The Bears of Katmai

Tom Carroll

© Copyright 2021 by Tom Carroll

Photo by Paxson Woelber on Unsplash
Photo by Paxson Woelber on Unsplash

The Bears of Katmai

Alaskan brown bears are merely grizzly bears that live in a coastal influenced environment, primarily where salmon are a principle makeup of their diet, allowing them to vastly outsize and outweigh their inland cousins (The famed “Kodiak” bears are nothing more than brown bears that live on Kodiak Island)   They are all grizzly bears of the genus and species “Ursus arctos”, with various subspecies designations.  Guiding fishermen over the course of twenty seasons in the region, I had the privilege of spending untold days out in the company of these impressive, majestic, and, at times, intimidating creatures on the myriad watercourses where we, and they, were fishing.  Of the innumerable close interactions over the years, there were only a handful of potentially hazardous situations including a rather harrowing surprise confrontation with a young sow on a stream we called Cripple Creek which ended quickly without harm to either my group or the bear. This was the only genuinely dangerous incident, but there were a few others that could have become so, along with many other meetings and occurrences that were benign yet noteworthy, often in some amusing way.

For a bit of context regarding the rather common contact that I had with these bears, virtually all of the smaller rivers and streams on which I guided fishermen were salmon spawning grounds, resulting in the presence of the large rainbow trout that were so prized, but also concentrating the bruin contingent.  On the famous Brooks River in Katmai Park, only a mile long, 30 or more bears would congregate in July and again in September during the peaks of sockeye salmon migration and spawning.  On longer drainages, such as the Funnel/Moraine, which was some 20 miles from the headwaters to its termination in Kukaklek Lake, there could be 80 to 100 different bears moving up and down the entire system.  Observing them at close quarters, often in the presence of several at a time within fifty or a hundred yards of my fisherman, could be both thrilling and, at times, tense.  Although satiated by the salmon “supermarket” and hence much less aggressive than their interior relatives, constant vigilance was required in reading bear behavior while making decisions and choices that were most definitely influenced by them.

The selection of a lunch site, for instance, with extensive visibility up or downstream was of paramount consideration.   Age, sex and family makeup of bear groups was additionally consequential.  The largest boars were rarely a problem – they were the dominant “kings” of the river and therefore seldom exhibited aggressive behavior unless challenged by another bear of equal size.  Smaller bears, particularly sub-adults that had recently been “kicked” by their mothers, were more unpredictable as they often were pushed around by the older and bigger specimens.  But the bear that I absolutely respected above all, and most feared a close encounter with, was a sow with cubs of the year.

Bears mate in the spring after emerging from hibernation (late April/early May) and gestation is about eight months, meaning the birth of cubs normally occurs in the den during the winter. These newborns then stay with their mother for two years until she is forced to drive them off, typically at the end of their second summer, so that she may again enter into estrus the following spring.  I witnessed this rather traumatic episode numerous times, as well as the killing of cubs by larger boars.  Sows are exceedingly protective of cubs their first season, less so the second, but the cardinal rule for avoiding bear trouble was to never find yourself between a sow and her cubs and not surprise any bear in close quarters.  This was not always achievable traveling through wild country involving unpredictable terrain and circumstances which often nullified even the most cautious and prudent behavior on my part.  On several occasions things could have easily ended very badly and I just got lucky.

One such incident occurred on a beautiful, sunny August afternoon on Beaver creek guiding a party of four anglers.  The airplane dropped us off at the “postage stamp” lake close to the stream, but had to take us out of a larger lake with more runway, requiring a mile and a half hike at the end of the day.  After fishing upstream all afternoon it was getting late and I wanted to leave plenty of time for the long walk out.  We headed back downstream where several bends earlier we had fished through an open run that was the closest and most direct route to the pick-up lake.  We were walking single file, myself in the lead, making a little noise through a grassy and treed section of narrow trail right along the water’s edge when we finally reached the shallow crossing to the opposite bank where there was a clear path out through open tundra.  The density of bears on this stream was not high, although we had seen plenty of sign and one large boar earlier that morning.  I hopped off of the bank followed by my fishermen and just as we reached the low cut bank, safely on the other side of the stream, we heard a loud crashing and snapping of branches and brush just a few yards ahead of where we had exited the trail and had crossed over.  An extremely surly, ill-tempered, stoutly built, chocolate colored sow emerged, coming up the very trail that we had just been traveling only minutes previous.

