Kodiak Time is another guest blog by Marcia Messier. I think she perfectly captures the transformation new guests make when they arrive at our lodge in the wilderness. At first, they are often dismayed that they won’t be able to use their cell phones or watch youtube videos, but over the course of the next five days, we watch them relax as they unplug from their lives and embrace our lifestyle, if only for a short while.
by Marcia Messier
Faces of newly arrived guests charmed me. Stepping down from the float plane “first timers” were usually a bit shy and taken aback by the rugged beauty they were witnessing and the adventure at hand. Their eyes were big! Returning guests had a knowing grin, a twinkle in their eyes and a familiarity with camp. Introductions were made, they were shown to their cabins, and soon all were back in the main lodge, gathered around the table for lunch. Mike explained the plans for the week, fishing, hiking, meeting the bears, and how camp operated. He answered the many questions knowledgeably and reassuringly. Ready to go!
There are no roads in this part of Kodiak Island and so no automobiles, there is no cell phone service in camp, no land lines, no TV, no ice machines, and limited internet service. Guests were now on “Kodiak Time”.
Most guests experienced a very new and different environment at Munsey’s Bear Camp. They were enchanted by the bears they met, excited by the fish they caught, stunned by the rugged beauty of the island. The week went by too quickly and soon it was time to go. But, once in a while guests got an extra day in camp. Weather can change quickly, clear and beautiful one day, a raging storm might blow in the next. Invariably, a “no fly” day happened once or twice during the summer season. Travel plans were fouled and people got nervous. We all had to stop and take a deep breath, because after all, we were on “Kodiak Time”.
The table in the lodge was cleared for games, stories were swapped, snacks brought out, and even naps were taken. During this unplanned time on Kodiak, guests realized that they’d had an adventure of a lifetime and also acquired a roomful of new friends….perfect!
I love watching our guests relax as they transition from their stress-filled lives into our peaceful, wild world. When they first step off the floatplane, they are often quiet and perhaps even a little wary. They’ve just flown forty-five minutes into the heart of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, and there are no roads or stores here. There’s just a small lodge and a few boats.
We feed them lunch, Mike explains what they will be doing for the next few days, and we tell them to meet us at the dock in twenty minutes for their first-afternoon cruise on our 43-ft. boat. They laugh at the sea otters and harbor seals and snap photos of bald eagles and other wildlife, but most remain quiet, and separate groups keep to themselves.
On the first full day, we go either bear viewing or fishing, and by that evening, I begin to see the first signs of relaxation, as our guests step out of their lives for a few days and into a world that revolves around tides and wild animals. They ask us questions about the wildlife they’ve seen, tell us about their families, and describe other travel adventures they have had. They linger for a few minutes after dinner, discussing the day’s events with their fellow adventures.
By the fourth day, the mood on the boat is often raucous. These strangers, who on day one traded only polite comments, are now teasing each other and sharing photos and e-mail addresses. They sigh the last morning when they step off our boat for the final time. They complain that the week flew by too quickly and vow to return again soon.
We’ve had beautiful weather so far this summer, and we’ve enjoyed great whale watching. At times, we’ve been surrounded by fin whales, and one of the highlights of the summer was when a humpback breached several times right in front of us! Halibut fishing has been very good, and we’ve had some of the best salmon fishing we can remember. Pink salmon swarmed into Brown’s Lagoon in July, and we had non-stop action. Meanwhile, large schools of silver salmon filled the bay. The run was a month early, and it is likely that the early salmon were headed elsewhere and just stopped in Uyak Bay to feast on the large schools of herring and other small fish that have been so abundant this summer. The rich food base of krill and small schooling fish is also undoubtedly why we’ve had so many whales in the bay.
Due to our warm weather, we’ve had another bumper crop of berries this summer, and the bears are torn between catching salmon and feeding on berries. Bears are much more plentiful than they were the first half of last summer, but we are sometimes frustrated as we wait for them to lose interest in berries and concentrate on salmon. The rich and plentiful food source of berries and salmon the last few summers has provided great nutrition for the bears, and we’ve seen numerous groups of sows and cubs this summer.
