Preparing for grizzlies
Camping in Grizzly Country. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.
In the beginning, God created man and woman, and He created them to rule over His creation. God also gave men responsibility to lead their families. God designed humans to rely on Him and built into us a longing for the Savior. Although sin has damaged mankind’s relationship with God, in His goodness He wants us to be a part of the adventure of restoring His kingdom on earth, as it is in Heaven (Luke 11:2-3). And while God has also given women a sense of adventure, men are, on average, much more likely to undertake an expedition involving danger and unknown risks. Built into them from the beginning, men instinctively feel the “call of the wild”, and with this come desires to tame and conquer something. Many believe that such instincts are “primitive”, and that as we evolve, we will eventually lose these desires to conquer. Such ideas are foolish, and are often the result of feminism. Feminism stems from a desire to “control” men. It results in a backwards-thinking society. But feminism also results when men fail to lead as fathers and husbands. God’s plan for families is for men to be the head of the household, and women to be “suitable helpers” in this (Genesis 2:18). In the most functional families I know, the husband and wife understand their God-given positions.
As the head of the house, men need to love their wives and children, and take care not to have their sense of adventure misplaced. For a man with a family, his number one adventure should be in caring for them, in venturing into the unknown world of changing dirty diapers, helping with the laundry, and loving and caring for his wife and children. But men also need to conquer new lands and test their limits, and for some that may be accomplished through the reading of a book. For others, they may need to test their limits in sports or the business world. And for myself and thousands of others each summer, the massive wilderness of Alaska calls us to come and test our wilderness skills, so our 2005 camp was hardly finished when we were planning for 2006.
Once again we turned to our outfitter, Joe Schuster for assistance in finding a place that would be more remote and wild than Lake Creek. In planning a trip into the wilderness, and for that matter, in making everyday decisions, we must continuously ask ourselves “how much risk am I willing to take?” Determining what equates to a “reasonable” amount of risk is a difficult thing, whether the venture is a new business opportunity or a trip into lands where grizzlies significantly outnumber humans. One trip Joe suggested was down American Creek in Katmai National Park. Filled with lunker rainbows, swarms of sockeyes, and LOTS of grizzly bears, this sounded like the place for us!
The men who would go on the 2006 trip consisted of almost all “repeat Lake Creek customers”, including Mike Boriack and son John, Mitch Eichelberger and son Ryan, Troy Finney and sons Sean and Sam, Rob Sadowski, and my step-son, Kenny Cole. Rob had either participated in, or worked alongside me in virtually every Alaska Camp and Texas Marine Science Camp I had directed over the past 10 years. An avid outdoorsman, Rob’s bear-like size and strength were a welcome part of our 2006 trip to American Creek. Rob did a fantastic job the following year guiding 3 Alaskan float trips back-to-back, an amazing and physically exhausting feat. Our one newcomer was Kenny’s friend, Jacob Duke. An avid outdoorsman who had spent many years hunting in West Texas, we were confident in his abilities to handle the unexpected.
While the remoteness of American Creek was not something to take lightly, we knew we must also concern ourselves with the river we had chosen to traverse. In his book, Wild Men, Wild Alaska, famous Alaskan guide Rocky Mcelveen exclaimed that a wild river “is like a woman, it’s trying to tell you something but you have to listen!” So we listened when Joe told us what he knew about American Creek, and we read books like Karen Jettmar’s The Alaskan River Guide, which helped prepare us for American Creek’s unique personality. If rivers truly were like women, we were about to learn that this one was beautiful, but suffered from a fairly serious case of schizophrenia!
Of course, our biggest hurdle to overcome was grizzlies, or so we thought. We had only seen one grizzly and maybe a dozen black bears on our trips to Lake Creek, with the black bears keeping their distance for the most part, except for the one that stole a carelessly-placed fish carcass not 20 feet from Mike. On American Creek, all indications were that we might see one or more bears per mile on this 40-mile trip. Even if the other outfitters making these claims were over-exaggerating, we could still expect to see many more bears than on Lake Creek. Phone calls to the Katmai National Park Headquarters in King Salmon confirmed our expectations, and park rangers guaranteed we would see grizzlies, and would more than likely have some close encounters. And we listened carefully when the rangers told us how some Park rangers had serious problems with bears on an American Creek float trip conducted the previous year. Apparently they had walked downriver to fish, leaving the camp unattended. When they returned they found their campsite had been destroyed by three rowdy “teenage” bears.
