Posted tagged ‘grizzly bear’

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

Chapter 2: The Great Land

November 12, 2010


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Adventure: an undertaking involving danger and unknown risks

Pribilof Islands
There is probably no better place in the world to have an outdoors adventure than Alaska. The Aleut Indians gave it the name “Alyeska” meaning “Great Land”, which indeed it is. With an area almost 2-and-a-half times larger than America’s 2nd largest state, Texas, and a human population only 3% of Texas’, there is plenty of room to roam. In Texas, we have a saying that “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes”. This is even more true in Alaska, as I have never seen a place with such rapidly changing weather. And I don’t think I have been anywhere with more rapidly changing weather than the first Alaskan place I visited, the Pribilof Islands.

Copyright 1992 David E. Shormann

The village on St. Paul Island

The Pribilof Islands are composed of two inhabited islands, St. Paul and St. George, and several smaller islands. A common saying on the islands is “”This is the only place in the world where you can experience all four seasons in one hour.” I arrived on St. Paul Island in July 1992 as part of a scientific team studying the local ecology. I was a graduate student at the time, working on my master’s degree in marine science. My advisor, Dr. Terry Whitledge, had worked extensively in the Bering Sea and knew the area well. Whether researching Texas bays, the Mississippi River Plume, or the Bering Sea, his ability to organize and head up an expedition never ceased to amaze me, and this was no different. At a time when the economy of the former Soviet Union was collapsing, Dr. Whitledge had organized this research project, consisting of the two of us and 5 excellent Russian scientists who probably desperately needed some cash.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Dr. Michael Flint (right), and another Russian scientist heading out to sea to do research.

The Naturalists
While the Russian scientists did not have access to the same array of high-tech tools we had, they made up for that with their knowledge of plants and animals in the area. The Russians were my first experience with people that I would truly call “naturalists”. Up until my master’s degree, all of my education and employment was engineering-related. I started working at General Dynamics in 1989 on the then-secret Navy A-12 project, but the project was canceled in 1990, and everyone was sent back to the main office to work on the F-16 Falcon. I could see the writing on the wall, and after lots of thought and prayer, decided to pursue a master’s degree in Marine Science. The University of Texas’ Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas was searching for graduate students, and I wrote them a rather silly letter about how I wanted to be a “fish conservationist”. Dr. Whitledge liked my engineering background, and while I never directly studied fishes, I couldn’t have asked for a better advisor or a better area of study (water quality). Providence led me down the best path, and I started in August of 1990. That December, General Dynamics released everyone with 5 years experience or less (which would have included me), and I was sad for many of my friends who lost their jobs.

When I started my master’s degree, I had little experience with biology or even science. Engineering is more deductive, where you apply rules in new situations to build things. Science is more inductive, and is about finding rules. And my master’s research focused mainly on water chemistry and a single algal species responsible for creating a “brown tide” in local estuaries.

A love of the outdoors and fishing led me to naturally learn the names of many of the birds and fishes of the Texas coast, but until I met the Russian scientists, I had never met people who were so incredibly gifted and knowledgeable about everything in the ecosystem they were studying. They knew more than just the fish and birds; they could identify practically anything, from the largest whale to the smallest plankton. They loved the ecosystems they studied.

Copyright 1993, David E. Shormann

Horned Puffin, Pribilof Islands

Copyright 1993, David E. Shormann

Black-legged kittiwake, Pribilof Islands

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Thick-billed murres nesting on a cliff, Pribilof Islands

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Arctic Fox puppies, Pribilof Islands

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Stellar's Sea Lions, Pribilof Islands


In the book of Genesis, one of the first things God tells Adam to do is name the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). I think one reason God did this was to help Adam care for the animals. One of the very basic ways we care for other human beings is by knowing their names. It is rude and inconsiderate to call out “hey mister” to a person we have known for a while. Not only that, it shows ignorance and a lack of concern. In the same way, if we do not know the names of any of the creatures God has made, it is easier to not care about them.

