Tag Archives: Kodiak Bear

A Kodiak Bear’s Fur and Claws

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A Kodiak bear’s coat may range from dark brown to nearly blonde.  Bears are typically darker in the fall when they begin growing their winter coat, and older bears are often darker than younger bears, but these are just generalizations.  One cub from a litter may be light, while his brother is dark brown.

 Cubs often have a natal collar, a white band around the neck and shoulder.  Some cubs have no natal collar, and others have a collar that is bright and distinct.  This band gradually fades over time, and it has usually disappeared by the age of three, but occasionally, you will see a four-or-five-year-old bear that still has remnants of a collar.

 A bear’s fur is an excellent insulator.  It is dense and oily, keeping the bear warm and preventing water from penetrating.  The fur consists of two types of hair, the “guard hair” and the “under-fur.”  Bears shed both the guard hair and underfur annually.  In the summer, Kodiak bears often appear shaggy and matted.  The bear in the photo below looks as if she is sporting dreadlocks.  To help remove their fur, bears rub against trees and rocks, often standing on their hind legs, backing up to a tree and rubbing up and down.  It is humorous to watch a bear “scratch his back” in this manner.  While the old coat is shedding, a new coat is growing, and by September on Kodiak, most bears appear darker in color and well-groomed.  The old, loose fur is gone, and only the new fur remains.

 

CLAWS

Brown bears have non-retractable claws up to four-inches long.  The claws of young bears are typically dark brown and then lighten with age.  Although some young bears have light-colored claws, beautiful, pearly-white claws are usually seen on an old sow or boar.  Look at the photos and notice the difference in claw coloration between the sub-adult bear and the old sow.

Brown bears use their claws to defend themselves and fight with other bears, but Kodiak bears primarily use their claws to dig for roots and other food and gripping food.  Even though their claws look large and clumsy to us, they are quite dexterous and capable of manipulating small objects. Kodiak cubs use their claws to climb trees, but adult brown bears are poor climbers due to their body weight and the structure of their claws.  It is not uncommon to see a sow send her small cubs up a tree if she senses danger, and they stay in the tree until she vocalizes the signal that it is safe for them to come down.

What Senses do Kodiak Bears Use Most?

Bears, like all animals, depend on their senses to survive.  They use their senses for many things, but especially to find food and detect possible threats. A bear’s sense of smell is its most important sense.  A brown bear’s sense of smell is three to four times more sensitive than that of an average dog, and it is difficult for humans with our relatively poor sense of smell to comprehend what this means and how much a bear depends on this sense.  A bear uses his nose to find food, locate a mate, and avoid danger.  A bear downwind from you may smell your presence and run from you while you are still several hundred yards away from him.

A bear’s second most important sense is hearing.  Brown bears have relatively small ears, but they can detect noises at a great distance.  A bear can hear the click of a camera shutter over the sound of the wind, crashing waves, or a swiftly running river.

     For a long time, biologists believed bears had poor eyesight, but scientific research has shown a bear’s eyesight is similar to that of a human’s.  Bears are not nearsighted as was once believed, and they can see colors. Brown bears often stand on their hind legs to increase their sight distance and get a better look at an object.  It is not a sign of aggression when a bear stands on its hind legs; the bear is just trying to gain more sensory input.

 

The important thing to remember is a bear does not use each one of these senses independent of the others.  If a bear sees something unfamiliar in the distance, such as a person, a boat, or even another bear, he may stand on his hind legs to get a better look, raise his nose to attempt to smell the interloper, and pick up his ears to try to ascertain unfamiliar sounds.  If he still cannot determine what the object is, he may approach it for a closer look or circle downwind from the object so that he can smell it better.

Next week, I’ll write about a bear’s fur and claws.  Does a bear’s fur change with age?  Why are some Kodiak bears blonde and others a chocolate-colored?  What is the white ring some cubs have around their neck?  How do the claws change with age?

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How Strong is a Kodiak Bear, and How Fast can They Run?

