Mid-Summer 2015

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.

Late Winter 2015

Winter is nearly over, and we are still waiting for it to begin.  We had some of our coldest temperatures this past week, and two days ago we had a dusting of snow, but it has already melted.  I know  many of you in the lower 48 have had another tough winter, while we have basked in temperatures in the 40’s.  I’m not complaining, because I consider any winter when our water line doesn’t freeze a good winter, but the lack of snowfall in the mountains could be a problem if we have a dry summer.  Without runoff from snow or ample rain, the water in the streams may be too low for salmon to swim upstream to spawn, and without salmon in the streams, bears will be dependent on berries, sedges, and other vegetation for their nutrition.  They count on the protein that salmon provide to fatten them up for their winter hibernation.  On the other hand, the warm winter has been great for the Sitka black-tailed deer on the island.  We had two deer in the yard the other day, and they looked fat and healthy.

Mike and I flew to Hawaii in February for a winter break.  We spent ten days in Kona on the big island, where Mike’s mom lives, and past guests will be interested to hear that while we were there, Marcia Messier, who cooked for us from 2004 to 2011, flew over from her home in Arizona to visit us.  We consider Marcia a member of our family, and it was wonderful to spend time with her again.  I can’t remember when I’ve laughed so much.  After Kona, Mike and I flew to Kauai for a few days and then began the long, slow trip home.  We spent several days in Anchorage buying supplies and two days in Kodiak running errands. We had a gorgeous floatplane trip home, and even though we’d only been gone a month, it was wonderful to be back!  We had the best caretakers in the world (Ryan Augustine and Ruby Fortner), and our home was in great shape and our cats spoiled rotten.

We are already getting anxious for our summer trips to begin.  We are thrilled to announce that Mary will be cooking for us again this summer, and her sister, Emma, will be helping her.  Mary and Emma’s parents are coming up for a visit in July, so it will be nice to meet the wonderful folks who raised Magic Mary (as some of our guests anointed her after tasting her culinary creations).  Mary spent the winter working as a sauté chef at a very popular restaurant in Anchorage, so I can’t wait to see what new tricks she learned.

Our 2015 summer season is nearly booked full, and we only have a couple of openings for this July.  If you are considering a trip to Kodiak in 2016, start making your reservations soon.  I will be happy to answer any questions for you, and you can e-mail me at robin@munseysbearcamp.com.  Also, I am starting another blog about Kodiak wildlife, living in the Alaskan wilderness, and writing.  It should be up and running in a week or two, so if you are interested, check it out at www.robinbarefield.com  and be sure to leave some comments!


Munsey’s 2014 Summer News

Tanner  laughed as he watched the sea otter struggle to subdue and eat the huge octopus; Vivian braced herself and gritted her teeth, determined to reel in her 127-lb. halibut;  Wayne tried to zoom out far enough to photograph the orcas that were diving beneath the boat; and Karin caught her breath as a sow with two small cubs walked out of the brush a few feet from where she sat.   Welcome to Munsey’s Bear Camp!

We were thrilled to have Mary Schwarzhans cooking for us again this summer.  Not only do we look forward to her innovative meals, including homemade breads and soups, delicious desserts, and the best pizza I’ve ever tasted, but with her quick wit and sweet smile, Mary is  a joy to be around.  We also hired Mary’s friend, Kenny Campbell, this summer, and Kenny made our lives easier by helping out with everything from landscaping to construction to fish processing.

Our season began July 12th with the arrival of Phillippa Redwood and Rosalind Currie, both from New Zealand.  Phil and Ros were with us for only a three-day stay.  On their first morning, we were cruising by harbor seals hauled out on a small island when we noticed three orcas up against the beach, apparently trying to snag a seal or two for a tasty snack. We kept our distance and watched the nature drama for several minutes until the orcas finally swam away in search of an easier meal.  Later that morning, we saw a bear walking the beach, and Ros and Phil saw several bears from a distance, including a sow with three cubs of the year.