Upon sighting us out in the open she stopped, swung her heavy head and snarled at us while jumping off of the bank into the water, feigning a charge.  Everybody had just scrambled safely up the cut bank except for myself and the last elderly gentleman whom I was assisting up while his younger nephew helped from above.  I turned, still in the water a dozen yards directly across from her, and was drawing my handgun when a bawling, diminutive dark cub came out behind her.  She spun around and angrily climbed back on the trail, leading her lone cub up the path, all the while popping her jaws and growling.  This was one of the most infuriated bears I had ever encountered.   I have no doubt whatsoever that if we had not fortuitously crossed over to the opposite bank when we had, that we would have run right into her in the brush, and a very dangerous, possibly lethal, encounter would have ensued.  My only guess as to why she was so unhinged was that she had probably just lost her other cub, quite possibly to the boar we had seen earlier in the day, and was “on the fight” as a result. 

The Katmai coast was a spectacular setting for trips on “severe clear” days when the pilots were confident that we could fly there and back through the high mountain passes without threat of weather leaving us marooned.  There were some absolutely gorgeous, relatively short drainages that emptied into the Shelikof Straight side of the peninsula that received runs of chum, pink and silver salmon as well as sea run Dollie Varden.  There were also a few very aggressive bears. 

Kashvik Bay was a beautiful destination where we would land on a small lake, leaving the airplane protected from the wind, waves and ebbing and rising tides, then walk a short distance along the beach, over some low dunes and around a corner to a cliff face cut by a narrow outgoing stream.  A high tide would bring in fresh silver salmon, only minutes from the salt, sea lice still clinging to their caudal fins, which were some of the most vigorous, chrome bright fish anywhere that we pursued them.  On these clear, warm and sunny days the flight over the mountains and view across Shelikof to glimmering Kodiak Island was nothing short of breathtaking!

It was on one such late August day that Pat, our pilot, set the Beaver down in the narrow lake and we walked a group of fishermen up the beach to the stream which was packed with fresh silvers, cutting a set of very large bear tracks on the way.   Mr. Ursus was nowhere in sight however and the group was soon hooking salmon after salmon, most of which I released even though they were prime specimens for the table.  With a full airplane of five fishermen, plus Pat and myself, we had to be mindful of weight for our departure and stuffing the floats with another 200 pounds of salmon was not an option.  Pat agreed to a limit of one fish apiece however, so it was that late in the afternoon I was cleaning five hefty silvers, when Pat yelled “BEAR!”

The other reason that I was reluctant to keep and kill a pile of fish was now slowly walking up the beach with the breeze blowing directly to him.  I had just finished the last fish and hollered at everybody to reel up and get along with Pat to the plane, while I hustled to collect my gear and follow.  This was a very large bear.  Dark brown, all of nine feet and pushing a thousand pounds.  He had gotten wind of my fish and was closing fast, now only fifty yards downstream and looking at me like I owed him money.  I had the fish on a loop of hefty monofilament strung through their gills and when I backed up through the grass, perpendicular from the bear, he raised his head and bore straight for me. 

It was at this moment I finally realized that I was in trouble and had only one course of action – give him what he wanted – I wound up and let the gutted salmon fly toward the big bruin.  He was now a mere twenty yards and the fish landed between us as I hastily retreated, drawing my now seemingly puny .44 magnum, hoping to God that the salmon would dissuade him from pursuing me.  I did not want to have to try and stop this behemoth with my pistol.  He arrived at my gift, came to an abrupt halt and lay down to enjoy his meal, while I turned and hustled up to the rest of the group sweating and a bit rubbery legged.  We made it to the plane, loaded up and flew back over him after we were air born.  He was still lying in the grass devouring the last of his fish lunch, looking as big as a house.  Arriving back at the lodge, everybody wanted to know how the fishing had been over on the coast?  We all agreed to play that down and I warned the other pilots and guides that we had habituated an ornery bear and strongly advised against going back to Kashvik for a while.

Time for a short interlude regarding proper bear “defense”.  I have mentioned that I carried a large, double action .44 magnum revolver loaded with specialized, very heavy 320 grain solid bullets in a shoulder holster almost every day that I guided in Alaska over a twenty year career.  Was this the optimum bear stopping medicine?  Absolutely NOT! My first choice would be a five shot 12 gauge pump shotgun loaded alternately with heavy buckshot and slugs. The shotgun is heavy and cumbersome however and is habitually laid down and left on the bank during guiding activities.  My shoulder holstered .44 was always with me.

 About now, I can hear the groans and dissent loud and clear, including the notion “why do you need a gun at all?” Let me emphasize that the last thing I wanted was to have a lethal encounter with one of these animals and I eventually did, additionally, carry pepper spray, although the ever present wind was a limiting factor in its usefulness.  Moreover, I originally yearned for an Alaskan guiding career, in part, to experience these magnificent beasts firsthand and not only had the utmost respect for them but also readily acknowledged that we were intruding on their “turf” and did so at our own risk.  That fact is what lent authenticity to every day I was in the field with them and was why my decisions were often so very important.  Just the same, I was prepared to defend myself or the lives of my clients if it came to it and carried a gun every day.

