Monthly Archives: October 2015

December Bear


My December bear story is more than a bear tale. It describes a memorable 18 hours of my life.

December is a tricky time of year on Kodiak Island. The temperature can be in the forties, winds calm, and the sky clear, but an hour later, it might be 20 degrees with 50 mph winds, snow blowing sideways, and no visibility. A quick flight to town by floatplane can turn into a weeklong ordeal, waiting for the weather to improve enough to fly home.

About 15 years ago, Mike had just such a trip to town. The weather was fine when he left. Our deer hunts had recently ended, and we had deer meat hanging in the meat shed. Mike’s plan was to fly to town, run a few errands, and fly home the next day to process the meat. It had been very cold, so the deer meat in the shed was frozen solid, and we weren’t concerned about it attracting bears. Mike’s trip to town turned out to be longer than expected, though, when a storm hit, and one night turned into two and then three.

I stayed by myself at the lodge, but I wasn’t worried, because everything was working fine. My routine was to turn on the generator in the evening and then turn it off again just before I went to bed. The only inconvenience was that I had to walk 100 feet to the generator shed. The easiest path from the house to the shed is down a wooden walk, but the walk was covered with ice, making it nearly impassable. Instead, I took the longer, safer route behind the house, past the meat shed, and between our two guest cabins.

The third night of staying alone, the temperature soared above freezing, and to my delight, the ice on the walk began to melt. What I didn’t consider was that the deer meat was also thawing. That night at bedtime, I grabbed my flashlight for my trek to the generator shed. I started to head up the trail to the meat shed, but at the last moment, I realized the ice had melted from the walk, so I took that route. Once I was back inside the house, I bolted the door and got ready for bed in the pitch-dark house. Just as I was sliding under the covers, I heard the unmistakable noise of boards being ripped from a building, and the sound was coming from the direction of the meat shed. I considered my options but quickly decided I did not want to confront a bear on a dark, moonless night, so I crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head.

The next morning, I thought I had imagined the late-night commotion. The shed appeared fine when I looked at it through the kitchen window, but then I saw a fox on the hill behind the shed and then another fox and then three eagles, all eating something. I hurried outdoors and down the walk to get a view of the shed from a different angle, and sure enough, a large section of the rear wall was missing. A bear had busted through the wall, drug the deer meat outside, enjoyed a feast, and now the other forest creatures were feeding on his scraps. I didn’t see the bear, but I knew he probably hadn’t gone far, and as soon as he digested his dinner from the previous evening, he’d be back to search of his next meal. I called Mike and reported the situation, and he told me to be careful and said he’d be home as soon as the weather improved.

The skies briefly cleared in Kodiak, and it looked as if Mike might get home to help me with my bear situation, but as I waited for the plane, it began to snow. Pilots flying around the rugged, mountainous terrain of Kodiak Island must be able to see where they are flying, and heavy snow makes that impossible. I stared out the window as the snow showers continued. At times the visibility was fairly good, and at others, the mountains were completely obscured. I called the airlines and reported our weather, and the pilot was hesitant about attempting the flight. I wanted Mike to get home and help me with the bear, but I did not want him to fly in poor weather.

As I waited, my anxiety built, and when I received a VHF radio call from a deer hunter saying a plane had crashed in the bay, and he was bringing the pilot to our lodge, I was certain it was Mike’s plane. As it turned out, though, the downed aircraft was a wheel plane, and while the pilot was cold, wet, and upset, and the plane was totaled, there had been no passengers on the plane, and the pilot wasn’t hurt.

Mike finally flew home later that afternoon, and the pilot from the crash got a ride back to town. We removed the remaining deer meat from the shed and processed it, and then we repaired the damage to the shed. Once the food supply was gone, there was no reason for the bear to remain, and he went on his way.

I have always wondered what would have happened that night if I’d chosen to take the trail past the meat shed after I’d turned off the generator. I likely would have collided with a hungry bear intent on locating the deer meat he could smell. Maybe he would have run from me, and then again, maybe not. When it was all over, I decided I did not want to spend another December night alone in the wilderness!

