The Kodiak Bear
A mile or so away, a bear was running in our direction with a fish in its mouth, pursued by two other bears. The salmon runs hadn't begun so whatever fish the bears got was a bonus and the two chasers were trying to steal another bear's bonus! About a hundred yards from us the bear with the fish shot into the thick forest and seconds later the two followers disappeared into the forest too. Three bears in less than three minutes since we started walking along the shore then. We walked along the narrow shoreline - about twenty feet wide - between the frigid waters of the Larsen bay and the verdant forest wall. We walked past the point where the bears had disappeared and looked into the darkness of the forest for shadows. Being the last person in line, I instinctively looked back several times to check if we were being followed - we were potential prey to these massive predators after all. I knew they were close and we would see one sooner or later. At that point, a larger bear came out of the forest several hundred feet in front of us. He was also, perhaps, on the trail of the bear with the fish and he started moving towards us. At first he bear did not seem to notice us. We were asked to move toward the wall of vegetation to give the bear as much space as possible. Either through scent or sight, the bear realized our presence, moved away from the water towards the trees and then put its head down - which usually means it is ready for a standoff if needed because a low head protects the vulnerable neck - and started walking straight at us. There was absolute silence and even the frenetic clicking of the cameras ceased as the bear quickly moved toward us. We stood our ground. The bear kept shrinking the distance between us and itself. The bear was about ten to fifteen feet away from us when it changed course and moved toward the water. It continued to walk in the shallow water but always kept an eye on us. It then moved on and went into the woods at exactly the same spot where the other three bears had disappeared, guided by its olfactory senses no doubt.
Bears have been painted as villains for countless centuries and in the modern world whenever a bear is in the news it is mostly because it would have done some damage to human life or property. It is no surprise then that we have an image of bears being vicious animals out to get anyone who dare step into their realm. Bears are large and bears can be dangerous and by their very design of being opportunists they take what comes their way. The trick in bear country then is to not present ourselves as an opportunity for a meal! Any of the four bears we saw in our half mile hike had all the necessary tools to take on the hiking party. Even seven against one would be a no-contest in favor of an adult bear and yet there was no conflict. This remarkable tolerance is best experienced when you are with someone who knows the land and its animals. Mike Munsey and his wife Robin have been taking visitors out on bear-viewing excursions for thirty years. The Munseys' Bear Camp - http://munseysbearcamp.com/ - originally started as a hunting camp in 1956 by Mike's father Park who was among the greatest hunters and hunting guides in Alaska. Mike was born and raised in Kodiak and he knows his backyard - the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge - better than anyone else. With Mike leading our group we knew there was someone with immense knowledge about these bears and the bear-viewing experience would be a positive one.
Our trip to Kodiak was a serendipitous one. We originally planned on going to Katmai to see those browns fishing at the Brooks falls. We probably would have gotten another Denali experience - the worst national park experience in the world - or a zoo-in-the-wild experience but fortunately the lodges and campsites had been booked out months in advance. We had to look at other destinations and since Gates of the Arctic and Wrangell-St. Elias needed a bit of rouging-it-out we looked at Kodiak. We had only heard about Kodiak because of its bears and we knew nothing else when we called Mike and set up the trip dates. Getting to the Munseys' place is all in the hands of the weather. First, the short flight ride from Anchorage to the city of Kodiak can be delayed forever if the weather is not favorable. Our first flight got cancelled after several hours of delay but the next one took off after a short delay. Already behind schedule when we jumped on to our float plane, our pilot turned back a few times to change course because of conditions and other dangerous obstacles in the clouds - mountains. Kodiak is stunning. Just a few hundred feet in the air at the highest and very close to the topography, every minute of the flight was jaw-droppingly beautiful! The view from the plane: patchwork of snow, the misty mountains, the verdancy, the deep inlets, fishing villages, seals, whales, otters, birds, signs of the tide moving in and just the thought of being out there in America's forever frontier is unforgettable. The best part is that it only gets better after landing at Amook pass at the home of Mike and Robin. Marcia Messier, Robin and Mike were out to receive us and we had a quick round of introductions. We had lunch and after a short rest we were out on their boat for some wildlife viewing. While we saw whales, otters, seals and seashore birds on the short cruise - the local celebrity - the Kodiak bear - had to wait till the next day.
Bear-watching in Kodiak is not like the circus in Katmai or the crowds in Denali and Yellowstone. There are no other people for miles and miles around and there is certainly no signs of civilization in any direction. With bears roaming everywhere in a setting that has remained unchanged since at least the Pleistocene it is easily the best wildlife viewing experience I have ever had. The amazing thing is realizing the remarkable level of trust between the two most dangerous species in this part of the world - man and bear. The bears were happy feeding on sedge, fish and shoreline lifeforms while the humans watched them with curiosity, awe and love. They are indeed such beautiful creatures and it was a honor being able to spend so much time in their realm.
We can't wait to go back to Kodiak again and spend time in the grand wilderness once again.
Kodiak as seen when flying in a float plane
The Munsey's bear camp
A Kodiak bear approaches us with its neck shileded
A bear standing to look at us
Standing up to get a better view
Some sort of greeting perhaps?
A Harbor seal
Harbor seal colony
Bald eagle with fish
Bald eagle with freshly caught fish!