The Russian scientists taught me a great lesson in the importance of being a naturalist, and this is something I encourage everyone to do, especially children.I think that training children to be naturalists is an extremely important part of their education. In government schools, evolution is emphasized in high school biology, and too much time is wasted teaching this ridiculous theory. Rather than lowering a teenager’s already fragile self-esteem by telling them they evolved from monkeys and that they are products of random chance, it would be far better to teach them about the local flora and fauna and their responsibility to care for it. Students that are more familiar with their local environment are more likely to care about it. But until government schools in America, Russia, and elsewhere start teaching children they were created in God’s image and have a unique purpose, children are much better off learning at private Christian schools or in home schools.
Pribilof Adventures
I had many adventures on that first trip to Alaska. The flight from Anchorage to St. Paul was an adventure in itself. Climbing aboard a Reeve-Aleutian Airlines Lockheed Electra, I noticed the date of manufacture stamped on a bulkhead. I do not remember the exact date, but I do remember that it was before my birth year (1965). I was used to flying in large passenger jets, and getting into this 4-engine turboprop that was older than me was a bit unsettling, but it performed flawlessly, and a few hours later the pilot made a nice landing on the dirt runway in St. Paul.

The next big adventure was driving with one of the Russian scientists, Yuri, from the airport to the house we had rented, which doubled as our research station. Come to think of it, driving anywhere with Yuri was a bit of an adventure. Yuri was in his late 40’s, but had never driven a car. However, he was fascinated with the 13-passenger van we had rented, and he insisted on driving it everywhere. He actually drove pretty well, but his main problem was that he overcorrected, a typical characteristic of inexperienced drivers, and this always kept us hanging on to the seats a little tighter than normal.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

More than one adventure has been terminated by an unexpected run-in with the Pribilof Islands.

Conducting research in the Bering Sea around the Pribilof Islands was amazing. We hired a local captain, an Aleut Indian with a Russian name, Timon Lestenkof. The uninhabited Pribilof Islands were discovered in 1788 by the Russian explorer Gavriil Pribylov. Soon after, Russians forced Aleuts Indians from the Aleutian chain (several hundred miles south of the Pribilofs) to hunt seal for them on the Pribilof Islands.Today, the Pribilof Islands are home to the largest Aleut Indian community in America, and many of them make a good living through fishing. Timon was a wonderful man who had served America in Vietnam. He would take us just about anywhere we wanted to go, provided it was close enough for him to pick up the island on radar, a distance of about 10 miles. This was in the days before GPS was in widespread use, which would have made navigating around the island and beyond much easier.

We would collect water samples from various depths using “Niskin bottles”, and use the winch to raise and lower them. We would also tow plankton nets and store the samples. Northern fur seals would come and visit us while we conducted research, as would fulmars, gulls and kittiwakes. While waiting for us to collect water samples, Timon would sometimes fish. One time I watched in amazement as he tore a 3-inch chunk from an orange-colored rubber glove, threaded it on a hook, and proceeded to catch several 15 to 30 lb halibut. Timon had a painting in the wheelhouse depicting Christ standing behind a sailor, directing Him through a storm. On more than one occasion, the fog set in while we were at sea, and we had to rely on instruments to direct us back to the harbor. The Russian Orthodox church was the lone church on St. Paul, and while I don’t agree with some of their teachings, I am still glad they trust Christ for their salvation. And I was glad that Timon trusted God that our instruments were right and wouldn’t send us crashing into a cliff or a shoal in the foggy weather, which they never did.

One of my favorite parts of research on the Pribilofs was catching seabirds for Dr. Sasha Golovkin. My main job was to perform chemical tests on the water samples we collected, but due to the extreme weather conditions, we often had to wait for days before we could get out to sea. So when I could, I helped the other scientists with their research. I would travel with Dr. Golovkin to the cliffs where millions of seabirds nested, and we would catch and weigh puffins, murres, auklets, anything we could catch. Dr. Golovkin was particularly interested in least auklets, which the locals called “chuchkis”. Dr. Golovkin was studying their diet and metabolism. About the size of a sparrow, chuchkis would fly out to sea in large flocks to catch small crustaceans called copepods. The chuchkis lived along rocky shorelines, and built their nests in the crevices of rocks. In the evening, the chuchkis would return to the rocks, and we would hide behind large boulders, and when a group of chuchkis would come by we would swing large nets into the sky and capture them. Most of the birds were released immediately, but some were kept for further observations. Dr. Golovkin would sample their stomach contents, and they would invariably be full of one species of copepod about the size of a rice grain. Like freshly cooked crabs or shrimp, the copepods also changed from their natural opaque coloration to a pinkish-red color, the heat from the chuchki’s body in essence “cooking” the copepods.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Dr. Golovkin holding a horned puffin, Pribilof Islands.

