Katmai Bears: the Pinup Stars of the Cook Inlet
- by Subversify Staff
- Posted on 19 February, 2010
About the Author: I have worked three years now as a guide for the lodges at Silver Salmon Creek. I was blessed to meet my husband, Drew, back in 2006 in Ninilchik. Taking a break from 3 straight years in the bush in some hardly believable sounding job watching bears and spending winters alone watching buildings, he asked if it was a life I wished to share. He was the answer to a long prayer that I had sadly thought could never be answered. A man who fit an intimidating and impossible criteria of faith, strength, and gentleness. A prayer of a life shared in God’s wild nature, free to make our own choices, and the ability to spend fulfilling periods of time with my family in the off season. God gave me Drew and Silver Salmon and far surpassed all my hopes and wishes. I am beyond thankful every day.
Silver Salmon is located in Lake Clark National Park on the west side of Cook Inlet Alaska. Lake Clark is over 4 million acres, but the Silver Salmon Creek area is barely 6 miles from river to river. We are bordered to the north by Johnson River and the steep sides of Slope Mountain and to the south by Red River. The setting is coastal grasslands, abloom with various wildflowers as one part of the summer rolls into the next. We are back dropped by narrow corridors of forests and behind them and the shorter peaks of Saddle Mountain, which is towered over by the volcano, Illiamna. I can’t imagine a more blessed setting for what we do. In the spring, the mountains behind us are generally fully blanketed in snow, like a warm down comforter pulled over its inhabitants to keep them safely until summer comes once again. In full summer, the deafening green cliffs and hills behind, bordered by the sharp blue-green sea in front reminds me of postcards advertisements I’ve seen of Irish shorelines. Autumn here is like an excited painter’s canvas of deep inviting hues of deep red berry bushes and fireweed, screaming yellow birch, and oranges and greens. I feel like the colors are so intense it’s almost painful to the eyes. I can’t imagine a more blessed setting or way to make a living. I take groups of guests from all over the world, out into the park to photograph coastal brown bears.
Our employer, Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, started out as a lodge for salmon fisherman some 25 years ago. The creeks flow heavy in August and a few weeks in September with the alluring shine of silver salmon. But as the fisherman came for years, and the bears shared their space, something wonderful happened; the bears and the fisherman became tolerant of one another. They learned that if both sides do what is expected, things can be peaceful. Of course you have the occasional juvenile male pushing his boundaries or fly in fisherman with the courage of a 2 year old, which can make things tricky. But with experienced guides from both lodges and a few helpful park rangers showing visitors the way, things stay fairly smooth. The lodges and the rangers here prefer the visitors with a guide; it’s more difficult to prevent unguided guests from making dangerous mistakes. However, it is a national park and freely open to any who come, hence our job, trying to convey to everyone that tolerant does not mean domesticated. The bears appear to either perform for us or pay us no mind completely, but the ever watchful observer knows whatever their appearance, they are always severely aware of us and watchful of our goings on. These are still wild and potentially dangerous animals. Like Timothy Treadwell; a man who lived amongst bears irresponsibly and ended up being mauled to death by them; so distastefully showed the world, forgetting yourself and these very simple facts and imagining them to have a human mind can be both disappointing and deadly.