On July 15th, we were happy to welcome back Michèle Rippmann from Switzerland, who with her husband, Chris, last visited us over twenty years ago.  Unfortunately, Chris was ill this summer and couldn’t make the trip, but Michèle was accompanied by her two, beautiful daughters, Isabelle and Dominique.  This group sat on a beach and watched two young bears play and interact on the tide flats.  As the tide rose, the bears slowly moved closer to the beach until they were right in front of Michèle, Isabelle, Dominique, and Mike.  On another day, this group had two bears walk past them and got close to another as she ate a salmon.  On a beautiful cruise to the mouth of the bay, we saw sea otters and puffins and marveled at the huge Stellar sea lions that were hauled out on a rookery.

On July 20th, we welcomed back good friend Tom Bradley.  Tom was joined by his nephew, Jody Chaney, Jody’s two sons, Tanner and Tucker, and Tom’s grandson, Thomas Akins, all from Missouri.  On their first afternoon, the guys watched a sea otter trying to eat a large octopus that was wrapped around it.  They enjoyed a beautiful day of salmon fishing in Brown’s Lagoon, and they all caught halibut, but Thomas’ 32 pounder was the largest of the week.  Tom especially enjoyed the thrill of halibut fishing in shallow water.  One day, this group laughed at a friendly fox that seemed to want to play “fetch” with them, and awhile later, a bear walked up close to them before veering into the brush.

On July 25th, we greeted Jim Mount from California and Terry and Rhonda Barnes from North Carolina.  On their first morning, soon after leaving our mooring, we encountered a pod of twelve orcas.  It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and it was breathtaking to watch the sleek, black fins slice through the calm water.  On another day, Terry, Rhonda, and Mike clicked photos when a sow and cub walked up to them.  Later that day, they watched the interactions between a single bear and a sow with two yearlings.  When the single bear got too close to the family group, the sow chased him for a long distance while her cubs dutifully sat and waited for mom to return.  Meanwhile on the Mary Beth, Jim enjoyed the challenge of fighting and landing a thirty-pound halibut in twenty feet of water.

On August 3rd, we welcomed Paul and Bonnie Richert from Minnesota and Mark and Jeanine Bessen and Ed and Sue Furze, all from Australia.  This group was with us for only three days, but their trip was action-packed.  On their first day, they got more than they bargained for when they watched a bear catch a fish right in front of them and then casually grab a beaver and slowly kill it while the beaver thrashed and struggled to escape.  On their second  day,  Mark and Ed caught two halibut, while the rest of the group watched a bear walk past them and stand on his hind legs and then saw a sow with three newborn cubs.

On August 6th, we greeted friends Andy and Candice Vena from New Jersey, Mick and Jeff McHenry from Kansas, and Steve and Jeri  Mihelic from Nevada.  We had a great week and many laughs with this group of friends we’ve known for years.  Their main interest was fishing, and this was the beginning of a long stretch of excellent halibut fishing.  Everyone caught nice fish, and Andy caught two “club” halibut (40 lbs and over), and Jeff and Steve each caught one.  On a day of wildlife viewing, they watched a large male bear fish near them, and on a cruise to the mouth of the bay, this group watched a fin whale surface near the boat, and later that day, Mick and Jeff caught our first silver salmon of the summer.

On August 11th, we welcomed back Larry and Barbara Meckel from Colorado and their family, Barrett Toan and Polly Obrien from New Mexico and Bob and Vivian Toan from New York.  On their first day, Vivian fulfilled her dream to catch a big fish when she landed a 127-pound halibut!  Although that was the largest fish of the week (and the summer), Larry and Barbara also joined our halibut club when Larry caught a 77 pounder, and Barbara landed fish weighing 42 and 40 pounds.  This group watched a sow with two yearling cubs chase fish.  One cub caught a salmon, while mom picked up a dead fish and carried it into the grass to eat it.  She was well aware the humans were there, and both she and the cubs stood on their hind legs several times to watch them.  Toward the end of their stay, Mary surprised Larry and Barbara with a cake to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

