By Justin Wateridge
The float plane roars and Keller eases back on the throttle. The immensity of the scenery below unfolds. Primordial nature. Wilderness. Muted hues. We are flying over Kodiak Island, Alaska’s emerald isle. The name conjures up images of mystery, grandeur and power. At the heart of that mystique is the mighty Kodiak Bear, that I had come to see.
The drama of the landscape – impressive white peaks, deep blue fjords and vibrantly green valleys – needs no explanation. Keller’s unerring eye points out the less obvious. Gulls on a ball of herring. Mountain goats with their shaggy coats of pure white. A rainbow to our left, dark clouds to the right and sunshine ahead – the vagaries of Kodiak weather.
We land on the remote Karluk Lake, a lake only accessible by float plane. There are some 3,500 bears in the Kodiak Archipelago, which equates to almost one bear a square mile. The 12-mile-long Karluk Lake holds the highest density of bears in Kodiak and thus the world.
We take a boat across Karluk Lake. The black dots moving across the lakeside scouring the water’s edge take shape as Kodiak Bears, the largest bears in the world. The legend of the bear is that the Kodiak Bear is touted as the world’s largest carnivore. The reality is that they are omnivores and spend more time eating grass, plants and berries than meat.
Indeed, few bears expend the time or effort necessary to chase and kill mammals. They are opportunistic. Karluk means fish in the local Alutiq language. It is well-named. The waters are teeming with salmon. Every year hundreds of thousands race the rivers to spawn. For the bears it is a feeding frenzy as they fatten themselves up for the winter months.
We see several bears patrolling the beach. The sub-adults raise their head in suspicion at the alien sound of the boat, sniff the air and retreat into the sanctuary of the long grass. But one, a large sow, holds her ground and enjoys the beach to herself. We float just offshore as she continues her progress and I listen to the soft crunch of the slate beach underpaw. She spies a floating salmon and scampers forward to scavenge. Their turn of pace as they splash through the water in pursuit of a salmon is sudden. And at the same time amusing.
Jen my guide, an Alaskan ranger, asks, “Do you want to go for a walk?” Surprised but thrilled, I reply with an emphatic yes as she beaches the boat and we head out into bear country.
There is evidence of bears. Scat of varying sizes and consistency. Large paw prints. The size of the claw marks is worrying. The detritus of salmon – bones, scales, entrails, heads. Jen is armed. She carries a twelve-gauge pump-action shotgun which as Jen puts it, “That’s a whole lot of lead. Quite some stopping power.”
We sit on a steep bank on the side of the River Thumb. The river gurgles noisily downstream as huge red salmon struggle upstream. For some it is too much and they seek respite on the edges of the river where the flow is less strong. The solitude and silence are striking. Broken only by the head-turning splash of salmon. No bears.
Bears have no schedule and so we decide to make our own and walk further upstream to Lake Thumb. We work through long grasses, fireweed, Cottonwood trees, willow and undergrowth. A mosaic of colour. Jen doesn’t want to surprise a bear so she quietly claps her hands and talks to anything that might be out there, “Hey bear.”
That’s the great thing about walking around the corner in a truly out of the way place such as this: you never know what’s going to ambush you. Suddenly the ground reverberates and we see a bear break cover in a lolling run. The tension is broken by the wailing cry of a fox that to my untutored ear sounded like a bird.
We stand by the lakeside. The mountains around us soar some 2,500 feet above the lakeshore in a variety of greens, orange, brown and russet. I sit and marvel at my surrounds. One mountain with fissures created over millennia by raging streams that resemble a bear’s claw marks. Another with vertiginous slopes that beg to be climbed. The brilliance of the Common Merganser. Six ducks fly overhead in uniform flight. A kingfisher darts along the water’s edge. Apart from that stillness. The isolation is intense.
We spot a bear on the far side of the lake, the eleventh bear that we had seen that afternoon, and decide to return to the head of Lake Karluk. A fox saunters past a large salmon in her mouth. She seems unconcerned by our presence. So much so that her kit, a young fox of some four months, emerges from the undergrowth to relieve its mother of her catch and greedily gorge on the salmon in front of our eyes.
A sub-adult comes around the bend in the river. He spots us, raises his nose sniffing the air – a bear’s sense of smell is one hundred times that of a human – doesn’t recognise what he smells, does a quick about face and retreats quickly into the long grasses. We resume our silent vigil.
Socially bears are solitary creatures, the exception being mating pairs and sows with cubs. The bears do not have a territory that they defend, but instead have a home range that they will hunt year after year. Because of the diverse quantity of food on Kodiak Island, the bears have some of the smallest home ranges in the world. This brings Kodiak Brown Bears into much higher concentrations than their solitary nature would suggest.