Now we knew what Rule Number 1 would be: don’t leave camp unattended! But if you must leave camp, one way to bear-proof it is with an electric fence. This was also recommended by the Park Service, as well as by other “bear people”, like author Charlie Russell. While not a scientist, Russell spent many years among the grizzlies of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. In his book Grizzly Heart, Russell is adamant about the use of electric fences in any situation where the potential for bear/human interactions is high. So on our first trip in 2006, we brought along a bulky, solar-powered model, which turned out to be Mistake Number 1.
Our biggest question for this trip was how we would deter bears, especially the aggressive ones. I know some people are into the idea that when you enter wilderness, you are entering “their” land. However, this is not how the Bible reads. I have mentioned this before and will mention it again, Scripture clearly states that God gave humans the responsibility to rule over His creation, so when we enter an untamed wilderness, we are supposed to be in charge, not the plants and animals. God did not tell the ducks, river otters, and grizzlies that it was their responsibility to rule over Creation; He gave the job to us! However, we are also responsible for how we treat the life that is there. I was of the mindset that we would leave the bears alone, but if they showed any interest in us or our campsites, we would deter them with everything we had. If a bear was casually walking along the shore opposite our campsite, I would leave it alone, but if it was casually walking along on the same shoreline as our campsite, I would start by yelling, and if that didn’t work, give a few blasts on a portable air horn.
If the air horn didn’t work, we brought bear spray. Bear spray is the name given to canisters containing oleoresin capsicum, a fancy name for “pepper extract in oil”. In 1999, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Commission released guidelines for choosing an effective bear spray. They recommended bear sprays containing a 1 to 2% concentration of capsaicinoids, the compounds responsible for making red peppers “hot”. The canister should hold enough for a minimum 6-second spray duration at distances of 25 feet or more, which equates to about 7.9 ounces (225 grams) of spray.
We have never had to use a can of spray, at least on bears anyways. If you bring the recommended size, they are quite bulky, and space is usually limited on rafts to begin with. For whatever reason, our trips usually have at least one non-bear related pepper spray incident. In one instance, Troy wanted to get a little “taste” of the spray to see how spicy it was. He squirted some out, not thinking about the swirling wind, which blew the spray right back into his face! Fortunately, he had only sprayed a tiny amount, and the pain was gone in a few minutes. In another accident, Mike had a can lying loose in the bottom of his raft. Normally, the spray would be in a better place, but it had fallen from the storage area, and on top of that, the safety pin was broken. When Mike jumped in after a routine stop, he set off the can, receiving a direct hit to the face. This put him out of commission for several hours, and days later he could still taste and smell pepper spray whenever the sweat would bring the oily residue dripping off his brow.
In my experience, pepper spray has proven to be more of a nuisance than anything, and I am not completely convinced of its effectiveness. Most bear attacks occur from surprising bears, and by the time you remove the canister from its holster, release the safety pin, and spray, it could be too late. The spray may not work, too, as was the case in July 2008 for some Denali National Park technicians. According to the Fairbanks Daily News, “an attempt to divert the bear with pepper spray was ineffective” against an attacking black bear. And in December 2003, one of the world’s leading bear scientists, Vityaly Nikolayenko, was killed by a male grizzly. The half-eaten body of Nikolayenko was found with an empty can of pepper spray lying nearby. I would still recommend bringing pepper spray along on any trip into grizzly country, just to have as many options available as possible.
