“This is crazy,” murmurs Perry Mollan, lead guide of Katmai Wilderness Lodge. Here we are in Kukak Bay, about as wild as Alaska gets, and we’re witnessing a scene straight out of Disney: a 400-pound brown bear and a red fox hanging around with each other. In all his years, Perry’s never seen anything like it; Alaska photographer Carl Johnson and I are just as flummoxed.
Foxes found in the general vicinity of bears isn’t strange; consummate scroungers, they’re happy to gather in scraps the bruins leave behind. But there’s something different going on here. The bear, a chunky young male, is busy munching beach rye grass and succulent greens—hardly fox food. Yet the fox curls up in the sun, scant feet away—well within the bubble of personal space any self-respecting bear usually would maintain, and too close for the fox’s natural comfort.
The bear meanders a few yards, sprawls on his belly, and begins the second course of his surf and turf brunch—skeins of half-dried kelp. The fox yawns, stretches, and sidles closer. The bear stares at the fox and swaggers toward it. The fox acts as if the bear is invisible, until the distance closes to five feet. Then, in a weightless burs the fox minces away. It’s obviously a game for both of them, one that repeats several times as our cameras whir.
In case we have any doubt that we’re viewing a cross-species play session, the fox digs up a weathered rubber sandal— Alaska beaches, like shores anywhere, are littered with flotsam—and begins mouthing, shaking and tossing it. The bear rushes the fox and steals its prize. He chews and bats the shoe for a while; then loses interest. A few minutes later, the fox has it once more. Then the bear homes in on a tattered blue plastic tarp. Rolling on his back, he swats and wrestles, draped in its folds. When he gets distracted by a scent and moves up the beach, the fox darts in and has his turn goofing with the new toy. And, when the bear wanders into the brush, his buddy the fox trots along behind him. Verdant and glowing, Kukak Bay seems an idyllic wild paradise.
Perry eases the big skiff away from the beach and around the point; and almost at once, we spot more bears—this time, a female with two yearling cubs, foraging along the tide line. Despite the presence of cubs and a doting mom, there are no hijinks, nor a hint of relaxation. All three members of this little family are intent on eating—deadly serious business in a land where winter is always coming, and only one in 10 cubs lives to adulthood.
Then the female gets a notion. She stares across the bay—roughly a mile wide at that point—and, without hesitation, sloshes into the water and sets out toward the far shore. Though they ride low in the water, bears are strong swimmers, and such a crossing is routine business in calm conditions like today. The cubs plunge in, and quickly close the lead their mother had opened up. And, being cubs, they want to hitch a ride. Trouble is, they both end up clinging to their mother’s neck, forcing her head under. She gasps and coughs, tries in vain to shake them off. “They’re drowning her,” says Perry, his voice tight. “They don’t know any better.” The female finally shakes off both cubs, and, treading water, bites and swats, bawling. One cub disappears from view for long seconds before bobbing back to the surface.
Mom starts swimming and is mobbed under again. We watch from a distance, unable to intervene. She breaks free, and turns back toward the shore she started from. Finally, one of the cubs starts swimming on its own, and she’s able to stay afloat with one. But it’s still touch and go all the way back. Fifty minutes after setting out, the bears drag them- selves onto the rocks, exhausted but safe—by the slimmest of margins. It’s just another morning on Kukak Bay.