Posted tagged ‘American Creek’

Do we need the Endangered Species Act?

April 30, 2012

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A complex story about trout and people

My first experience catching cutthroat trout was in 1989 while fishing in Grand Teton National Park.

Snake River Finespotted Cutthroat trout, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1989. Note the golden color, typical of cutthroats, along with the lack of spots in the middle (medial region), but increasing towards the tail (caudal region).

Since then, I’ve been blessed with opportunities to fish for trout as far away as Eastern Russia, and as close to home as our family’s pond.

Hatchery rainbow trout from Crystal Lake Fisheries in Ava Missouri, stocked in my pond in Texas for the winter of 2006-07. These are “Emerson strain” rainbow trout, registered with the National Trout Registry. Note the more concentrated spots in the caudal region, similar to the finespotted cutthroat pictured above.

Because trout are both fun to catch and good to eat, they are pursued with passion in the United States and elsewhere.  So much passion in fact, that over the last 150+ years, populations of native species, particularly  the so-called “subspecies” of cutthroat trout (referred to after this as “native” trout), suffered major declines and even extinction. The decline of cutthroats native to certain regions of the western and eastern slopes of the Rockies has been a classic example of the “tragedy of the commons”, where demand for a thing greatly exceeds what nature can supply.

In an effort to meet the demand for trout-filled streams and lakes at the turn of the 20th century, private, state, and federal agencies started building fish hatcheries. Today, virtually everywhere in the United States with trout habitat, you will find a hatchery nearby, ready to add more fish to streams and lakes on a “put and take” basis.

So native trout populations in the American West were first reduced primarily through overfishing, but also from habitat destruction. Today, the major threat to native trout populations comes from stocking nonnative trout, primarily brown trout and brook trout which tend to drive out the cutts, but also rainbow trout, with which cutts readily hybridize.

Brown trout from the Jemez River, New Mexico, 2012. The Jemez River is former habitat for Rio Grande cutthroat trout, which now occupy only about 10% of their historic range. Eastern Russia’s lenok trout (see photo below) lack the red spots of the brown trout, and brown trout lack the “cut”, but the two species do share similarities in color and shape with each other and with many other trout populations across Eurasia.

State and federal fisheries managers want to satisfy the great economic incentive of having trout-filled streams and lakes. For example, the value of trout stockings by the Leadville Fish Hatchery in Colorado is estimated at $2.75 million annually. And while many Rocky Mountain hatcheries are moving towards production of native trout, they also feel compelled to satisfy the desire of folks to just catch a trout, especially the highly esteemed (overesteemed?) rainbow. Originally from the McCloud River, a tributary of California’s Sacramento River, rainbow trout have probably been introduced to more places worldwide than any other fish species. They have misplaced and reduced native species time and again. And about the same time Hitler and his army of fools were applying social Darwinism, miles and miles of American streams were being poisoned to remove “inferior” species, replacing them with the “superior” rainbow. An excellent account of the history of rainbow trout stocking can be found in Anders Halverson’s An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World.

Greenback Cutthroat Trout, Leadville National Fish Hatchery, Colorado, 2010. Note the bright pink-red patch over the gill and along the side, similar to the Alaskan rainbows(see photos below). The Leadville Hatchery stocks rainbow trout, as well as Snake River and Greenback cutthroat trout.

So while native populations are making a comeback in places, their progress is stymied when government agencies set tight regulations and catch limits on nonnative trout, in effect protecting something that maybe doesn’t need so much protection. But in America, governments are designed to be run by the citizens, so if we want our government to change the regulations, we need to change our thinking about what we want. Do we want to simply catch a trout and have a successful trip and a tasty meal? Or do we want to have a fishing experience unique to a particular area’s natural history and culture? We should want both, but it is obvious enough that we could do more regarding the latter. Communities should work harder to patiently remove nonnative trout and reestablish native trout species. This can be done in a way that also satisfies the desire to simply catch and eat trout, regardless of species.

What is a species?

But what in the world is a “species” anyways? According to the1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA), the term ‘‘endangered species’’ means any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. And the term ‘‘species’’ includes any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature. All species classifications are ultimately based on human decisions, driven by our desire to group things using a system that organizes first by kingdoms, then phyla, classes, orders, families, genera, and species. Species are often broken down into subspecies, as is the case with cutthroats.

Clumpers versus splitters

One problem with the ESA’s definition of species is that it pretty-much ignores the idea of Biblical kinds, while introducing the false concept of “fixity of species”, first introduced by Aristotle. The Biblical kinds, also known as “baramins”, are actually a better, yet still imperfect, way to think about living organisms. Populations that readily hybridize, especially naturally, suggest (but do not prove) common ancestry, while those that don’t readily hybridize may be from different baramins. Thinking of life’s diversity in terms of baramins allows us to account for unity while acknowledging that some genetic and epigentic changes are inevitable as time passes.

Taxonomists are usually either “clumpers” or “splitters”. Clumpers think more in terms of baramins, while splitters think more along the lines of how the ESA defines a species. Sometimes “clumpers rule”, while other times it’s the splitters. For example, at the turn of the 20th century, taxonomists had convinced themselves that over 80 sub-species of grizzly bear (Ursos arctos) existed. Today, there are only 2 subspecies, so as far as grizzly taxonomy is concerned, “clumpers rule” (NOTE: Grizzlies hybridize with polar bears, forming “pizzly” bears!)

It is unfortunate that, regarding the ESA, “splitters rule”. By defining a species as a “distinct population segment”, ESA listings slap a false fixity on populations.  But populations are not designed to stay “distinct” forever, so the ESA is actually promoting an impossible dream rather than anything that resembles reality. And for evolutionists who believe there are almost no limits to how much a thing can change, the logical conclusion for them is that all current populations are in danger of extinction!

Of course, neither the ESA’s “splitter” definition of species, or the evolutionist’s reasoning about life’s diversity, are helpful in describing reality. The reality is that organisms are designed to adapt and diversify, within limits, by naturally aquiring some genetic and epigenetic changes over time. This is what both Scripture and science confirm. 