This particular summer we were blessed to be surrounded by a sound and hard working crew. In the kitchen was Andrew, our seasoned and talented baker, always the one making us laugh and quick to lend a helping hand. New this season was Larry, our chef extraordinaire. He can be intimidating, to those who do not know him and mostly stoic around the guests, he got a reputation for being so serious. The rest of us got to see the other side of him. Chris is the housekeeper, and mother hen. She’s got more years at the lodge than any of us and says she’ll be housekeeper until she’s too old to sweep, then she’s moving over to administration. Our “administration” consists of David Coray, his wife Joanne, and his son Oliver. David is our fearless leader. Raised in the bush community of Nondalton, just the other side of the park, he has a unique perspective of our place in the park. He says he gives all his staff “a long leash”, when in fact we are completely unclipped. He is the finest of leaders in that he leaves us trustingly to lead ourselves. His unquestioning faith in us is what makes us all strive to live up to his trust. David’s wife, Joanne, is our part-time matriarch and doctor. Running an ER in Denver keeps her busy half the summer, leaving us blessed with her ambiance the rest. She gives the lodge a warm and mothered feel when present. She is the most patient and understanding person I’ve ever met. She is our voice of reason when we become too excited about anything. She listens to our problems, gives sound and patient advice, and helps out wherever she is needed. And she has the uncanny ability to firmly place more patient thoughts in our stubborn brains and make them stick, almost hypnotizing. Then there is Ollie, he is our rover. Ollie has literally been at the lodge every summer since before he could walk. He’s construction, captain, fisherman, guide, cook, and about anything else we can dream up.
We work hard and play whenever possible. As long as we follow park rules and most of our clients leave happy, nobody cares how bizarre our methods. This is nice in a group of people who’s abilities to lie to please people are non- existent. The Lord warns of those who are smooth talkers and quick with a wink. We are none of the above and think it best. People learn more from straight truths and the ability to see things for themselves. Our environment sells itself, leaving us to be guides and not tour leaders. Lucky for us, our clients aren’t there for our social skills, we give them what they want; great photos, food, and laughs, and they forgive most of our social foibles. Our guests do not come to the bush of Alaska seeking long speeches and practiced lines; they want knowledgeable guides who have a firm understanding of their surroundings, their photography needs, and the ability to keep them safe. My husband Drew and I have been guides for David for 2 years. This year we got a new guide, Rick, from Australia. Originally American, his sense of humor and knowledge of technology was a great addition to our crew.
We started this year’s season by boat from Ninilchik. Drew had the privilege of trying out his new captain’s license by bringing the Joanne’s Song across the inlet, while David brought his new boat, the Stormy Skye. We are all very proud of her. She has a cabin in the back, which decreases the impact on rougher water. This is important because our boats do not have the deep keel most ocean going vessels possess. Our boats are designed to enter farther into shallow creeks and tidal sloughs, and are very effective at this with our experienced captains. On rough open water however, they give more a beating. The fully enclosed cabin allows warmer and dryer journeys for both guests and gear. Her side drops out into a flat deck to allow loading of wide and heavy objects and a removable boom to help lift them. Her front drops down into stairs, allowing us to pull her forward to the beaches and unload guests. This has made loading and unloading older and less graceful clients onto the puffin beach a blessing. She was truly a God send to have this year, but we did not forget our old faithful, Joanne’s Song, and still took her on several halibut trips (as it was easier to pull big fish over the lower edges).
We arrived at SSCL early this year, May 10th, to discover a strange spring. Mount Redoubt, just 30 miles north, had erupted several times this winter, the last eruption only a few weeks before our arrival. Where normally there was snow all the way to the ground on the mountains, there was nothing. Moonscape peaks are what appeared as we neared the shores. It was a major contrast from the white snowy scenes that usually met our arrival. On closer inspection, you could see that some snow remained on the tops of the mountains, but was completely buried under volcanic ash. Ash had laid a dark surface across the once reflecting snow, allowing the sun to warm and melt it all away. This left nothing but harsh rocky peaks and slopes on the surrounding mountains, accented by hues of grey. It was beautiful in its own way and I saw faces of our surrounding mountains long hidden from human eyes. The lower grasslands were snow free as well, melted away by the dark ash and voluminous runoff from the mountains above. Not too long after our arrival, the high volumes of water and nutrition gave a thick and very early spring growth. Our bears, deprived so soon of their dens dug of snow, were already out and about. In most years the bears appear scruffy and thin from a long hard winter, but they were excessively fat and fluffy. They must have had a good overall salmon run last year. I felt almost selfish to have so many healthy bears in full swing with no guests, but all the early activity seemed to inspire us all with a little extra motivation.
