From the bow of the charter boat it appeared to be a clump of dirt motoring across the head of the bay - literally a large, brownish lump moving forward with no visible means of propulsion. Quickly eliminating all the regular marine possibilities from whale to seal to orca fin we decided that it must be a bear! Yes, there are times – and more specifically places - when your list of aquatic creatures needs to include the bear. That is, the coastal brown bear of Alaska.
The polar bear is regarded as the master ursine swimmer. No contest to that. However, a very close second – or perhaps parallel – to wear that title are the brown bears of the Katmai coast of Alaska. This stretch of the Shelikof Strait along the western edge of Kodiak Island, besides being the home to the densest population of coastal bears, is also home to the most adept swimmers in the Alaska bear family.
The brown blob turned out to be a large brown bear that had obviously begun its journey at the far south end of the bay’s mouth. We were entering the bay near the north point of the three-mile-wide opening in this particular bay. Simple math says that this bruin had swum nearly 2.5 miles by the time we had intersected his path. As we approached the bear, it swung around and proceeded to start swimming back along the route it had just completed – seemingly uncaring about the 2.5 mile shot back. Knowing we had interrupted his plans and not wanting to be the cause of a drowned swimming bear, the skipper turned the boat around as well and drove the bear back around onto it’s original course. This put the bear on a dead reckoning course for the nearer shoreline only about 600 yards away. We pulled back and waited until the bruin was up on shore before we headed inland. Seeing those gigantic paws fully spread, pushing water like a coal shovel – all the while doing a relaxed “dog-paddle” stroke – made me even more respectful of what these creatures can do.
I once saw a bear swimming casually off a cobbled beach, not really going anywhere and not swimming for spawning salmon already crowding other areas of the shoreline nearby. This bear was enjoying a frolicking swim on a warm, Katmai afternoon. I watched as it ambled up out of the water streaming rivulets of water off its drenched coat of fur. Water cascaded off the beast like a bubbling spring had swelled up out of the ground. Then, in a typical “wet dog” motion, he began swinging back and forth that flushed water out of its fur in great spurts and sprays. The breadth of the bear swelled as the water shot out of the fur. The sun was behind the bear so each cast of water sent droplets arching out across the wash of sunlight – backlit as such that it looked like a bag of diamonds was being sown like seed along the beach.
I was watching all this from about twenty yards off shore. The bear suddenly sensed my presence and bolted like a Derby steed at the starting gate. Within seconds it covered fifty yard of beach at full gallop. It looked over its shoulders and then shot into a thick row of alders and disappeared.
Observing bears by kayak is one of the best, and most secure means of observing these coastal bruins – to a point. Initially we tried to stay back fifty yards or so while on a bear viewing tour of Katmai. The incoming tide pushed us closer and closer on each surge, unknowningly well within those prohibited distances. Your mind is on the splendor of the moment: the bears are not reacting to your proximity, you are approaching at a rhythmically slow advance and besides – there are thousands of salmon along the shore to keep the bears focused. Slipping in close was an accidental certainty.
My paddling partner was shooting slide film at a machine gun’s pace. In our range of shoreline, a stretch of about two hundred yards, we counted at least fifty bears, each watchful of a small school of salmon eagerly waiting for that tide to build so the spawning surge could commence. At a break in filming my partner asked me “These bears wouldn’t come out this far from shore would they?” I lowered the binoc’s I was using and glanced down over the side of the double kayak. I was peering through about two feet of water. The silty bottom was completely covered in frying pan-sized bear prints! It was a mosaic of paws as far as I could see. “Nah,” I responded as I slowly backpaddled away from shoreline. As I looked to my left I was startled by a huge female lying on a gravel bar a mere dozen yards off our port. We had glided by her unknowingly on the creeping tide.
Perhaps the eeriest experience with bears is actually parking your kayak and walking through the dense under brush deep the heart of bear country. I wanted to scout out a small stream that flowed from two upper lakes in the Katmai foothills. These were prime areas for the fly-in bear-watching floatplane charters to land. I planned to walk upstream far enough to view the distant shore of the first upper lake. I followed the stream to a dogleg curve and scanned the beach. No bear.
On the way back I was paranoid to the point of good practice in bear country. I started talking loudly to my unseen, but probably present host. “Hey, there, buddy bear,” I spoke in a loud, echoing tone. “This is your buddy Tom, just taking a look around.” As I spoke I notice fresh bear scat on the trail. These were large – the size of cow pies – and they were still steaming! I walked faster, spoke louder and managed to return to the shoreline where my boat was tied up. I crossed the mouth of the stream, watched as a few determined salmon fought the current upstream and then returned to my boat about twenty yards along the shore. I untied it from an alder branch, climbed in and shoved off.
As I pushed away from the gravely shoreline, I head the dull clunk of a rock hitting another. I looked up and back to the mouth of the river where I had just been seconds before. It was a young adult brownie! Right there in the middle of the stream, in the very same spot! Where had he come from? The slopes of the stream bed were too steep, I had looked all the way up and down the river channel and the shoreline was an open pathway about five feet wide. The only place he could have come from was from a napping bed within the thick vegetation that lined the riverbank – and through which the path I had used was worn. He was swatting at passing salmon, never even looked up to see me floating offshore. Perhaps he could hear my heart beating above the rapid, steam engine gasps I was making to know I was no threat.
Close encounters with critters from the seat of a kayak are rare pleasures. Even though we need to be mindful of disrupting their routines, we can sometimes inadvertently share the same space in the natural environment – they as the resident, we as the visitor. We just need to always be aware of who is who – and respond respectfully. Safe paddling.