The Denali technicians who were unable to deter a bear with pepper spray were able to subdue it with a slug from a 12-gauge shotgun. This is the weapon of choice in Alaska for defending against an attacking bear. Unlike conventional shotgun shells, slugs are basically a chunk of lead, and are incredibly effective at close range. A 2-3/4 to 3-inch “sabot” style hardened lead slug is a good choice. If you are used to shotguns, but have never shot a slug before, I highly recommend that you practice a few times, because, with over an ounce of lead inside, the slugs can give quite a kick compared to regular shot. We practiced before our first trip, and were able to tell a pretty good difference between the slugs and the regular 12-gauge shells. If you are charged by a bear and it is still closing with less than 50 feet (15 meters) to go, then take aim between the eyes and fire. A brain shot is the most effective at bringing down a bear, but more often than not, 3 or 4 shots are required, so make sure you have several shells in the chamber.
I am not going to advise venturing into grizzly-filled lands without a shotgun loaded with slugs, but if you are a novice with guns (like myself), you should definitely invest in a can or two of bear spray, and keep one clipped to your belt (not stored away) at all times. In his book, Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual, bear expert Stephen Stringham suggests that, compared to guns, pepper spray is less-likely to cause retaliation when fired, is easier to keep handy, and less likely to be dropped during an attack, as you can fire the spray while still attached to the holster. Bear expert Charlie Russell has lived safely among swarms of bears for many summers on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, and has never carried more than pepper spray and an electric fence. To my knowledge, Russell has never even used his spray. Opportunities for failure exist for both guns and pepper spray, but having both deterrents along on a trip is better than just one.
Another effective deterrent of bears is a large group. While on a float plane from King Salmon into Katmai National Park’s famous Brooks Falls bear viewing area, I chatted with a resident Alaskan who had done quite a bit of reading about bears and bear attacks, and he said that no group of 5 or more people had ever been attacked by a bear. I thought this was great advice. I have floated American Creek twice, encountering at least 200 bears on those trips, and have never had one react in a way where I thought it needed a slug between the eyes, although some of the other campers may have felt otherwise! Almost any bear that we wanted to deter was easily dealt with by a few shouts or blasts on an air horn. And I do mean “almost”, as we had a few that did not respond to sounds of any kind. These were usually larger, older bears, and I don’t know if they were hard of hearing, or if they just really weren’t impressed with all our noise-making. And we always traveled in groups of 5 or more, which I really do think helped.
Applications from Lake Creek
God has designed our minds to think deductively, where we apply rules in a new situation, and inductively, where we find rules. Scripture, mathematics, and engineering are deductive in nature, while science is more inductive, where you draw conclusions from observations made. All of the best educational programs train students to think deductively and inductively. And prior experience does great wonders in developing your deductive skills in the wilderness, and we had learned many things on our Lake Creek trip that we could now apply on American Creek. In regards to bears, we had learned that spooking a bear was the worst possible thing you could do, so we made plenty of noise anytime we were hiking. We dared not surprise a mother with her cubs or a grouchy old male at rest in his daybed. Every hike into the woods or along a stream was done with a persistent calling of “hey bear!” every 10-15 seconds. We first started our “hey bear!” routine on Lake Creek, especially near the mouth of the river where signs of grizzlies were much more common, and we applied this technique without fail anytime we entered the woods or wandered along the shores of American Creek.
We also applied what we learned about rafting on Lake Creek. We had become adept at steering and maneuvering our boats through “rock gardens”, around treacherous fallen logs known as “sweepers”, over small waterfalls and class I-IV rapids. We learned how rowing backwards would slow us down and give us increased maneuverability at important times, especially when navigating past fallen logs, and around sharp bends. At these times, if you did not slow down and gain control, you could end up slamming into a tree and impaling the boat, or even yourself, with the mangled ends of branches and roots, or you could slam into a shore and puncture the raft on brush and sharp rocks. Flying past these spots at top speeds was never a good idea. About the only time speeding up was a good idea was if there was a small waterfall that could potentially suck the raft backwards into it. In this case, adding a little burst of speed to clear the base of the waterfall was helpful. Of course, you could always “line” a raft (get out and walk while the raft passes through on the end of ropes) through treacherous-looking places.