Yet another close encounter that could have ended very badly, even though I was exercising “hyper-vigilance” was on the lower Moraine float trip guiding a prominent member of the Bush Administration’s State Department.  “Jim” was an amiable Texan who came up with his wife and two daughters whom I had guided many times over the years and we all had become fast friends.  On this particular day it was blowing a gale by lunchtime and I pulled into a gravel bar that had a small back channel behind it.  A patch of tall, thick grass and smattering of willows with an opening in the center was just big enough for us to crowd around the tablecloth out of the wind.  I beached the raft on the upstream side and set up lunch in the little clearing.   A hundred or so yards below us was a sharp right hand bend that was often traveled by bears, hence I did not relax or join Jim and the ladies for lunch.  Instead, I grabbed my sandwich and left them in the sheltered wind break to sit out on the raft where I had an unobstructed view both up and down the river.

No bear activity of any kind transpired over the next half an hour and I briefly rejoined the group to clean-up the food and get everything put away in my backpack.   Jim announced that there was no need to hustle back to the fishing as they would all like to enjoy a short nap out of the wind.  I was kneeling down, just closing up the last compartment on my pack when I heard a huff behind me as a large, blonde head came into view mere yards away at the edge of the grass.  Alarmed, I spun around and the surprised bear jumped back, tossing gravel, and waded a few strides into the shallow edge of the river, equally as startled.  I stood up to get a better view over the tall grass and, sure enough, two large, second year cubs were trailing twenty yards behind their mother.  The cubs followed her across the riffles to the far bank where they leisurely continued on upriver.

 I thanked the bear “Gods” that this particular sow was of such a tranquil and tolerant disposition and that her cubs were not younger or in closer proximity to the “threat” – us.  If that had been the case this could have been an extremely dangerous meeting for all concerned, not to mention the ramifications involving the mauling of a prominent government official and his family while I was responsible for their safety.  As that nice old bear and her cubs ambled their way up the river I wished her a long, prosperous life including many more sets of little ones.  As previously mentioned, sometimes I just got lucky.

Over the many years I spent in the presence of these bears there were countless experiences with them that were both fascinating, and at times, almost comical.  Guiding a party of three anglers one sunny day on a small, tight, brushy drainage that flowed through a narrow valley with open tundra beyond, I climbed out above my fisherman and sat down on the low ridge where I could see across the expanse.  Directly opposite us, a few hundred yards distant on the far slope, I spied a sow and her three half grown cubs climbing up the hill and as they topped out the cubs began playing and chasing each other until one of them went over backwards and proceeded to slide back down the slick trail they had just ascended.  He skidded all the way to the bottom on his backside, paws waving and flailing the air mirthfully, to be joined directly by his two siblings, both of whom seemed to enjoy the ride down as well.  They continued this activity, frolicking and chasing each other back up the incline only to jump off again and again while their mother laid down, appearing exhausted, but looking on approvingly as her kids relished in their fun.  I called for my gang to quit fishing and come up to join me in watching the show.  We all sat there looking on captivated, until one of the guys remarked “I swear they smiling and laughing.”

On yet another horrendously windy day on the lower Brooks River late in the season (note how howling wind is a recurring theme) things were becoming too unruly to continue fishing and we all headed down to the safety and warmth of Brooks lodge early in the afternoon.  There we were informed that this “weather event” was the product of a Pacific typhoon and that conditions were only going to worsen.  Airplanes were piling in to take refuge at the calmer and protected upper lake as it was becoming too dangerous to fly, which also meant that we were unlikely to be picked up by our lodge plane.  No matter - we were at Brooks where there were cabins and a restaurant.  An hour later a ranger came over to us and told us that they had received a call over the radio from our lodge and we were indeed spending the night, but would be well taken care of. 

After seeing that my fishermen were securely squared away in their own private cabin, I decided to take a walk down the beach of large, sprawling Nak Nek Lake just to see what a typhoon looked like.  On the path I immediately bumped into fellow guide and longtime friend, Altan, and together we crept down to the edge of the trees lining the beach.  The “big lake” was a maelstrom with four foot, wind driven breakers crashing into the shore while larger gusts picked up sheets of water and flung them into our faces at the edge of the bending pines.  Down the beach a couple of hundred yards was a lone, mid-sized bear out for a stroll and coming our way, oblivious to the tumult.  Suddenly he halted, waded out into the roaring surf, stood up on his hind legs and was abruptly bowled over by a large wave.  The powerful surge knocked him backwards, end over end, until he came to a rest on the sand where he proceeded to wright himself and shake.  Undeterred, he loped back out into the rollers, riding another large swell into shore, this time exhibiting a more controlled and deliberate style.  Altan and I continued watching this “body surfing” bear, snapping pictures, while he repeated this trip several times - rough and tumble, cold and wet, being nonexistent concepts to bears.