Cutthroats are a prime example of how slight genetic and epigenetic changes over time can result in visibly distinct populations. Scientists have found that of the 16 so-called subspecies of cutts, their genetic diversity suggests they are virtually all identical, with westslope cutthroat populations sharing more in common with rainbow trout than with other cutts (Allendorf and Leary, 1988). In spite of their incredible similarities, 3 are currently listed as “threatened” under the ESA, one may make the list in 2014 (Rio Grande cutt), and the rest are either extinct (two subspecies) or considered to be of conservation concern (Pritchard et al, 2007).

How can this be? If genetics is the key to distinguishing between species, then it says these are all basically the same “kind”, with differences occurring at a few DNA base pairs here and there. To make matters even more confusing, Pritchard et al found that Rio Grande cutts in headwater streams above natural barriers were statistically less genetically diverse than their downstream cousins. So for “splitters”, not only do we have subspecies, we have sub-subspecies! Where will it end? The genetic tools we have for identifying differences in populations are truly amazing, but the information acquired can potentially make things much more complex than necessary, especially if you’re a “splitter” and feel compelled to classify cutthroats as sub-species, and then some.

Genetic drift happens

Salmonids are known to rapidly diversify, in less than 10 generations, into reproductively isolated populations. Applying this fact to the ESA’s species definition of “distinct population segments”, in 50 years or less, and assuming “splitters rule”, we could have dozens and dozens of new candidates for the ESA, possibly resulting in more and more restrictions on habitat use by humans. And then what will we do to maintain partitioning of these new and “distinct population segments”, create manmade barriers to prevent them from interbreeding with other segments? I would hope not! As far as trout diversity is concerned, it would be wise to get back to letting the “clumpers rule”, lest we end up overwhelming ourselves with more classifications, regulations, restrictions, and taxes to pay for the mess we’ve made.

No biologist, whether they are creationists or evolutionists, believe in fixity of species, but here we have the ESA anyways, trying desperately to prevent the natural fact that genetic drift happens.

Prior to the 1973 Endangered Species Act, fisheries managers across the West sacrificed diversity for the sake of unity, stocking the “superior” rainbow everywhere. But now with the ESA, we have a complete reversal, with unity (trout are one big family) sacrificed for diversity ( “subspecies” and “distinct population segments”). There has to be a better way.

Imagine no ESA

So do we need the ESA? No. What Americans need to do instead is stop waiting for handouts from the federal government via ESA listings, and instead encourage communities to responsibly restore and preserve the natural history in their region. And in the case of native trout, we need to work towards stocking them more and nonnative trout less.

Consider the Rio Grande cutthroat, for example. Organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity proudly exclaim that their work resulted in Rio Grande cutts being eligible for the Endangered Species list in 2014. But all this really means is more regulations, taxes, and “takings” of property by the federal government to protect a population that apparently already has many “distinct population segments”, and may have dozens more in 100 years. Instead of waiting around for an Endangered Species listing, what if instead local private and public groups made an effort to remove nonnative trout while also propagating Rio Grande cutts for reintroduction? This could be done slowly and patiently, one stream at a time, all without the help of the ESA.

We also know that all cutthroat subspecies will hybridize with each other, as well as with rainbow trout. And since rainbow trout are so genetically similar to cutts, we shouldn’t get too worked up about them interbreeding and waste tax dollars with over-hyped eradication programs. We just need to adjust the rules and get Rocky Mountain fishermen educated and involved in harvesting more rainbows, plus browns and brookies, while simultaneously restocking with native trout.  And for those interested in catching native rainbows, they should head to Alaska, Canada, or Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, where native ‘bows are plentiful.

Native Rainbow Trout from Lake Creek, Alaska, 2005. Note the reddish-pink patch on its gill cover, typical of lower Lake Creek Rainbows.

Native Rainbow Trout, American Creek, Alaska. 2007. Note the bright red-pink cheek and side, similar to the Lake Creek Rainbow, but also similar to the Greenback Cutthroat Trout. Sometimes, these rainbows have a faint “cut” under their lower jaw, similar to other cutthroat trout.

And speaking of Russia, all the way across the Pacific, near Vladivostok, I have caught lenok trout that display a distinctive “cut” on their throat, and in a way seem similar to both brown and cutthroat trout. It seems that trout really are just one big family, or baramin, containing both unity and diversity.

Closeup of the Lenok trout’s “cut”. Although not as bright as the cut found on many cutthroats, it is a cut nevertheless, and a key identifying trait of all cutthroats.

Lenok trout from stream near Vladivostok, Russia, 2010. Note the golden coloration and large spots, similar to patterns on many cutthroat sub-species.

What is a gene?

Trout were first classified based on phenotype (what they look like on the outside). But now that we also know their genotypes (what their genes look like), we can more readily discern whether a population of cutts has hybridized with rainbows, even if we cannot tell by phenotype alone. But for the people who are most interested in their preservation and restoration, namely fishermen, there is little interest in how much or how little they differ at a few microsatellites (small pieces of DNA a few base pairs in length that are used to distinguish between populations). So now that species and subspecies are being determined by genetic markers, the question of “what is a species?” should be followed with “what is a gene?”

Not surprisingly, scientists are having an equally hard time answering that question, as new information about cell complexity continues to gush forth like water over Yellowstone Falls. Long gone is the simplistic view of genes as neatly arranged beads on a string of DNA. So too is the “one gene makes one protein” idea, as we now know that one gene can code for tens, and in some cases hundreds of different proteins. Not only that, scientists are learning more about epigenetics and things like methyl tags that turn genes on and off. In The Mysterious Epigenome, Woodward and Gills provide a helpful analogy, describing the genes as ships and epigenetics as the captains. Without the captain’s direction, the ship does nothing. But the question remains, from where did the captain get his orders? The self-evident answer is that a Designer gave the orders (Romans 1:20).