On Lake Creek we learned to “read” the water, and developed a knack for always looking ahead a hundred yards or so, scanning the water’s surface and it’s movements to determine the best route. Every river truly does have its own “personality”, and its mood is greatly affected by water levels. You can read a lot about rivers and rafting before you take a float trip, and you should, but a huge part of rafting is inductive. You just have to do it gain experience. In one river, you become adept at finding the deepest channels, and knowing whether the riffle up ahead will be deep enough for your raft to cross. But then you go to a different river, and it’s almost like you have to relearn it all again. Riffles that look the same and were passable on the previous stream now cause your raft to get stuck. Even the rock shapes are different, with one river having smooth rocks and boulders, while the new river has some that are so sharp and jagged that they pop your raft. Each river tests you mentally and physically in new and different ways.
A new experience for us on American Creek was that it was extremely shallow in many places, so shallow that we would have to get out and walk the rafts, sometimes for hundreds of yards. And American Creek was also full of braids, which were a learning experience indeed, and gave us quite a scare on more than one occasion. I will discuss the braids more in Chapter 9.
We also applied what we learned about fishing on Lake Creek, and many of our tactics worked equally well. Two new fish that we had not caught on Lake Creek were Arctic char and lake trout. Being the incredibly intelligent people that we were, we decided that we should try to fish for lake trout in, of all places, the lake! And guess what? Within 5 minutes of unloading the plane, Rob had landed a nice 20-incher. We also caught quite a few “lakers” in the short stream connecting Hammersly Lake and Murray Lake. Our trip started on Hammersly Lake, a deep and clear lake that served as the headwaters of American Creek.
Rob with the first lake trout caught on our 2006 trip. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann
Arctic char up to 30 inches were plentiful in American Creek, following the sockeye salmon to their spawning grounds. Along with the rainbow trout, they eagerly awaited directly behind the spawning salmon, hoping to pick off eggs that drifted out of the redd. Egg patterns and prince nymphs worked great on trout and char, as did Cabelas’ white crystal bugger flies. For spinning tackle, the #4 Blue Foxes were at it again, catching many char, rainbows, and even a few sockeye. Sockeyes were the only salmon we saw or caught in American Creek, which was a bit of a disappointment, but the salmon made up for the lack of diversity with their incredible numbers. We used streamers for sockeye as well. Unfortunately, our chartreuse Saltwater Assassins did not produce as well, but they only really worked on kings, silvers, and pinks in Lake Creek, none of which were present in American Creek. We also did not catch any grayling in American Creek, and I have not heard of others catching them, either.
Some of the most important lessons learned from Lake Creek had to do with what tastes good in the wild! Any time you fly in a plane, weight is always an issue, so dried products are always preferred. We liked to bring some fresh produce like apples and salad, but besides produce, eggs, and sausage, everything else was dried or had little water. Oatmeal, rice, pasta and quinoa were our grains of choice. Sugar and spices, dried mixes and powdered milk made the trip. Foods dense in fat, protein and carbohydrates were packed in, including trail mix, jerky, and Clif bars. Everything was proportioned out to minimize waste but also to ensure stomachs would be full, which, when you have a bunch of teenage boys along, is an almost impossible task.
The Moose’s Tooth and Iliamna weather don’t mix!
We scheduled our first trip to Katmai National Park in late July of 2006. Rob, Mike and John Boriack, and myself would be the first to depart, and would assemble the rafts and campsite. Before departing, we had a hearty meal at the Moose’s Tooth. Named after an Alaskan mountain ridge, The Moose’s Tooth is one of the most popular restaurants in Anchorage, and is known for their homemade pizza and beer. We ordered two of our favorite pizzas, the “brewhouse favorite”, and a “blackened halibut” pizza. This would be our last “real” food before leaving civilization. The metabolism of teenage boys is truly amazing, and I was surprised at how much blackened halibut pizza they could consume. Healthy and fit as a horses, they probably burned more calories while sitting still than I did after a 3-mile run.
