In her thick coat of fur, she stands upright, observing her young toying around the creek catching salmon. Her eyes are aligned along the frontal plane; her feet extend into five perfect toes. As she reaches out for berries with her thumbless paws, the relative resemblance to humans is uncanny.
Maybe it is because of this likeness that bears have been a source of human fascination since the dawn of time, fuelling myths and legends from Asia to America. Over centuries, we have admired and feared these remarkable carnivores; we have celebrated, abused and hunted them to extinction. Yet, only a few of us have ever had the privilege to glimpse into their lives and gain a true understanding of their behaviour.
In a roadside cafe in Aarau, I meet just one of these adventurers. In the past decade, 35-year-old David Bittner has forged unprecedented close relationships with these formidable creatures in far away Alaska. Over coffee, I discover his tale of "chance and experiences" and learn how a biologist who was fascinated by fish came to be 'a man who lives with bears'.
At the heart of Bittner's story lies a deep love for nature, which the native Bernese attributes to his upbringing in the Saanenland countryside. "I have to pay a big compliment to my parents," he says gently. "They brought me in touch with nature." Young David's daily walk to school led along a farmer's trail through fields, past cattle and into a forest. There, he spotted his very first trout in a tiny creek. It was the start of a life-long passion for fish. As the youngster roamed the Swiss mountains during family holidays--camping in "forbidden places"--fishing became his "first self-made hobby."
Over time, this hobby took the scientist deep into the field of biology. In 2009, Bittner submitted his PhD on the evolution of different whitefish species in Swiss lakes to the University of Berne. He was hailed with the 2010 Bernese Environmental Research Award for his groundbreaking research.
Paired with Bittner's fascination with fish was the dream of an expedition to the 'last wild frontier'--Alaska, where creeks were said to be teeming with salmon. "I had watched all the documentaries and this abundance of fish was just something I had to see with my own eyes," he muses. "Especially after coming from a place where you could spend hours looking and not see a single fish!"
The biologist's research identified Kodiak Island off the south coast of Alaska as an area with particularly high fish activity and so Bittner started to put together a plan to realise his childhood dream. Being an adventurer by nature, his trip was going to take him and his raft far off the...