A peripheral and extremely humorous incident involving the bears of Brooks River occurred the night of the “great typhoon”.  Altan was guiding for a lodge that had recently been purchased by an eccentric, well to do German expatriate who had successfully obtained his pilot license and flew around in a million dollar turbine Beaver equipped with a huge set of amphibious floats.  “Klaus” had dropped Altan and a pair of fishermen off at Brooks that morning then flew off to check on a group of moose hunters camped just outside the boundaries of Katmai Park.  Unfortunately, they had killed a moose.

Flying back to the town of King Salmon, with several hundred pounds of moose meat stuffed inside the floats, Klaus encountered severe turbulence due to the storm and, like so many other aircraft that tempestuous afternoon, had to seek refuge on the protected waters of Brooks Lake.  He sent a message down to the lodge for Altan to come up and meet him.  I trailed along, as I had also guided a past season for Klaus, and sensed that there would most likely be some form of entertainment involved.

Although there were more than two dozen aircraft lining the semicircular beach, Klaus had wormed his airplane in as close as possible to the upper river cache – a sturdy, elevated storage hut for visiting guides and fishermen to stash gear prohibited on the river, particularly food, that might induce a “negative” bear encounter.  After greeting both of us he expressed anxiety regarding the bloody bags of moose meat, feeling that it might entice any ravenous bears into a feeding frenzy that would result in severe damage to the rather costly, specialized “pontoons”.   This was a valid concern.  Hence, we were soon pressed into service unloading the meat and after hoisting it up into the cache, felt confident that we had averted a potentially calamitous debacle.  We then hustled down to the lodge bar where all of the marooned and stranded parties engaged in a night of raucous revelry while the storm raged on outside. 

The morning dawned clear and sunny and the wind had diminished to a manageable forty knots, which now allowed for safe flying.  I was informed that my lodge plane was already on its way to extract myself and my guys and that we should head up to Brooks Lake.  I knocked on Altan’s cabin door to say “adios” just as a park ranger came down the path and informed me that we might have to hold off on our pick up, as there was some sort of bear mayhem occurring up there.  Intrigued, we all walked the half mile path up to the sheltered lake anyway and were greeted to a most appalling, yet uproarious site.

Apparently, either blown over by the gale or torn down by the bears - no one knew for sure - the cache was in splintered shambles while a cadre of voracious bruins were helping themselves to a moose meat banquet.   Just as we rounded the last corner of the trail, a young bear came trotting by with the remnants of a bloody meat bag dangling from his mouth as sounds of pandemonium emanated from just ahead.  A squad of several grizzlies sat on their haunches, contently munching moose steaks as several shouting rangers arrived carrying shotguns loaded with rubber bullets and surrounded the chaotic scene.  The clattering lodge tractor soon arrived and the bears were persuaded by both the racket and a volley of rubber bullets to move along.  Seeing as how they had already reduced the once substantial pile of meat to mere scraps, they soon exited without much protest.  The tractor swooped in, scooping up both the last remnants of moose protein along with fractured and broken pieces of the shattered cache to be loaded into a waiting dump truck and hauled off.  

In the meantime, my airplane had landed and was in a holding pattern, taxing in circles out on the lake while the mess was cleared away until it was finally deemed safe for the various parties to approach.  Altan and I had been engaging in mirthful chuckling throughout the entire incident, while Klaus was worried that the lingering blood smell stemming from his airplane would provoke yet more bears to investigate and was anxious to get his prized Beaver back in the air as soon as possible.  I bid Altan a good-humored farewell as I waded out to catch and hold my own airplane.  Danny, our pilot, hopped down onto the float and wanted to know what all the hubbub on the beach was about.  I smiled and replied “Oh nothing really, Dan.  Klaus just decided that the bears were getting tired of fish and flew in a few hundred pounds of fresh moose meat for them to enjoy.”

Numerous other memorable instances observing, interacting with and admiring these bears over the years occurred - too many to recount individually here.  But how fortunate I was to have spent so many wonderful days in close proximity to these impressive animals enjoying their enthralling, almost transcendent, presence on their terms over so many seasons without any serious mishap or cause for remorse.  They are quintessentially indicant of truly wild country and it is my fervent wish that they are still thriving long after I have departed this world and that their territory and haunts throughout Alaska and beyond are forever preserved intact.

My name is Tom Carroll, I am 60 years old and currently reside on a ranch in Arizona. I spent many years guiding on the Alaska Peninsula and wish to share these true observations and accounts of first hand interactions with Alaskan brown bears in order to acquaint readers with the realities of life with these magnificent animals.

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