With our stomachs satisfied, we headed to Joe’s floatplane, loaded the gear and departed around 6 pm. Our destination, Hammersly Lake, was over two hours away. I sat in the passenger seat opposite our trusted pilot, Joe Schuster, and John, Mike and Rob were fit together snugly in the back. We took off and headed southwest, across Cook Inlet and into Lake Clark Pass. Lined with jagged mountains and glacier-filled valleys, Lake Clark Pass was a sight to behold. Before entering Lake Clark Pass, I spotted Big River Lakes and Wolverine Creek where I had seen my first Alaskan grizzly! Excited at seeing a familiar place, I was awestruck as we headed through the pass, with mountains and glaciers towering above us. We continued out of the pass, into Lake Clark National Park and over the lake for which it was named. The small village of Port Alsworth was to our left. As we continued on, the wind began to blow stronger, and rain drops pelted the windshield. The wind was in excess of 20 knots and gusty, and in a DeHavilland Beaver float plane, that equates to a bumpy, roller coaster-like ride. Lake Clark pass can be treacherous, especially if fog unexpectedly settles in, but it also provides shelter from the frequent strong winds of Southwest Alaska that were now giving us a rather unfriendly welcome. After about 30 minutes of being bumped and tossed, I smelled a familiar odor. I thought to myself, “that sure smells like Moose’s Tooth pizza!”. Then I remembered we had eaten all the pizza and did not bring any leftovers on the plane. Oh no, somebody had lost their fine Moose’s Tooth dinner! And even worse, the plane was not equipped with “barf bags”! Fortunately, the one who lost his dinner had worn waterproof chest waders, which made cleanup a lot less painful.
A glacier as seen from Lake Clark Pass. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.
We still had about an hour left in our flight, and the wind kept getting stronger. And in a float plane, the stronger the headwind, the slower is your forward progress. We continued to the southwest, and our next big landmark was Lake Iliamna. This region of Southwest Alaska was often called “Iliamna”, after the lake. As with other names in Alaska, their meanings have been lost, but one suggestion is that it is Athabascan in origin and probably means “large water”. With a surface area of 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers), it is the largest lake in Alaska and 8th largest in the United States. The beautiful blue waters of this oligotrophic (nutrient-deficient) lake extended for miles. Almost like an inland sea, Lake Iliamna supports a population of animals normally found in marine ecosystems, seals. Only a few other places, including Lakes Baikal and Ladoga in Russia, are home to freshwater seal populations.
Little is known about the Iliamna seals, but we spotted several as we flew over the north shore near the town of Iliamna. Mike spotted them first, and after we landed mentioned he saw something black that “looked like seals” on the rocks below. In my infinite storehouse of scientific knowledge, I ignored Mike’s comments and assured him that those “seals” were black bears. However, I was humbled later when we learned of Iliamna’s freshwater seal population from another camper who had researched the lake. Everyone got a good laugh at my expense. It always seems to be quite the memorable occasion when “the scientist” in the group makes a major taxonomic blunder, and I seem to give my students plenty of opportunities for correcting my mistakes.
After Iliamna Lake, we flew over Kukaklek Lake, followed by Nonvianuk Lake. Once we crossed Nonvianuk Lake, we were in Katmai National Park, and minutes away from our destination at Hammersly Lake. With the wind still blowing strong, Joe circled the lake and chose the southern shore where the short stream from Murray Lake entered. We unloaded on a sandbar, and we also unloaded the Moose’s Tooth pizza that had made such an untimely escape from one camper’s alimentary canal. The scenery had been spectacular, but we were all glad the plane ride was over. We scouted out the beach, and quickly realized we were sharing the sandbar with a family of nesting Semipalmated Plovers. It seemed almost impossible that this little bird, and its even tinier chicks, had built a nest in the open on this exposed, pebbly beach. However, the chick’s camouflaging was remarkable and easy to miss, so we marked off their nest to avoid tripping on it.
Semipalmated Plover Chick. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.
