Mid Summer 2017

I believe nature keeps me sane and allows me to stay balanced, and this summer, I think it has helped me heal.

My summer did not begin well. I would even venture to say July 2017 was one of the worst months of my life. In early July, I began losing the use of my arms and legs and ended up in the hospital in Anchorage for a week. I was diagnosed with Guillain Barré Syndrome (GBS), a disease in which a person’s immune system turns on the nervous system and begins stripping myelin from the nerve sheath. GBS can be quite dangerous if allowed to progress to the point where even the chest wall is paralyzed, and the patient must be placed on a ventilator to breathe. Luckily, I received treatment long before it got to that point, and the neurologist told me nearly every patient completely recovers from GBS. I was told it would take me a year to fully recover, and while I knew I would have a difficult summer with my slowed mobility, at least I would get better.

On the last day I was in the hospital, I called my brother, Russell, and his family in Kansas, and we had a nice conversation. Two hours later, my sister-in-law called me back to tell me after our phone conversation, Russell went out to mow the grass in 100-degree heat and dropped dead from a heart attack. My world crashed down around me. Russell and I were very close, and I felt as if I were in a daze the next day when the doctor released me from the hospital, and I made my way to the airport.

In Kodiak, a van whisked me to Andrew Airways, and soon, I was in a floatplane flying home. I felt numb and very tired as we skirted emerald mountains, plunging waterfalls, and deep valleys formed by glaciers and cut by rivers. I knew I would cherish my last conversation with my brother and would always be grateful that for whatever reason, I had placed the call to him only an hour before he died.

I hated arriving late for our summer trips. I had already missed the arrival of our wonderful cook and lodge organizer, Mary, and our new camp helper, Emily. Our first group of guests had come and gone, and I hadn’t even been able to say hi to them. Our second group of guests had just arrived in camp that day, and I wasn’t sure I could summon the energy to be a good hostess.

As the plane circled our lodge and came in low for a landing, I looked at our dock and nearly burst into tears. There stood Mike, Mary, and Emily, and Mary held a beautifully designed “Welcome Home” sign for me. With their help, I stepped off the plane and hugged each of them. Even Emily, who didn’t yet know me, gave me a big hug. I’ve never been so happy to be home in my life.

Our group of six Australian guests met me at the dock. Two in the group were nurses, so they understood my condition, and they were all very kind and patient with me. Before I knew it, the Australians involved us all in an interactive murder game, lasting their entire stay. The game was great fun and had us each trusting no one else in camp. It did not surprise me when Mike won the game by murdering the most people. As if my summer hadn’t already been bad enough, Mike even murdered me!

Not long after my return home, a pod of Orcas frolicked and fed near our lodge for an entire day, and Mike got some great photos.  An abundant, sustained pink salmon run this summer has provided food for everything from Orcas to bears to eagles. Our fishermen have also enjoyed catching salmon.

The most uplifting news for me this season was to learn that a sow we have watched for the past eight years showed up this summer with three newborn cubs. The sow was badly injured by another bear when she was young, and her rear end was flayed open. The injury was so bad, we didn’t think she would survive. We were happy and surprised to see her the next summer, and while the scar has faded over the years, it is still obvious. She has always been a favorite bear for us and our guests because she seems to like to perform in front of us, often catching a fish and then turning toward the photographers, fish held high while the cameras whir. The walls in our dining room are covered with photos of bears, and many of the photos are of her. As the years passed, and she appeared by herself summer after summer, we assumed she was a barren sow and wondered if the horrific injury she received when she was little more than a cub had anything to do with her inability to reproduce. We couldn’t have been more surprised when she showed up this summer with three tiny cubs trailing behind her. She appears to be a good mother, and all those years of fishing on her own have made her a proficient provider. She still doesn’t seem afraid of us, but she keeps her distance from humans now because now she needs to worry about more than just herself.

Life throws us curve balls sometimes, and I am very fortunate to have wonderful friends and family and a beautiful place to heal. Our guests have been great this summer, and I’m sure they have no idea how much their enthusiasm and laughter have meant to me. There is no place in the world I’d rather be than sitting on a boat in Uyak Bay on Kodiak Island. We hope you will join us soon for one of our adventures to see the “Real Alaska.”