And so it seems, the more we learn about cell complexity and epigenetics, the more difficult it becomes to truly define separate trout species based on genetic markers. Genetic markers alone do not tell the whole story of the unity and diversity we see in the trout family. Oncorhynchus mykiss (rainbow trout) and Oncorhynchus clarkii (cutthroat trout) are classified as different species based on pre-Civil War observations of phenotype alone. Today though, 21st Century genetics research and observations of natural hybridization tell us the two are nearly identical. With each passing day, the Biblical idea of a “trout baramin” becomes more appealing. While science can change with time, truth does not.

Trout live in worlds of extremes, of swift currents and lazy pools, flooding spring meltwaters and drought-like autumns, miniscule headwater streams and deep, wide rivers. It is obvious trout were designed to rapidly adapt, as opposed to the neo-Darwinian idea that they were sitting around for millions of years hoping for a gene with a novel function to randomly appear to advance them down the road of evolutionary progress. It seems instead that like other baramins, the trout baramin came pre-programmed with what they need to survive and adapt.

Trout come in many flavors

Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout from Cascade Creek in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 2012.

So what is going on with trout? What scientists are finding is that very slight genetic and epigenetic changes in isolated populations have led to amazing and beautiful differences in phenotype, giving each region a particular “flavor” of trout. One conclusion is that the adaptive radiation we see in trout is partly a result of changes in climate and topography that occurred in the recent past. We’ve already discussed how rainbows readily hybridize with cutts, but by continuing the stocking of rainbows outside their normal range, we are, in essence, driving the formation of new breeds of trout. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but just because it is not inherently wrong, it doesn’t mean it is the best thing to do either. Restoring native trout to their historic ranges is a good idea, but we shouldn’t be “trout racists” either by overreacting to introduced populations. They’re all one big family anyways, right?

Preserving trout’s many flavors

Restoring historic ranges of native trout does not require the Endangered Species Act. In fact, the ESA could be repealed, or simply ignored, and reintroduction efforts could still move along beautifully. As mentioned earlier, the ESA is unhelpful because it promotes a false idea of species fixity, sacrificing unity for the sake of diversity. The best solution is one that seeks both unity (trout are one big family) and diversity (restoring native trout to their historic ranges). Instead of wasting time with the ESA, local communities should do the work needed to restore and preserve the natural history around them, while also managing it in a way that maximizes people’s enjoyment and use of available resources. Restoration can advance through level-headed efforts aimed at removing nonnative trout, while simultaneously restocking with native breeds.

We are learning more about how to maintain genetic diversity in hatchery brood stocks, and this information can be applied to propagate a breed that is unique to a given area, thereby preserving some of the natural history. In Appendix 51: Westslope Cutthroat Trout Hatchery Brood Stock Histories, a procedure is described where, in order to incorporate genetic diversity into the hatchery brood stock, fish are collected from a number of streams.

The native hatchery fish should probably be stocked in areas downstream of natural barriers.This would aid in preventing at least some intermingling with upstream populations, thereby encouraging genetic diversity. Fishing on stretches of headwater streams should be more restricted than on higher order streams, where primary productivity is usually greater and trout populations are naturally higher.

As we work toward better management of native American trout populations, we must realize that genetic drift is inevitable. And regardless of the level of human involvement, the so-called subspecies of cutthroats of 2112 may not look like the cutthroats of 2012, but that’s okay!

Managing natural resources

Human beings are not just part of nature, we are nature’s managers (Genesis 1:26-28). This also means we are part of  the story of natural history. And 100 years from now, I hope my great-great grandchildren will be able to look back and see that our efforts to manage nature paid off in a way that celebrates the unity and diversity He so obviously put into His creation. And I pray that future leaders will not try to discourage unity and diversity through the ESA and its adherence to the fallacy of species fixity, but will instead get local communities involved with restoring and preserving native trout to their historic ranges.

Perhaps in the future, instead of going to New Mexico to fish for rainbows and browns, Colorado to fish for rainbows and browns, Wyoming to fish for rainbows and browns, etc., future generations will live in a world filled with trout that are unique to each region, while understanding the native forms are part of a bigger trout family, just as the evidence from His word and works confirms.

Chapter 6 of Grizzly Adventure: Think Like a “Grisly” Bear

March 20, 2011

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Get out of here bear!

Dawn was already breaking about 3:30 am, when I was jolted awake by a blasting airhorn and Troy Finney yelling “Get out of here bear!” Since the electric fence had died, Troy was concerned about our safety, and slept fitfully that night. As he lay in bed, he heard some splashes, which he thought were salmon. They continued, and they were getting closer! Troy unzipped his tent, and immediately spotted a very large grizzly bear heading straight towards camp! Troy squeezed a few quick air horn blasts and gave a shout, and the bear turned and ran. Who knows what that grizzly would have done if it crossed the river, but we were glad Troy heard it. Was it just curious and about to turn around anyways? Or was God answering our prayers of safety, wakening Troy at just the right time? Either way, God chose to protect us, but I do know that our side of the river was a bad spot for bears to fish from, which pretty much convinced me it was coming to check us out!

So now what were we going to do? We had travelled about 50 feet into our 40-mile trek down American Creek, and already we were having grizzly problems! We had no idea what to expect downstream, but we were pretty sure there would be more salmon, and therefore more bears. Earlier that year, Troy had an extensive conversation with a Katmai Park Ranger, who said in no uncertain terms, “you will have an encounter with a bear on your trip”.

I don’t know if anything could have prepared me for that first trip down American Creek, but looking back, I should have known more about grizzlies before I went. Some men will find every excuse possible NOT to do something, while others will throw caution to the wind and take huge and unnecessary risks. By definition, an adventure requires some degree of danger and unknown risks, so I did not think our trip had suddenly become a death wish. As a lifelong fishermen, I had learned that in order to catch fish, I needed to “think like a fish”, understanding their behavior, life history, food preferences and feeding patterns. I needed to apply the same principle of understanding God’s creation to learn to think like a bear. In Chapter 1, I talked briefly about bears and the history between bears and men. Now, I will dive deeper into the mind of a bear, and hopefully by the end of the chapter you too will be able to think like a grizzly!

