During the years I lived in San Diego, one of my favorite places was the San Diego Zoo. My office at the Education Center was only a few blocks from the zoo, and sometimes I would take my Thermos and sandwich for lunchtime enjoyment watching a few animals. Most visitors to the zoo had a special favorite _ Chester, a large brown bear. We delighted in watching him sit up and beg for the special dietary wafers thrown to him by the zoo bus drivers.
Although the San Diego Zoo has attempted to provide as natural a habitat for its animals as possible, it was always my hope to see bears and other animals in the wild. Oh, I had seen bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and at Yellowstone, but their naturalness has been spoiled by their contacts with people, who, in spite of posted warnings, insist on feeding them scraps of people food.
This past summer, during a trip to Alaska, my wish was fulfilled during a visit to Denali National Park. Bouncing along in a retired school bus over gravel roads that wind up into the mountains, all of us searched the hillsides for wilderness animals. Dall sheep were mere white specks way up on the rocky formations, a moose cow wandered along a stream below us, two red foxes strolled leisurely by our bus, caribou grazed in a valley, a falcon soared overhead _ but no bears!
Our bus driver/guide was registering the disappointment we all felt when suddenly he exclaimed, "Look out the right side of the bus!"
About 150 feet away from the road, on a hillside opposite us, a huge brown grizzly bear was galumphing along, fur flopping, in hot pursuit of a ground squirrel scurrying for shelter. Our driver stopped the bus, warning that no one would be permitted off, and we all crowded to the windows with cameras and binoculars. The squirrel made it to its burrow, and the bear skidded to a stop.
His back to us, the bear began digging swiftly with his forepaws. First he held up his left leg, and the dirt came flying. Then he would hold up his right, all the time trying to catch up with the squirrel. As a gaping hole began to appear in the hillside, one of the men in our group commented, "That poor ground squirrel has had a heart attack by now!"
Evidently the squirrel was able to burrow farther back into the hillside, as the grizzly kept digging. Then all 600 to 800 pounds of him, as our driver estimated his weight, stood up, studying the ground beneath him. Stepping up in front of his diggings, he stomped with all four paws on the ground, attempting to break down the squirrel's refuge.
More digging followed, and we couldn't decide whether to cheer for the bear or the squirrel. Then abruptly the bear stopped his excavating, made a quick swipe with his mouth and devoured the morsel he had worked for 30 minutes to capture. Our grizzly loped off, filled with a little more protein for his long winter's nap.
Rather anticlimactic was a sighting a short distance down the road. A mother grizzly and her two cubs were rooting for food. Our driver reminded us that the mother bear must keep her cubs away from the father. Contrary to movie versions, the adult male will attack young bears.
We had seen our bear, but there were other wildlife sightings to enjoy during our visit to Alaska. On another day, as we rode along by Turnaround Arm off Cook Inlet, between Anchorage and Portage, we caught sight of a huge school of beluga whales. Surfacing playfully in their Sunday afternoon aquatic traffic jam, the whales numbered much more than 50. The frolicking of the whales, which were not as large as the killer whales seen at Sea World, was not limited to tanks.
In Skagway we saw our first salmon struggling upstream to their spawning grounds. One member of our party doffed her shoes and waded into a creek to catch a salmon with her bare hands. We were happy to see her release the struggling fish.
In Ketchikan we marveled again at nature's great wonder, that of salmon returning from the sea to the freshwater stream where they had hatched. Walking along by Ketchikan Creek, we saw literally hundreds of salmon struggling to reach their birthplace, the Deer Mountain Fish Hatchery. Near the banks, where the water was calmer, they huddled to rest before continuing on their way.
Delighted with the wildlife I had seen, I found watching Mary Shields' trained sled dogs equally entertaining. Many of us had seen Mary and her dogs on public television programs. Outside Fairbanks we watched her demonstration as these intelligent animals, eager to obey her every command, pulled her sleigh over the gravel, which was substituting for snow. All of them are mixed breed, no pedigrees in the lot. Schnitzel, the lead dog, and each of the others greeted us warmly after the demonstration.
Other entertainment was provided dockside in Sitka by a large dog, part Labrador. She had found a tree limb, fully 5 feet long, which she would drag to the feet of passengers preparing to board a tender returning to their ship. Barking sharply, she would wait for the limb to be thrown into the water. When someone would oblige, she would scamper down the bank, leap into the water to retrieve the branch, and scramble up over the rocks, proudly dragging her quarry.
Passenger after passenger succumbed to her demanding barks and tossed the limb into the water. If someone had refused her, the tireless dog trotted down the gangplank, sometimes banging her stick against the legs of the retreating passenger.
We watched her for at least 30 minutes, and when our tender departed, she still was conning people into tossing the branch for her to retrieve.
In the setting of Alaska's magnificent scenery, the creatures we saw, whether living in the wild or adapting to human beings, provided us with unforgettable entertainment. How much more enjoyable, I thought, than the fluff or violent scenes on so much of television.
Lois V. Arnold of Tarpon Springs was an English teacher and administrator in Florida and California schools for 43 years before retiring.