You can read more about life in the wilderness and the wildlife of Kodiak Island on my personal blog at: http://robinbarefield.com/blog .Please leave me a message there to say hi.

Robin

 

 

Spring 2017

You are on a camping trip with a group of friends somewhere in Alaska.  After you set up camp for the evening, two of the guys in the group decide they want to hike up a rocky ridge.  When your friends don’t return to camp by dinner time, you and the other campers set out in search of them.  You hear one of your missing campers shriek in pain, and you hurry toward the sound where you find the two young men at the base of a cliff.  One friend is complaining loudly about his ankle, which is badly deformed.  The other young man says he just has a few bumps and bruises, but he doesn’t remember what happened; one minute they were on top the cliff, and the next thing he knew, he was at the bottom of the cliff.  He thinks he lost consciousness briefly.  What is your assessment of these two patients, what about their conditions worries you, and how will you treat them?  Do either one of them need to be evacuated?  If so, should it be an emergency evacuation or a non-emergency evacuation?  If you can only evacuate one of the patients at a time, which one would you evacuate first?

 

In the Wilderness First Responder recertification class Mike and I took a couple of weeks ago, this is the type of scenario we were asked to consider.  While I hope never to have to make such difficult decisions in real life, I am glad I have the best training possible to deal with accidents and illnesses in the field.  When we take guests bear viewing and fishing in the Kodiak Wilderness, we know we are responsible for their safety, and we take this duty seriously.

We sometimes have future or potential future guests worry about whether they will be safe if they go bear viewing with us.  I applaud their concern for their safety and welcome any and all questions about the safety of our operation.  The truth is that there are no guidelines in Alaska for bear viewing guides.  You may get a guide with thirty years of experience guiding bear viewers, or you may have a bear viewing guide with almost no experience around bears.  You should ask an airlines, an outfitter, or anyone else you plan to book a bear viewing trip with, how much experience the guide has around bears, what level of wilderness medical training he or she has, and what other appropriate licenses the guide has.

In our operation, Mike is a Master Guide with 45-years of experience around bears.  He grew up at Munsey’s Bear Camp and began helping his Dad in the field at an early age.  He has spent his life around bears.  Mike and I are both Coast-Guard-licensed boat captains, we are both fishing guides, and we are both wilderness first responders.  We carry radios, satellite phones, and extensive first-aid kits with us, and we encourage our guests to share their health-related and allergy concerns with us.  We don’t expect our guests to have a problem in the field, but if they do, we want to be prepared to handle it.

The purpose of this blog isn’t to brag about us and our preparedness.  I want to remind anyone reading this post that no matter where you are planning to vacation, you need to do your research and be certain you are booking your trip with someone who will put your safety first. Just because the guide has a fancy website does not mean he or she is qualified to lead you on an expedition into the wilderness.

Our recent Wilderness First Responder class was not the only inspiration for this post.  I was also inspired by my failure to research our recent vacation.  We just returned from a trip to the Caribbean, and while I checked out the places where we planned to stay, I did not Google the airlines upon which we were planning to travel; even though I had never before heard of Insel Air, and we had several flights booked on Insel Air.  Unfortunately, we paid for my sloppy preparations.  Insel Air was a disaster, and if I had taken five minutes to Google the airlines, I would have read the horrible reviews from other recent travelers.  It was a reminder to me check out every aspect of my vacation next time. Vacations are expensive and precious, and while you can’t plan for every variable, such as the weather or unusual delays, you can minimize the likelihood of trouble by doing the research and asking questions.

We have had a tough, cold winter here on Kodiak Island, and I can’t wait for Spring!!  Spring doesn’t usually happen here until mid to late May, but the days are getting longer, and each day, the sun is a little higher in the sky, so I know warmer temperatures are on the horizon.  We are looking forward to another busy summer season here, and I’m already getting excited!