Identifying a grizzly.

Two bear species you may encounter in areas frequented by grizzlies include the black and polar bear. Grizzlies, on rare occasion, mate with polar bears, and DNA tests have confirmed hybrid “pizzly” bears shot by hunters. Hybrid black/grizzly bears have never been documented. Hybridization is a key indicator that researchers known as baraminologists use to speculate about created kinds (a.k.a baramins). If two species hybridize, it is possible they descended from an original created kind.

For most people, the two bears they may see occupying the same habitat are the grizzly and black. There are four key features for distinguishing between them, including body shape, facial profile, color, and tracks.

A distinguishing feature on a grizzly’s body is the hump between its shoulders. This is most prominent when the bear’s head is down. Unfortunately, depending on how it is standing, a black bear can also have a hump-like feature over its shoulders, while the occasional grizzly has a very small hump.

Notice the black bear has a very small shoulder hump. Copyright 2000, David E. Shormann.

Notice the larger shoulder hump on this female black bear. Copyright 2000, David E. Shormann

The shoulder hump and brown color reveals the species of bear on the California State Flag. Photo from Wikipedia.

Facial profiles are usually a better way to distinguish between blacks and grizzlies. The grizzly is often described as having a “dished” facial profile, although I have never quite seen how its face looks like a dish. “Concave” may be a better way to describe each side. To understand their facial profile, imagine you had a pet grizzly, and you were petting its face. Starting at the snout, your hands move back and underneath the eye. Your hand would follow a concave pattern, moving out and away from the neck, whereas repeating the procedure on a black bear, the path would be smoother, and maybe even slightly convex, directing your hand toward the neck. And, the black bear tends to have a shorter, more rounded muzzle. Male bears of both species usually have a larger, more robust head than females.

Notice the more concave facial profile of the grizzly bear. Copyright 2007 David E. Shormann.

Notice the more convex-shaped face. Copyright 2000, David E. Shormann

Color is usually the most distinguishing feature between the two. You can probably guess what color most black bears are, although you might be surprised that their color can vary from blue-gray “glacier bears” of Glacier National Park, to cinnamon. Most often though, they are black. Grizzly bears encompass various shades of tan, blond, gold, gray, silver and brown. In Grizzly Almanac, Robert Busch describes a 1971 study by Greer and Craighead where 50% of Montana grizzlies sported a grizzled color pattern, 30 percent were dark brown, and 20 percent were light brown.


These two grizzlies are actually more brown than others. Copyright 2007, David E. Shormann.

A grizzly is almost always larger than a black bear in not only body and head size, but also in the size of its feet and the length of its claws. Grizzlies walk on the soles of their feet, in a plantigrade fashion, where the heel touches the ground. An adult grizzly’s claws can be almost 4 inches long, compared to about 2 inches on a black bear. Claw marks may show in their tracks, with the grizzly’s claw marks extending much farther out in front of its finger or toe pad marks. If you see a track, and it is as big or bigger than a men’s size 10 shoe, then it is most likely the track of an adult grizzly!

Look at the claws on that grizzly! Copyright 2007, David E. Shormann.

Grizzly names

One way to better understand grizzlies is to look at the common names people give them. For example, one of the favorite foods of Katmai grizzlies is Oncorhyncus nerka, more commonly referred to as sockeye salmon. Two other common names for sockeyes are red salmon, describing their spawning colors, and bluebacks, for the blue coloration of sockeyes still at sea, or for those just entering freshwater.

Compare then the rather simple common names for sockeye with those of the grizzly bear, Ursus arctos. Today, reference books tell us that the name “grizzly” comes from the bear’s hair coloration. For example, Audobon’s Field Guide to North American Mammals describes their coloration as “yellowish-brown to dark brown, often with white-tipped hairs, giving grizzled appearance”. More often than not though, grizzly bears do not have this so-called “grizzled” look. Could it be then, that its real name has been lost through time? After all, there is another word that sounds like “grizzly”. In Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, published in 1885, America’s 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, describes the bear’s name as follows:

“By the way, the name of this bear has reference to its character and not to its color, and should, I suppose, be properly spelt grisly-in the sense of horrible, exactly as we speak of a “grisly spectre”- and not grizzly, but perhaps the latter way of spelling it is too well established to be now changed.”

Perhaps, but did you know that the scientific name for one of the two currently recognized North American subspecies is Ursus arctos horribilis, which means “horrible northern bear!” And those aren’t the only names. In both Hunting Trips and The Wilderness Hunter, published by Roosevelt in 1893, he titled the chapters on grizzlies “Old Ephraim”, a common nickname of the grizzly at the time that referred to a tribe of Israel that had “provoked God to anger most bitterly” (Hosea 12:14). Undoubtedly, the grizzly bear’s actions had provoked more than a few settlers of the American West to anger. While used as a general name to describe bears, there was one bear that earned the title of going down in history as “the” Old Ephraim. In The Grizzly Almanac, Robert H. Busch describes the bear as a famed cattle killer that was chased for 12 years until range conservationist Frank Clark trapped and shot the bear in 1923. Old Ephraim weighed 1,100 pounds and stood 9 ft, 11 inches tall (3.02 meters).

And what about the Native North Americans and the Spaniards? The Koyukon Indians of Alaska called it bik’ints’itldaadla, meaning “keep out of its way”. El Casador, Spanish for “The Hunter”, was the name given to a bear renowned for killing cattle and sheep in California in the 1800s.

