Monthly Archives: May 2015

Trip To Kodiak


This past week I took a rare trip to the town of Kodiak. I’ve been posting about springtime behaviors of various Kodiak animals, so now I’ll tell you about one of my springtime behaviors. Mike and I usually fly to the town of Kodiak in late May to run errands, go to the doctor, pick up supplies, and most importantly for me, visit the local greenhouse to buy flower and vegetable starts for my planters and garden.

This may not seem like an earth-shattering topic to write about, but a trip to town is a big deal for me. First of all, it’s expensive. We must charter a plane each way, rent a car, and stay in a hotel. Secondly, it can be an ordeal, because late-May weather is often foggy, especially around town, so our trip easily can be delayed for a day or two due to bad (not flyable) weather, and worse still, we could get stuck in town for a few days waiting for the weather to clear.

On this trip, the weather was marginal for flying. The first part of our flight to town was windy and bumpy, and as we neared town, the pilot expertly dodged pea-soup fog. It was also foggy when we departed Kodiak for our return flight, but as we neared Uyak Bay, the ceiling lifted, and the pilot was able to climb and fly through the mountain passes.

In late May, the town of Kodiak bustles with activity, as commercial fishermen begin preparing for the summer salmon season. This past weekend especially was busy in Kodiak, because it was King Crab Festival weekend.


The King Crab Festival is Kodiak’s version of the county fair but with some uniquely “Kodiak” twists. Since it is difficult and expensive to bring carnival rides to the island, most of the “rides” are of the inflatable variety, but the kids are no-less enthusiastic about them. Many of the food booths are operated by local vendors, and you can dine on salmon, halibut, cod, and of course King Crab, among other things. There is no tractor pull at the King Crab Festival, but the Coast Guard demonstrates simulated rescues, a Russian Orthodox priest blesses the fishing fleet, and most popular of all, festival-goers line the boat ramp near the harbor and cheer on the participants in the survival-suit race. For this activity, teams of four race down a ramp, pull on and zip up bulky survival suits, then jump into the water and swim to a life raft. Once all four team members are in the raft, the clock stops and their time is recorded. The team with the fastest time wins. Participants include everyone from families to fishing vessel crew members to Coast Guard rescue swimmers. The rescue swimmers usually win, but no one complains about that. We want those guys to be fast!


Between running errands, visiting the King Crab Festival, and eating at as many restaurants as I could in four days, I was exhausted and full by the time we flew home. I smiled at my new plants as I carried them up to the house, happy to be home and eager to start planting. I don’t plan another trip to town until late January, and for the time being anyway, that’s fine with me!


This week, I want to talk about krill.  Kodiak Island is known for its big animals.  We have the largest brown bear, the largest Sitka black-tailed deer, one of the largest red fox subspecies, the largest halibut, and the largest whales, just to name a few examples, but in this post, I’ll discuss some of the most diminutive but extremely important animal species in our marine environment.  That’s right, I’m talking about those tiny little zooplankton in the ocean.

Okay, you are yawning, but please keep reading.  Euphausiid species, more commonly known as krill, are the food for everything from adult herring and Pollock to marine birds to blue and fin whales, the largest animals on earth; and perhaps more importantly, they are on the menu for the juveniles of most species of fish in the ocean.

I guess if I really wanted to start at the base of the food chain, I’d write about phytoplankton, but to be honest, phytoplankton species, important as they are, even make me yawn.  I find zooplankton, and especially krill, much more interesting, because I can see these organisms swimming in the water, and I sometimes see piles of their dead bodies when they wash up on the beach.  Unfortunately, I have no photos to show you, and I’m not artistic enough to draw a sketch, but picture a very small shrimp.  Unlike shrimp, though, the gills of krill are exposed and hang below the carapace, and the exoskeletons are translucent, allowing a view of the internal organs.

Krill reproduce and grow in response to blooms of phytoplankton and warming water temperatures.  When phytoplankton bloom in the spring, producing a food supply, euphausiids populations swell in response, subsequently providing food for nearly everything else in the ocean environment.  We see schools of herring consuming krill, and sea gulls and other marine birds frantically diving into the ocean to pluck out the small organisms.  Since krill are heavier than water, they must continually swim to keep from sinking.  They form dense swarms that may look like balls or extensive layers that may be several meters thick. Baleen whales focus on these swarms, often gulping several hundred kilograms of krill at a time.