 

 

Summer 2016 at Munsey’s Bear Camp

Each summer, nearly 50% of our guests are returnees, and some have been visiting our lodge for many years.  These folks become our friends, and after spending many hours together in the field and on the back deck of our boat, we know each other well.  This year it was with a heavy heart that we said goodbye to four of our guests.  Jim Clay only first visited our lodge last summer, but he and his buddies, including Tom Bradley, a long-time friend of ours, were scheduled to visit us from July 20th to the 25th.  When Jim passed away suddenly a few weeks before their planned trip, the rest of the group canceled their plans.  Andy Vena Sr. has been to our lodge many times with his son, Andy Jr., and their friends.  His son hoped to bring him back up here next summer, but Andy Sr. passed away after suffering a stroke this summer.  Jean Matusik and her husband, Ed, have been visiting our lodge since the 1980s, and I know how much they both enjoyed watching and photographing bears.  Jean passed away suddenly this summer just before her scheduled trip to see us, and Ed sent her ashes to us to scatter in the spot where she spent so many wonderful hours watching bears.  Gene and Diane Fantini and their friends have also made many trips to our lodge, and Diane and I frequently correspond via e-mail.  Sadly, Gene passed away in August after a difficult battle with cancer.  The loss of each of these friends felt like a blow, and we will never forget the great times we had with them.

I’ll follow up that sad news with the happy news that Mary Schwarzhans returned this year once again to dazzle us with her amazing meals and wonderful personality.  Mary’s friend, Katie Keaveny, assisted her this summer.

 On July 10th, we were excited to welcome back Mary L., Mary T., Lida, Doug, and Katherine Hihn, all from South Carolina, and we enjoyed meeting their friend, Erik Beard, from Colorado.  The Hihns have visited our lodge many times over the years, and we were happy to begin our season in the company of friends.  On our first afternoon cruise, we saw a humpback whale, two fin whales, seals, sea otters, eagles, puffins, foxes, and deer.  On a day of bear viewing, this group enjoyed “family day” when they saw a mother bear (sow) with three newborn cubs, a sow with two two-year-old cubs, and two groups of a sow with three one-year-old cubs. The Hihns and Erik started off our summer of good halibut fishing when Erik caught a 65 pounder, and Mary L. caught a 55-pound halibut. 

Duane Goldman and his son Garret, from Indiana, arrived on July 15th.  These guys enjoyed a gorgeous, sunny day salmon fishing in Brown’s Lagoon.  After a grilled-salmon lunch, they continued to fish and ended the day with nine salmon.  On July 17th,  Yariv and Ronit Gilboa from California joined the Goldmans.  On the Gilboas’ first afternoon, they saw a sow with three cubs and a single bear. On another day, this group watched a bear catch a fish on the tidal flats and followed another bear as he walked down a small stream. They snapped photos of a baby eagle sitting in its nest and marveled at large rafts of sea otters and huge fin whales.

On July 25th, we greeted Bob, Sandy, and Susan Comstock and Eileen Birmingham, all from California, and Holly Adams and Claire Hesselin from New Zealand.  Holly was our guide on our New Zealand trip last winter, and Claire is also a guide for Active Adventures in New Zealand.  On their first afternoon, this group enjoyed watching two fin whales swim past our boat, and on a day of fishing, they kept 12 salmon and released 12 more.  We took a mid-day break in the fishing action to eat grilled salmon and sip Sauvignon Blanc from the Comstock Winery.  Thank you, Bob and Sandy!! Everyone in this group caught halibut, and Holly and Sandy joined our halibut club!  This group enjoyed some great bear viewing, but one of the highlights was when they watched three yearling cubs play while their mother caught salmon.

On August 6th, we greeted Bjorn and Ava Karlssen and Stephan and Ingrid Sigold, all from Sweden.  On the first afternoon, we saw a cow and calf killer whale soon after we left our mooring.  One afternoon, this group watched a bear catch and eat fish, and awhile later, a sow with two newborn cubs fished near them.  On another day, they watched a very cooperative bear fish on a river.  He walked over to the group, stood on his hind legs to look at them, and then continued to fish and perform for them.  One day, this group opted to spend the day on the boat, so we cruised to the mouth of the bay, where we saw Stellar sea lions, sea otters, puffins, and fin whales.  Then, to our delight, six Dall’s porpoises swam in our bow wake for several minutes, darting in and out and over and under the wake.