And these are just a few of the many names given to grizzlies over the years. While most of these names strike fear in our hearts and remind us that this is an animal we should approach with great caution, other names are less impressive. Lewis and Clark usually described the bears as “white bears” or “yellow bears”, and Roosevelt also referred to them as “Moccasin Joe”, a term referring to their massive footprint resembling a man wearing moccasins. With so many names given to this bear throughout history, we would be wise to consider the reasons, realizing that the variety of names relates to the variety of physical, and behavioral traits of this bear. When we hear the word “grizzly bear”, we should think not only of its color, but also of its potential for harm.

Taxonomy and distribution

The grizzly bear has also been a bear of many names in the scientific community. Biologist C. Hart Merriam listed 86 separate species and subspecies in his 1918 publication, Review of Grizzlies and Big Brown Bears of North America. This was a radical departure from Ursus arctos (“northern bear”), the name given in 1758 to all grizzly bears the world over by Carolus Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy. In the seven-tiered classification system he developed, grizzlies are placed in Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Class Mammalia, Order Carnivora, Family Ursidae, and Genus Ursus. A pious Christian man, one of Linnaeus’ main goals in systematizing the tremendous variety of living creatures was an attempt to delineate the original “kinds” described in Genesis. Today, baraminologists speculate that the “created kinds” are probably represented at the “family” level of Linnaeus’ system.

Linnaeus, like most scientists of his day, trusted God’s word. Charles Darwin, on the other hand, set out to disprove special creation by God, and in 1859 published On the Origin of Species. Many scientists bought into Darwin’s false theory on origins, and in 1918, “Darwinism” was all the rage. But the theory was not based on anything scientific, and scientists did all sorts of unscientific things in an attempt to prove that animals were evolving and new species were being formed by the truckload every day. Instead of basing the discovery of new species on thousands of observations, scientists were instead making hasty generalizations. For example, the Smithsonian classified a new subspecies, Ursus horraeus texensis, from the skull of a single bear killed in Texas in 1900. Many other new “species” were also classified from single skulls.

Fortunately, as scientists learn more about the fallacy of evolution and the truth that there are limits to genetic change, the “diversity” of wildlife decreases. Now there are only two subspecies recognized in North America, Ursus arctos middendorfi (Northern Middendorf bear), which is the brown or Kodiak bear of Alaska’s Kodiak islands, and Ursus arctos horribilis, the name given to all other bears in North America. Ursus arctos is the Genus-species name for all brown and grizzly bears worldwide. In other parts of the world, they are usually referred to as brown bears rather than grizzlies, although bears in Eastern Russia and in particular the Kamchatka Peninsula may sport the lighter color patterns common to North American grizzlies. And all bears worldwide are legendary for displaying their “grisly” demeanor at times.

As mentioned in Chapter 1, at one time the lower 48 states probably had well over 50,000 grizzlies, but their population shrunk to under 1000. Today though, their numbers are on the rise in the lower 48, particularly in and around Yellowstone National Park. According to Wikipedia, there are about 31,000 (some estimates put the number closer to 40,000) grizzlies in Alaska, 22,000 in Canada, and 1,300 in the lower 48 states, with virtually all of those bears confined to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. In Eurasia, there are around 120,000 brown bears in Russia, and most of those are in the eastern half. About 30,000 live west of the Ural Mountains, and about half of these live in Russia’s upper northwest corner. Kazakhstan has about 1,800 bears, and smaller, mostly isolated pockets of bears exist in China, Turkey, Northern India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. In Europe, about 1200 bears live in Scandinavia, which includes Finland, Norway and Sweden. About 6,000 are believed to exist in southwestern Russia/Romania. Many other isolated pockets of brown bears live in Western Europe, including Italy, Greece, France, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

Habitat requirements

Current estimates place the worldwide total of grizzly bears at about 200,000 ( Keep in mind though that doing a bear census is just a little more difficult than doing something like counting the number of people in your church, and the actual number may be significantly higher or lower than this. Also, a lot of the data on bear populations is over 10 years old now. Regardless, that is still a lot of grizzly bears!

The habitat and range of grizzly bears is highly variable, but is always dependent upon food availability and population density. And while grizzly bears do not mark off specific territories to possess, they usually have an area of land that they call home and rarely venture from. For example, on the Kodiak Islands, where salmon provide abundant food for bears, their home range may be less than 3 square miles (8 km2). Here, bear densities are some of the highest on earth, at a little under 1 bear per square mile (2.6 km2). In less productive regions like interior Alaska and Montana, home ranges may be greater than 500 square miles. Males tend to have larger home ranges than females.

Good grizzly habitat includes a place with abundant food. Up to 50 bears at a time may be feeding during the peak of the salmon run at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. Copyright 2007, David E. Shormann

The large home ranges and amount of space between bears is one reason bears are symbols of wild and untamed lands. With the exception of Kodiak Island and some other coastal grizzly populations, bear densities are usually upwards of 1 bear per 10 to 50 square miles. (26 to 130 km2). In mostly unpopulated Alaska, current estimates place bear populations between 30,000 and 40,000. With an area of 656,425 square miles (1.7 million km2), the average Alaskan grizzly density equals one bear per 16 square miles (42.5 km2). Since not all of Alaska is utilized by grizzlies, it would not be unreasonable to use this data to assume a bear density of 1 bear per 10 square miles. Comparing that to the total worldwide bear population yields a figure of 2.0 million square miles (4.7 million km2) of wilderness required to sustain the worldwide bear population. This is an area roughly half the size of the United States, which seems large, until you consider that Alaska, America’s largest state, with more wilderness than any other, would account for over one-third of the world’s bear habitat. Russia can easily make up the remaining two-thirds. According to the CIA World Factbook, permafrost over much of Siberia is a major impediment to development in this region, as are volcanoes and earthquakes on the Kamchatka Peninsula. These remote places are also prime bear habitat, and will probably remain so for years to come.