Oliver started and finished remodeling the Halibut Hut, one of our smaller cabins, with the help of our new guide, Rick. Its part of an ongoing remodeling plan to modernize all of our rustic cabins into all matching log sided buildings. They doubled the HH size, added a bathroom and put tongue and groove on the ceilings. It turned out very nice. The rest of us cleaned the grounds and corners of the buildings and lodge were organized that hadn’t been touched in years. All bucked up piles of wood around the property were gathered and spilt. Firewood was cut and split for the entire season. We weeded, organized and laid loads of gravel in the bone yard. Danielle and Ollie completely renovated our garden, putting up raised cedar boxes, adding new soil and tons of natural fertilizers and topping it all off with a surrounding cedar fence. This was to deter the bears from simply walking through and trampling our plants. We plant little of interest to them, with an already grand natural selection of foods, but that doesn’t stop their curiosity or them simply ignoring OUR food supply that is in their way. The fence did its job, with only a few teeth marks for wear by summer’s end. It turned out beautiful and the difference in our plants this year was phenomenal. It was nice to have so much more time to prepare both esthetically and mentally for guests.
The Season Begins
We had one early guest, a man from France making a film on volcano eruptions and their effect on wildlife. While he started off very quiet, our slap stick group of jokers soon had him loosened up and having fun. We took him looking by land and sea for animals in the ash. Not hard, considering there was ash on the ground everywhere, puffing up with each step. We were actually concerned it would ruin our season, as it burned our eyes and throat every time we drove around. But God was with us and a four day rain set it all down nicely. The boat trips were fairly new to me. I had never been north of Duck Island where we photograph puffins. , Jerome asked us to take him up to the north side of Tuxedni to film Redoubt and to be let off on the mud flats on an incoming tide. We got 50 ft and I was stuck up to my knees in the silt, weighed down by his 30 lb. tripod, beginning to panic slightly as the tide closed closely in behind us. We abandoned that plan and retreated to the boat, which took us up the coast to a nice sandy beach. We climbed Duck Island to film Redoubt with flocks of seagulls and puffins in the foreground. Well, he filmed and I made a nest in a clump of grass on a cliff and took a wonderful nap in the sunshine. Drew took him up a few waterfalls on the coast, hiking 4 hours round trip, to film ash on snow. Some footage was taken of bears running through our grass flats, ash billowing around each heavy step and bears grayed from the results. Our favorite footage though, was a slow motion piece of our little crimp eared sow running and playing through the shallows of the creek mouth. He had zoomed in on her feet, and the results were like poetry. We enjoyed our guest and all the new ways we saw our park through his eyes and his camera.
Next came David’s family, who all came for a reunion and celebration of the marriage of his niece. Over 30 family members arrived, filling every corner of our lodge. There were bonfires, and music and dancing. There were boat trips and clam digging and the children making casts of bear tracks. There was fantastic food and old friends. David’s daughter Dorien came back for the first time since she left for grad school in New Zealand 2 years earlier. She had worked at the lodge since she could walk. She seemed very pleased with all the remodeling that had been done and we were all very happy to have her back. She stayed on for several weeks after the rest of the family had left. It was great to see David’s family again and meet so many new members. They are all such warm and good natured people. The numbers were a bit overwhelming to Drew and I, the hermits that we are, but the people were wonderful. And it turned into a blessing to have Dorien on staff those next few weeks, as we had so many last minute clients with specialized glutein free and vegan diets that left our kitchen staff scratching their heads. Dorien was an experienced pro at these special recipes and dazzled those guests who never knew how close they were to nothing but a week of salads.