Michael Acela

On August 11th, we welcomed back our good friend Andy Erickson.  Andy was accompanied by his granddaughter, Christina Ulrich, and her boyfriend, Michael Acela, both from Pennsylvania. Joining Andy, Christina, and Michael were Jim and Mary Hill from Colorado.  This group watched a sow interact with her two newborn cubs and photographed another bear as it walked up a small stream.  They enjoyed two exciting days of halibut fishing.  Christina started things off by catching a halibut soon after we anchored, and later that day, Michael caught a 128 pounder, our largest of the summer.  The following afternoon belonged to Andy, though, when he caught and released a 40 pounder and kept a 77-lb. halibut. 

On August 16th, we were thrilled to welcome back Jerry Burblis from Alaska and Bill and Brian Micheli from Illinois, and we were pleased to meet Steve and Mark Stewart from Colorado.  On their first afternoon, we sat in the midst of approximately eight fin whales while they surfaced around us.  On another day, this group saw 20 bears, including a sow with three newborn cubs, and a sow with two large, two-year-old cubs.  They saw a bear sleeping on the trail, and when he heard them, he stood on his hind legs to get a closer look before wandering into the brush.  Bill caught the first silver salmon of the summer, and on an afternoon of halibut fishing, Jerry caught a 30 pounder, Mark caught a 70 pounder, and Bill landed a 50-lb. halibut.

On August 21st, we greeted Phillip and Gabriela Strub from Switzerland and Kevin and Christine McCullen from England.  On their first day of bear viewing, they photographed a sleepy bear and watched several bears fish near them.  The next day, a sow with two yearling cubs saw them, came over and sat on her haunches while she studied them, and then apparently after deciding the humans were no threat, she continued fishing.  Kevin videotaped an altercation between a mother bear and her cub. Mom caught a salmon, and when the cub tried to wrestle it away from her, she whacked him in the side of the head and growled at him.  In the end, though, the cub still managed to steal her fish.

We welcomed back our fishing buddies on August 26th.  Dan Robertson from Nevada was joined by his friends, Gordy Sexton, Howard Hancock, Gene Fanucchi, John Mendoza, and Michael Saner, all from California.  Silver salmon were in short supply this year, but these guys enjoyed fantastic halibut fishing, and this was Gordy’s year.  He caught three club halibut:  an 87 pounder, a 62 pounder, and a 42 pounder.  Plus, he caught the most silver salmon of the group.  Dan caught an 82-lb. halibut, Mike landed a 55 pounder, John caught a 48 pounder, and Gene caught and released a 40 pounder (always the sportsman!).  They caught all those fish and enjoyed the most gorgeous stretch of weather of the summer!

On September 5th, we were happy to welcome back Tony and Karin Ross from Pennsylvania and were pleased to have them with us for a ten-day stay.  Joining Karin and Tony were Bill and Sue Boon from Nevada and Nino and Celine Veronese from Switzerland.  This trip was Nino’s 75th birthday gift from his daughter, Celine.  This group of great hikers was rewarded with excellent bear viewing. They watched sows with newborn cubs and sows with yearlings. Several bears fished next to them while they sat on a riverbank, and two young bears entertained them by climbing on a log and diving into the river.  One of the bears timed his dive perfectly and surfaced with a salmon in his mouth.  Another tolerant bear amused everyone with her technique of snorkeling for salmon.  On their last evening, we celebrated Nino’s birthday with a delicious cake prepared by Mary and fantastic entertainment provided by Tony.

On September 15th, Tony and Karin were joined by Fred and Paula Hooper from Rhode Island and John and Leslie Murphy from Massachusetts.  This group braved wind and rain one day to experience great bear viewing.  Several bears fished close to them, and one was so comfortable with their presence she took a nap near them.  The sun shined the following day, and Tony and Karin enjoyed a beautiful afternoon halibut fishing, while the rest of the group walked up a side stream where they watched several sets of sows and cubs.  On the last full day of our summer season, this group had the best bear viewing of the summer.  They weren’t sure how many bears they saw, but at one time, six bears fished close to them.  When I picked them up at the end of the day and asked how their day was, they said, “Incredible!”