On the home front, Mary Schwarzhans is again wowing our guests with her creative and delicious meals, and we are thrilled that Mary’s sister, Emma, is also working for us this summer. The two of them make our lives much easier and more pleasant, and our guests tell us that even if we didn’t have spectacular wildlife and fishing here, they would return to Munsey’s Bear Camp just for the food. I suspect that stepping out of their lives and truly relaxing for a few days might be another reason to return.
It has been estimated that marine mammal entanglement results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, porpoises, and seals world-wide each year. Humpback whales, with their long pectoral fins, flexible tail flukes, and acrobatic behavior, are very susceptible to entanglement in fishing gear, crab pot lines, and marine debris. A scar-analysis study on humpback whales in northern Southeast Alaska indicated that nearly 78% of the whales in that population have scars, suggesting that they have recently been entangled in some sort of gear.
Entangled marine mammals may drown if they are not able to get to the surface to breathe, or even if they can get to the surface, they may starve if they can’t feed. Summers in Alaska are when baleen whales ingest enough zooplankton and small fish to sustain them for the rest of the year, so any lengthy period of time away from feeding can be critical. Whales may also suffer physical trauma, develop systemic infections from their wounds, or be hit by a vessel due to the whale’s lack of agility and inability to avoid it. Even if the whale manages to get free from the entangling nets or lines, there may be long-term impacts, such as a reduction in reproductive success.
A few summers ago, we were motoring back to our lodge after a day of bear viewing with a group of summer guests, when friends called on the VHF radio and told us they had spotted a humpback whale that had gotten a crab pot line, with the crab pot still attached, wrapped around its tail. They wanted to take a closer look at the whale, so Mike picked them up in the 19-ft. whaler that we were towing behind us, and I stayed aboard our 43-ft boat with our guests and worried about the dangers involved in approaching a 45-foot, 40-ton mammal. They didn’t want to get too close to the whale and stress him even further, but they wanted to see how badly he was entangled in the lines.
The National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) warns all well-meaning, untrained individuals to never approach or attempt to disentangle a large whale on their own, and in fact, it is illegal to attempt to disentangle a whale without the permission of the NMFS. NMFS is part of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), and NOAA has a whale-disentanglement hotline (877-925-7773) that citizens can call to report entangled whales and initiate an “immediate” disentanglement response by trained rescuers. Rescuers throw grapples or use hooks on the ends of poles to attach to the entangling gear. They then attach large buoys, approach the whale to assess it and its entanglements, and use specially-designed knives on the ends of long poles to cut the whale free.
The idea of calling trained individuals to rescue this whale greatly appealed to me, and while it was a Friday evening, the hotline information stated it was a 24/7 hotline. I made the call on the satellite phone, but a recording informed me the office would be closed until Monday. Unfortunately for this humpback, he had become entangled after office hours.
We watched the whale fight its way to the surface to breathe, only to be pulled back under water by the heavy crab pot. After the whale became entangled, he apparently drug the gear into deeper water while he was trying to free himself. Now, the pot kept pulling him beneath the surface. His breathing was labored, and it sounded as if he was gasping for air. Mike and our friends slowly approached him, but the whale continued to thrash and move away from them. Finally, he moved quite a distance away, and they worried they were stressing him, so they left him alone.
We continued back to our lodge, and when we tied up to our mooring, we heard the distressed blow of the whale. He had followed us home, and the good news was that he was now in much shallower water, and the crab pot was resting on the ocean bottom and not continuously dragging him under water.
We watched the whale from a distance off and on all evening, and finally at 10:00 that night, Mike saw him raise his tail in the air several times before swimming away. Without the weight of the crab pot dragging him down, he was able to disentangle himself from the gear.
I hoped that would be the only entangled whale I ever saw, but unfortunately, on July 29th, 2015, we encountered another humpback whale with a crab pot wrapped around its tail. Since it was a Wednesday, I had hope that the whale-disentanglement experts would come to its rescue. We placed the call, and they recorded our information: Latitude and longitude, species and type of entanglement, condition of the whale, and the speed and direction it was moving. We hoped they would be able to mobilize immediately, but we were informed they would not be able to come out until the following day. We were concerned the whale wouldn’t make it that long and hoped that his humpback, like the previous humpback, would drag the pot into shallow water and set himself free.
