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. 



Spring 2016

I’m a bit late with my mid-winter newsletter this year.  Winter hasn’t lost its grip on us here, but according to the calendar, the first day of spring was nearly two weeks ago.

Those of you who read my personal blog posts at www.robinbarefield.com/blog know that Mike and I spent a month in New Zealand this winter.  We had a wonderful time and loved the country and the people.  The scenery was spectacular, and we saw everything from rolling hills and serene pastures, to glaciers, to geysers and hot springs, to miles of unspoiled beaches, to glacial lakes with colors so vivid they are impossible to describe with mere words.

We spent two weeks of our time in New Zealand on a hiking trip with Active Adventures New Zealand.  As I’ve mentioned before, we enjoy booking trips in other parts of the world that are similar to what we offer in Alaska.  I think this means we love our jobs, but it is nice for a change not to be the ones in charge.  Following another guide is relaxing and a great learning experience.  I never know what I will learn, but I always learn something, and the knowledge I gained this year surprised me because it related more to the booking process than to the guided trip itself.  It also had more to do with me being a tourist than a guide.


First of all, let me say that the hiking trip was wonderful, and Active Adventures does a great job.  We ate very well, stayed in beautiful places that we would never have found on our own, and took hikes in stunning surroundings on the South Island.  Our guides, Gary and Holly, were first-rate and worked non-stop guiding our hikes, chauffeuring us from one place to the next, cooking our meals, and entertaining us with Maori legends. 

This hike was not an easy trip, though, and while I read and reread the brochure, I never understood it would be as difficult as it was.  I was able to do all the hikes, the mountain biking, and the kayaking, but I wasn’t always able to do a particular activity in the time allotted.  Most of the hikes were uphill, and we climbed to 3000 feet once and to 4500 feet on another occasion.  Those were tough hikes, and there wasn’t enough time to take many breaks.  To be honest, at times, this was more effort than I wanted to expend on my vacation.  Perhaps if I’d asked more questions, I would have chosen one of their easier hiking tours, but from reading their brochure, I thought I knew what to expect.

Is their brochure bad?  No, it is a very good brochure, and their website has the best, most-detailed booking form I’ve ever seen.  I think it is difficult to visualize habitat, terrain, and weather conditions in a place you’ve never been.  We sometimes run into the same problem when booking guests at our lodge.  We think we do a good job describing the length and difficulty of our hikes, the temperature, and possible weather conditions during the summer on Kodiak, and what you can expect to do each day while you are staying with us.  Still, guests sometimes arrive without rain gear or a warm jacket, and worst of all, a few guests arrive and discover they are not in good enough physical shape to meet the demands of our trips.  It is sometimes a long hike to see bears, and it’s disappointing for a guest if she can’t do the hike.

As clients, it is our responsibility to determine whether or not we are up to the physical demands of the adventure trip we are considering.  It is not easy, though, to read about a trip and understand the amount of physical ability required.  We get caught up reading about the beautiful sights or the big bears we will see and skim over the part about how difficult the hike is to see that scenery or watch those bears.


I loved my hike in New Zealand.  It was more work than I expected, but I enjoyed it.  I don’t mind pushing myself if the payoff is worth it.  Most of us don’t mind aching muscles or even a few cuts and bruises if the adventure is amazing.  What I would like to stress, though, is if you have a serious medical problem, physical limitations, or if you are overweight or in poor shape, be honest with yourself, and make certain before you book an adventure trip that you aren’t signing up for something that could put your health or safety in danger.  Describe your limitations with the booking agent and perhaps even ask to speak with a guide.  Most guides will be very honest with you.  None of us wants one of our clients to get hurt or be sick in the field.  When a perspective guest tells us he has a serious illness or can’t walk very far, we tell him that our trips probably are not a good idea for him, and we suggest other options that might work better.  If he can’t hike, then perhaps he should consider a bear flight-seeing trip with a floatplane company.

I think as travelers, it is our job to assess our physical condition and then ask as many questions as possible to make certain we are choosing a trip we can do.  I’m sure there will still be plenty of surprises awaiting us, but hopefully, they will be good surprises.

We are booked full this summer, and we are excited that in July, Holly, one of our guides in New Zealand, is coming to visit us for a few days.  We are also thrilled to announce that Mary will be dazzling us with her meals again this summer.  I know our returning guests will smile when they read this news!


Munsey’s 2015 Summer News

Oh wow!  Did you see that?  Whoaa!!! Ahhh, aren’t they cute? He’s getting kinda close, isn’t he?  I need help reeling in this fish!  Will you come home with us and cook for us, Mary?  This is so amazingly beautiful!