A grizzly’s habitat preferences about as diverse as its appetite. When not hibernating, or taking a siesta in a cozy day bed, grizzlies are searching for food. Riparian zones, a term referring to the land surrounding a river, lake, or other water body, are popular choices, especially if the waters teem with salmon, or for Yellowstone’s grizzlies, cutthroat trout. Floodplains are also popular, as these areas provide a water source for bears and their prey, and also contain the preferred marsh habitat of one of their favorite prey items, moose calves. Since these areas are also more frequently disturbed by floods, they often contain higher abundances of opportunistic plants like sedges, a grass that grizzlies like to eat. Many types of berries that grizzlies eat also colonize frequently disturbed areas. One such area is an avalanche chute, which is a narrow lane on mountain slopes where avalanche or rock slides have cut a path through the forest. A study in Montana showed that grizzlies preferred avalanche chutes to other habitat types because of the preferred plant items that were available, as well as the greater abundance of carrion from avalanche-induced mortality.

While bears are truly symbolic of wild places, as their numbers increase, their habitat preferences and search for food bring them into more frequent contact with humans. In Anchorage, Alaska, radiocollared grizzlies were tracked throughout the city, and were found to travel through the cover of riparian zones  (forested areas) that wound through the heart of the city. Of the 11 bears studied in the three-year (2005-2007) survey, several descended from the mountains to feed on salmon in Campbell Creek, a tributary running through the heart of Anchorage. For more information on the study, visit the Anchorage Daily News’ website at

Grizzly bears will occupy a variety of habitats in a single season, seeking to optimize their chances to satisfy their omnivorous appetites. In Grizzly Heart, Charlie Russell described how the bears around his cabin at Kambalnoye Lake on the Kamchatka Peninsula would exit their dens and head for the coast where spring began first. Later in the summer, when the sockeye and char would return, so would the bears. In the Wilderness Hunter, Theodore Roosevelt describes them as bears that “inhabit indifferently lowland and mountain; the deep woods, and the barren plains where the only cover is the stunted growth fringing the streams.”

Although not necessarily territorial, bears are definitely creatures of habit, and will return to preferred feeding areas year after year. This is evident at popular bear viewing areas such as Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, and the McNeil River Game Sanctuary. I also witnessed this on American Creek. In 2006, I photographed a beautiful mother grizzly with her three newborn cubs on the lower river. In 2007, I was able to photograph the same bear again, resting in almost the same exact spot. I have some favorite fishing spots of my own along the Texas coast, and there is one in particular near Port Aransas that I return to each April, because, like this mother grizzly, I have learned that the fish will be there at a certain time of year.

Besides eating, a bear’s second-favorite activity is probably sleeping, and this also effects its habitat preferences. Bears in more remote places tend to sleep at night and eat during the day, pausing for mid-afternoon naps in their feeding areas by making a “daybed”, which is usually a grassy area with enough cover to provide a shady nap. In more populated areas, bears may reverse their sleeping patterns, and their daybeds are typically farther from feeding areas and people. If and when they do hibernate, bears typically prefer areas higher in the mountains, where snow will cover them and their dens. Most dens are located in mountainous and timbered regions.

Diet and feeding habits.

In order to understand how important food is to bears, try raising, or being, a healthy young man. When I was in my teens and early 20’s, large pizzas, entire boxes of cereal, and whole pies were devoured at a single sitting, much to the disbelief of other family members. Now in my 40s, my metabolism is a fraction of what it used to be, and I now stand in awe at the near-insatiable appetites of young men.

A grizzly bear’s appetite is like that of a young man’s. Well, okay, make that about 13 young men! A typical teenage boy requires around 3,000 calories per day, where a grizzly bear preparing for hibernation consumes about 40,000 calories per day! During peak feeding, a grizzly can put on as much as 5 lbs (2.3 kg) of weight a day, building a fat layer 10 inches thick! Lewis & Clark’s expedition described how they obtained 8 gallons of oil from a bear shot on May 11, 1805. May 11 would be in the early spring, after hibernation. Imagine how much oil that bear would have had if shot in late October!

An adult grizzly bear can easily consume 15-20 sockeye salmon per day. Copyright 2009, David E. Shormann

So how much is 40,000 calories in “bear food” anyways? Well, a few calculations of caloric equivalents reveal that an adult grizzly could consume up to 476 cups of blueberries, 44 cups of pine nuts, or 15 sockeye salmon in a day! I could easily see them eating 15 sockeye salmon in a day, even 20. In his book Grizzly Heart, Charlie Russell described how the cubs he was raising would gorge on pine nuts in the fall. But 476 cups of blueberries? If you don’t think that is possible, keep in mind that bears don’t have much else to do all day besides eat, and may spend over 16 hours a day foraging. And if that still seems farfetched, then consider this description from Theodore Roosevelt’s book, The Wilderness Hunter:

“The true time of plenty for bears is the berry season. Then they feast on huckleberries, blueberries, kinnikinic berries, buffalo berries, wild plums, elderberries, and scores of other fruits. They often smash all the bushes in a berry patch, gathering the fruit with half-luxurious, half-laborious greed, sitting on their haunches, and sweeping the berries into their mouths with dexterous paws. So absorbed do they become in their feasts on the luscious fruit that they grow reckless of their safety, and feed in broad daylight, almost at midday; while in some of the thickets, especially those of the mountain haws, they make such a noise in smashing branches that it is a comparatively easy matter to approach them unheard.”

Crowberries are a favorite fruit of Katmai National Park bears. Copyright 2007, David E. Shormann.

During a Lake Creek Alaska Camp, I watched 3 boys fill 3 quart-sized containers with blueberries in 30 minutes. At that rate, after 16 hours they could have picked (but hopefully not eaten!) 256 cups of blueberries. An adult grizzly, with an appetite of 13 teenage boys, could surely pick berries at rates equal to several boys.

Because of the high energy value of pine nuts, it is no wonder that Russell observed his adopted bears and other cubs adeptly dismantling pine cone after pine cone to get at the nuts. And in Yellowstone National Park, squirrel caches of whitebark pine cones are to a grizzly what striking oil is to a wildcatter. Bears will also consume acorns and other nuts, and Roosevelt observed them digging up camas roots and wild onions. Alaskan and Russian grizzlies have a particular fondness for sedges, a reed-like plant of the genus Carex that grows in marshy areas along coasts and stream banks. Lyngbye’s sedge (Carex lyngbyei Hornem) is the most common sedge of south coastal Alaska’s salt marshes and shorelines. It is an important springtime food, with young shoots containing up to 25% protein.