Tragic Bear Tale


My tragic bear tale occurred in the mid-1980s during our summer bear-viewing trips. My husband, Mike, and I were walking down the beach with five guests. We were finished bear viewing for the day, and since there were no bears in sight, we were talking quietly. Mike looked up on the hill above the beach and saw a sow watching us. Mike knew immediately that she was agitated. She popped her teeth, and foam frothed from her mouth. Mike yelled at us to get back, and although I had never before been frightened around bears, the sound of his voice made my legs tremble. I repeated his orders to our guests, who were trying to understand the situation. Mike yelled at the sow again and then pumped a shell into the chamber of the .375 H&H rifle he always carries on our bear-viewing trips. Normally, the loud, metallic sound of a shell being injected into the chamber of the rifle is enough to deter curious bears, but it had no effect on this bear. She stomped her front feet on the bank and lunged from side to side, while she continued to foam at the mouth. Mike fired once into the dirt in front of her, a maneuver sure to make her flee. She stood still for only a moment and then flew down the cliff straight toward Mike. He shot again, and she dropped six feet from him.


At the time, I didn’t realize what an impact those few seconds would have on the rest of my life. All I felt then was grief and sympathy for her two yearling cubs. Mike was so distraught over the experience that he considered never taking another bear viewer into the woods, but he knew brown bears rarely charge humans, and this probably never would happen to us again. The following day, Mike skinned the bear and turned the hide over to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). A biologist determined that the sow had been 23 years old, and both the biologist and Mike believed that at her advanced age, her senses may have been impaired. She’d probably been asleep, and when she awoke and heard us walking down the beach, she considered us an immediate threat to her cubs and didn’t hesitate to charge. The biologist believed the cubs had approximately a 50% chance of survival through the winter. Not only would they have to avoid being killed by larger bears, but they’d need to build up their fat reserves, find or dig a den, and survive hibernation without the aid of their mother.

For many years after the sow charged us, I was terrified every time we took a group of guests bear viewing, and I was especially wary of sows and cubs. Looking back, I now believe I suffered from a form of post-traumatic-stress disorder, and it took a long time to overcome the trauma of that sunny, July afternoon. The experience heightened my respect for the speed and power of Kodiak bears, and it was also a crash course in understanding the differences between a bluff charge, often seen with sub-adult bears, and the real thing.

Kodiak Bear Sow and Cub

I no longer dread getting close to brown bears. On the contrary, I love sitting on a riverbank watching bears chase salmon, and seeing a sow interact with her cubs is a special treat, but after that July encounter so many years ago, I will never be complacent around brown bears.



Kodiak Bear Tales

This week I am posting the first of my three-part series on Kodiak Bear Tales. I love the fact that I live in the midst of one of the largest brown-bear populations in the world, but knowing I could run into one of these large, furry creatures any time I take a walk in the woods, keeps me on my toes. I don’t think of it as bears living around our home; I see it as us living in the middle of their home. We must do all we can to co-exist with the largest land predators on the planet. Considering that there are 3500 bears on the Kodiak Archipelago, we have had very few negative encounters with these beautiful, intelligent, and sometimes fierce mammals. We spend our summers guiding tourists to watch bears fish for salmon and interact with each other, and we learn more about bears every time we watch them. I have nothing but respect for these huge, powerful animals. I realize they aren’t out to eat me, but I also know they aren’t teddy bears. They are the masters of their world, and as long as I choose to live near them, I can never forget that I am the interloper.

By far, I have had more good than bad experiences with bears. I have spent many hours watching sows teach their cubs how to fish, sub-adults box and wrestle, and smaller bears scramble when a huge male saunters down the middle of a stream. Over the years, though, we have had a few exciting moments with Kodiak bears. Some ended tragically, but most just made our hearts beat faster and reminded us that we are fragile creatures compared to brown bears. In this post and the next two, I will tell three of these stories. The first describes the brutal reality wild animals face living in a harsh environment. The second story is tragic, and the third is a near-miss that I call my December encounter and it reminds me that this environment is especially harsh for humans.

My first story is about an event that occurred when my husband, Mike, was 14 years old, and he, his five siblings, and his parents were living in the town of Kodiak for the winter, and the Amook Pass lodge in Uyak Bay was vacant. A winter watchman at Park’s Cannery, five miles from Munsey’s Bear Camp, stopped by the lodge to check on it and found the front window had been broken out, and he could hear loud noises inside the house. He contacted Mike’s parents, Park and Pat, and Park reported the incident to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G).

