Headwaters to Harbor: River Diary No. 4 — My First Bear


Editor’s Note: This story is part of "Headwaters to Harbor," a project by The Chronicle to document the Chehalis River from Pe Ell to Grays Harbor while highlighting people and issues connected to the river along the way. Our coverage is compiled at www.chronline.com/Chehalis-River

Until Friday, I had never seen a bear outside of the zoo.

I’ve been to Glacier National Park and many other parts of Montana, the Redwoods, Haida Gwaii (also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands), Yosemite, Alaska and many other places considered bear hotspots.

I’d have never guessed my first bear encounter would be on the Chehalis River between Oakville and Porter.

From afar, I thought it was a large cat. I paddled over for a better view. It was a black bear cub, about 30 pounds. 

When I realized what it was, I was terrified. Every lesson I’ve heard about staying far from bear cubs flashed through my head. Not 20 yards away from me was a real, wild bear. I turned around to Chronicle photographer Jared Wenzelburger, who was in his kayak behind me. 

In some weird combination of whispering and yelling, I said, “A bear. There is a bear. Jared. A bear!”

The cub looked at me. 

Then, it turned around and disappeared into the grass. 

Unfortunately, Wenzelburger didn’t get to see it, which also means we don’t have a photo. In hopes the cub might return — or better yet, that we’d see mama bear — we paddled across the river to a nearby beach with a view of where it had been.

We waited in silence. After a while, we heard roaring. 


On Friday, we paddled from Independence Valley to Porter. It was about 20 river miles, which took around seven hours. 

Through the Chehalis Reservation, the river looks largely untouched. The rest of the way, sections vary from farmland to wilderness. We were somewhere near Washington Fish and Wildlife’s Hoxit Wildlife Area when I saw the bear. 

The river through West Lewis County has similar surroundings, yet is so different. Through Thurston and south Grays Harbor counties, it is wide, deep and filled with large wood. Besides navigating around wood, paddling through those miles presents very few technical challenges.

When we passed the Oakville Boat Launch on the main stem, a man in a work uniform was walking down the launch, and I greeted him.

Referring to Wenzelburger and me in our kayaks, he said, “I’m jealous. I’m at work today.”

I said, “So am I.”

He replied, “Well, now I’m really jealous.”

For about four of the seven hours Friday, it rained. During the rain, more small fish were jumping, and swallows swarmed across the water to pick them off. It was quite a sight. 

On Saturday, the rain was no longer charming. It poured non-stop the entire time we were out after launching at Porter. Soaked despite all our heavy-duty rain gear, we called it a day after only a few miles.

Other than the slight misfortune of rain, the man at the Oakville Boat Launch and my bear encounter were great reminders: I am beyond fortunate to call this adventure my work.