When Nicky makes a public appearance, friends and strangers reach for their cameras, and sometimes traffic stops.
The one-named, local celebrity isn’t a diva. She’s a 20-year-old cinnamon-colored black bear often seen around the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, and sightings of the sow and her cubs tend to generate excitement among Juneauites and out-of-town visitors.
“Every once in a while, an animal comes into our lives with the power to change everything,” said retired Ranger Laurie Craig during a free lecture at the visitor center. “Nicky is one of those animals.”
The talk, which was held Friday, was part of the free and public Fireside Lecture series. It attracted a crowd that required overflow seating outside the center’s theater area.
Craig said Nicky, who is named for a nick in her ear, is both commonly seen and easily identifiable. Over the years, Nicky has often been spotted with some of the 15 cubs she’s had across eight litters.
That makes her a good interspecies ambassador, as does her calm demeanor when navigating an area often crowded with people.
One of the fences near the visitor center even has a rectangular portion of the bottom missing so that the creature of habit can easily cross the path near the center. Craig called it the “Nicky notch.”
“I think she’s learned we aren’t going to let anything happen to her,” Craig said.
Craig said while Nicky is a photogenic and relatively sedate bear, she is still a wild, powerful animal and should be given space.
Craig played a short video of Nicky biting the bottom of a wooden bridge to illustrate the aloof-seeming bear’s strength. Splintering wood was audible as Nicky gnawed on the beam.
Once the wooden surface was rendered more jagged by the bear’s jaws, Nicky rubbed her head and shoulders on the surface. Craig said Nicky was marking the bridge.
“Just because she’s calm in her personal bubble that may be smaller than other bears, don’t press her,” Craig said. “Don’t underestimate her. She’s a very powerful wild bear.”
She advised those in attendance of the talk to carry and train with bear pepper spray.
“Bear spray is the very best tool to have,” Craig said.
Craig said she knows that Nicky in 2009 was sprayed in the snout with bear spray, but generally has not had negative encounters with people.
After the lecture, Craig shared one of her favorite Nicky memories that illustrated the good moments the bear can inspire.
Craig said a man in his 70s approached her with a photo of Nicky he had taken five years earlier. The man asked if Craig might be able to help him see the bear again.
“Nicky was in the meadow right below us,” Craig said. “I could reintroduce this gentleman to the bear he had loved on his phone for the past five years, and she was here to come back to when he came back. I had this wonderful moment, and this visitor shared magic with me.