Our team logo this season was “recessionary year”. But it made our summer much more enjoyable. I got more one on one with my guests, getting to know them all more personally. This was such a blessing, because in past years with larger groups, some people left before I even learned their names. It also gave us additional opportunities, like the employee halibut trip we took when we ended up with only one guest who was a long term tour leader and his son. The whole staff abandoned the lodge and went fishing. Chris slayed us all in catches. We visited Gull Island at the mouth of Chinitna Bay, a first for me. Drew and I spent the entire time climbing the circumference of the rocky beach. We carefully observed hatching baby seagulls, as ALL the seagulls on the island followed our progress with all too well aimed bombs. We followed a pair of oyster catchers, who kept moving around corners to escape us, then cried in arrogant alarm as we rounded each corner as well, thinking we had to be following them. We climbed up and down cliffs walking carefully through the grasses to avoid any nests and sometimes had to wade the shallows along the shore, but made the whole circle. Upon our return, we found the others had busied themselves burying 25ft logs straight up in the air. It was cool to see. David and some others were wading out with sticks trying to capture the anchor line off the boat that had floated a little too deep for their waders in the upcoming tides. They were happy to see me in my chest waders, only to fall into fits of laughter when I followed the line to the anchor just a few feet off the dry beach.
The rest of the season was busy. Although our groups were smaller, we always had people. Our bears cooperated as lovely as usual. We begun happily answering all the same questions that we laugh at by fall. “No, the bears do not have names. It takes away from the true experience of their wild natures, and leads people to think they are in a zoo.” “No, we do not feed them.” This because being seen as a source of food leads to them being more aggressive towards us, pushing to be fed. This leads to them having to be negatively dealt with by us or Park Service. “No, this is close enough.” “No, you cannot go closer.” “I believe if I let you go any closer, your lens will no longer be able to focus, so no.” And so on and so forth.
It’s a Bear’s World
In the beginning, we were happy to discover that all of our cubs from last year had survived. There were even several new mothers and second year cubs we hadn’t had from last year and 6 new sows with first year cubs. There were two sows with 3 new cubs each. Although it took us a few times to discover this, they were very similar in appearance and temperance- and most likely we were looking at the babies more than the mothers. Locally, there was also a sow with two and a sow with one new cub, but neither were regulars. At Shelter Creek I was lucky enough to observe an additional two sows with two first years. It must have been a very successful run of salmon last year to have blessed us with so many cubs.
The little chocolate cub from last season, which was now a third year was on his own. He had neglected to learn to clam from his mother, and had preferred to beg instead. He attempted this method with another sow with a cub only to have that cub run him off….for several hundred yards. It must have been a blow to the ego, but it wasn’t the only time we saw him trying to beg clams from other bears. Fortunately for him, clams are not the main staple. We never saw him again after the spring, and assume he moved on to new territories as most young will.
The mother with the two second year cubs was back this year. The two little babies we had spent all of our time with last season. She was with them in the early spring, then for some unexplained reason, she abandoned them. They were healthy, but too young to be on their own. We saw both of them up until the fall, then only the male. But neither being big enough to fish would be likely to make it through the winter. A sad bit of the reality of nature and sometimes bizarre behavior of mother bears. It was frustrating to me to see their mother, who had been so nurturing the season before, walk past her cubs with no semblance of recognition. She was the fattest bear we had, so round she walked with an exaggerated whole body tip in each step, and her cubs would go hungry. Nature is more complex than any reason or excuse we could guess at. But all three were a regular in our yard. Our guests were warned on the first day to avoid the young, as they would walk right up to them. They were told that although small and cute, they were extremely powerful and dangerous if they thought for a second that the people were a source of food. Our guests were very responsible and gave them a good distance. The mother was never a problem, taking her regular path in a circle around the premises daily. This thrills our guests. Her trail would cross right by the steps to our cabin, making our paths cross closely on a lot of days. She would always stop and wait for our reaction, then wobble past us on her way to look for trouble somewhere else.
