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

 

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.

Alaska Bear and Wildlife Viewing – 2009 Newsletter

 

Bear Drinking Water

Bear glances at bear viewer as it takes a drink

Greetings from Amook Pass.  Our big news this year is our new boat, the Mary Beth, a 43-ft. Delta charter boat with twin engines and plenty of cabin and deck space.  After using it for one summer, we are thrilled with it.  We were also thrilled to have Marcia Messier back again this summer to cook and pamper us.  Marcia has become such an integral part of our operation that we can’t imagine doing this without her.

Last year I dedicated my newsletter to our many returning guests, and while we once again had several returnees this summer, the bulk of our guests were first-time visitors to Kodiak Island and Munsey’s Bear Camp.  Mike and I know we are extremely lucky to live and work in the midst of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, but it is always rewarding to watch the awe and wonder in our guests’ eyes when they first see a Kodiak bear chase a salmon.  Bear viewing in a wild, pristine setting with no manmade platform in sight is what appeals most to our guests.  Each bear sighting is unique, and no two photos look the same.

We began our season July 15th with the arrival of Thomas and Inge Hartke from Switzerland.  This delightful couple set the tone for a summer filled with wonderful guests.  On their first, sunny day, the Hartkes watched several bears, including two that sprawled in the water to cool down.  Thomas and Inge both caught halibut, and from the smile on his face, we could tell how much Thomas enjoyed landing a 36 pounder.  On July 17th, the Hartkes were joined by Eric Baccega, Loic Poidevin, and Yves Couedic, all from France.  One day this group watched 15 bears.  Several caught fish near them, including a sow that shared her catch with her yearling cub.  On their last morning, this group photographed fin whales and sea otters during a wildlife cruise. They also watched a fox and her two kits.

On July 20th, we welcomed Estelle Barnes, Adrian Russell-Smith, Rachel Lambert, Rob Kennelly, Karen Jones, and Ray Stevenson, all from England.  This group saw thirty bears fish on the tidal flats during one of the lowest tides of the year.  They sat on the beach and watched bears on either side and in front of them chase fish, squabble, and mock fight, and they saw two cubs whine when their mother insisted they follow her into the water.  On another day, they were watching a bear, when he jumped into the stream, swam across it, and climbed onto the bank twenty feet from where they sat.

Mike and Chris Sargenti from New Jersey arrived on July 25th.  We enjoyed watching Mike relax during his stay in the wilderness.  The Sargentis watched one bear catch a fish and eat it thirty feet from them, and several other bears caught salmon and walked right past them with the squirming fish hanging from their mouths.  On July 28th, Mike and Chris were joined by John and Dorene McCune and their teenage children, Eric and Kelsey, all from North Carolina.  This group watched a bear catch and eat a salmon in front of them, and then the bear chased another fish to within twenty feet of them.  On July 30th, we waved goodbye to Mike and Chris, and the following day, Mike led the McCune family up a river where they watched several bears.  On their last day with us, the McCunes spent a beautiful, sunny day watching huge fin whales surface beside our boat and saw Stellar sea lions, sea otters, and puffins.

Art and Gay Schroer from Missouri arrived August 4th.  On their first day, they watched several bears, including one that brought a fish in near them to eat it.  Awhile later, a sow and cub walked down the beach in front of them, and under mom’s watchful gaze, the curious cub walked closer to get a better look at the humans.  Dirk Schilder from Germany joined Art and Gay on August 6th.  One day this group had a very cooperative bear walk past them,  plop down on the beach, and roll in the seaweed. Several other bears fished and interacted in front of them as the cameras whirred, and Dirk said it was one of the best days of his life.  On August 8th, Gay, Art, and Dirk were joined by Ann Larner from Massachusetts and her two daughters; Sara, also from Massachusetts, and Rebecca from North Carolina.  On August 9th, Art and Gay departed, and our good friend Dick Zander from Maryland arrived for a 17-day stay.  This group enjoyed beautiful, sunny weather.  They had a great day of bear viewing on the tidal flats, and the next day, they walked upriver, where several bears fished and walked past them.

 

     On August 11th, Johnny and Sue Wright from Texas and Jennifer Crawford from Wyoming joined Dick.  Jennifer caught a 35-lb. halibut the first afternoon, and at the head of the bay, this group watched a sow take a dip in the ocean, while her two cubs wrestled on the beach.  Later, a sow and cub and several single bears walked in front of them while they snapped photos.  On another day, this group watched several bears fish on a small stream.  One bear was so intent on the fish he’d caught that he ran straight toward them, salmon dangling from his mouth, before Mike reminded him of their presence.  On a rainy, windy day, Mike and Jennifer hiked upriver to bear watch, while on the Mary Beth, Sue caught a 20-lb. halibut, and Dick landed a 60 pounder.