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To understand how strong a Kodiak bear is, you only need to observe one effortlessly running up a steep slope, quickly digging a den out of the side of a mountain, or easily flipping huge boulders weighing several hundred pounds. Kodiak bears have a heavy skeleton and a thick layer of muscles. The hump on their backs is a mass of muscles that aids in their ability to dig and provides a powerful striking force with their forepaws.DSC_0033

Brown bears have a shuffling, lumbering walk. They are flat-footed and pigeon-toed, and they walk with both legs on one side moving together. Their paws strike the ground in the following sequence: Right forepaw then left hind paw then left forepaw followed by the right hind paw. When walking at a fast pace, the hind paw is often placed well in front of the forepaw track.

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Brown bears can run very fast over a short distance and have been clocked at 35 to 40 mph (56 to 64 kph). Even over a long distance, they can quickly cover a great deal of ground and climb steep banks with ease.

Many of our guests are surprised to learn that Kodiak bears can swim, but brown bears are excellent swimmers and can swim for a mile or two to cross a bay or lake. A brown bear swims with his body below the water and his head and nose slightly above the waterline. Although bears are strong swimmers, they seem ill-at-ease and vulnerable when swimming, and when approached by a boat, a bear may give up his plan DSC_0116to swim across the bay and return to the shore he just left, even if he is closer to the opposite shore. On sunny summer days, it is common to see Kodiak bears lying in water or splashing in the ocean to cool themselves, and some bears while even dive underwater to catch salmon. Snorkeling is a funny fishing technique employed by a few bears where the bear walks through chest-deep water and submerges his head to look for fish.

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I never grow tired of watching bears. Sometimes they amuse me when I watch the interactions between a sow and her cubs, and other times I get caught up in the drama when two bears square off against each other. I am always amazed, though, by their tremendous strength and their ability to cover a great deal of distance in the blink of an eye. The combination of these two characteristics makes them the rulers of their domain.

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How Intelligent are Kodiak Bears and Can they Communicate?

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You don’t have to spend much time watching Kodiak bears to realize how intelligent they are. Some researchers consider bears to be as intelligent as primates, and others believe a bear is as smart as a dog. Intelligence is difficult to measure, though, and to compare the intelligence of bears to that of other animals is a guessing game. It is clear that bears learn quickly and remember what they learn, and unfortunately, this can be to the bear’s detriment if he learns to associate food with humans. Bears can adapt to environmental changes or unique situations, and they will remember what they learned from a single situation or experience.DSC_0111

Bears are only able to make a limited range of sounds, and they do not have the necessary muscles for facial expressions. They can’t curl a lip like dogs do, and their small ears don’t allow the expressive maneuvers of cats, but bears do communicate with each other by posturing, attitude, and vocalization. A sow may send her cubs up a tree with a woofing sound or call them to her side by popping her jaws. Many bear vocalizations sound alike to a human’s ears, but bears can differentiate the sounds and understand what they mean.

DSC_0199We often hear bears growl while fishing near each other, and sows frequently growl at their cubs to reprimand them. A loud roar is a much more serious vocalization than a growl, and a grunt or a woofing noise often signifies a distressed or upset bear. A bear will grunt or woof at us if he is surprised by our presence, and this vocalization sometimes precedes a lunge or a false charge. The message delivered by a vocalization has as much to do with the message giver as it does with the vocalization. A large boar needs only to stomp his feet or issue a sharp “woof,” and smaller bears flee his presence. Those same actions and vocalizations delivered by a sub-adult bear likely would go unnoticed.

Bears communicate with humans just as they do with other bears, and understanding their language or choosing a guide who understands their language is important if you plan to spend time in the wilderness in bear country. Correctly interpreting vocal signals as well as body language and posturing may alert you to back away from a stressed or agitated bear.

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Bear Hibernation (Part Two)

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Last week I posted about the mechanics of bear hibernation, but how does a large mammal manage to curl up in a ball in a cave and sleep for five months? Humans and other mammals would die if they tried to hibernate. During hibernation, bears do not eat, urinate or defecate. What physiological adaptations allow them to do this?