A grizzly cub with a mouthful of nutritious sedges. Copyright 2007, David E. Shormann

Plants make up 60 to 90% of a grizzly’s diet. This may surprise you, since grizzlies are known as fearsome killers! They will also search endlessly for grubs and other small animals, turning over rocks and tearing apart fallen logs. Roosevelt described this behavior in The Wilderness Hunter:

“The sign of a bear’s work is, of course, evident to the most unpractised eye; and in no way can one get a better idea of the brute’s power than by watching it busily working for its breakfast, shattering big logs and upsetting boulders by sheer strength. There is always a touch of the comic, as well as a touch of the strong and terrible, in a bear’s looks and actions. It will tug and pull, now with one paw, now with two, now on all fours, now on its hind legs, in the effort to turn over a large log or stone; and when it succeeds it jumps round to thrust its muzzle into the damp hollow and lap up the affrighted mice or beetles while they are still paralyzed by the sudden exposure.”

Where salmonids are abundant, such as near Pacific coastal areas, and some Yellowstone tributaries, bears will take a break from their herbivorous gorgings to eat their fill of piscivorous snacks. I have observed bears feeding on salmon numerous times in Alaska, and they seem to employ three feeding strategies; stationary feeding posts, snorkeling, and pursuit on foot.

Stationary feeding posts are typically set up in relatively constricted areas of fast-moving water where salmon must funnel through. Prime areas occur at waterfalls or in constrictions in a stream, such as in canyons or newly carved channels. The frothing water hides the bear’s presence, and the salmon, desperate to find the most efficient way to their final destination, either jump over the falls or scurry close to the shore where the current is the least. Like a shrewd businessman seeking to maximize profits and minimize expenditures, the grizzly waits patiently, and captures a meal just by moving his head. Occasionally, fierce fights break out over prime fishing spots, not unlike what happens on some of Alaska’s more human-crowded salmon streams. Popular bear fishing spots are also prime viewing areas for bears, two popular locations being McNeil River Falls and Brooks Falls, where Thomas Mangelsen’s famous photo from the 1980’s was captured.

Bears will also snorkel for food, walking through the shallows with face and eyes completely submerged. I have often wondered how grizzlies, who have color vision of similar strength to ours, can see much underwater. Unless you have some special ability I don’t have, without a mask, everything becomes very blurry underwater to humans. And I don’t think grizzlies have a special translucent nictitating membrane for underwater vision, so they must acquire an ability to discern between blurry salmon and blurry rocks. I have watched a mother grizzly in the lake that Wolverine Creek empties into, and she would  snorkel, dive, and capture salmon using her teeth and front paws.

The third salmon-feeding strategy bears employ, and my personal favorite, is pursuit on foot. When salmon are abundant and in about 2 feet (60 cm) of water or less, bears will run through at full speed, leaping and pinning salmon to the bottom. They will also spot a school from shore, and come running along the shore at full speed, making a diving leap off the edge and into the middle of a school. Sometimes they will herd salmon into shallower water for an easier catch. When searching for salmon on foot, bears are intently focused on their quarry, and any smell, sight, or sound indicating a salmon will bring them running. This is an important consideration as you continue your quest to “think like a bear”, because a jumping fish on the end of a line, or even a lazily tossed rock that ends its flight with a loud “kersplash!” can bring a grizzly bear your way in a hurry. When the bear hears that splash, all he is thinking is “food?!”, and he may come quickly to investigate, until curiosity is satisfied.

Grizzlies will also prey upon larger animals, such as caribou, elk, moose, buffalo, and even other grizzlies. Predation of this type is more typical of “interior” grizzlies that may not have the same access to salmon streams as coastal bears. The interior grizzly’s propensity to hunt larger animals also makes it a greater threat to humans, as a bear with experience capturing 200-lb moose calves will have a much less difficult time thinking of ways to hunt down a human. This is why Alaskan grizzly expert Stephen Stringham suggests a minimum distance of 100 yards for viewing unfamiliar coastal grizzlies, and 300 yards for interior grizzlies.

Death Battle of a Buffalo and Grizzly Bear, 1902, by Charles M. Russell. Photo credit: Amon G. Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

Bears that hunt larger animals are usually ambush predators. In The Wilderness Hunter, Roosevelt described bears that would hide in thick brush along game trails, while others would stalk the buffalo of the open plains, even pursuing and killing buffalo bulls much larger than themselves. More often though, grizzlies pursue animals that stray from the herd, such as yearlings and calves. In Grizzly Almanac, Robert Busch described a research project by Donald Young and Thomas McCabe, where they found that “grizzlies preying on the caribou herd were found to kill few caribou calves older than 2 weeks of age”.

Roosevelt described grizzlies as animals of “vast strength and determined temper.”, and these characteristics are readily observed in the grizzly’s pursuit of Alaskan moose. In Wild Men, Wild Alaska, hunting guide Rocky Mcelveen described the grizzly’s determined temper as he and some clients observed a grizzly that chased a moose calf and its mother over a mountain ridge and across a large lake before finally capturing and killing the exhausted calf on the shore. Bears (and wolves) are wreaking havoc on Alaskan moose populations, as surveys in Alaska’s Game Management Unit 16B show a 10% survival rate for moose calves.

For grizzlies in the lower 48 states, besides bison, elk are also a favorite food item. In Grizzly Almanac, Robert Busch described a rather gruesome encounter with an elk that showed the grizzly’s “vast strength”:

“Another grizzly’s kill was once witnessed by a Yellowstone park ranger. The bear had surprised a herd of elk crossing the Madison River and killed one of the cows with a single mighty blow to its head with a front paw. The adult elk was killed instantly, the ranger said, in ‘an explosion of brains, blood, and bone fragments.”