These are some of the sounds of a summer at Munsey’s Bear Camp.  From a breaching humpback to huge fin whales circling our boat while watching us, to adorable sea otters floating on their backs, to bears catching salmon while their cubs wrestle and play beside them, to great halibut and salmon fishing, to Mary’s gourmet meals; our 2015 summer season was excellent in every way.

We were thrilled to have Mary Schwarzhans cooking for us again this summer.  Her wonderful meals defy description, and her sense of humor kept me smiling all summer.  Mary’s sister, Emma, signed on with us as well this summer, and we thought of the two of them as our dream team.

Our season began July 15th, when we greeted Roni Jarnigan from Indiana and Paul and Shanen Eatinger and their 14-year old son, Kinnen, all from Idaho.  On the first afternoon, we saw a humpback whale soon after leaving our mooring and several fin whales further out the bay.  One day, a sow with two yearling cubs fished in front of this group, and while mama caught salmon, the cubs fought over her catch.    A curious fox ran up to this group and sat by Paul’s feet, while everyone snapped photos of him. On another day, Kinnen, Paul, and Roni all caught their limits of halibut and salmon, and they released 26 salmon, and on their last day, Shanen caught a 22-lb. halibut, Kinnen landed a 30 pounder, and Roni joined our halibut club with a 40 pounder.

On July 20th, we were happy to welcome back Bud Coughlin, Lisa Bill, and Lisa’s brother, Jim Bill, all from New Jersey, and Gene and Diane Fantini from Delaware.  These folks were here to fish, and they wasted no time.  They caught four halibut the first day, and Gene caught two silver salmon.  That is the earliest we’ve ever caught silvers, and it was the beginning of a fantastic silver-salmon year.  In Brown’s Lagoon, this group caught 25 pink salmon and released 14.  The following day, Bud and Jim both joined our halibut club, when Bud caught a 40 pounder, and Jim landed a 78-lb. halibut.  Awhile later, we saw a humpback whale leap out of the water several times.  We cruised closer, and the whale continued to breach and slap the water with his fins and tail.  It was breath-taking to watch!

On July 25th, we were thrilled to welcome back Tom Bradley and meet his fishing buddies: Jim Clay, Mike Pearson, and Bob Jibben, all from Missouri.  On their first day, a humpback circled our boat, and we could clearly see him under water.  While Bob, Jim, and Mike enjoyed great pink salmon fishing in Brown’s Lagoon, Tom stayed on board the Mary Beth to halibut fish, but when he reeled up his lure and saw several silver salmon chasing it, he quickly changed tactics and soon had his limit of five silvers. We returned the next day, and all four guys had their limits of silver salmon within two hours.  They then began halibut fishing and caught their halibut limits in another hour.  Tom and Jim both joined our halibut club with 45 pounders.

We greeted Paul Borg and Katherine Lee from Australia and John Grobelny and Toni Mott from Florida on July 30th.  This group enjoyed gorgeous, sunny weather their first day, and they saw deer, seals, sea otters, foxes, and a humpback whale that lifted its tail in front of us, sunlight glinting off its wet surface.  Later that day, they watched a bear fish in front of them.  On August 1st, this group was joined by Shuki Horesh and Chana Moran from Israel.  They watched a sow with two yearlings fish 60 ft. from them, and both she and the cubs stood on their hind legs several times to check out the humans.  On their last day, a very large bear walked out of the woods 50 ft. from them.

On August 6th, we were happy to welcome back Ed Matusik from Pennsylvania, who was with us for a 10-day stay, and we were excited to greet George and Jacque Havice from Kansas.  Jacque and I were high-school buddies.  Also arriving were Dave and Barb Korzendorfer from Connecticut.  This group watched a bear fish on a small creek and saw a sow with two cubs on the beach.  One day, George, Dave, and Ed all caught their limits of silver salmon, and Dave joined our halibut club with a 75 pounder.  On their last day, I enjoyed a fun afternoon fishing with Jacque, George, and Ed, while Dave, Barb, and Mike watched a sow with two yearlings and a sow with three cubs of the year.

On August 11th, Ed was joined by Stephen and Roberta Madeyski from New Mexico and Doug and Stephen Freeland from California.  This group experienced a good day of fishing, and the Freelands both caught their limits of silvers.  Another day, a bear caught a salmon and ate it near them, and on the way home, a humpback whale breached in front of us and then slapped the water several times with its tail.  On their last day, this group watched a sow fish while her three young cubs played, and then a single bear fished near them, walked calmly past them, stretched out in the water, and lazily scratched herself.