On August 16th, we greeted Wayne and Vicki Barnes, Mike Holt, Robert McMurray, and Rita Heuss, all from Tennessee.  On their first afternoon, we saw three orcas, one with a large octopus in its mouth.  The whales swam over to the Mary Beth and appeared to be playing with us as they repeatedly dove under the boat.  This group watched a bear chase fish, and they enjoyed a gorgeous day of salmon fishing at the mouth of the bay.  The sky was so clear that we could see a volcano smoking on the Alaska Peninsula.  We didn’t doubt this group could fish when in one day, they caught five and released six beautiful halibut, including five “club” halibut!

Bob Aldrich and Beth Battey, both from Rhode Island, Shadd and Dawn McEwan from California, and Dennis and Nancy Ferraro from New York arrived on August 21st.  On a beautiful, sunny day, two young bears played and chased each other down the beach right past this group.  Later that day, they watched a sow with two cubs catch salmon.  On a day of halibut fishing, Dennis caught two nice halibut, and Bob caught a 64 pounder, and on another day, Shadd enjoyed the thrill of catching halibut in shallow water.  On a day at the mouth of the bay, Bob caught a silver salmon, and we enjoyed watching several whales, including a humpback and two fin whales that surfaced near us.

On August 26th, we were thrilled to welcome back Dan Robertson from Nevada and Gene Fanucchi, John Mendoza, Mike Saner, Gordy Sexton, and Howard Hancock, all from California.  As always, this group was focused on catching fish, and while the salmon fishing was not as good as usual this year, the halibut fishing was exceptional.  All of the guys caught nice halibut, including five “club” halibut, but Gene’s 77 pounder took the prize for top fish and was one of two “club” halibut Gene caught this summer.  While I hate to say it went to his head, Gene now prefers to be called “The halibut king”.  The guys wanted to honor Howard who  retired from PG&E this summer, so one evening, Mary surprised him with a retirement cake from his fishing buddies.

On September 5th, we were happy to welcome back Jerry Burblis from Alaska and Carl Erickson from Florida.  We also greeted Alan and Victoria Peacock from Massachusetts  and Simon and Ruth Ray from Scotland.  A young bear entertained this group each day they went bear viewing on the river.  She took a nap near them, paraded back and forth in front of them, and caught fish beside them.  One day, they watched a sow catch two salmon and carry one fish into the  brush with her cubs close behind her.  On another afternoon, a large male bear caught fish near them.  He walked to within 25 feet of them, let out a “woof”, and then slowly continued down stream.  On a calm, rainy morning, Jerry and Carl enjoyed good halibut fishing, and Jerry’s 80 pounder was the second-largest of the season.

On September 10th, we were excited to welcome back Tony and Karin Ross from Pennsylvania.  Tony and Karin were joined by Jimmy and Deborah Straughan from Texas and Ian Yates and Cheryl Scroope, both from Australia. On their first day, this group saw a sow and cub and a young male bear, but it was a cooperative female that kept them entertained for most of the afternoon, She walked up close to them, stuck her head under water and snorkeled for salmon, caught fish in front of them, and as they packed up their gear to leave for the day, she plopped down on a sandbar near them.  On September 12th, this group was hit by a storm with heavy rain and wind that lasted the rest of their stay.  The river was so swollen that it was too deep for the bears to fish, but nevertheless, they saw a sow with two yearling cubs and had a sow with two cubs of the year walk up to them.  Our last evening was the perfect end to our season, as we laughed while Tony entertained us with his uncanny imitations of humans and animals.

As always, our summer was amazing, and no two days were the same.  I will remember the laughter and smiles and the funny and sometimes serious conversations around the dinner table.  We thank Tanner, Vivian, Wayne, Karin, and all our guests for stepping into our world and sharing our adventures.







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.