One morning, I woke with a start, the sound of something being thrashed. I jumped out of bed and shown my light across the yard to the bear’s butt sticking out the door of the porch. I ran out at her screaming, as all of our freezer food was on that porch. She was greatly surprised and tore off down the driveway like she was on fire. Funny enough, having worked so hard chewing all the trim off around the doors and gnawing through the slide to gain access to a porch full of human food and a bucket of fish carcasses (stowed I’m sure b/c the tide was wrong that evening) she had chosen only to scatter our garbage. I cleaned it all up, bolting the door back into place and hoping she’d leave it till morning, went to wash my hands. I returned to an angry bear growling in protest and throwing herself against the door. I tore out the other door and came running around the corner roaring at her to leave. She left twice as fast as the first time and did not return that evening. She was trouble all summer long after that. She ripped the door handles off the shop several days in a row, making our 2×4 slid through as a lock entirely ineffective. We eventually left it open. I believe she was also the one who ate through the bottom half of the door to the other shop trying to get at Drew’s moose quarter he had brought back from a hunt. We had to screw 2×4’s over the bottom half of the door until the meat was ready to process. Bears make everything so much more complicated.
The most excitement we had with a bear this summer did not come in such a large chunky package though. It came in the form of a second year cub that had once born a white collar so prominent, it looked like an Asiatic black bear. This season she had bleached out to nearly white blonde and her collar had darkened, so that only the little t-shirt like patch on her stomach was barely visible. She still bore the description of “collared cub” but God had given her a whole new personality that seemed to serve as our reminder that our bears were not well trained. We were happy to see that she had survived, as her mother had lost both sets of cubs she’d had in the past. She was a laid back and often skittish sow, who in past times of danger, would run away and leave her babies to be eaten. We believe this may have had something to do with the assertive personality of her current cub, a survival technique of sorts. I watched that little cub chase so many full grown bears and even run at a boar or two, as her mother ran the other way in terror.
Unfortunately, with mother there, it was effective and she became overly confident. This new found confidence began spilling over into her interaction with humans. It started off as cute, her standing and batting at the air the first time we photographed her that season. It was actually the way I recognized her, as she had taken to doing the same thing late the previous fall. Then the rushing began. She would rush our groups, over and over, tossing her head and running away playfully. This was to the complete and total horror of her mother, who huffed and popped her jaws angrily at her child, often as she ran the other way. The usual deterrents of sound and movement would work most of the time, but there were days she just had that certain gleam in her eye and seemed to find it all entertaining. We eventually developed different techniques to send her packing to mother, most of which had to be explained to my guests in advance so they knew I wasn’t just bullying a cute little bear.
Once, while beach combing with a nice couple, I was watching a plane and talking on the radio to see if it had been new guests we needed to pick up. In the midst of this distraction I saw a large bear standing in the grassy edge of the sand staring at us about 100 ft away. I was unalarmed, I knew it was coming out to go clamming and just hadn’t seen us as it came over the hill, it wasn’t a problem. But then I recognized the mother bear and my eyes began their quick scan for its cub, realizing all too late that it was standing at my feet. It had rushed me, and in my distraction, was very disappointed with my lack of reaction. It dropped its head sadly and began walking back to its mother, as I mouth to sit very still and stay behind me to my guests. She then spun around and came back for me, but not before I had a large rock blowing sand up in her path. She was unhappy with the new turn of this game and ran back to her mom. After that, I gave her a purposeful and wide space. We would only photograph her from a distance or across creeks, until she swam the creek one day. It was becoming upsetting, with fly in fisherman with guns and some boars happy to make her a meal, how much danger this behavior put her in. One day though, it and she had learned her lesson.