On August 21st, we greeted Bill and Judy Micheli, their son Brian and his daughter Tess, and their other son Mike and his fiancé Barbara Hancock, all from Illinois.  On their first day, Judy proved her fishing skills by landing a 32-lb. halibut.  The next time we fished, Judy again started things off with a nice halibut, but before the day was over, Bill caught a 25 pounder, Mike joined our halibut club with a 50 pounder, and 12-year old Tess joined our Gold Halibut Club by landing a 127 pounder, the largest halibut of the year!  One day, a large bull killer whale swam past us, and on another day, the Michelis and Mike sat under a birch tree and watched two young bears wrestle, box, and catch salmon.

On August 26th, we were happy to welcome back our fishing buddies:  Dan Robertson from Nevada and Gene Fanucchi, Gordon Sexton, Michael Saner, Howard Hancock, and Bob Robertson, all from California.  Dan was with us for eight days, while the other guys were here for five.  Last year was Gene’s year, but Mike took top honors this year with a 103 lb. halibut, earning him a plaque and entry into our gold club.  On a day of silver-salmon fishing, Dan caught his limit of five, and the other guys each caught several.  A late-summer storm slowed us down a bit, but these guys still left with six full (50 lb.) fish boxes.

Our next group was delayed a day in Kodiak due to bad weather, and since they only had a three-day trip scheduled, the delay put a dent in their plans.  On September 1st, Dan was joined by his son-in-law Robert Cornell and his 13-year-old grandson, Ashton, both from California.  We were also thrilled to welcome back John Mendoza, and John brought his brother, Sam, and their friend, Ken Cadena, also all from California.  On their first afternoon, this group saw four bears and caught four halibut.  On the next day, Robert, Ashton, and Mike watched a sow and cub and two single bears on a small creek.  One bear walked to within 30 ft. of them before veering into the brush.

On September 3rd, we were excited to welcome back Tony and Karin Ross from Pennsylvania, who were with us for a 10-day stay, and Gene and Denise Brown from Washington.  They were joined by first-time guests Nathan and Virginia McCreery from New Mexico. On their first afternoon, we watched approximately 25 fin and humpback whales surface and blow, and this incredible whale watching continued throughout their stay. This group walked through the grass near a side stream and took beautiful photos of a sow with two yearling cubs.  Her dark brown, fall coat produced a gorgeous contrast to the golden sedges.  On their last day, they watched a young bear climb a tree, a sow with two older cubs, and a sow with three young cubs.  One of the little cubs caught a salmon and then stood on his hind legs, gripping the fish in his teeth.

On August 8th, Tony and Karin were joined by returning guests and friends, Andy Erickson from Rhode Island, Andy’s grandson, Martin Ulrich, from Pennsylvania, and Paul Kludt from Florida.  On their first day, this group enjoyed the thrill of catching large silver salmon on light tackle on a small stream, and on another day, Martin caught his limit of silvers in salt water.  This group hiked up a river and watched a bear catch and eat salmon near them, and later, they saw a sow with two large cubs.  On their last day, Tony, Karin, and Mike watched a sow with three cubs of the year, a sow with a yearling cub, and a sow with three large 2-year olds, while Andy, Martin, and Paul fished on the Mary Beth.

On September 13th, we greeted Richard and Sarah Kennedy from England and were happy to welcome back Terry and Cynthia Douglas from Alaska.  On their first day, this group saw 22 bears scattered around the bay, fishing on the many small streams that were plugged with salmon this summer.  One day, they saw a sow with three yearlings and a sow with three cubs of the year, and on another day, they watched a sow with three small cubs fish and play.  This group had several close whale encounters, including a huge fin whale that surfaced near the Mary Beth and then swam just below the surface past the boat.  On our last morning, we were greeted with a blanket of snow on the mountains, signaling an end to our season.

Thanks to all our wonderful guests this summer.  Amook Pass on Kodiak Island is well off the beaten path.  We appreciate that you took the time and effort to find us and spend part of your summer with us, and we hope you will all return!  Also, thank you Mary and Emma for being part of our team.  I could never express how much we enjoy and appreciate you!

By the way, there was one other comment in the form of a question heard at Munsey’s Bear Camp this summer when one of our guests asked his girlfriend on our bench overlooking beautiful Amook Pass, “Will you marry me?”  She said, “Yes!

If you would like updates about Munsey’s Bear Camp, visit our website:  http://www.munseysbearcamp.com and click on our newsletter and blog for current postings.  You can also find detailed information about the animals of Kodiak Island on our website.  For more information about animals, the history of Munsey’s Bear Camp, living in the Alaskan wilderness, as well as summaries of my two novels, please visit:  http://www.robinbarefield.com.  If you leave a comment, my weekly postings will be delivered to your inbox, and if you enjoy mysteries, sign up for my monthly Mystery Newsletter.


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.