As we start up the trail to Lake Eva, we are acutely aware that this path has likely not been walked by humans since before the brown bears denned up for their winter naps about six months ago. “What will we see?” we wonder. Are the bears back? Will they be expecting people? Entering wilderness always carries with it a certain exhilaration that only the unknown of the wild can conjure, and we are all feeling it.
Not far up the trail, a fallen tree crosses our path, adding to the feeling that though we are on a maintained trail, we are surrounded by wildness. We are entering a place governed by brown bears, bald eagles, minks, and wolves, where homo sapiens are only visiting.
The trail passes through the forest, following contour lines above a creek that is roaring white and wild, swollen from heavy winter snows. We hear Pacific wrens and varied thrushes in the understory, kinglets in the spruce tops, but our focus is on the animal we neither see nor hear: the big bear.
We gather around naturalist Mary Lou to hear personal tales of bears she has encountered in Southeast Alaska. So detailed and textured are her stories that we are convinced we must be seeing bear cubs in the treetops, big mama bears in the shadows of windfallen trees on the forest floors.
Around a bend in the trail, we find a pile of bear scat on the trail, and in no time, we are on our hands and knees poking it with sticks. “What has it been eating?” we ask. Rather than the usual spring grasses we expect in brown bear scat in May, we are surprised to find fur and bone fragments. We quickly determine it is not deer, even though we found a deer skull and some hair along the trail. The hair is finer and darker. One person suggests beaver. We decide to bag the scat and take it with us for further investigation.
A few hundred yards behind the scat, we find beaver signs – trees nearly ready to fall after being gnawed two-thirds of the way through, logs stripped of bark and limbs covered with teeth marks. Could the one that chewed the trees be the one that fell prey to the bear?
We wind our way to the lake, then the long walk back to the landing beach, without ever seeing the bear, without the mystery of the scat being solved. At the beach, Zodiacs are ready to carry us back to the ship with more questions than answers. Hopefully the bagged scat will unveil some information, but for now we are left to wonder.