Copyright 1993, David E. Shormann

Crested Auklet, Pribilof Islands


Chuchkis, like puffins and other auklets, were able to “fly” underwater. Denser than most birds, the majority of the chuchki’s body was submerged underwater when swimming on the surface. Dr. Golovkin built a 5-foot square holding tank to observe the chuchkis swimming, and we were all amazed at the ease with which this tiny bird moved underwater. It had to be incredibly agile to catch the small copepods that were its primary food.

We spent many hours exploring the island. There was a 500-head herd of caribou, and one time I spooked them and sent the whole herd stampeding in front of me, inches from the front of the ATV I was driving. We saw many ships hopelessly wrecked on the beaches, along with whale carcasses. Snowy owls, arctic foxes, and of course, Northern Fur Seals inhabited the island as well. The Pribilof Islands are the summer calving grounds for approximately 500,000 fur seals. Almost every beach had fur seals on it, some more than others. In prime spots, there were tens of thousands of seals. The males would form a “harem”, consisting of 1 male and a group of females and their pups. At the larger rookeries, the sound, and the smell were incredible. I could sit and watch the seal pups for hours, playing and interacting with one another. With such an unbelievable amount of animal and bird life, the Pribilof Islands were one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, and highly recommended, if you can stand the smell.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Dr. Flint photographing a baby Arctic Fox. Note the caribou herd in the background. Pribilof Islands.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Baby Northern Fur Seals. Larger, lighter brown seals are mothers. Pribilof Islands.

Mainland Alaska-Kenai Peninsula
Research continued on the Pribilof Islands in the summer of 1993, and I was also able to experience a bit of the mainland and its world famous salmon fishing opportunities. Before I left for the Pribilofs that summer, my father and I .made a fishing trip to the Kenai Peninsula. Our destination was the Kenai River and a guided trip for king salmon. While the majority of Alaska is devoid of people, the Kenai River in late July is not one of those places. Known worldwide for the incredible size of its king salmon, the Kenai River is probably the busiest river in Alaska. If you are looking for pristine wilderness, the Kenai River is not the place to be, but if that doesn’t bother you, then it is a beautiful place with lots of fishermen.

We failed to catch a king salmon on our trip, although one of the men in our boat did land a beautiful 50 pounder. The Kenai River also sports one of the largest sockeye salmon runs in the state, and anglers flock to its banks for this tasty prize. Since sockeye are very reluctant to strike a lure, fishermen must basically “snag” the salmon in the mouth with a streamer fly. Occasionally they do strike a lure or fly, but most sockeye are caught by snagging them in the mouth. I managed to hook a few, but my tackle, which was meant for light-tackle speckled trout and redfish in Texas bays, was no match for the combination of powerful fish and strong current.

Those two summers on the Pribilof Islands, and the time spent reading about Alaska, had me hooked for life, and I was determined to make it back to this great land. Besides the wildlife, there were other features about Alaska that intrigued me as well, such as the mountains, volcanoes, and glaciers. Alaska seemed to have everything an outdoors enthusiast could want, and in 2000, I was able to return again with my father.
As a young boy, my father would take me fishing, and before long, I was passionate about it. Growing up in Kingwood, Texas, I would ride my bicycle several miles to the San Jacinto River and fish for catfish and bass. My love of fishing seemed limitless, and I pestered my hard-working father to no end, constantly wanting him to take me fishing. I am now more reasonable about the amount of time and effort I put into fishing, but I still love to go, and my second fishing trip to Alaska in 2000 is one I will never forget.
West Cook Inlet
On this trip we decided to head to the west side of Cook Inlet to fish for silver salmon. It was early August, and the silvers were beginning to show. We were on a guided trip with Talon Air Service, and took a float plane to fish the Kustatan River. The river was high and muddy from recent rains, and the fishing was slow. Growing up fishing the spring run of white bass on the Trinity River, I knew that the bass would stack up in clear sloughs and creeks when the Trinity ran high. I had noticed that we traveled down a clear slough to get to the Kustatan, and suggested this as a possibility. We returned to the slough, and immediately began catching silvers almost as fast as we could get a line in the water. We had our limits in short order.