While in hibernation, a brown bear’s breathing drops from 6 to 10 breaths per minute to one breath every 45 seconds. His heart rate drops from forty to fifty beats per minute to nineteen beats per minute, but his body temperature decreases only a few degrees and does not drop below 88° F (31°C), which is within 12°F (6°C) of his normal body temperature. Some scientists consider bears to be “super hibernators.” Because they have thick fur and also a lower surface area to mass ratio than do smaller hibernators such as rodents, bears lose body heat slowly, which allows them to cut their metabolic rate by 50-60%. Physiologist Øivind Tøien at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has discovered that while a black bear’s body temperature only drops an average of 9.9° F (5.5° C), the bear’s metabolism plunges to 25% of the average summer rate. Furthermore, his studies indicate that when a black bear comes out of hibernation in the spring, it takes several weeks for the bear’s metabolism to return to normal.

The amazing physiological adaptations of bears during hibernation are of much interest to human medical researchers. If a human must endure prolonged bed rest due to paralysis or illness, if a broken limb is immobilized, or if an astronaut spends several months in space; the human body faces such risks as blood clots, heart failure, significant loss of muscle mass, a breakdown of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, as well as life-threatening bedsores. A hibernating bear has none of these risks, including no loss of muscle function. Scientists are interested in determining what specific changes in metabolites, proteins, and hormones allow bears these physiological adaptations during several months of inactivity. Humans, as well as all other mammals who maintain non-weight-bearing positions for an extended period, suffer from osteoporosis, but bears do not lose bone mass during hibernation. When the secret to how bears accomplish this feat is discovered, it may help people with weak bones, patients who become bedridden for a prolonged period, people who suffer paralysis, and astronauts on long space missions.

While bears are hibernating and metabolizing body fat, their cholesterol levels are twice as high as respective cholesterol levels in humans. Bears, however, do not suffer from arteriosclerosis or gallstones, conditions which plague humans with high cholesterol. Furthermore, a bear’s liver secretes a substance that dissolves gallstones in humans. Insight into how bears recycle urea during hibernation could lead to advances in treatments for kidney failure and dialysis in humans. Also, bears gain a great deal of weight in the fall before going into hibernation, but unlike many obese humans, they remain insulin-sensitive. Conversely, they become insulin-resistant once they are in hibernation, so their fat does not break down too quickly, but when they wake in the spring, they once again respond to insulin. In other words, bears can put themselves into a diabetic state while in hibernation and then reverse out of it in the spring. Understanding what allows bears to do this could lead to breakthrough medical advances in the treatment of diabetes and obesity in humans.

There’s so much more going on with hibernation than simply curling up for a long winter’s nap. I look forward to reading new scientific studies on bear hibernation.

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Kodiak Bear Hibernation (Part One)

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Hibernation is one of the most amazing physiological adaptations in nature, and the more I learn about bear hibernation, the more the process fascinates me. Most bears have recently left their dens here on Kodiak, and they are slowly restarting their digestive systems as they prepare for the summer feeding season. Over the next two weeks, I’ll post about denning and hibernation for Kodiak bears. I wrote a post a year ago about den emergence on Kodiak, but this time, I will discuss hibernation in more detail.

Bears hibernate in the winter to conserve energy when weather conditions are harsh, and food is scarce. While hibernating bears experience a degree of dormancy, it is nowhere near as extreme as it is in many other species such as bats, squirrels, and rodents. On Kodiak where winters are relatively mild, bears often go into and out of hibernation and some bears (mostly boars) do not hibernate at all. It is common to see bear tracks in the snow all winter on Kodiak.

Bears typically enter their dens in the order of pregnant females followed by lone females and then females with cubs. Males are the last to enter their dens, and large, old boars in particular may not hibernate at all. Denning conditions vary from year to year depending on the weather conditions and the availability of food.

The time of den emergence in the spring is also dependent upon temperature and weather conditions and varies by sex and age. Males typically leave their dens first, followed by single females and then sows with cubs. Sows with newborn cubs are the last to emerge   Males usually spend three to five months in hibernation while pregnant females may hibernate as long as seven months.