We had another wonderful summer here at Munsey’s Bear Camp.  We endured a few rainy days, but overall, we had great weather.  Whales have become so commonplace the last several years that I forget to mention them, but we saw whales nearly every day this summer, and we saw hundreds of sea otters as we cruised around the bay.  I love watching the looks of joy on the faces of our guests when we cruise past a sleeping sea otter or see a pup sitting on its mother’s stomach.

Mike and I want to express our condolences to the families and friends of Jim Clay, Andy Vena Sr., Jean Matusik, and Gene Fantini.  They will live in our hearts forever.

Thanks to Mary for her wonderful meals and Katie for her help.  Thanks to all of our guests for making our summer special.  If you would like to read my weekly blog on Kodiak wildlife and living in the wilderness on Kodiak Island, you can find it at http://robinbarefield.com/blog.  I post every Sunday and would love your input.

Robin

 

Mid-Summer 2016

As fireweed transforms the mountains into a Christmas quilt of red and green, and the cottonwood leaves fade to yellow, I realize summer is nearly over, and autumn is about to begin.  Our summer trips run until mid-September, and by then, the morning air bites, and the wind can rage.  Some days are wet, and other days are wetter.  Last year we had snow on the final day of our “summer” season. 

Why do we run our summer trips so late? Why do we continue to take guests at least two weeks after most tourism businesses in Alaska shut down for the year? Why do we fight autumn storms and endure the sometimes unpleasant September weather?  It’s all about bears.  No matter how preoccupied Kodiak bears may be with eating berries in July and August, they turn their attention to salmon in September as they begin to add inches of fat for winter hibernation. 

We see more bears chasing salmon in September than we do any other time of the summer.  Not only are bears more plentiful and more visible in September, but they are also more photogenic.  Gone is the ratty, rubbed fur of July, and in its place, a full, dark coat gleams in the autumn sunshine, and yes, we also have some gorgeous, sunny days in September. By September, cubs are learning to fish, and it’s fun to watch their mothers teach them the finer points of chasing down a salmon. 

I think September is magical, and I look forward to it with equal parts anticipation and dread.  No matter what happens or what the weather brings, September is always exciting. 

We’ve had a great summer so far.  We’ve seen several family groups of bears (sows and cubs).  The deer population has exploded due to mild winters the last few years, and we always see does and fawns wandering the beach at low tide.  We’ve also enjoyed watching red foxes that range in color from red to black, and of course, we’ve seen bald eagles everywhere.  On the ocean, we’ve watched fin whales nearly every day, and while we haven’t seen as many humpbacks as we did last year, we were thrilled the other day when one breached in front of us.  We saw killer whales once this summer and had Dall’s porpoises play in our bow wake.  We’ve laughed at the antics of sea otters nearly every day and have photographed harbor seals hauled out on rocks.  One day while we were fishing, a young seal swam up to the boat and curiously watched us.  Everyone grabbed cameras, and the little guy stayed there and posed for photos. 

We enjoyed excellent pink-salmon fishing in July and had great halibut fishing in August.  The largest halibut so far was a 128 pounder caught in mid-August.  We are still waiting for the silver salmon to arrive, but they should be here soon. 

All of our guests would tell you that one of their favorite things about their stay at Munsey’s Bear Camp was the food. One guest said, “I never dreamed we’d eat so well at a lodge in the middle of the wilderness.”  When another guest stepped off the float plane, and Mary introduced herself, the guest said, “I’ve been reading about your wonderful meals and was hoping you’d still be here.”  Yes, Mary Schwarzhans is again dazzling us with her wonderful, creative meals. It doesn’t take long for our guests to fall in love with Mary and wait expectantly for her next culinary delight.  We love Mary not only for her wonderful food but also for her quirky sense of humor, and boundless energy. 

I know in most areas in the U.S., autumn is still a few weeks away, but the season is already upon us here on Kodiak Island, and we are ready for whatever it brings.  Our September trips may be sunny and beautiful, but more than likely, we will battle a few storms.  No matter what the weather does, though, the bears will be chasing salmon, and they will make our September spectacular. 

Robin