A Different Culture
The bears in Kodiak are different than other bears I’ve been around. Like people, various populations have their own cultures and dialects. The body language that might tell a Katmai bear to settle down would send a Kodiak brown bear running over the mountain.
Whereas Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks brown bears tend to have local home ranges staying in the same general area and becoming familiar to the lodges, guides, and repeat visitors, the 3500 Kodiak brown bears all roam the entirety of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. A bear I see on the shores of Karluk Lake today could be at the Frazer Weir tomorrow. Also, because we’re on a lake twenty-two miles up the river to the ocean, the salmon aren’t pushed by the tides. They run the river all day and night long. The Thumb River, where I saw most of the bear activity while in the refuge, is short. Standing on the hill mid-river, I can see Thumb Lake and Karluk Lake.
The salmon in this river are at the end of their lifelong journey to spawn where they were born. In other bear-viewing places along the coast of Alaska, the salmon are pushed and stranded by tides that can be twenty feet or more and bears have to fish when the salmon are there. The best fishing is when the high tide is going out; salmon who had been resting in deep pools must now either make a run through the shallows upriver or get swept back out to sea and have to start over with the next incoming tide. The bears here in Kodiak keep moving along. They will come down the river, and even when they’re successful in catching a fish, they will not stay. They’ll eat and then move on maybe because the salmon (in season) are predictably around. Perhaps it has to do with attracting the attention of other bears. Why they wander is not known.
I am in Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge for five days as a guest of Konaiq, the native Alutiiq tribal corporation. Koniaq Corporation was formed to manage Aluttiq lands as part of the 1971 Alaska Native Settlement Act that returned land to native Alaskan tribes. This summer, the largest Alutiiq ceremonial house was unearthed along the shores of Karluk Lake on these tribal lands set aside within the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.
The Thumb River Valley is Koniaq land and is closed to all public access. There is no hunting, fishing, or camping here. Since the Koniaq lodge on Camp Island was closed last year due to the worldwide pandemic, no one has set foot here in two years. The guides have spent the previous four weeks (since the lodge opened) trying to habituate the bears to seeing people here.
A Camera or A Gun
It’s a tough balance. The Kodiak subspecies of brown bear is the largest in the world, making Kodiak a premiere bear hunting destination. Hunters pay $40,000 – $50,000 for the chance to shoot one of these charismatic bruins. There are two hunting seasons annually; a spring hunt April 1-May 15 and a fall hunt October 25 – November 30. While I want to watch bears living their lives without disturbing them, I would be horrified to think that I made a bear less wary of people and, therefore, easier prey for a hunter. There are lodges on Kodiak Island that take people bear viewing in the summer and bear hunting in the fall. At those places, visitors so excited to see a bear in the wild are conditioning that bear to allow a hunter’s approach. It’s essential to learn about the places you will visit when traveling for wildlife. Who would suspect these sorts of places existed? My guide and I talked about the success of site-specific habituation of black bears in northern Minnesota, which provides support that what they’re doing here at the Thumb River does not endanger these bears elsewhere in the Refuge. They will know that people here are okay and people encountered elsewhere are not.
On a hill above the river, I watched a mother bear with a couple of two-year-old cubs come out of a bushy small side channel. She fished and readily caught a red sockeye salmon just below us.
The cubs wail and whine. She does not share (she is still nursing them, however). The larger of the two cubs with his gorgeous golden mane seems happy with the scraps she drops. The smaller of the two appears unwilling to wade into the river. A preference for dry land is a rough personality trait for a Kodiak brown bear!
Another family of three walked past, continuing up the river, crossing the headwaters and disappearing along the lakeshore in the distance.
The next day, from the Karluk Lakeshore, I watched bears fish the river mouth. The first bear that came past readily caught a salmon that she ate along the riverside
She then spent some time diving, bobbing, and looking for a “fresh” carcass at the bottom of the lake in a leisurely manner.
After another appearance from the fox and her friend, a sow that I saw yesterday trailed by two one-year-old cubs came splashing down the river.
She was successful in the same section of the river as the previous bear. Again, one of her cubs stayed on the shore whining while the other crept closer and made off with a scrap.
The family crossed the river mouth in front of me and walked along the lakeshore until disappearing in the distance.
There is quite a size disparity in these two cubs. One is so much bigger that he almost looks a full year older. There are many reasons for this, it’s not uncommon, and doesn’t seem to have any impact on survivability. The larger cub has this gorgeous auburn mane that I marveled at every time I saw him.
The Thumb River was very fruitful for wildlife and is conveniently within sight of the lodge where I stayed. I will have more Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge stories to share as we boated around the lake and explored another couple of rivers.
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