I had a large group out on its first day, and as we came out onto the beach from the high water crossing, I noticed several bears down the beach. It wasn’t natural for them to gather that way, so I assumed, apologized and explained to my guests that they were probably on some fish carcasses washing up in the surf. I explained that we didn’t usually shoot baited bears, but stuck on one side of the group, we didn’t have much choice. We parked high and set up in a tight group at the top of the beach and watched as the bears competed, not over carcasses, but the neighbor’s fish net. The mother and collared cub had claimed and set up guard, the cub on the shore at the rope and the mother bobbing down the net until she felt a fish, then picking it up and ripping it from the net. I radioed the neighbors that their catch was being raided. Other bears would sneak in and steal fish while the pair would go off to eat each catch. Then they would return, chasing off any thieves to their booty. It was a great show and the bears, so intent on their catch, paid us no attention. They chased and postured and roared… it was awesome.
When the neighbors showed up I helped them keep the bears at bay while they pulled in the remaining few fish and their now mangled net. After, we all stood together to watch what should have been the finality and bears wandering back to their daily activities. That is when one of the dominant females with her three first year cubs wandered over the hill and threw the whole scene into a frenzy. One cub trailed too far behind, as usual, and a young male ran for it. He just missed it, to the complete ignorance of the focused cub, but not to the mother. This put her on edge as bears mulled all around her little family and she stood protectively over them. But catching the scent of a stray fish that was washing around in the surf, she moved into the claimed area of the collared cub and her mother. The two sows began screaming at one another, and I was shocked and proud of the way the collared’s mother stood her ground. They began to stand and posture and yell, but it was mostly for show.
That is, until the collared cub began trying to get into the middle of it all as her mother dropped and walked away in submission. The dominant sow turned to see a small aggressive bear in between her and one of her cubs and it was on. She grabbed that little bear by the top of her head and one ear and began flailing her now tiny looking body around like a rag doll. Her mother spun in terror at the scene behind her and rushed to the aid of her young. Now on her back, the mother came up to the end of her, put her paws around her protectively on each side and grabbed her belly in her mouth and began to attempt to pull her away. The cub was suspended mid air between the two sows. It made my stomach turn and I was afraid for the cub. I was also suddenly very aware of the danger of two angry mothers fighting for the life of their cubs. I quickly moved my group up behind the bike and trailer and barked strict orders that nobody leave the tight group and inch. The mothers battled on until the cub was dropped and ran off alone over the hill, and they went at each other again. This time it wasn’t for show, they were fighting for the lives of their young and I have never witnessed such a brutal show of force in all my 30 years. It went on and on, and that sick feeling in my stomach did not let up. I was concerned we would watch one of them kill the other or have the fight spill into our midst. God, however was with us and eventually, they let up and the collared’s mother ran over the hill to find her injured cub and the other mother gathered her trio and taking her time to make sure there were no missed fish morsels left. We all let out the breaths we had been collectively holding and decided we had all had enough for the day as well. The collared cub was not hurt but had learned a valuable lesson and was considerably better behaved after that. Her confidence had been permanently shaken. And while not completely well behaved for the rest of summer, she was blessedly easier to deter.
Another very funny story originated from the bad behavior of this little bear. We had a group of Russians, very probably mafia by all explanations and behaviors, which were more than a handful for our entire staff. They came by float plane a day early after demanding to leave the lodge they were at for lack of good fishing. My husband was their scheduled guide, but with the early arrival and him still with another group, I inherited them. They dressed like any other group, and were mostly shooting small lensed cameras. They refused my every request, to the point of endangering themselves, and I was forced to resort to lying to keep them safe. I would point at tiny, harmless bears and tell them that it was a mean and dangerous animal. This was after several attempts of walking up to other bears, to see how close they could get for taking the picture. It was most effective after one man circled around behind a bear to get its picture with us, while I yelled demands that he return. She just happened to be a mother with cubs, and to my best guess he crossed between her and where the cubs were hiding 200 yards away in the woods. That sow turned and planted herself square on with that man, and stared him down like only a mother bear can do. He came back and came back quickly. I looked back to see four large men hiding bravely behind me, as tight as they could fit.
