November in Shiretoko
For the past few years i have always managed to squeeze a short trip to the North East of Hokkaido at the end of fall. The green and sunny summer is long gone, vivid autumn colors have faded a month ago, and the frigid snowy white winter has not settled yet.
So what is the point going at a season when nature is arguably in its least attractive appearance ? Three answers :
1 You get all the place for yourself, litterally
2 Shiretoko is a rough place, and this very season perfectly embodies the spirit of it.
3 Bears (brown bears that is) are all over the place
On the first morning i took the easy trail around the FIve lakes, starting at 6am around sunrise. Part of the trail was closed due to “bear being out.”…. a fairly common fact, triggered whenever fresh marks are found close to the trail. I find this amusing,as there always are bears out at close distance from the trail…. numerous times i have trekked close to the lake area and found a bear or fresh marks, while the trail was open to public. The point with Shiretoko is that with a bear density of 1 per 3 sqm, wherever you are it’s likely that a brown bear is less than 1 km from you. But anyway, part of the trail was closed so i stayed on the part that wasn’t. And sure enough, 40 mins later, as i was in an open area, a young male emerged from the bamboo grass, passed by me and by a couple of watchful deers heading toward the coast line. As i left the area at 8am, the first few tourists were heading toward the lakes. Later during the day i explored the banks of Iwaobetsu river from the mouth to the hotel that marks the start of the Mt Rausu trail upstream. Crows and eagles were feeding on remains of a salmon, probably caught earlier by a bear as there were many marks around. Like Kamchatka or Alaska, Shiretoko short rivers are spawning grounds for salmons and trouts, generally from the end of July till October, but late runs might occur anytime until December.
The next morning i had decided to go for a longer hike, exploring the coastline that extends between the 5 lakes and the Kamuiwakka waterfall. Once you’re off the road, no marked trail is leading there but the navigation is fairly easy and i have done that route quite a few of times. It took me just over 2 hours to cover the 7 km or so down to the sea shore. The weather was rough, a chilly northwestern gale was bringing high swells and up to 4 meter waves were breaking on the rocky shore. As i was heading toward the sea, a dozen of eagles started circling up from their perch on the rocky beach. Eagles usually gather for a good reason, and sure enough i quickly found in the binoculars what appeared to be a small dead whale. 2 Steller eagles were still feeding on it, and apart from a fleshy hole into which the eagles were frantically thrusting their beaks, the carcass appeared pretty much intact. My guess was that it had been washed just a few days or even hours ago, pushed by the storm, and bears had not started to feed on it yet.
The next day, i was of course keen to visit the whale again and see if bears had found it yet. The morning was much colder and a thin layer of snow was covering the road to the lakes. 20 minutes into the hike i came across fresh bear marks that were heading in the same direction as me. Indeed the bear was just around the corner and soon i could see him foraging on the side of the road 50 meters in front of me. He then disappeared into the undergrowth and i lost sight of it, but soon could hear a loud noise of branches breaking and falling down at close range. i came a little closer trying to get a view through the vegetation but could not, despite the noise telling me the animal was just 30 meters away in a pretty open area…. I stopped, looked thoroughly again and saw nothing… and i looked up : he was 8 meters high in a tree ! He saw me in the same time as i saw him, and as i was a bit too close for his comfort he went down and left. I was shocked that this adult brown bear was so high in a tree, feeding on Sorbus berries… who said brown bears don’t climb trees ?
I hiked on toward the whale carcass and carefully watched around as i was getting closer. About 200 meters from the shore, still in the forest, the head of a bear popped up from a gully just 30 meters away from me. I froze immediately but the bear took no chance, running up the slope for cover, a pretty big guy it was. Looking further around, i found another bear staring at me from behind a log. I froze again and sat down, giving the bear a chance of settling down. Those bears were certainly here for the whale, waiting to take their turn. After a moment the bear seemed to relax, lying down for a nap, and i noticed something coming down the tree just above it : a small 1 year old cub, who was probably sent up for safety as the mother was dealing with the male bear. For the next hour the cub and his mother would just alternate dozing and tender playful moments, a pleasure to watch from a fairly close distance. Probably getting hungry again, the mother started to move down slowly, followed by her cub, but they came right in my direction ! I had been of course careful not to position myself between them and the whale, but no matter, they just wanted to have a closer look at me and went for the scenic route… I made sure the Pepper spray was ready for immediate use, just in case, but the bears showed no sign of aggressiveness at all. At one point the mother stopped just 20 meters from me, foraging for mushrooms or other edibles, and the cub boldly came toward me, stopping just over 10 meters away, constantly looking at me from every angle. Then they moved on, much to my relief, slowly descending toward the shore. They fed on the whale for about half an hour before heading back to the forest behind for a rest. I stayed with them all along, keeping a safe distance, but at the end they really did not pay attention to me anymore. I was just part of the landscape !
Back to hotel Iruka (http://www.iruka-hotel.com/en/index.html) i discussed with the owner and friend Yamamoto san and we decided to place a phone call to Ishii san. He is a professional film maker living in the area and has a permanent assignment from NHK for nature topics in north east hokkaido. I came across him a few times, both of us after bears or wildlife, and we became friends. But the next morning there was a heavy rain, forecasted to remain most of the day, so we postponed to the day after. During the afternoon the weather slightly cleared up and i went for a drive on Iwaobetsu road… and as i returned a bear crossed just in front of me, went in the river for a while in search of fish, before crossing again toward the forest. Quite a lucky trip i thought.
The next morning, as well as the day after, we would go together with Ishii san and his son, and their heavy filmmaking equipment, to the carcass. The mother and her cub were a constant fixture, going down every 3 or 4 hours to feed on the whale, and we saw 4 other male bears visiting the carcass. One came down aggressively from behind us, almost stepping on my gear on the way and chasing away the mother and cub. Others were more relaxed, just waiting for their turn.
A whale carcass at this period of the year is a real boon for the bears, ensuring they don’t starve during the 3 months long winter denning. After 3 days almost half the whale was gone, shared between 5 or 6 bears ! We had a close look at the carcass but could not formally identify the species at the time. Having a closer look at the pictures, i can clearly see baleens around the mouth on the first day, which would pretty surely confirm a Juvenile Minke whale.
All in all it was quite a successful autumn trip : i saw 8 or 9 different bears and was blessed with this rare finding of a beached dead whale, something that occurs only once a year in average around the whole peninsula.