Park flew out to the lodge with Mike and an ADF&G biologist. Park climbed through the broken front window and saw a sow and her yearling cub sitting on the dining room table, eating the tablecloth. They were apparently so hungry that the smell of the minute food particles on the tablecloth attracted them to it. The biologist determined the bears were starving to death, would not make it through the winter, and would return to the lodge even if they were forced to leave now. He decided that destroying them was the only safe and humane course to follow.

Park positioned Mike in the front yard, his rifle aimed at the front door. Then, Park went into the kitchen, hoping to chase the bears from the dining room through the living room and out the front door. His plan went awry when he yelled, and instead of running away from him, the bears ran toward him. Park shot into the kitchen floor, and the sow and cub turned and fled out the front door, where Mike shot them.
When ADF&G biologists examined the bears, they found they were emaciated, and their stomachs were empty, except for part of the tablecloth and a roll of baggies. For the first few years I lived at Munsey’s Bear Camp, the kitchen cupboard doors still bore the claw marks of the bears, and the oven door never closed properly, because the sow apparently had sat on it.

Kodiak bears usually have plenty to eat between berries and salmon, and they have no trouble making it through the winter hibernation, but on those few years when the berry crop fails, and the salmon run is poor, a long winter can be tough, especially for a sow with cubs. ADF&G biologists warn the public during such years that bears may be unusually aggressive, because they are hungry.

Autumn on Kodiak Island

Autumn in Amook Pass
Autumn in Amook Pass

Autumn on Kodiak Island is a beautiful time of year, but I’ll be honest, it is not my favorite season.

Once the fuchsia petals have fallen from the fireweed, the leaves turn crimson, and the mountainsides are cloaked in a Christmas quilt of dark green and brilliant red. The cottonwood, alder, and birch leaves fade to yellow, and the abundant sedges along the shoreline gleam golden against the orange rock weed. High-bush cranberry leaves turn scarlet, and the fragrant scent of the sweet berries wafts on the breeze, mixed with the pungent odor of decaying salmon.

On a sunny day, autumn on Kodiak is breathtaking, especially if you view it while skimming the mountains in a plane. Unfortunately, there are not many sunny, calm days during a Kodiak autumn. Low-pressure systems pile one upon the next and roll across the Bering Sea and the Alaska Peninsula, slamming into Kodiak Island. One such storm in late August surprised us with 60 mph winds, and when the mooring for our 43-ft. cabin cruiser broke, we were forced to jump in our skiff and chase after and retrieve it in rough seas.DSC_0762

Our summer trips last into late September, because the bear viewing is very good then. Some years we are lucky, but other years, we are hit with gale-force winds and torrential rains. I enjoy guiding wildlife viewers and fishermen during our summer trips, but by the time the season ends, I usually am exhausted from battling the weather and dealing with boats on windy days. If September is bad, October is worse. October is one of the rainiest months on Kodiak Island, and between rain and wind, the leaves often fall before they have a chance to turn yellow, and soon, the mountainsides are brown, the ground slick with wet, rotting vegetation.

Bears are perhaps the best part about fall. As the temperature drops in late August, bears get serious about eating salmon. They concentrate on the many, small salmon streams around the island, and for a short period of time, they tolerate each other, as they work to build their fat layer to prepare for hibernation. It seems as if overnight, they lose their ratty, light-brown summer coats and their even, chestnut fur shines in the sunlight. We see cubs that were tiny and dependent on their mother only three months earlier, catching their first salmon at their mother’s prompting. Older cubs have improved their fishing techniques and have learned to assert themselves with other bears (with mom to back them up, of course).

DSC_0168Another autumn perk for me is watching the young birds learn to fly, especially in our stiff, fall winds. From baby eagles to sea gulls to terns, watching young birds learn to maneuver in the wind always makes me smile. Then there’s the young foxes who’ve left their dens and sit on the beach, curiously watching us as we pass in our boat. By September, they are nearly the same size as an adult, but their coats are shiny, even, and perfect, betraying their youth.

Kodiak Island is wild and untamed and is beautiful any time of the year, and I guess autumn isn’t that bad, if you can get past the weather.