Sunday, May 27, 2007

Swim the Sound in fur coat? Bear's behavior is a bit fishy

Keith Ervin
Seattle Times staff reporter
Scott Fischbach had just raised the U.S. flag at the Point Robinson Lighthouse on Maury Island when he heard a splash.

Turning toward the water, he saw a startling sight: a young black bear in the water, heading straight from the eastern point of the island out into Puget Sound.

For days, the bear had been the talk of Vashon and Maury islands, as people caught occasional glimpses of the furry beast and grown-ups warned children not to wander into the woods.

Now, the bear is the talk of Des Moines and Kent, where it has been wandering since its two-mile swim across Puget Sound shipping lanes Friday morning.

Not long after the bear made landfall just north of Saltwater State Park, Des Moines police received a rash of phone calls from residents nervous at the sight of a bear strolling across streets and lawns.

"It didn't seem to be aggressive or anything — just wandered around," said Police Sgt. Bob Collins.

State Fish and Wildlife officers with a Karelian bear dog tried to track the bear, but the dog lost the scent.

Late Friday, residents saw the bear near the Saddlebrook Apartments. Saturday morning, it turned up at the South 272th Street Park-and-Ride off Interstate 5 before disappearing again.

If only the bear had followed the lighthouse caretaker's advice.

"I thought, 'What are you doing?' " Fischbach recalled. "I started calling out to the bear, saying, 'You don't want to do that.' He was heading for trouble over there because it's all built up."

It's not unheard of for the occasional bear to cross Colvos Passage from the Kitsap Peninsula to Vashon Island and back again. It is unheard of for one to cross Puget Sound.

But this bear seemed to know what it was doing; it picked the narrowest passage in that part of the Sound.

Fischbach called the Coast Guard. After they got over their initial disbelief, they told him, "You know, that bear is supposed to call for clearance with us before he does something."

The Coast Guard alerted the Des Moines police, who in turn called Fish and Wildlife. Fischbach watched the bear's hour-plus swim through a spotting scope. The bear turned around halfway across, reconsidered, and soldiered on.

No one knows exactly what prompted it to embark on its unique odyssey.

State wildlife officer Bruce Richards won't speculate on its motives. He just hopes either the bear can find its way back to the woods or that he and his colleagues can relocate it before it wanders onto I-5.

Police Sgt. Collins says it's the first bear he's seen in Des Moines — not counting the statues at the Brown Bear Car Wash.

Everyone's marveling at the bear's crossing of Puget Sound.

Says Fischbach, "I think he's an Olympian in training."