Because of the wind, the flight took longer than expected, and Joe headed out into the fading light, low on fuel, but at least with the wind at his back. He was able to stop in Port Alsworth and refuel, making it safely back to Anchorage. We set up our tent, caught a few lake trout, and took in the scenery. Hammersly Lake was situated at about 1600 ft (500 m) above sea level, nestled in a U-shaped glacial valley. Like Chelatna Lake, Hammersly Lake was formed by the damming action of a tributary glacier’s terminal moraine. In many glacial valleys, the timing of a glacier’s retreat can be followed, as one or more moraines are visible. This was evident here, as the short distance between Hammersly and Murray Lake was filled by the remnants of another terminal moraine, indicating where the glacier’s retreat had halted for a time before continuing on and forming Murray Lake.
Campsite on our first night at Hammersly Lake. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.
Hammersly Lake was named after Rufus Knox “Bill” Hammersly, a trapper and gold prospector who lived in the area in the early to mid-1900’s. Lake Murray was named after Sam Murray, a trapper who knew the American Creek drainage well. The U-shaped valley was flanked by mountains so steep and rocky that we felt as if we were surrounded by charcoal-gray curtains that rose to about 4,000 feet (1200 m) above sea level. To the north, the mountains dissipated, giving way to tundra-covered drumlins, recessional moraines, and outwash plains dotted with kettle lakes, formed when massive chunks of glacial ice melted. The shoreline of Hammersly Lake was lined with a mixture of short alder bushes and tundra, and less than a thousand feet above it, almost all plant life ceased to grow. Even though summer had been in full swing for a month, snow was still present all the way down to the lake shore.
As we stood on the windswept shore, we started to realize the vastness of the wilderness we just entered. Grizzly tracks were present, but the lack of fresh scat told us there were probably not any recent visitors. The sockeye salmon had not made it upstream that far yet, and the bears knew this. Nevertheless, we anticipated encounters with grizzlies, and we planned accordingly, placing our tent on the open sandbar and next to a small patch of alders for protection from the wind. After Joe’s plane departed, the only sounds were the wind blowing across the tundra. I had been other places where the only sounds were the wilderness, but it was different here, because we knew that civilization was a very long ways away. The satellite phone would be arriving the next day, which made it seem a little more remote than I would have liked. When in wilderness like this, I will suddenly get an overwhelming sense of being alone in the wild. The feeling is like a two-edged sword, frightful on one side and exhilarating on the other. I think the fear comes from the thought of something bad happening and not reaching help in time, but the exhilaration comes from knowing that you are surrounded by miles and miles of uninhabited and unfenced territory.
Grizzly Tracks along Hammersly Lake. Grizzlies don't like walking on the soft tundra, and prefer to walk in previously-made footprints. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann
It was as if our float plane was a time machine, and Joe had set it on about 4000 B.C., the approximate time of God’s creative act. And here we were, ready to explore this magnificient, mostly untamed wilderness. It reminded me of how Adam must have felt when it was only him, except for Adam it was probably a feeling of total exhilaration, as he had no concept of hospitals, medical care, or satellite phones to call for help. And, sin had not yet entered the world. It was just Adam and God, and all Adam knew is that he could trust God to be there for him. In our busy society, we often forget that God is in control, and we catch ourselves relying on computers, phones, fast food restaurants, Wikipedia, and wonder drugs for our “salvation”. But God knew we would have wild places and we would have cities, and he designed us to take dominion of both. Wherever we are, we should always remember to trust Christ alone for our salvation, and be thankful for the opportunity to serve others, and sometimes to be helped ourselves.
So here we were, in a land flowing with clean water, salmon, bears, and berries. As darkness fell around us, we settled into our tents for a good night’s sleep. John and Mike were exhausted, as they had already spent several days prior to our trip taking dominion over the sockeye salmon in the Kenai River. It was a great run that year, and they loaded up on tasty fillets to bring back home. We all fell asleep, but a few hours later I was awakened by the tent pushing on my face. In Texas, the wind almost always settles down at night, but I was quickly learning that the weather in Iliamna was similar to that of the Pribilof Islands, where low-pressure systems pass through like miniature hurricanes. The wind would pick up and up, increasing and changing direction, and slowly calm down as the storm passed on. And by 3 AM, with the tent pressing against my face, I was realizing that one of those low-pressure weather systems must be heading right for us! We got up and added several more anchors to the Cabelas Alaskan Guide tent, which did the trick.
