Mid Summer 2014: Predators

I like to imagine that each of our summer seasons has a theme, and that theme may be revealed to me at any point during or after the summer. Sometimes the theme has to do with our guests, and other times it is related to the animals we see or the environment of Kodiak Island. Occasionally the theme is obvious, such as two years ago when we saw whales every day during the summer, but other years, the central theme is more subtle, and I have to reread my journal several times to discover the thread that tied the summer together. This summer, the theme, at least for the first half of our season, came to me in a flash one afternoon as I listened to our guests discuss the unusual and disturbing, yet fascinating events of their day.

Let me back up a bit to the Fourth of July before our summer season even began, when we heard that fishermen on a boat in Shelikof Strait, not far from us, had watched a pod of orcas attack, kill, and eat a 70-ft. Fin whale. I could only imagine the amount of blood and carnage that act must have produced, and I admit thinking that it would have been an incredible sight to see. Two weeks later, early in our summer trips, we cruised by a beach on small island where a group of harbor seals had hauled out. Our guests love seeing the chubby seals with the big eyes and long whiskers curled in a banana pose on the beach. This day, though, we saw three orcas skirting the beach apparently trying to grab a harbor seal for a tasty meal. Meanwhile, nearby, a sea otter bobbed on his back, either unaware or unconcerned that he was in the midst of marauding orcas. We didn’t interfere in this saga but kept our distance and watched it play out. I held my breath, hoping the orcas would not be successful either at dragging a harbor seal off the beach or partaking in a furry sea-otter snack. By the time we left, no blood had been spilled, and the orcas seemed to be moving away from the beach.

Fast forward two weeks when Mike and six bear viewers sat on a river bank and watched a bear chase and eat salmon. The shutters clicked as she caught a few salmon and ate them in front of the group. Next, she walked over to a beaver dam, and they couldn’t tell what she was doing until she lifted her head, and they saw she had a beaver in her powerful jaws. Then came the long, drawn-out, gruesome process of her killing and eating the beaver. The expression on the beaver’s face in the photo is easy to read.

As soon as I picked up our guests on the beach that day, they couldn’t wait to tell me what they had seen. They were obviously upset by what they had witnessed, but they were also fascinated by watching nature uncensored. Mike and I told them they had seen something few other humans would ever see, but secretly I was relieved I hadn’t been with them. The photo is painful enough to look at. Still, it got me thinking about our fascination with predators, especially top-level carnivores.

Who among us hasn’t watched a nature show where a pride of lions attacks a gazelle, or a great white shark devours everything in its path. Even an eagle going in for a kill is fascinating to see, and orcas and bears can certainly be included in this list of predators who are at the top of the food chain. I think it’s interesting that we can watch a bear or orca kill and eat salmon all day long and can’t summon much empathy for the fish, but if the prey is a mammal, worse yet, a mammal with a cute face, that’s a different story. Suddenly that bear or orca almost seems guilty of murder when in fact, he is just eating lunch.

We make our living by showing people the nature and wild animals of Kodiak Island, and everyone enjoys seeing sea otters, seals, deer, and foxes, but it’s those top-level predators, especially the Kodiak brown bear, that everyone hopes to see, and most people want to see a bear chasing and catching salmon. They want to watch a powerful carnivore doing what he or she does. Seeing that same bear pull a beaver out of its home and tear it apart or watching a pod of orcas drag seals off a beach may be too much reality for many people, but I think most of us find uncensored nature fascinating, and it makes us respect those animals at the top of the food chain even a bit more.

Robin

Spring 2014

Kodiak Red Fox

Johnny Horton sang, “When it’s springtime in Alaska, it’s forty below,” and while it never gets that cold on Kodiak, spring often doesn’t arrive here until early June.  This year, however, we are ahead of schedule.  I am writing this on May 5th, and our grass is already green.  The friendly fox that has been sleeping in our yard hasn’t shed his winter coat, but buds are forming on trees at the lower elevations, and much of the snow has melted on the mountain tops.  Today, I saw my first morels of the year, confirming that spring has arrived.

While much of the rest of the country endured a frigid, snowy winter, ours was quite mild.  In mid-January we had days when the mercury rose to nearly 50°.  We did battle a few storms this winter, and one tore apart our dock, but then, weather is never boring on Kodiak.  For me, the toughest part of the winter here is that the sun is very low on the horizon in December and January, making for short, gloomy days, so in February, we decided to escape to someplace sunny and warm and soon found ourselves in Ixtapa Mexico.  We spent four glorious weeks in that Mexican paradise, where the weather is nearly always boringly perfect.  I knew it was time to head home when I started hoping for clouds and rain.  Homesickness really set in when Ryan and Ruby, our friends and our caretakers this winter, began sending us photos of deer in the yard and sea otters hauled out on chunks of ice.  It was time to get back to our version of paradise where the weather may not always be perfect, but the rugged beauty is breathtaking, and the wildlife is exceptional!