And suddenly there a bears in profusion. Upstream two young sub-adults scour the edge of the river. Downstream a large sow. In the distance at the head of the lake two young cubs frolic on the beach as their mother combs the water. I watch their shoulder swagger walk, the shuffle of their backsides and their heads moving from side to side.
I tap Jen on the shoulder excitedly. Twenty feet to our left a bear was negotiating her way down the bank into the river. She crosses the river and patrols the edge of the river preying on the weak. Jen whispers, “That’s Dark Lady. She is an adult female in her prime.” I marvel at the condition of her coat and am in awe of the rippling muscle beneath it. I notice the pads of her feet as she wades her way downstream. We watch her with fascination.
She stops. Crosses back to our side of the river and begins a watery plod upstream. Remarkably she stops just beneath us, a mere ten feet away. She begins to feed on a salmon. The ripping of skin, the tearing of flesh and the crunching of bones is audible, a tribute to her raw strength and razor-sharp claws and teeth. She looks up at us. Her red eyes revealing the overwhelming indifference of nature. A cursory look at us and she resumes her noisy munching.
“If they look at you for a long time then you know it’s serious,” whispers Jen with disarming understatement. It’s a simpler world but a harsh world. I desire to be a part of it but can never be.
We head back to the security of the Kodiak Brown Bear Centre and the hospitality and cooking of Natasha Panamarioff, her name a legacy and reminder of the proximity of Russia. I sleep soundly and wake up in the morning with a start to hear a loud scratching. My heart jumps. Bear. The reality is more prosaic but still unusual – it is a fledging bald eagle landing on the roof and grappling to hold its unsteady position.
We head back to Thumb River and once again walk through the undergrowth. Jen leads the way with her reassuring, “Hey bear.”
We spy a mother with three two-year old cubs. She picks up our scent and raises her nose sniffing. Unsure of what she perceives she stands impressively on her hind legs to have a look. We cower down, trying to stay out of sight. Her head poking above the grass is both massive and magnificent. We yearn to get closer and scurry forward almost bear-like on all fours – the thrill of the chase. We don’t manage to escape detection and she whisks her cubs away from potential harm. Bears are risk averse.
Within minutes we spot another mother with two three-year-olds. The bears mate in June. Impregnation is delayed and the sow does not conceive until she goes into hibernation, giving birth in January after a gestation period of several months usually to a litter of two to three cubs. The new-born cubs emerge from the den in May, some five months old, and will remain with their mother until they are about three years old.
Throughout the day there are ebbs and flows. Squalls of rain, bursts of intense sunshine and searing light. Periods of quiet and then a buzz of activity. Foxes miaow and then two strut nonchalantly past behind us. Bears come and go. Deer cautiously approach the water’s edge. A fox trots past with a gull in its mouth – even a fox craves variety in its diet.
A young sub-adult catches a salmon and lands it on the river back opposite us. He pins it to the ground with his right paw. He tears at and eats the skin and then moves on. The salmon flaps forlornly for many minutes to come. It seems harsh, cruel but this is wildlife integrated.
We walk back to the boat and watch a young bear sitting on his backside in the lake some twenty feet from us. Back ramrod straight, head back, tufty ears sticking out, he looks like a comical cartoon character, his contentment obvious to see. He gets back on all fours and with a shrug and shudder of his powerful shoulders shakes the water from his back.
He approaches us and stops just a few feet short of us. We stand still, very still, so very still. The intensity of the instance is tangible. It is not a time for photography. It is a moment to be enjoyed and experienced. There is total silence apart from the heavy soughing breathing of the bear. It observes me at close quarters with curiosity. I look back transfixed in awed fascination.
Jen remains calm. She talks quietly and soothingly to the bear, using her tone of voice to control its movements. The bear listens to her. He responds to her. Reassured he begins chewing on a log and then rubbing his neck on the log with obvious glee.
The intelligence of a bear falls somewhere between that of an exceptionally smart dog and a primate. As with humans, the intelligence of a bear varies by individual and is dependent on its life experiences. In front of me is a curious, intelligent bear that defies its reputation.
The drone of a float plane means that it is time to depart. As we take off, the exuberant Keller asks me how my time was. I wax lyrical about the scale and immensity of the scenery. The thrill of the experience and the privilege of having it all to myself. The joy and pleasure of not just seeing bears but watching their behaviour and the intimacy of it all. That there was nothing contrived or canned about the raw encounters I had on the Thumb River.
“Hell Justin, it’s just a fucking river,” says Keller with an irreverent smile. I smile back.
Justin Wateridge is a nature enthusiast and Managing Director for Steppes Travel. For more information about holidays that get you up close and personal with the natural world, please click here.