That evening when we returned home with our guests, the humpback had moved several miles and was now in front of our lodge. We were happy he had made it to shallower water, but when we examined him more closely, we saw that he had wrapped the line several additional times very tightly around his tail. We were dubious he could be disentangled at this point. Before long, he slowly headed back toward deep water, and we feared he wouldn’t last much longer.
The following day, there was no sign of the whale or the buoy attached to the crab pot line. We searched the bay but saw nothing, so we called the disentanglement experts, and they cancelled their rescue mission. We hoped the whale had somehow freed himself, but we feared that wasn’t likely.
I imagined this tale of the entangled tail would have a happy ending like my first tale, and it is possible the whale did free himself and swim away, but I doubt it. At first I was upset with the disentanglement crew. If they had arrived a day earlier, they probably could have freed him. I was upset with us, because we didn’t have the knowledge and skills to help the whale, even if it was legal, and I was irritated at the crab fisherman for having his gear in the way of a whale. The more I thought about it, though, I realized that’s just the way it is when you choose to live in the wilderness so far from town. The members of the disentanglement crew have lives and jobs and can’t just drop everything to fly across the island on a moment’s notice to help a whale. That’s an expensive, complex endeavor that takes some time and planning. Even if we did have the proper equipment, training, and permission, approaching a huge whale is a dangerous task and best orchestrated and performed by those who have had previous experience. Finally, all of us who live and work near the ocean on Kodiak at sometime drop crab pots or deploy fish nets. It was nobody’s fault that this young whale, perhaps out of curiosity or playfulness, decided to approach this crab pot line too closely. It was just bad luck.
The New Cook Arrives in a Fog is a story by my dear friend Marcia Messier. I first met Marcia in July 2004, when she came to work as a cook at our lodge. Marcia is from Massachusetts and worked for the Massachusetts court system. After she retired, she moved to Arizona and decided on a whim to apply for a cooking job at a remote lodge in Alaska, and that is how she wound up with us.
Due to the maritime climate of Kodiak, fog can be a problem, especially in June and July, and when it’s foggy, all air transportation to and around the island comes to a halt. While this can be frustrating, it is a fact of life for us, and we’re used to it, but when Marcia arrived in Anchorage in route to our lodge and learned her flight to Kodiak had been cancelled due to fog, she found this unacceptable and was concerned she would be late arriving for her new job. She decided to take matters into her own hands, and I was impressed and amused when I heard Marcia had found a way to by-pass the Kodiak fog. I knew immediately I would like her, and I also knew Marcia was about to learn her first lesson about life on Kodiak Island.
The New Cook Arrives in a Fog
A little fog never stopped planes from flying back East, so why was I stuck in Anchorage, Alaska with every flight to Kodiak canceled? Fog..? This wasn’t going to work, after all, I had a new job lined up as cook at Munsey’s Bear Camp and was to report to work today!
I observed many people wandering about the airport with piles of luggage and groceries, grumbling about the weather situation. After a time, I struck up a conversation with two couples bound for a fishing lodge somewhere near where I was headed, at least I thought it was near where I was headed. After commiserating for a bit, one of the women said she knew a pilot who owned a small jet, and if we were all willing, she would call him and see if he would fly us to Larsen Bay. We agreed, she made the call, and he said he thought he could find a way through the fog and into Larsen Bay “the back way”. His fee was divided by 5 and after claiming my luggage, we were off to another runway and a private jet! I wasn’t able to see much of Kodiak during the flight, a few flashes of emerald green, and suddenly we were down on the runway at Larsen Bay. An impressive bright red Hummer was there to greet us, and I assumed to take us to the airport, but all I could see was what appeared to be a small village held up on pilings sunk into the muddy beach. This was the cannery at Larsen Bay. I had arrived!
Next, to find a phone and call Robin and Mike. I had no idea of the distance involved out here, only that I was closer to my destination than I had been in Anchorage. A nice young man in the cannery office seemed to know of Munsey’s Bear Camp and made a radio-telephone call to ask them if they were expecting a cook. After a brief conversation he told me Mike would pick me up in the Boston Whaler in about an hour. Finally, I could relax a little, sit down and observe life at the cannery. It seemed to be a happy place with college age kids running in and out of odd-looking buildings, and others all jammed up waiting to use the phone booths. No cell phones? No, but as I was about to learn, radio transmission news travels faster than cell phones!