We had the cabin on the Mary Beth replaced this winter, and we are anxious to bring her home from Kodiak in a few weeks and get her fixed up for the summer.  We are booked full this summer, and I am already excited to begin our trips!  I’ll write again midsummer and tell you about some of our adventures.

Robin

Summer 2013

A young bear chases a salmon and pounces on it thirty feet from where you sit.  You force yourself to hold your camera steady and continue snapping photos as she turns toward you and lifts her prize in the air.  A few minutes later, two more young bears race into view, and you laugh as they stand on their hind legs and wrestle with each other.  The three bears quickly move upstream as a larger, older bear steps out of the woods and begins chasing a salmon.  Awhile later, the older bear sniffs the air, and he too walks upriver.  Then another bear steps onto the bank across from you, and you take the camera away from your eye as you try to gain perspective.  The bears you saw earlier were all large, but this bear appears to be twice as big as the others.  He looks straight at you, grunts twice, and then stomps his feet on the bank.  It’s obvious he’s not pleased to see humans on his river.  You try to snap a photo of the big guy, but there’s no keeping your camera steady at this point.  You look at your guide who is now standing.  He speaks calmly but firmly to the bear.  The bear regards him for a moment and then wanders downstream.  Later the guide tells you that you have had the rare treat of seeing an extremely large, 1000-lb. Kodiak bear, and you’ve had the thrill of visiting him in his natural habitat.  Welcome to the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, and welcome to Munsey’s Bear Camp!

This summer was both beautiful and frustrating.  We enjoyed sunshine and record-high temperatures during July, and because of all the sun and heat, Kodiak had an early, heavy berry crop in July, and the bears seemed to be more interested in gorging themselves on berries than chasing salmon.  This, of course, was great for the bears but tough for bear viewing, since most bears were in the berry thickets where they are nearly impossible to see, instead of along the shore and on the salmon streams where we usually watch them in July.  By August, our world righted itself, and while the weather wasn’t quite as nice, the bears moved onto the salmon streams, and bear viewing was excellent as usual.

Our summer season began July 9th.  Our cook this summer was a fun, innovative, young woman named Mary Schwarzhans, who amazed and impressed our guests with her wonderful meals.

Our first guests were Matt and Sandy Looney, Terry and Kris Vaughn, and Mike and Melanie Austin, all from Tennessee.  This group enjoyed the rare experience one afternoon of seeing a mountain goat standing on the shore.  On another day, a curious fox walked up to them and watched them change their boots on the beach, and awhile later, they photographed a bear standing on a rock looking for fish.  On their last day, we cruised toward the mouth of the bay on a beautiful morning, where we saw many sea otters, including one that was so busy eating a large octopus, he wasn’t the least disturbed by our presence as we snapped photos.

On July 15th, we greeted our good friend Vickie Coffman from Kansas, Jack Sowers and his son Chris from Texas and Jack’s other son, John, from Oklahoma.  When I think of this group, I remember sunny, warm weather and smiling faces.  On their first day, they watched a sow with two cubs, and on another day, they  photographed a bear in a thicket as he methodically picked berries from a bush.  Everyone in this group caught salmon and halibut, but Jack landed the largest, a 60-lb. halibut that gained him entry into our 40- pounds-and-over halibut club.  On their last day with us, Jack, John, and Chris followed Mike up a river where they watched a young bear chase, catch, and eat salmon in front of them.

Dave and Nancy Hicks from Ohio, John Hoffman from Pennsylvania, and Marc Wallace from New York arrived on July 20th.  This group enjoyed a beautiful, sunny afternoon of salmon fishing in Brown’s Lagoon, where an array of wild flowers blanketed the hills and cliffs.  Everyone in this group caught halibut, and Marc enjoyed the thrill of fighting a halibut in shallow water.  One day a bear climbed a cliff near where they were sitting, got within 40 ft. of them, and lifted his head to look at them before wandering away.  On another day, a bear walked to within 20 ft. of them before slowly heading into the woods.

On July 25th, we were thrilled to welcome back the Williams family, consisting of Art and Louise from Pennsylvania, their daughter Heather and her friend Thomas Hopper, both from Virginia, and Art and Louise’s son Doug, his wife Beth, and their children Addie (age 9) and Finn (age 7) from North Carolina.  This was Art and Louise’s 50th wedding anniversary trip with their family, and we were proud they chose to spend it with us.  This group watched a bear sprawl lazily in the water and photographed another bear walking the beach.  Everyone in the family enjoyed salmon and halibut fishing, and Addie and Finn cheered while Aunt Heather reeled in a 52-lb. halibut.

