We don’t deserve these bears

A live-cam set to a river in Alaska offers 24/7 viewing of bears as big as sofas catching fish swimming upstream.

An abstract collage of a man taking a photo, bears and a fish in a mountain
Illustrated by Lais Borges/Mic; Getty Images
A Small Good Thing
The Bears Have Logged On
Originally Published: 

Everything is collapsing. The senators are insider trading. The algorithm is relentlessly selling the most tepid, flavorless version of your life back to you. The last remaining industries are meal delivery apps, “cloud software,” and threadbare money laundering schemes. Your account has been deducted a fee and you’re just now hearing about it for the first time. We fluctuate between rage and limp nihilism and back again, and while this column won’t fix that, it will provide you with a small good thing to appreciate, a recognition of something weird and valuable and beautiful, despite it all.

When I can’t sleep, I watch bears hunt for salmon in a river in Alaska. There’s a live-cam that broadcasts all day long and won’t turn off till October, till the bears have ballooned to obscene round champions and it’s time for them to drag themselves back to the woods to hibernate. “Bear 480,” or Otis, as biologists have named him, arrives at the river each June with visible ribs and pointy shoulders; by mid-summer he sits hunched beneath a grassy rock jutting out from the bank of the river, his enormous stomach bobbing between his legs like an old conquering lord alone in a castle.

I watch them all the time. I watch them in the early morning while I’m waiting on the coffee pot, when the sun in Alaska is still too low and dim to distinguish rocks from stream and it appears almost as if the bears are walking on the water like some psychedelic dream.

I watch them when they’re side by side at midday, on the rocks overlooking a short waterfall, a row of motionless torsos standing there like parked sedans, vigilantly scanning the action below the surface. Minutes of them like this. The constant, staticky white noise of the rushing stream; the chirp of gulls swooping in on manic reconnaissance missions; the occasional sound from the bears that is not a roar but more of an instructive, elongated grunt to anything nearby. More time passes. Their bodies start to sway, they open their mouths and gulp the air as if detecting microscopic traces of approaching salmon in the mist. They hold their fat wooly paw up into the blast of the water, analyzing vibrations, every seemingly dopey gesture with a precise purpose, accumulating new information, calculating intricate mathematics, all of it a mystery to me that plays on screen as a hypnotic, primitive dance. A salmon launches — chomp. It’s twisting in the bear’s jaws.

I stay up till the lonely middle of the night, almost 2 AM my time, 11 PM in Alaska, and watch the sun look like grapefruit flesh smeared across the sky as it falls behind a row of spruces. I watch sometimes when the camera has switched to night-vision and realize the two blinking white dots on the boulder above the waterfall are actually the eyes of a bear, still out fishing patiently even in darkness.

There are bears with gnarled snouts and fresh rips a foot long down their side, the implication of hidden violence, but in the river they are mostly peaceful, they are distracted by the fish, tranquilized by the water, almost oblivious to each other, staggering around like drunks leaving a bar.

In the beginning of the season, when the salmon are most abundant, the bears will only eat the most calorie-rich parts of the fish, the brain and the skin and the eggs, to gain weight as efficiently and quickly as possible. They strip the fish down to its bright neon flesh, bite the head, and let the rest wash with the current. This is the sophistication of bears, their blueprints are impeccable. They go long periods without moving but they are rarely wasting time.

They are like if a ballerina could decapitate you.

In the summer bears will stay awake sometimes for as long as 20 hours a day, eating relentlessly. They are capable of savage, sudden acts of violence but are usually curious, slow, gentle. They have a look on their face and a posture of impenetrable calm, like a vast and maddening cosmos was clarified for them long ago and every day here and now for them is vacation. They are gigantic; they are agile. Something with the heft and proportions of your uncle‘s basement sofa perched dead-still on wet rocks for 15 minutes at a time. They are like if a ballerina could decapitate you.