I’m sure you get the idea that krill, as well as other zooplankton, are a vital food source, either directly or indirectly, for most animals in the marine environment.  Here on Kodiak, I think of krill as a sign of spring, because when their populations swell, the ocean is suddenly alive with the activity of diving birds, huge schools of herring, and whales spouting.  Euphausiids, though, are very sensitive to changing environmental conditions, and if their populations fail, the rest of the marine ecosystem could, and undoubtedly would, follow.  Small and unexciting as they may be, we need to understand zooplankton population structures and their physical and chemical needs and monitor the health of these populations in our oceans.

Without phytoplankton and zooplankton, the oceans would just be water.  Those tiny organisms don’t seem as boring anymore, do they?

Orphaned Cubs


Three orphaned cubs unexpectedly entered our lives two weeks ago. You may remember in my post on Kodiak bears emerging from their dens in the spring, I mentioned that sows with newborn cubs are the last to emerge, and often the sow will leave and return to the den many times before she introduces her babies to the world. Unfortunately, this behavior was fatal for one sow this spring.

Let me make it clear that bear hunting on Kodiak is very tightly regulated by a limited-permit system. It is illegal to shoot a sow with cubs, but when hunters saw this sow alone outside her den they shot her, perhaps never realizing she had cubs in the den. The incident is being investigated by the Alaska State Troopers, and I won’t speculate on what may or may not have happened. That part of the story is out of our hands.

Our guides already suspected this bear was a sow with young cubs in the den, and after she was shot, they kept a close eye on the den. A few days later, Tim, one of our guides, saw tiny, furry heads peering out of the den. My husband, Mike, called the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kodiak, and they gave us permission to rescue the cubs from the den. At that point, it had been five days since their mother died, and the biologists did not believe the cubs would survive.

Two of our guides climbed up to the den, caught the cubs, and carried them down the mountain in backpacks. They then transported the cubs back to our lodge for the night. The three brothers were dirty, terrified, and stressed, and they huddled under the bunk beds in our guides’ cabin. They drank some water, but I knew we were not getting enough nutrients into their little bodies. We later learned that the cubs each weighed about 12 pounds (5.5 kg), and they were dehydrated and malnourished.

The next morning, I stayed alone with the cubs, waiting nervously for Fish and Game to arrive to take them to Kodiak. I soon learned, though, that it was foggy in Kodiak, and all planes were grounded until the fog lifted. Every hour, I crept into the cabin and peered under the bed, making sure they were still moving and alert. They drank some water, but I finally decided that my attempts to feed them were causing them too much stress, and since the airplane ride undoubtedly would terrify them, I wanted them as calm as possible before they began the next leg of their ordeal.

At 3:00 in the afternoon, the floatplane touched down and glided to our dock. I raced to meet Fish and Game biologist Nate Svoboda and eagerly showed him where the bears were hiding. Nate was impressed the bears looked as good as they did, and he carefully placed them in a large kennel for the trip to Kodiak.


Once in Kodiak, the cubs spent the night at Fish and Game and then took another plane ride to Anchorage, where the vets at the Alaska Zoo are now caring for them. A video recently released by the zoo shows the three brothers playing and cuddling. They are now clean and fluffy and appear to be very healthy. After spending several months in Anchorage, the cubs will board yet another plane. Two will go to a zoo in Wisconsin, and the third to another zoo.

I experienced a roller coaster of emotions during this drama: Anger, depression, excitement, worry, and fear among others, but as I watched the video from the Alaska Zoo and saw three, healthy, playful cubs, I finally allowed myself to smile and breathe a sigh of relief. The three bears will never know a life in the Kodiak wilderness, but they are alive, and their jobs now are to teach others about Kodiak bears. Maybe someday I will be able to visit them at their new homes.

View the video of the cubs.

Kodiak Bear Mating Behavior


Experts will tell you that the mating season for Kodiak bears occurs from mid-May to mid-July, but we have seen bears mate in April; and in fact, this year my husband spotted a boar and sow together on April 24th, and my brother-in-law saw two bears mating on April 21st.  The peak of the mating season occurs in June.