Soon, a man’s head popped up beside me from the beach and introduced himself as Mike Munsey, was I Marcia?
I had made my job deadline: July 2, 2004!
The trip from Larsen Bay to Munsey’s Bear Camp was spectacular! The fog lifted, and I could see emerald green mountain peaks rising straight up out of Uyak Bay. I understood canceled flights due to fog, now. The water was calm, and at full throttle, the Whaler flew over the bay. Mike pointed out Fin whales spouting in the distance and seals on nearby (yikes!) rocks.
Robin greeted us back at camp and sat me down to a delicious dinner, a glass of wine, then guided me upstairs to my room for a much-needed sleep.
Next day I had a lot to learn. First, I was introduced to the generator. I learned to respect this growling monster in the shed. He ran a tight ship. His schedule was as follows:
7AM-ON All electrical work is done: computer, baking in oven, mixers, washing machine, dish washer, vacuum cleaner.
9AM-OFF No electrical work done. Prepare bread dough, cookie dough, soup, tidy up cabins & main house, burn trash… take a break.
5PM-ON Everything is on and the race is on to make dinner & clean up.
10PM-OFF Ah, quiet…time to have a glass of wine and celebrate the day!
I can hear the float plane approaching, the first guests are arriving! We rush to put on our boots and run down to the dock to greet them. Quickly, I had to run back to the kitchen and retrieve a baggie of cookies for the pilot. Cookies are a MUST, the pilot is always hungry! As the guests stepped out of the float plane, I immediately noticed their beautiful Italian leather shoes and smiled to myself. Rubber shoes and boots are standard footwear on Kodiak Island….I was learning.
Park Munsey became a pilot in the late fifties, and in the 1960s, he started Amook Airways, a small air-charter business. His wife, Pat, was his dispatcher, and their home in Amook Pass was their base of operations. Park not only flew his hunting clients, but he also flew for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and delivered mail and supplies around the island. Over the years, he owned an Aeronca Champ, a Tri-Pacer, a Cessna 180, a Cessna 185, a Twin Seabee, and a Grumman Widgeon.
Park bought the Tri-Pacer in 1961, and that winter, he, Pat, and the children flew in it from Kodiak to New Hampshire to visit relatives. In preparation for the long flight, Pat got her pilot’s license, so she could help with the flying. When the Munseys reached New Hampshire, they presented the governor of that state with a gift from Bill Egan, the governor of Alaska.
Pat remembers one harrowing day when the crankshaft broke on Park’s Cessna 185, and he was forced to land on Olga Bay in heavy seas. The hard impact of the landing caused the floats to rupture, and as the floats filled with water, the plane flipped upside down, and Park climbed onto the floats. When he didn’t return home and didn’t call on the radio, Pat contacted the Coast Guard, reported him overdue, and braced herself for the worst. As the waves lapped over the pontoons, the floats slowly filled with water, and by the time the Coast Guard arrived, they found Park straddling the sinking floats, writing a last letter to his wife and children.
Park sold his last plane, the Grumman Widgeon, in the mid 1970s, and he and Pat began spending winters in Hawaii. Mike purchased Munsey’s Bear Camp from his parents in 1980, but Park continued to guide bear hunters during the spring and fall hunts.
Never content to sit idle, Park bought a boat in Hawaii and started a SCUBA diving business. He taught SCUBA classes, and he and his boat could be
chartered for diving trips. In 1982, Park competed in the famous Iron Man Triathlon in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii and finished eighth in his age bracket. The following spring, at the age of 54, he collapsed while guiding a bear hunter out of an interior-lake camp near Spiridon Bay. He died a few days later from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Pat remarried in 1984, and she and her husband, Wally, still live in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, where Pat works in real estate. This summer (2015), Pat, Wally, Toni, Patti, Jeri, Bob, Peggy, spouses and several grandkids all visited our Amook Pass home, where we celebrated Pat’s 85th birthday.