This helped only momentarily. I was thrilled when they became quickly bored with this game and demanded to be taken at once back to the lodge. All “requests” were given as orders, and no arguments were allowed. Once at the lodge, they demanded to be taken fishing. I explained both that I was in no way a fishing guide, and that there were no fish in the creek yet. They ignored this good advice, like everything else they were told, and we went. They became frustrated and almost angry when they caught nothing, and my laughing at them didn’t seem to help. I was relieved when they asked to be taken back to the lodge. There they became the problem of our cooks. Our kitchen plans its meals weeks in advance, allowing for the provisions we have in the lodge to last from food order to food order. The Russians came to every meal and ordered what they wanted, turning their noses up at our kitchen’s fine cooking. They were wearing us all thin after just one day.
The next day, while the Russians were clamming with my husband, I had a group out on the same beach photographing the collared cub and her mom digging clams. She began her usual running at the group, I clapped and waved my hands to scare her away and the Russians began applauding. I had no idea why.
I was even farther in the dark as to why these previously rude guests were suddenly pointing to bear pictures, raising their glasses in my direction at dinner and patting me on the back in congratulations. I assumed they thought I was brave, which is a common misconception, but this was still excessive even for that. This went on for several days and their last night they demanded that I take them out. They were not my guests and their new affection for me was a little frightening and confusing so I refused. They were Drew’s guests and he should take them. But David was paid off and so insisted, while Drew didn’t want to go anywhere with them anymore, so I went.
It’s funny now, knowing what they thought and what happened that night. The crimp eared sow was on the beach and we startled her when we walked out of the grass. She began moving quickly away from us until I began talking softly to her, which was only for her to recognize us as people and not a threat. But I told her it was ok and to come back and see us and by coincidence she walked back over and sat right in front of us. The Russians were duly impressed, and what should have been an evening of discovering my lack of greatness only seemed to confirm things to them.
On the beach things get skewed at a distance, and what the Russian’s saw was far different from what happened. When they saw me clapping my hands to chase off the little cub the day they went clamming, they thought I was making the cub perform. No amount of interpretation could convince them otherwise.
David called me the Russian bear whisperer the rest of summer. I told them all they were just jealous, now Russian drinking songs and stories would be told in my honor.
Saying Goodbye for the summer
Those guests were an unmatched extreme. Most of my memorable stories are of the watched, not the watchers. The majority of our guests are respectful and quietly awed. I hear mostly the soft clicking of cameras and quiet noises of surprise, inspiration and satisfaction. I hear many prayers of thanks to God for being blessed to be a part of something so majestic, even momentarily. I have more guests than you would imagine that have had dates put on their remaining time on this earth, who talk with quiet and inspiring gratitude at having been a part of something so special. They are so bravely full of hope and light at the end they are meeting, knowing God awaits them on the other side. And that they chose us, this place at this time in their lives, makes me feel honored to share all I am blessed to be a part of.
There are so many wonderful people I have been blessed to meet, I couldn’t begin to tell the thousand tiny, and emotionally overwhelming tales of them all. So I will share none, for they are personal and this story isn’t about them.
Our crimp eared sow was back this year. She started off her playful self. One day while Drew was out with a guest watching her, he knelt down next to his guest and he said the little bear’s face lit up. She came running at them, tossing her head, thinking it was an invitation to play. Drew jumped quickly to his feet and told her no. He said her face fell and she walked sadly away. Another day Drew witnessed her come upon a black bear on the beach. He said again her face lit up and she tore off after it, tossing her head to play. The black bear ran away traumatized, thinking it was being attacked and she walked away again, head hung low. She had a mate this year and brought him to the yard to show off. It was very funny, he started cowboy walking to impress her, but she only cocked her head confused and slammed her feet on the ground for him to stop. Later that summer I saw her cowboy walk at a boar, she is very gender confused. The rest of the summer, she seemed to have grown up and found us much less interesting. This was sad, but an unavoidable eventuality.
