Mother and daughter bond over bears

News-DemocratMay 11, 2014 

What do you do when you see two brown bears running toward you?

"Jump off the path," said Linda Dinkelmann, an Ellis Elementary School special ed teacher. "They get the right of way. We had to get off the path out of their sight. They really don't have good eyesight."

Lucky for Linda and her daughter, Laura Gregory, 26.

They camped five nights last summer at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park on Alaska's southern peninsula. They got to observe and photograph bears that congregate at the falls where salmon are spawning.

"The young ones are cute," said Linda, of Belleville. "They pounce on fish and, most of the time, don't get one. Or we'd see two bears fighting over a fish, lose it, then see the fish swimming away."

The recently released "Bears" film was shot at Katmai, known for its large brown bear population. The documentary follows a bear family as its young cubs learn life lessons.

Linda saw those lessons close up, from viewing platforms.

"From the top platform by the falls, I'd estimate the bears are from 20 to 200 feet away," she said. "It was amazing to watch moms and babies. Babies stay with their moms for three years. The babies stand up right next to the moms. It's just so cool. It was the coolest thing I have ever done."

To get to Brooks Camp, Linda and Laura flew from Anchorage to King Salmon, then caught a sea plane that landed near the camp.

"You pull into the shore, and the bears are right there. You can't not see bears."

Linda, a single mom, also has a son Vince, 22, whose interests include sports and concerts. Laura inherited her mom's interests.

"I love national parks," said Linda. "I started taking the kids to national parks every other year. I love being out in nature and hiking. My daughter's husband Josh loves it. too."

How did you happen to go on this adventure? "Laura moved to Alaska two years ago for an internship as a school psychologist. Her husband had just finished his masters' in sports management. I drove them. It took six days, driving 10 to 12 hours a day. It was 3,296 miles." After Linda planned her visit in 2013, her daughter said, 'Mom, I really want to go down to this place (Brooks Camp) where they have bears.'"

Why bears? "I am fascinated with bears. I've loved them since I was a little kid. It comes from my family. We had a cottage in northern Wisconsin on Lake Tomahawk. My parents spent their honeymoon there. Dad bought a cabin on the property when I was 6 or 7. We'd go at dusk and watch bears and their babies scavenge at garbage cans."

How were your camping conditions? "Only 60 people can camp there at once. It's so popular you have to call the day it becomes available." The nearby lodge is expensive. Temperatures are in the 50s. Mosquitoes are plentiful. Nights are short. "The sun doesn't go down till 2, then it's back up about 5. We didn't sleep a lot. We wanted to get up and see the bears.

"Doing the trip with my daughter made it special for me. Because of her, I did it. I'm proud how well she did. She put up the tent by herself. We had these grand illusions we'd be cooking outside. We ate trail bars and had lunch at the lodge."

Did you get plenty of photos? "We took 2,000 to 3,000 pictures. We spent our days photographing. She does a little more than I do. She has sold some of her photos. She did a little exhibit in Alaska. Her husband made frames. One was a bear she called 'Yoga Bear.' that was sitting on a rock. I put my photos on Facebook for people to enjoy."

Will you go back? "I'm going back again this summer. It's expensive but so worth it. There's nothing like it. Just to be there. it's so peaceful. This year we're staying six nights."

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