While the rest of the family departed on July 30th, Art and Louise stayed for another five days.  We were also happy to welcome back Eric, Carolyn, and Chris Gustafson from New Mexico.  This group was slammed by a summer storm that greatly altered our plans.  It was too windy to get to the bear-viewing area for two days, and when we finally did get there, the wind increased to 50 mph by mid-afternoon, and we were forced to leave.  Through it all, everyone managed to keep smiling.  Eric and Chris enjoyed an afternoon of salmon fishing, when they kept three salmon and released twelve, and meanwhile, Art landed two 25-lb. halibut, one right after the other.  On their last morning, we cruised north and watched two fin whales that surfaced near us.

On August 9th, we were happy to welcome back Terry and Cynthia Douglas from Virginia, and we greeted Krista McFall and James Walker from Colorado and Krista’s sister, Jennifer Barron, and her friend, Vince Burgess, both from San Diego.  One day this group watched two young bears catch fish and wrestle.  A young sow charged out of the brush and caught a salmon beside them, and awhile later, a huge boar came out across the river from them, woofed, and stomped his feet twice before leaving.  On another day, Terry, Cynthia, and Mike watched bears on a side stream while Krista, James, Jenny, and Vince enjoyed halibut fishing on the Mary Beth.  On their last day, they once again saw the huge boar, another large boar, a sow with two newborn cubs, and several single bears.

On August 14th, we greeted Mario and Karin Noti from Switzerland and John and Ana Price and Chuck and Charleen Vershaw, all from California.  On their first day, this group photographed a large boar and a young sow that fished in front of them.  Then a small, blonde bear put on a show when he held a salmon in his mouth and snapped it back and forth.  On another walk upriver, they saw a sow with two 2-year old cubs, a sow with a yearling, and several single bears.  Everyone enjoyed a good day of halibut fishing (John and Ana as official photographers) on a beautiful day at the mouth of Uyak Bay, and Mario discovered a new skill when he caught six halibut, including a 35 pounder.

Clint and Rickie Swink, their daughter Sage, her husband Ira Riegel, their other daughter Tana, her husband Chad Clocgh, and Tana and Chad’s baby, Caden, all from Colorado, arrived on August 19th.  On their first two days, several bears fished in front of them.  One young bear fished only 20 ft. from them, but when he looked as if he was going to climb the bank and sit on Sage’s lap, Mike told him he was getting too close.  He seemed to take the reprimand to heart, because he walked 50 ft. away, dug a hole in the dirt, and plopped down for a nap.  On their final day with us, Clint, Rickie, Ira, and Mike watched and photographed six bears that caught salmon near them, while on the Mary Beth, Chad, Tana, and Sage all caught halibut.  While fishing at the mouth of the bay, this group enjoyed watching a pod of Orcas that cruised past our boat.

On August 24th, we were thrilled to welcome back Dan Robertson from Nevada and Gene Fanucchi, John Mendoza, Michael Saner, Howard Hancock, and Gordy Sexton, all from California.  This group of friends has visited our lodge the last several years to catch fish, relax, and harass each other (not necessarily in that order).  I hope they were able to relax, and I’m certain they fulfilled their other two goals.  They each left with a 50-lb. box of fish, and by the last day, we were releasing halibut, because they had more than they could take home with them.  All the guys caught halibut and salmon, but it was Mike Saner’s year.  He not only caught the most halibut, but he also caught the largest two, joined our halibut club, and saw our halibut flag raised twice for a 45-lb. halibut and a 75 pounder.

On September 2nd, we greeted Billy and Katherine Donegan from England and Joachim and Beate Gmehling and their daughters, Sonja and Hanna, all from Germany.  This group was here for a 3-day trip.    During their two days of bear viewing, they saw three sets of sows and cubs, including a sow with three newborn cubs.  A drowsy bear yawned and stretched when they walked past her and then wandered into the river and caught and ate salmon in front of them.  Two other young bears took a nap near them, resting their heads on a log, and when they awoke, they began wrestling and playing only 60 ft. away from this group.

On September 5th, we were very happy to welcome back Jerry Burblis from Anchorage, Jo-Anne Antalik from Florida, Ed Matusik from Pennsylvania, and David and Pam Slaughter from Colorado.  This group enjoyed a great afternoon of silver salmon fishing in Brown’s Lagoon.  Ed and David each caught five salmon, and Pam caught four.  On another day, Ed caught a 42-lb. halibut and earned entry into our halibut club.  One day, a large, old female bear with ivory claws and a large boar fished close to this group as the cameras snapped photos.  At one point in the afternoon, they had six bears fishing in front of them, and one young bear walked right up to them and fished beside them.

