hurry along the shoreline and over a small rise.

 Mike stuffed another card into the big digital camera. I reloaded film. Tom fussed with his camera box and vocalized about a longer lens.

 But it wasn't over.

 Within minutes the three bears appeared again, swimming strongly back to where they had originally been. Mother stood upright in the shallows, assessing the situation while the kids trod water. Then they climbed out and went up from the shore.

 By now the caribou had come back from their lofty sanctuary and were trotting east once more. But whether it was the absence of the giant male, or the acceptance that they were not in danger, this time they did not spook.

 The photo op was superb: caribou and three polar bears, all in the same frame, one group moving right to left, the other left to right.

 And that was how we left them, hearts pounding, brains reeling, superlatives flowing.

 The rather tricky crossing of the fjord that followed was not only to put a mile and a half of open water between us and them.

 It was felt that the satellite phone would do better on the north side, surrounded as we are by mountains up to 5,400 feet.

 But frankly, everyone would be happier if the bears did their thing over there until we vacate.

 It is infinitely more their's than ours.

 It was a privilege to see them. Totally entrancing.

 So much so that the whales surfacing all around us as we watched the big show were barely noticed.

 Wherever it is, the view will not be as good as this one.

360 pix

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