Too Hot for Bears
We’re sitting on a dilapidated old viewing platform above the O’Malley river in Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. The views are expansive. Up the river, I can see the O’Malley Lake to my right, mountains across the valley in front of me, and Karluk Lake downriver to my left. We tied the boat on the beach a bit away from the river mouth and hiked in. The sun is hot on this unseasonable, cloudless afternoon. It’s not ideal for bear viewing. They’re probably sacked out in the shade, wiling away the day.
It turns out this leaves the river open to the fox.
There’s some motion to the right. A red fox slowly stalks out of the grass on a gravel bar, intently focused on the splashing of salmon struggling up the river. He takes a few rigid steps and pauses. Not a quiver. He lowers his head and then strikes! In an instant, he’s standing in the river with a colossal sockeye salmon clenched in his mouth. With all of his strength focused on this fish, he stands still, waiting for the thrashing to stop. The salmon probably outweighs the fox. To drop him in the water is to lose him.
The fish settles, so the fox starts for the gravel bar causing the salmon to begin contorting and flopping again—the fox waits. A few more steps to the gravel bar and the fox pressed this feast firmly down into the earth to set the fatal bite. And then he’s moving quickly off into the brush, no longer concerned about losing this enormous catch. I knew that wolves caught salmon, but I had no idea a small fox could do it, too!
It’s just a matter of minutes, and the fox is back. There must be a den nearby, we speculate. He dropped of the salmon for the family and is back for more trotting over the same gravel bar and through the knee-deep water to the opposite shore.
He pauses to check a few fishing spots along the way, passing over a small island and crossing some riffles back to the opposite shore. He’s aware of us high up on the bank watching him.
Instead of staying on the shoreline path, he veers off into the meadow directly across from us and only rejoins the river once he’s well past us. He sits for a bit on the river shore, watching and waiting. He doesn’t have the patience of a bobcat who will sit for hours waiting for a gopher to appear. It’s not long before he gives up and moseys out of sight.
In the absence of drama in front of us, Rob notices a fox upriver to our right. A cross fox kit! Sitting outside a den! A second kit climbs out from the dark entrance to the den. They loll about and tussle for a moment.
Once they notice us watching, one of them scurries up the hill into the brush. The other plopped down above the den, groomed a bit, and then napped. This bold pup couldn’t care less about us.
This must be the family that the dog fox fed. Cross foxes are a recessive color variant of the more common red fox. They get their name from the dark gray to black band of fur down their back that runs down their shoulders, forming the shape of a cross. About 25-30% of foxes in Alaska and Canada have this color variation. It does not exist anywhere else that red foxes live.
Papa fox reappeared downstream, walking into a wide, shallow section of the river. He stalks, freezes, pounces and misses.
The fish is half out of the water, splashing so close, but they are faster than he is.
He tried several times without success. When he leaves the river, it is time for us to head back to the boat and let him continue his hunt in peace.
This is one of the most memorable days I’ve ever had.
We saw several bears today, too. Two saw us and ran. We were in the part of the refuge that allows hunting when we encountered each other, so it’s good that they startled and disappeared. The other two were walking the shoreline while we were some distance away in the boat.
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