On August 17th, Dick was joined by Paul Kludt from Florida and Eric, Carolyn, and Chris Gustafson from New Mexico.  On their first day, a bear ran up to them and then stood on his hind legs to take a better look at the humans.  Another day, they photographed a bear sleeping on a rock, and on their third day of bear viewing, a bear ate a salmon near them and then walked to within thirty feet of them.  Awhile later, two sub-adult bears relaxed on the beach near them.  At Greenbanks, we saw fin whales and sea otters and enjoyed a sunny afternoon of fishing, and on their final morning, Chris decided it was time to join our halibut club (40 lbs. and over) and landed a 46 pounder.

Albrecht Seitel from Germany and David and Pam Slaughter from Colorado joined Dick on August 21st.  On their first day, this group enjoyed a spectacular show by a young sow.  She chased fish the traditional way and also jumped in the deep water and snorkeled for salmon.  At one point, she was playing on a log in front of them, then dashed into the river, caught a salmon, and turned toward them with the wiggling fish in her mouth, posing for photos.  At the mouth of the bay, this group watched fin whales, saw sea otters and Stellar sea lions, and each caught a silver salmon.

On August 26th, we welcomed back Dan Robertson from Nevada, Gordy Sexton, Gene Fanucchi, and Howard Hancock, all  from California and met the two newest members of this party: John Mendoza and Chris Ratfield, also from California.  These guys were here to catch fish, and Gordy wasted no time, landing a 55-lb. halibut the first afternoon.  On a stormy day, these guys caught eight halibut to fill their boxes, and at Greenbanks, they landed 17 silver salmon and two halibut.  By the time they left, each guy in this group had a fifty-pound box full of halibut and salmon fillets.

On August 31st, we greeted good friends, Ed and Jean Matusik from Pennsylvania and Andy Erickson from Rhode Island.  Ed and Jean were here for a ten-day stay, while Andy was here for five days.  Andy had his usual first-day fishing luck, landing a 75-lb. halibut on a beautiful, sunny afternoon.  At Greenbanks, Ed hauled in one fish after another and ended up keeping four silver salmon and two halibut.  Two days later, Ed caught a 50-lb. halibut.  This group watched several bears, including one that walked in front of where they sat and then caught a fish and ate it on a rock.

On September 5th, Ed and Jean were joined by Carl Pirro from Minnesota, Sheila Gauthier from Washington, and Petr and Barbora Slavik from the Czech Republic.  This group watched several bears on a river, including one that performed in front of them for twenty minutes.  Another day, they saw 22 bears on two small streams.  They hid in the tall grass where they could hear the bears fishing and interacting near them on the stream.  When the bears caught salmon, they’d climb up on the bank and eat their fish within view of the group.  Mike says one of his favorite memories of the summer was the look of wonder on Sheila’s face as she watched this incredible spectacle of nature.  Petr is a professional photographer, and he will almost certainly include some of the wonderful photos he took with us in his next book.

Mirjam and Ulrich Wiede, Peter Wiede, Michael Schnapp, Friedel Papmeyer, and Babo Graf Von Harrach, all from Germany, arrived September 11th.  This group watched several bears catch salmon.  After filling his belly with fish, one bear crawled up on a log near them and draped his paws over it, as if posing for photos.  They also watched two large cubs play under the watchful gaze of their mother.  The cubs sat on a log over the river and attempted to reach down into the river to grasp salmon as they swam past.  Not only was this fishing method unsuccessful, but one of the cubs lost his balance and fell into the river.  On a day at the mouth of the bay, we saw a dozen fin whales, and awhile later, Mike spotted a pod of orcas that swam past us.

On September 15th, we welcomed back good friend Jerry Burblis from Alaska and greeted Ed and Tom DeGraan from Massachusetts.  This group watched bears on a side stream one day.  One bear walked out beside them, wandered over to the stream, slowly backed into it, and swam to the other side.  On the main river, a young bear seemed to want to hang out with these guys.  Twice he walked up very close to them, and Mike had to talk to him to remind him they were there.  The last day of our summer season couldn’t have been more perfect.  We cruised out the bay on a calm, sunny day and enjoyed the spectacular view of the snowy peaks of the Alaska Peninsula, a plume of smoke rising from one of the volcanoes.  After watching fin whales, we anchored, and between Jerry, Tom, and Ed, they kept 4 halibut and released 36.  Ed and Tom also each caught a beautiful silver salmon in Brown’s Lagoon.

One of the things we love about this business is watching our guests arrive as strangers and depart as friends.  The first afternoon on our boat is fairly quiet as the new guests take in their surroundings and get to know each other.  By the last afternoon, though, the boat is alive with laughter and chatter as the guests recall shared adventures, review each other’s photos, and exchange e-mail addresses.  When we see a guest depart looking much more relaxed than he did when he arrived, we feel we’ve done our job.

Thanks again to all of our guests this summer.  We’re proud to say that many have already re-booked for next summer!  Also, a big thanks to Marcia for another job well done.

Robin Munsey