The next morning the winds had calmed, but were still gusting to 20 knots. We were starting to realize why the treeline in most of Katmai National Park was only 1000 ft (300 m) above sea level. Above that, only alders and some willows of 8 foot or less grew, along with tundra. The cold and constant winds of Iliamna were just too much for larger trees. For comparision, consider Rocky Mountain National Park, where the treeline is around 11,500 ft (3500 m), over 10 times higher than Katmai’s!
The tundra was a fascinating, weaving, spongy mesh of plants and lichens. One of the most prominent parts of the tundra was the lichen known as “reindeer lichen”, a white, branching liken that looked a lot like coral. Lichens are actually a combination of two organisms, fungi and algae. The fungi attach to rather inhospitable surfaces that normally don’t sustain life, such as rocks and tree branches. The algae that live with them provide food through photosynthesis, while the fungi give the algae shelter. This incredible symbiotic relationship allows lichens to grow where nothing else can. Once established on a rocky landscape, the lichens provide support for other plants, and a maze of intertwining lichens and plants takes shape.
We made breakfast, read the Bible, and then set up the rafts, and at 9:30 decided to hike up to Murray Lake. Hammersly Lake was about 5 miles (8 km) long, and Murray Lake was only about 3 miles (5 km). The distance between the two lakes was a little over 1 mile, but it was surprisingly difficult hiking across the spongy tundra. When we arrived at Murray Lake’s outflow, we were greeted by a short but beautiful waterfall, beneath which a small school of hungry lake trout readily hit our lures. We didn’t stay long, as we expected the rest of the campers at any time. As we headed back down, we fished a deep pool, and I caught a nice rainbow over two feet long. It was a very fat and healthy hook-jawed male, and the largest rainbow I had ever landed. We snapped a quick photo and released it back to its domain.
Waterfall at outflow of Murray Lake. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.
Landing a nice rainbow trout in the stream between Murray Lake and Hammersly Lake. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann
For fishermen, some fish are just more memorable than others. As I write this, I can still remember the pool with its clear green waters and tan-colored bottom, and the lake trout and rainbows rushing to my lure like kids to an ice cream truck, all wanting to be first. I had been to wild places before, but I felt that this place was one that an extremely small number of people had ever visited, and that I may have been the first person this large old trout had ever seen. I was more than happy to release this one to produce more of his kind and perhaps thrill another angler or feed a bear some day.
As we continued back to camp, we realized that the wind had picked up considerably, and we were startled to see our tents were blown almost flat in the 30+ knot gusts. We thought there was no way the other campers would arrive that day, and by noon we had started to commit to the thought of being on our own another night. Suddenly though, we heard the distinct hum of a float plane, and sure enough, it was Joe and a second plane bringing the rest of the campers and supplies! We really couldn’t believe it, as we thought our plane trip had been rough, but the wind wasn’t nearly as strong as what they just flew through. Even Joe learned a lesson from the trip the night before, and managed to bring along some barf bags this time. Not surprisingly, several campers exited the planes clutching their now-full bags. In our shock of seeing the planes, we had forgotten about our tents, which were now almost parallel to the ground, and Joe casually mentioned to us that we might want to go ahead and take the tents down. We quickly acknowledged him and had the tents down in seconds. We unloaded the rest of the gear and Joe and the other pilot flew back to Anchorage.
Joe Schuster flying in a wind storm. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.
After we finished assembling the rafts, our first priority was to get out of the wind. Setting the camp up in the alders would definitely accomplish this, but we knew this was not a good idea in grizzly country. We settled on a bluff about a half-mile away and 50 feet up from the lake’s southeast shore. The backs of the tents were against some alders, but judging from the well-worn trails along the lake shore, our new campsite looked like it was off the grizzlies preferred paths. After setting up our new camp, the new arrivals were eager to explore, and they headed off to Murray Lake to catch some trout for dinner. We had a great dinner, and afterwards moved our food away from the camp. Bear-proof containers were required in Katmai National Park, and we stored our food in large plastic drums with locking lids.
Here come the grizzlies!