While there is an instinctual aspect to denning, it also appears to be a learned behavior that sows teach their cubs. Perhaps the most important information the mother bear relays to her cubs is how to choose a den site. On Kodiak, there are few natural rock caves, so bears must dig their dens into the sides of the mountains or the sides of snow banks. Lawrence Van Daele, Victor Barnes Jr., and Roger Smith studied and compared denning behaviors on the northern part of the island to those on southwestern Kodiak. On the northern portion of Kodiak where the mountains are taller, they determined that the bears in their study group denned at an average elevation of 2180 ft. (665m). The bears in this region preferred steep slopes in alpine habitat for their dens, probably because the dens were high enough that the soil remained frozen throughout the winter, and the den structure remained stable. On southwestern Kodiak Island with its gentler topography, bears denned at an average elevation of 1499 ft. (457 m) and preferred midslope habitats near alder thickets. The researchers believe that the alder roots help stabilize these dens that were dug in loose, unfrozen soil. It is important that a bear chooses an area for his den that will remain stable throughout the winter and won’t collapse, but dens often do collapse in the spring and summer after the bears have emerged, and the bears are forced to dig new dens the following fall.

Before a bear digs and enters his den, he eats a large amount of food to build his fat layer. Berries provide natural sugars, and a bear may gain as many as 20,000 calories per day from eating berries in the late summer and fall. Bears also drink large quantities of water and consume foods high in protein, such as salmon. Brown bears add six to eight inches (15.24 to 20.32 cm) of fat before hibernation. They stop eating shortly before they enter their dens.

During hibernation, bears do not eat, urinate, or defecate. They curl up to conserve heat, but they may change position in the den. They are sensitive to their surroundings, and hey may awaken and move about or even temporarily leave the den. Pregnant sows give birth while in hibernation, and they can lactate to nurse their cubs. They can also lick and groom their cubs.DSC_0208

Bears emerge slowly from their dens in the spring. A bear may go in and out of his den many times over the course of several days before leaving his den for good. This is especially true of sows with newborn cubs who may stay near the den for one to two weeks, slowly allowing the small cubs to adapt to the outside world. Upon emergence, bears are groggy and sluggish, and it takes time for their bodily functions to return to normal. Soon after leaving the den, a bear will pass a fecal plug that may be as long as two feet in length (61 cm). This plug consists of digested food that has accumulated in the lower intestine as a result of not defecating all winter. After leaving the den, bears drink large quantities of water and slowly begin to eat new plant shoots.

Next week I will write about the amazing physiological adaptations bears employ during hibernation and how and why these adaptations are being studied by human medical researchers.

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Kodiak Bear Growth

Kodiak Bear Sow Nursing Her Cubs
Kodiak Bear Sow Nursing Her Cubs

Last week I gave you an update on the orphaned cubs we rescued a year ago, and I reported that the cubs weighed only 12 lbs. (5.45 kg) when we rescued them, but they now weigh 175 lbs. (79.54 kg). Is this normal; do Kodiak bear cubs in the wild gain that much weight in one year? The answer to this question varies and is dependent on many factors, including the mother’s physical condition. Was she able to eat enough berries and salmon to provide her with adequate nutrition to care for her cubs, and did she catch so many salmon that the cubs were able to eat a few of the scraps to supplement the milk she fed them? As with humans, some sows are better mothers and providers than others. Older sows with more experience tend to do a better job than young sows providing for their young. If the mother cannot find enough food for herself, she usually drops one of the cubs. Sows often leave the den with three or four cubs but may only have one or two by the end of the first summer. This sounds cruel, but if the mother senses she cannot feed three cubs, she must sacrifice one to save the other two.

Cubs of the Year (COY)
Cubs of the Year (COY)

Under normal conditions, a Kodiak bear cub’s weight doubles every two months during the first year. By their second summer, yearling cubs weigh approximately 135 lbs. (61.36 kg). By the time they are two-and-one-half years old, the males begin to outgrow the females, and weights may vary greatly. Females average 212 lbs. (96.36 kg) And males average 225 lbs. (102.27 kg). Females reach their full adult size at approximately five years when they weigh between 350 and 500 lbs. (159.09 – 227.27 kg). Males continue to grow, gaining approximately 100 lbs. (45.45 kg) per year until they are eight to ten years old and weigh 500 to 1000 lbs. (227.27 – 454.54 kg) Kodiak bears gain weight and add fat in the summer when food is abundant and then burn off this fat during hibernation.