On September 10th, Ed was joined by Andy Erickson from Rhode Island and Tony and Karin Ross from Pennsylvania.  Andy has visited our lodge several times, and this was the second of hopefully many visits for Tony and Karin.  On their first day, this group watched two bears play in the water for twenty minutes, and then a young bear caught one salmon after another in front of them, took a bite out of each fish and then tossed it away.  On their hike back to the boat that day, they walked past two bears relaxing in the grass near the trail.  One bear had his feet raised in the air, and neither bear could be bothered to move as the humans walked past.  They saw 22 bears on a hike up a side stream, including six sets of sows and cubs, and on their final day of bear viewing, they sat on the riverbank and again watched a procession of bears fish, play, and interact.

We once again spent our summer in the wilderness of Kodiak Island with wonderful people, some we’ve known for many years and others we just met but hope to see again.  I can’t imagine better jobs than the ones we have!  Thank you Mary for your fantastic meals and your sense of humor.  Thanks to our guests for another great summer in Uyak Bay!

Robin

 

 

 

 

August 2013

We’re over mid-way through our 2013 summer season.  In July we had the longest stretch of sunny weather we can remember.  Some days were actually hot, and we just smiled when guests questioned why we had insisted they bring rain gear with them.

As for bear and whale viewing, this July was slower than normal.  After an extraordinary whale summer last year, we saw very few whales in the bay in July.  Reports of amazing whale displays on the other side of the island indicates they were finding more to eat in that area this summer.  While we did see bears with each group in July, we did not see the number of bears we usually see at the head of Uyak Bay.  We suspect the reason for this was directly related to the warm, sunny weather which produced an early, abundant crop of berries.  When bears are in the berry thickets instead of on the beach catching salmon, they are difficult to spot.  Of course those berries, rich in natural sugars, are just what bears need to build fat reserves for the winter, and the bears we are seeing now look very healthy.  During the last two weeks, bears have started to move onto the salmon streams, and bear viewing has been excellent.  The salmon run has also been good with more salmon arriving every day, so I’m sure the bear numbers on the streams will continue to increase for the remainder of our season.

On the fish front, I am happy to report that halibut fishing has been better this summer than it has been for the previous two years.  We haven’t tried for silvers yet, but we are excited to hear that they are beginning to arrive in the bay.

Our guests this summer have been wonderful.  A recent guest said to me, “I bet you have some great stories about difficult clients.” .

“Not really,” I gave him a sideways look, “Not until now.  Should I be on my guard?”

We are frequently asked to share stories about “nightmare” guests and the trouble they caused, but I am happy to say that we don’t have many stories like that.  Certainly over the course of thirty years we’ve had some memorable guests and a few that were memorable in a bad way, but that’s a rare occurrence, and I’ve often wondered why we are so lucky.  I’ve traveled other places and met my share of cranky, demanding, and just unhappy tourists, but that’s not a problem we face in our business.

I like to think that we only get top-notch adventure travelers at our lodge.  You don’t accidentally stumble into a vacation at a bear-viewing lodge in the middle of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.  By the time a traveler steps off the float plane onto our dock, she has carefully done her research, knows what she is getting herself into, and has probably already taken several other adventure-type vacations around the world.  She knows what weather conditions to expect and has packed accordingly.  She is ready for her adventure, and we will do our best to provide her with one.

I often brag in our end-of-the-summer newsletter that every year nearly 50% of our guests are returnees.  These are folks who over the years have become more than just clients; they are our friends, and we stay in touch with them during the year and follow their lives.

We have several friends returning this summer, but the main purpose of this entry is to tell you about Art and Louise Williams, who in July brought their family to Munsey’s Bear Camp to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.  Their daughter, Heather, and her boyfriend, Thomas; their son, Doug; his wife, Beth; and Doug and Beth’s kids, Addie (age 9) and Finn (age 7) all made the trip to Munsey’s Bear Camp for the party.  We were thrilled and honored that they chose to celebrate such a milestone event at our lodge.  Art and Louise have visited Munsey’s Bear Camp on four previous occasions, and Heather, Doug, and Beth have accompanied them at different times, but this was an opportunity to introduce the two youngest members of the family to the bears and other wildlife of Kodiak Island.  As the family sat around the dinner table and laughed, teased each other, and told stories, Mike and I truly felt we were a part of that special family, and we were reminded once again that we have the best jobs on the planet.  Thank you Art and Louise for including us in your celebration!

We’ve already had a few other returnees, and we look forward to more in late August and September.  As a matter of fact, from August 25th until September 15th, nearly all of our guests are returnees.

While returning guests are priceless, first-time guests are also fun, and we have enjoyed many new guests this summer.  It is always a thrill to view our beautiful world through the eyes of someone who is seeing it for the first time.  I think our new, brilliant, young cook, Mary, summed it up best this summer when one of the first planes of the season landed, and she said, “I’m so excited for these people starting out on their adventure!”

We do our best to remember that every guest is here for a wonderful adventure, and we do everything we can to make that adventure as special and exciting as they dreamed it would be.

Robin