They do not live like I do, dismantled by existential riddles, the creep of apocalypse; they are not pelted by doubt and shame, not concerned with their stature. They are not deterred by the salmon that launch past them nor proud of the salmon they catch. They just stand there like tremendous machines humming in operation. They are this way as a matter of duty.

All day long we are pulverized by dispatches from scientists, scenes of distant plundered rain forests, atrocities perpetrated by logging conglomerates. Cities hit temperatures that are described as “anomalies,” until some day not long from now when they may be recalled as modest and mercifully livable. Flights are grounded because the tar on London airport runways has begun to melt. The Rio Grande is running dry for the first time in 40 years. Hailstones bigger than you ever remember them being. Tornadoes creeping into seemingly impenetrable metropolises.

It feels increasingly like we are looking out the porthole of a sinking, foul ocean liner at something gorgeous and flickering in the way-beyond. Mountains, wolves, bears. At the wheel are wheezing, hideous billionaires cackling to each other with little sad whisps of hair. Men with riches but no passions, data but no memories. They are incapable of anything you might recognize as human sadness and rarely even shame or regret, more a kind of carefully workshopped expression of somber inconvenience, “it’s really terrible that you have to be out protesting in the streets like this.” Something that does not implicate them at all and feigns solidarity, while promising some vague resolution for Everything That’s Been Going On, so long as it doesn’t involve them betraying their relationships with cops or jowly real estate barons or any of the linen-dipped cryptmen at all their Martha’s Vineyard parties.

But here there are dozens of bears in a supply of water that is plentiful and spews constantly. The bears never go home because their home is this river, the river and the bear belong to each other and all of it together is something big and real. Watch the bears on the rocks and then imagine beside them an entrepreneur, imagine a Chris Evans film, imagine a malfunctioning Tesla. Imagine a leach from a venture capital firm telling you about his vision while shutting down the place you work; imagine him sitting nervous and impatient on the rocks, looking at the salmon and wondering if all this could be improved with a multi-platform content strategy. The bear is a perfect technology, it is ferocious, it is holy, it is eternal in a way the techlords fantasizing about messianic legacies could never comprehend.

In the spring and summer tourists congregate on a wooden bridge overlooking the falls, bunched together like paparazzi.

I feel this way and I believe I am not alone. In the sidebar of related videos there are scenes from these bear cams that random people have clipped and posted, some of them with less than 500 views by accounts that have posted nothing else. In the running chat alongside the live-cam people refer to individual bears by their name and identification number; there are websites devoted to logging every appearance of each of them. They applaud their creativity and dexterity. They study their demeanor and hunting methods. In the spring and summer tourists congregate on a wooden bridge overlooking the falls, bunched together like paparazzi.

There are caves in France with paintings of bears on the walls that are 32,000 years old. Scientists believe that as Neanderthals evolved and sought shelter from the cold, they moved into the caves where bears had historically hibernated, driving them outside into temperatures so brutal that newly-formed glaciers had begun to reshape mountains. Thousands of years passed; eventually the entire species was extinct. And in the caves in the dark humans huddled together and in the whipping light of the fire they imagined these bears and drew their picture on rocks. Scientists believe that in the beginning, for a period, bear and man may have even shared those caves with each other. In the painting in France there is an adult, almost bracing for something, and behind it a cub with a serene look on its face. They’re facing forward; it looks like they’re headed somewhere.

At 1:03 AM on July 22 in Chicago – 10:03 PM in Alaska; sun still out but planning its exit – I watched a single bear standing below the falls, shoulder-deep in the stream not moving, the water bubbled up around its neck like a jacuzzi, all alone besides the occasional gulls that made sudden landings next to the bear whose focus never broke. I waited and waited for the bear to spot a fish, some athletic lunge, for the sequence to accelerate as I saw on the rocks in the daylight. I started to shut my eyes. The bear would be there as long as it took, till the sun was gone and the camera switched to black and gray and it was just a great paunchy silhouette, licking its lips and devising new plans. This is the nature of bears. They sleep for months, they barely sleep at all.