The next morning, July 19, we awoke to almost calm conditions. Once you made it past the alders, the hiking around Hammersly Lake was simply incredible, and several campers headed off. The hikers took off up the mountain, and the remainder of us rowed the three rafts the length of Hammersly Lake, making camp at the headwaters of American Creek. We stopped to fish a small stream entering the lake along the northeast shore, about a mile from the mouth. Such spots almost always hold fish, as they wait at the confluence for insects and small fish to be washed in. We were immediately greeted with several lake trout, and as is typical of most clear-water fishing, the action slowed in a few minutes.
Hammersly Lake, looking back towards Murray Lake. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.
By now it was late afternoon, and the wind had picked up again. We had still not seen a single bear, and although we knew the grizzlies would be following the salmon run, we were getting a little skeptical of the 50+ grizzlies-per-trip-claims we had heard. The northwest side of the lake outlet had a large pebble beach, but it faced directly into the wind, which was again blowing strong from the southeast. We chose a spot on the northwest side that was protected by a 15-foot bluff, but had almost no shoreline. We did not expect the water to come up, but if it did, we would probably be in for a surprise. We beached the rafts, and moments later, there it was…..we spotted our first sockeye salmon of the trip! A few salmon had made it to the headwaters of American Creek, but judging by their numbers, we could tell the run was just beginning to trickle in. Most of the salmon were still on the lower end of the river.
We tied up the rafts and unloaded some gear, but were eager to fish as well. Rob waded out into the middle of the creek to try for a sockeye, and I decided to go ahead and take a few pictures. I was snapping away and turned towards Rob when, on the opposite shore and not 30 yards behind him, was a mother grizzly and her cub! In a much too casual tone, I said “Hey Rob, look at that bear.” I could see his eyes widen as he turned around. Thinking the bear was probably hundreds of yards away, Rob was so surprised to see it so close that he lost his balance and slipped into the river, partially filling his waders.
"Hey Rob, look at that bear." Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.
While Rob struggled to gain composure, the bear and cub casually strolled along the shore for a while, and then turned north and headed up and over a ridge. Looking back, I think the mother was scouting for salmon, and seeing that there were few in the area, they headed northwest, which would take them to a downstream section of the river.
When Troy and the rest of the group arrived from hiking, we swapped stories. We told them of the rainbows and lakers we caught and of course the grizzly mother and cub, and they told us of the incredible views, amazing geology, arctic foxes, and beautiful flowers and plants they had seen. It was one of those times I wish I could have been in two places at once, but I was also happy to see the others excitement in their hike, especially Kenny, my step-son. Kenny and I have a great relationship, and while fishing isn’t one of his favorite hobbies, he loves almost all other aquatic activities, including rafting. He is also an amazing wakeboarder and surfer, and a great shot with a spear gun. Since fishing is one of the highlights of any float trip, I was concerned that he would lose interest in the trip, but he absolutely loved it, and found that rafting, hiking, eating, sleeping and just fraternizing with the group while doing “bear watches” were his favorite parts.
Chocolate lily. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.
Wild iris. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann
Camping at the mouth of Hammersly Lake. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann
Eating, one of Kenny's favorite Alaska camp activities. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann
Seeing the grizzlies also made us realize we needed to be more serious about bear-proofing our camp. I just didn’t think bears would bother our large group, but others didn’t feel the same way, and I wasn’t about to force my “expert scientific opinion” on everyone else. We actually ended up with two electric fences, and we set them up, but just as Joe predicted, we would have trouble grounding them. Our electric fences needed a source of electrons in order to work properly, and because our ground was rocks and pebbles with no dirt, there just wasn’t enough contact to establish a good connection. We briefly got the fence working by piling dirt around it, but our batteries were low, and the fading sunlight was not providing enough energy to charge them. We could feel a slight shock when we tested the fence, but that faded away after an hour or so. Quite sure we had picked a good spot and that bears wouldn’t bother us, I dozed off, dreaming of all the amazing sights and sounds I had experienced that day. However, my peaceful slumber would be brief.
Sunset at the mouth of Hammersly Lake. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann