Alaska, Idaho, and Oregon River Adventures
Copper River

Feature Story

Tracking the Copper River Ghost Bears

By Margo Aragon

Susan Chambers bends over and stares at the ground. More like peering into the mud as if it were a crystal ball. Her find excites us: I hear “bear track” and stop messing with my tent. What kind? How big? Where is it now? I imagine it might be a grizzly, but we can’t be certain unless we actually see the bear that made the tracks.

We are four days into our Copper River trip, deep in the Alaska wilderness. Yet, I haven’t seen one bear. I missed the brief moment one appeared high up a rock face a few days ago. We were all in rafts and someone pointed – silently motioned – toward something. By the time I looked up, the bear had disappeared into a thick stand of alders. It saw us just as soon as it had been seen.

tracking on the Copper

Like the rest of us, Susan is careful not to stand in one place for very long. The wet mud is soft and, ever so slowly, allows you to sink into it. We don’t know how far down the mud could take us, but I think it would be deep. Here, in this immense landscape of river, earth, and northern sky, I feel unusually small. This feeling of being small and inconsequential makes me wonder about the tribes of people who traveled through here when the earth was more frozen than not. They would have seen tracks, too.

But instead of wondering how best to preserve a print, they would have been thinking about hunting the animal that made it. Or deciding how best to avoid it.

But on this summer’s day the ground isn’t frozen. It is soft and accepting in some places where the groundwater has not been fully absorbed. We gather around the paw print. I place my hand next to it, trying to get my head around the size of the animal that would leave its large mark while nosing around for food.

Brown Bear tracks

Lonnie Hutson, trip leader and co-owner with Gail Siegel of Sundog Expeditions, studies the diameter and depth of the paw print. He says it appears to be a younger bear. The tracks, he adds, look at least one day old, probably two. The padded paw is easily visible in the mud, a lighter-hued dirt than I am accustomed to seeing in Idaho.

More like spice than mud, nutmeg or allspice. The claw marks are deep where the bear pushed off and away, only to take another step. A few tracks lead away from our camp near the river. I imagine a kind of ghost bear, only leaving tracks, yet never allowing its body to be seen.

Lonnie decides the impression is good enough to preserve. From some mysterious place on his raft he fishes out clamps, plaster powder, a bucket to prepare the mix, fiber shavings and a wooden frame to hold the plaster in place. He shows us the consistency that is good for this impromptu art project, mixing powder and water with one hand while tipping the bucket with the other hand. The white solution looks like pancake batter. When it’s time to pour the mix over the paw print Lonnie says, “This sets up fast so you have to work quickly.”

It doesn’t take long. He gently works the bits of fiber into the plaster, just enough to hold the back together. And then we wait.

Bear cast

I stand on a rock, as much to get a good photograph of the plaster workings as I am staying off the mud flat. Alaska’s Copper River mud is deceptive. Now that I think about it, what I’ve seen of Alaska from a raft is deceptive. As we float by acres of alders and pines and try to see the mountain peaks that have disappeared into cloud veil, I imagine the mountains look close. But they’re much farther away. When we camp, night appears to be on its way, but it never arrives. Glaciers, like Miles and Childs seem invincible, but we know they’re shrinking and receding. And what looks like mud is really part of a fascinating mineralogy. It seems like wet dirt, but if you stand on it long enough you’ll find yourself sinking. That’s the way of this delta in Alaska’s Copper River basin.

When the plaster has dried, we follow Lonnie to the river. He dips the hardened mold into the silty water and scrubs the clinging mud away. Bit by bit, the thick pad and rounded claws emerge. It is a solid image, a different sort of memory; we will take back with us. We take turns touching the paw print, rubbing our palms over it as if it were a talisman. Maybe this is as much of a symbol as we’ll ever get from this wild, wild place, where day and night, light and dark, are tricks to get you to come back.

Margo Aragon

Margo Aragon is an educator, author, and journalist. She co-authored, with Horace Axtell, A Little Bit of Wisdom: Conversations With A Nez Perce Elder.