Touring wild Alaska

Each summer I cross the Gulf of Alaska in my Nordic Tug and spend a few months visiting the wilder regions to photograph bears, whales and other wildlife.

Each summer I cross the Gulf of Alaska in my Nordic Tug and spend a few months visiting the wilder regions to photograph bears, whales and other wildlife. Over the years, I’ve watched many little gray fur balls turn into mature bears and I’ve noticed mother bears gradually deciding I’m not a hazard to their cubs.

One day I was sitting on a stump next to a river, watching the bears fish for salmon. This is a relatively safe activity because there’s plenty of food for the bears to eat so they aren’t interested in you.

But one mama bear was having a problem – she wanted to fish but she also wanted to protect her cubs from the male bears (who will kill cubs if given a chance). She was getting frustrated because protecting cubs and fishing both are full-time jobs.

Finally she walked over to where I was sitting, got really close and sniffed me over. She was clearly not going to attack me but she was curious about something. Then she made a decision – she growled at her cubs to sit down and returned to her fishing.

She made me her babysitter!

Little choice

I didn’t volunteer and I don’t try to get close to bears like some people do, but this was unavoidable – mama bear decided her cubs were safe with me and by the time I realized what she had in mind, it was too late to leave.

So for about 15 minutes I was the official bear babysitter as mama tried to catch some fish. Her cubs weren’t very happy about the deal – they kept bawling for their mama to return.

I thought about this later and realized why mama bear chose me – it turns out that male bears are terrified of humans (most have been hunted), female bears know this and some figure out that their cubs are safer near a human. This wasn’t the first time a mama bear has tried to stay close to me but it was the first time I became a bear babysitter.

Tumbling the tables

Later in the summer, I had a rather scary experience while anchored at the base of a big glacier. I wasn’t anchored securely enough, the wind blew hard during the night and in the morning I was awakened by the sound of a table falling over.

I wasn’t fully awake and I couldn’t figure out how the table could fall over – but then I realized it had to mean I wasn’t afloat any more. And sure enough, my boat was high and dry on the beach after dragging its anchor most of the night.

Fortunately I had gone aground near low tide, so I patiently waited for the tide to rise again and lift me off the beach – no harm done.

Alaska isn’t like most places – you should be self-sufficient and ready for anything. If you get into a jam, you should be ready to rescue yourself. If your boat has a problem, you should be ready to do repairs. And if a bear wants you to baby sit, you should be ready to cooperate.

About the presenter

Paul Lutus designed electronics for the NASA Space Shuttle in the 1970s and then began writing computer programs. His best-known program was "Apple Writer," which became an international best-seller and allowed him to retire at age 35.

In 1983, Lutus received

Reed College’s "Vollum Award" for contributions to science and technology, Oregon’s most prestigious academic honor. In 1986, he was named "Scientist of the Year" by the Oregon Academy of Science. His story was told on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in 1982.

He circumnavigated the globe alone in a small sailboat between 1988-1991 and he now goes to Alaska each summer to photograph grizzly bears.

At a glance

Who: Paul Lutus

What: "Touring Wild Alaska: Adventures by Small Boat"

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 18

Where: Sequim High School cafeteria, 601 N. Sequim Ave.

How much: $5 at the door (18 and under are free)

Next week: "Castles & Cobblestones: Adventures of Two Traveling Musicians in Denmark"

Why: The Peninsula Trails Coalition presents Traveler’s Journal as a fundraiser for the Olympic Discovery Trail. All money raised buys materials and food for volunteers working on trail projects. For more information, call Dave Shreffler at 683-1734.