One-Year-Old Cubs
One-Year-Old Cubs

The largest Kodiak bear on record lived in the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and weighed 1670 lbs. (757 kg.). In the wild, Kodiak bears are not easy to weigh. Biologist Vic Barnes set out to answer the question, “How big do Kodiak bears get?” With the assistance of hunting guides, he obtained the weights of several large boars and sows shot during spring and fall hunts. The largest three boars weighed 1245 lbs. (566 kg), 1483 lbs. (674 kg), and 1519 lbs. (690.5 kg). The largest female weighed 767 lbs. (348.6 kg).DSC00101

I plan to do more bear posts over the next few weeks, so don’t hesitate to ask me a question or tell me something you’d like to know about Kodiak bears. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll research it.

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Update on Orphaned Cubs

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I wrote a post a year ago about three orphaned cubs that entered our lives when a resident hunter killed their mother. Last spring, my husband, Mike Munsey watched a hunter shoot a bear near a den, but Mike didn’t know it was a sow with cubs until several days later when one of our guides saw a newborn cub peer out of the den. It is illegal to shoot a sow with cubs, but the hunter was apparently unaware the bear he shot had cubs. Mike called Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Nate Svoboda and asked for permission to rescue the tiny cubs from their den. The helpless newborn cubs had been without food and water for several days, and Nate didn’t think they would survive, but he gave Mike permission to attempt a rescue.

There is an abundance of bears in zoos across the country. Bears live a long time, and they eat a lot of food, so they are expensive to maintain. Not many zoos are looking for bears, and unless The Department of Fish and Game has a specific request from a zoo with a suitable bear-habitat exhibit, they cannot rescue bears from the wilderness, even if they know the bears won’t survive on their own. When Mike called Nate, he expected to be told to let nature take its course, and he was pleasantly surprised when Nate gave the go-ahead for the rescue.

Mike radioed our guide Harry Dodge and Harry, another guide, and one of our hunters climbed to the den and captured the three cubs. The cubs were caked with mud, dehydrated, and hungry. The guys each put a cub in his backpack and hiked down to the beach. From there, the cubs were brought back to our lodge where they spent the night. The following day, Nate and a local pilot flew out to our lodge, put the cubs in a big cage, and flew them back to Kodiak. From there, they were flown to the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage where they were nursed back to health.

The cubs stayed at the Alaska Zoo for several months, and we watched frequent videos of them on the nightly news as they continued to grow. The videos showed the cubs wrestling and playing, and the sight of them looking healthy and playful always brought tears to my eyes.

This past fall, two of the cubs were moved to the Wildwood Zoo in Marshfield, Wisconsin. A few months later, the other cub was sent to the Toledo Zoo. The Wildwood Zoo had just completed a beautiful, large bear enclosure, so the timing couldn’t have been more perfect, and the two cubs were greeted as celebrities in Marshfield. The zoo held a contest to name the cubs, and the winning names were: Munsey and Boda. Munsey was of course named after Mike, and Boda was named after Nate Svoboda. Check out the Wildwood Zoo website to see photos of Munsey and Boda, and while you are there take a look at the beautiful Kodiak Bear Exhibit. The cub that went to the Toledo Zoo was named Dodge after Harry Dodge, the guide who helped rescue the cubs from the den. Mike, Nate, and Harry are all very proud that the cubs were named after them, and we are thrilled that the little guys (all three are males) are thriving.

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When those dirty little cubs were visitors at our lodge, the largest weighed only 12 lbs. The latest report we received on the cubs at the Wildwood Zoo is that they now weigh 175 lbs. I’ve heard several people comment that it’s sad they couldn’t be re-released into the wilderness, but that was never an option. Cubs learn from their mothers how to interact with other bears, avoid danger, procure food, and how to hibernate. These bears have lived in zoos nearly their entire lives, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game only sends bears to zoos with first-rate bear enclosures. These cubs now have the mission of teaching thousands of people about bears, about Kodiak, and about the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. I have no doubt that all three will do a good job.

The photo at the top of this post was taken last year when Nate was putting the cubs in the plane to fly them to Kodiak. The other photo in this post is of two unrelated one-year-old cubs and their mother. This photo was taken in August, so the cubs were a few months older than the orphan cubs.

Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers.  It didn’t occur to me when I wrote this update that I would be posting it on Mother’s Day.  I hope you will find it a story with a sad beginning but a happy ending.

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December Bear

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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

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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.

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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.