Brown bears are considered serially monogamous.  A female may stay with a male for several days or weeks, mating many times, and once he leaves, she will be pursued by her next suitor.  Over the course of the mating season, she will have several sexual partners.  Sometimes a male chases away a sow’s present mate, and then she will mate with the newcomer, or the two bears may fight, and she will mate with the victor.

Often when a boar first approaches a sow, she appears to be frightened and runs from him.  The boar may then methodically pursue the sow at a measured pace, following the scent of her trail.  At times, a boar seems to use little “common sense” when following the trail of a sow.  We watched one male slowly follow the female’s scent, but when she doubled back and passed within sight of the boar; instead of moving toward her, he continued to follow her scent, until he too doubled back on her trail.

Once the boar catches up with the sow, she may refuse to let him breed with her for several days.  As foreplay, they sometimes rub, cuff, or even bite each other.  The breeding process may last forty-five minutes or longer, with the male taking breaks and sometimes falling asleep during the process.

Ovulation in bears is not spontaneous as it is in humans but is induced by mechanical stimulation by the male.  The boar has a penis bone, or baculum, that stimulates the female to ovulate.  The stimulation must last for quite some time to induce ovulation, so the mating session must be fairly long to be successful.  Each ovulation produces only one egg, so bear cubs are fraternal and not identical, and cubs from the same litter may have different fathers.

Murder Over Kodiak


I am taking a break this week from my “Springtime on Kodiak” posts to make an exciting announcement.  My novel, Murder Over Kodiak, has just been published as both an e-book and a paperback.  Above is a link to the novel at  It also at, ibooks, and is or soon will be available at most other online booksellers.  The e-book price is $4.99.  If you do read my book, I would be most appreciative if you leave a review of it, either at the site where you purchased the book or at Goodreads.  I would also love to have you leave comments, positive or negative, about the book on this website.

The following is a short synopsis of Murder Over Kodiak.  You can read the first several pages of the novel at

Research biologist Jane Marcus senses something bad has happened as she stands on the dock waiting for the overdue floatplane carrying Craig, her young research assistant.  Craig has been on the other side of Kodiak Island digging clams that Jane plans to test for the presence of a toxin that may have caused the death of a woman on that side of the island.  It is a beautiful day for flying, but the plane is an hour late, and when the head pilot for the air-charter company arrives at the dock to go in search of the missing plane, Jane accompanies him.  The pilot assures Jane that the plane is probably stuck on the beach somewhere, but when they fly through a mountain pass, they spot pieces of the plane and debris scattered in a remote valley. Very little remains of the five passengers and the pilot, and investigators soon determine that the plane was blown apart in mid-air by a violent explosion from a bomb placed inside the cabin.

Jane grieves for Craig and feels responsible for sending him on the field trip instead of going herself.  She is determined to find out who planted the explosive device that killed her assistant, but to find the murderer, she first must determine who the intended target of the bomb was.  The passengers on the plane included a U.S. senator in the midst of a nasty re-election campaign and the senator’s husband, a corporate raider with no shortage of enemies.  The FBI and Alaska State Troopers focus their investigation on the senator and her husband, but Jane knows that each of the other passengers, and even the young pilot, has at least one person in his life with the means and motive to blow up the airplane, and she convinces FBI Special Agent Nick Morgan to investigate these suspects as well.

Darren Myers, the owner of a salmon cannery was going through a bitter divorce, and his wife, Maryann, admits she is happy he is dead.  Dick Simms, the wildlife refuge manager was threatened by renegade guide, George Wall, after Simms conducted a sting operation to catch Wall in the act of breaking several fish and game laws.  Jane also learns that Wall served a prison sentence several years earlier when he was convicted of blowing up his girlfriend’s father’s truck.  Bill Watson, the pilot of the ill-fated plane, had a girlfriend who was possessive and demanding and also has a violent streak.  She once smashed in the windshield of Bill’s truck when he went out with his friends instead of spending time with her.  Furthermore, she grew up in the wilderness and was heard talking about how she had enjoyed helping her dad use dynamite to excavate an area of their property.  Jane’s many questions pull her into the center of the investigation, and soon her own life is threatened.

Since the clams Craig collected were blown up with the airplane, Jane must fly to the other side of Kodiak Island and repeat the collection.  She is happy to head out into the wilderness and leave town and the threats on her life behind her, but is she flying away from danger or toward it?  Will the mystery of who blew up the airplane follow her?