The three siblings were also back from last year, and though on their second summer without their mother, they were still together a lot. I learned so much from them this season. Their interactions are intriguing and they are so comfortable with us. One day, Drew and I had a group watching the two sisters play. A young male passing behind us suddenly turned into our group – it was the brother trying to get to his sisters. He didn’t mind cutting through us, but we did and shooed him around. He was down wind by the time he circled around us, so when he approached the females, they did not know him. They became upset, popping jaws and slamming the ground with their front feet and began to run away, until he began calling to them. He huffed softly and submissively, it wasn’t a vocalization I had heard, but it worked. They recognized him vocally and immediately relaxed, coming over to nuzzle him and play.
On another occasion the three were playing together. They would take turns, one would nose another, as if choosing a partner, and those two would attack and chase the third sibling. Then it would stop running, run back and nose one of the chasers and those two would chase the odd man out. It was so intelligently planned gaming, I was very impressed.
We get a lot of close encounters during the fishing season and this year was no exception. The bears, once on fish, are so focused on eating that they don’t care where we are or what we do. It’s our job to stay out of their way, but they pay us little or no mind. So as bears are running here and there after fish in the water and in each others’ mouths, we get some pretty good shows. One evening I was on the beach with two guests watching one of our most comfortable bears fish. She was running back and forth in front of us, giving a great show as usual. Luck was with us this evening, because for some reason during all this fun I had put down my camera to watch instead of shoot. I was very comfortable with this bear; she would run very near us after each fish. She was the same sow that walked past my front steps every day. We kept an eye on her, but mostly she just didn’t care where we were. On this occasion as she ran towards us, I saw the fish in the stream in front of us and knew she was following it and not after us. Having my camera down on this occasion turned into a blessing, as the fish swam right up on shore at my guest’s feet. Neither of them noticed, they were focused on the beautiful images of the bear boring down on them. I reacted quickly, grabbing my guest and swinging her over against the other guest and out of the path of the 900 lb. train. Then the fish did something even more unexpected, it wriggled along shore back in front of her. As if it was using her as protection. I grabbed her again, she was very confused by this time as they were both still unaware of the fish, and spun her back to where she had been. The fish then wriggled back into the water and downstream, diverting the oncoming bear. This all happened in a matter of seconds and when it was all over I was laughing so hard I could barely explain to the lady why she had been so manhandled. Once I got it out, they were laughing along with me. The other guest accused me of not saving him. And I thanked God for saving us all.
We had a lot of great publicity this year. One of our photographs from Alaska was the cover of The Mile Post this year! I was the guide of this photographer and very proud. There was an article in National Geographic’s Travel magazine about the best National Parks in the U.S. Lake Clark had made the select group, and our lodge was listed as the necessary jumping off point for our several million acre park. So cool. There were also several of our bears and birds in a few issues of Alaska magazine. One of the bears was sitting in our boat in a two page spread photograph.
Our summer season ended, we came home and bought an awesome little cabin in The Caribou Hills outside of Ninilchik. Our little piece of peace, away from work. We’ve spend every second since then making the house into a home.
By: Jenny Hemmes-
Jenny Hemmes, shares stories of being a guide for Alaskan Photographers and Wildlife enthusists at Silver Salmon Creek, in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska.
Reading your article make me want to come up and hang out all summer. Sounds beautiful from your descriptions. The salmon runs in my neck of the woods have taken a steep dive over the past two years. The fish and game department closed the season for two years. I miss my 30 minute battles in landing a 45 lb king. What fun. Thanks for contributing to my moment of deaming. A nice break from a busy week down here in the lower 48.
Jenny, i really appreciate you sharing your story with us. I especially enjoyed the tail of the collared cub, and your characterizations of the cub mothers. The story about the Russians was wonderful. You are now officially the bear whisperer.
Your site is superb I will have to read it all, thank you for the diversion from my professors!
What a wonderful article, and such a precious glimpse into where you live and work. I actually took a deep breath and fiund myself with you for just a moment, and I haven’t done that in a long time…