Showing their propensity for variety, bears will also capture other live prey, including marmots, prairie dogs, and for coastal grizzlies, delicious razor clams. However, as Roosevelt correctly described them in The Wilderness Hunter,

“the grisly is only occasionally, not normally, a formidable predatory beast, a killer of cattle and large game. Although capable of far swifter movement than is promised by his frame of seemingly clumsy strength, and in spite of his power of charging with astonishing suddenness and speed, he yet lacks altogether the supple agility of such finished destroyers as the cougar and the wolf; and for the absence of this agility no amount of mere huge muscle can atone. He is more apt to feast on animals which have met their death by accident, or which have been killed by other beasts or by man, than to do his own killing.”

Grizzly bears, always looking to maximize weight gain with minimum energy expenditure, are quick to seek out carrion. This is why many a hunter has killed his first grizzly after killing his first elk, caribou or moose, because the grizzly was attracted to the carcass. Grizzlies will often “cache” a dead animal, half-burying it with dirt, grass, or leaves. They will often stay near, and sometimes even lay on top of, the cache, and will defend it vigorously. So here is a word to the wise, if you want to think like a grizzly, have your senses primed for the sights and smells of a cache. If you smell rotting flesh, then it is definitely time to either get out of there, or load the gun/ready the pepper spray, because a grizzly could be very near! Smell will probably be your first clue of a cache nearby, followed by the sight of recently disturbed earth, and finally by the sound of a roaring grizzly telling you to get away from its prize!

Bears will eat any dead animal, including humans. In Grizzly Almanac, Busch describes 5 grizzlies that feasted on a beached whale carcass in Alaska. Charlie Russell also witnessed the same thing in Russia, as multiple grizzlies feasted on the carcass of a blue whale that had washed up on the Kamchatka Coast.

Unfortunately, grizzlies will also feed on the leftovers of humans, becoming experts at raiding garbage cans and garbage dumps. Grizzlies that feed at garbage dumps tend to grow faster and have larger litters, and also lose their fear of humans. At Yellowstone, the dumps were actually a popular tourist attraction, and by the 1930s, at least 260 bears used the dumps. The dumps were shut down in 1971, and today, all garbage is hauled out of the park. Problems still exist in the Yellowstone area though, as a supposedly food-conditioned bear attacked a man in his tent July 18, 2008 at a campsite a few miles from Yellowstone.


Parental care is provided exclusively by the mother. Occasionally a mother will adopt cubs. Females interact extensively with their cubs, providing, food, protection, and instruction. Females with cubs tend to avoid males, as males will cannibalize the young bears. More social than polar and black bears, grizzly bear females and older cubs sometimes bond and travel, feed, and defend themselves as a cohesive unit. Weaned individuals often band together with littermates or their non-related peers. Typically, members of bonded groups attain a higher status in social hierarchies, having an advantage at food sources and in defense against larger bears.

Mothers with cubs will often attack and even kill a perceived threat. Adult males will fight each other for territory or mates, but most of the time, bears understand their comrade’s strength, and would rather settle things amicably. In Grizzly Almanac, Robert Busch describes a 1970s McNeil River study by Allan Egbert and Michael Luque, where they found that only 124 of 4,000 bear interactions resulted in striking or biting.

Subadult bears, often referred to as “teenager” bears, tend to cause the most trouble. With the naivety and overconfidence of some human teens, subadult bears venture off into unfamiliar lands, only to be chased off by larger bears, especially males. Teens also get shot at by hunters or landowners, or killed by any of the above. Teens in a group are more likely to raid an unattended campsite than older, wiser bears, and an electric fence or a treed cache is a must when leaving a campsite unattended in bear country.

Bears communicate using sight, smell, and sound, relying most heavily on their keen sense of smell. Feces may contain traces of hormones called pheromones, indicating the breeding state of the animal. In a quiet forest, bears can hear humans talking up to ¼ mile away, and a shy bear may be long gone before you see it. Scratches on trees serve as visual cues to other bears, and the bear’s odor is also left as a mark of its presence. Grizzlies also use visual cues, and if a bear stares at you with flattened ears and a low stance, don’t mimic him! A bear that turns its head sideways is indicating submission, which is a good strategy for people to employ when a bear is showing signs of aggression. Grizzlies communicate vocally as well, using woofs, whines, hums, growls, roars, and “jaw popping”. If you hear a bear pop its jaws, then that means you have a very agitated bear on your hands, and you should start thinking of defending yourself. Charlie Russell observed jaw popping as his adopted young bears played together, but larger bears normally only jaw pop when they are stressed.

As far as animals go, grizzlies are quite intelligent, and are capable of solving a variety of problems in their never-ending quest for food. A bear’s ability to memorize and learn is evidenced by the variety of foods they manage to collect, along with their ability to travel many miles, even returning annual to favorite feeding grounds. Animal trainer Doug Seus trains black bears, grizzlies, wolves and cougars, and of the four, claims that grizzlies are the hardest to tame, but the easiest to train, being able to learn from a single experience.


Now that you have finished a detailed discourse on the grizzly, hopefully you will know how to better think like a grizzly. If you were a grizzly just popping your head out from your winter den, you would be extremely well rested, but also hungrier than you can remember. At this time, you would be likely to eat anything resembling food. As you progressed into mating season, you may be rather annoyed by the presence of other bears, particularly so if you are a male. Moving into summer, food supplies become more abundant, and you relax, even blocking out the world around you as you dreamily feast on salmon and berries. But then, the days quickly get shorter, and without your approval, your body begins craving more food than ever. As you fatten up for Winter, your insatiable hunger reminds you how you felt when you first left your den in Spring, hungry and willing to eat anything that looked like food.

These are the thoughts of a typical adult bear. However, as you will discover in Chapter 7, a female with cubs is a whole different animal!

Chapter 5: On To Katmai

February 5, 2011

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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.

Hammersly Lake

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