The next day we had a halibut trip scheduled, but it was canceled due to rough weather. We decided to try again for silvers, but this time we fished a spot where Wolverine Creek emptied into Big River Lakes. We had great success with silvers again, but more than that, we were treated to front row seats of a mother grizzly bear catching salmon for her two cubs. This was the 2nd wild grizzly bear I had ever seen, and my first Alaskan grizzly. Little did I know that it would not be my last. Sockeye salmon were stacked up beneath the outfall of Wolverine Creek, and the mother grizzly had easy pickings. When a large male black bear came on the scene, the mother grizzly bear chased him up a steep incline. We simply could not believe how an animal of that size could move so quickly up something so steep.

Wolverine Creek was a fascinating place, and after we had caught our limit of salmon, I persuaded the guide to let me out of the boat to get some pictures of salmon swimming up the creek. Several people cautioned me about the mother grizzly being nearby, but I could not see it and proceeded upstream. There were at least a dozen boats fishing in the area, and the mother grizzly seemed perfectly at ease, so I was not too apprehensive about hiking up the creek.

Suddenly, someone spotted the mother grizzly bear heading towards the creek, and everyone started yelling at me to come back to the boat, but I could not hear them because of the rushing water. It was not until I saw my guide approaching and waving his hands that I realized I needed to get back. The bear kept approaching, but it never charged or seemed concerned about my presence on the creek. This was my first experience that convinced me of the fact that all wild grizzlies are not ferocious man-eaters.

I took more photographs of the mother grizzly bear and her cubs than of anything else that trip. As I photographed the bear, I couldn’t help but think about Thomas Mangelsen’s photo I had seen back in 1989. That photograph was such a perfect trinity of bear, salmon, and photographer. It revealed the incredible abilities of all three, the bear and its hunting prowess, the salmon and its ability to leap up and over a rushing waterfall, and the photographer’s ability to have the camera settings optimized for the occasion. The bear I was photographing had a different hunting technique than the Mangelsen bear, and would “snorkel” and then dive down about 6 to 8 feet to catch its prey. And while I knew I would not get any photos like the Mangelsen bear photo, that snorkeling bear provided plenty of opportunities for photography practice, and made me realize more than ever that I wanted to be around these magnificient creatures and the salmon streams they loved.

Cubs at Wolverine Creek.

Cubs at Wolverine Creek.


Mother Grizzly, Wolverine Creek, Alaska

Mother Grizzly, Wolverine Creek, Alaska

Sockeye Salmon congregating at the outflow of Wolverine Creek.

Sockeye Salmon congregating at the outflow of Wolverine Creek.


Cubs' mother returning from her snorkeling trip with a sockeye.

Cubs' mother returning from her snorkeling trip with a sockeye.


After returning home from the 2000 Alaska trip with my father, I spent hours looking over the photos I had taken, longing to return to Alaska. Flying on the float plane, as well as observing the huge number of aircraft flying in and out of the Lake Hood float plane airport in Anchorage, made me realize that to get “off the beaten path” in Alaska, I would need to either go by plane or by boat. Since 1997, I had been conducting Marine Science Camps in Port Aransas, and the thought occurred to me that I should attempt an Alaska Science Camp. I discussed the plan with Rob Sadowski, a former student-turned-camp-assistant, and he couldn’t agree more.

By the summer of 2001, my beautiful wife Karen, and I owned two math and science education businesses, we were homeschooling my 15 year-old son, Kenny, and we were the proud parents of a daughter born in June. When Christ said He came to give us an abundant life, He wasn’t kidding, and mine was getting more abundant by the minute. I knew though that for some reason exploring Alaska figured into the picture of this abundant life, and I was determined to find out how.

Chapter 1: My First Grizzly

November 10, 2010

I am a Christian, and I am in awe of God and His creation. One of His works that I am particularly in awe of is the grizzly bear. The father of the classification system, Carolus Linnaeus, originally classified it as Ursus arctos in 1758. Many “new” species were identified afterwards, but now all are classified again as Ursus arctos, with two subspecies, the Kodiak bear, Ursus arctos middendorffi and Ursus arctos horribilis, which includes all other grizzly bears.

I saw my first grizzly bear in 1989 in Yellowstone National Park. Fresh from graduating with a B.S. Degree in Aerospace Engineering from The University of Texas, I was taking one last family vacation before fulfilling my responsibilities designing military aircraft at General Dynamics. We were staying at the Yellowstone Hotel on the shores of Lake Yellowstone, and heard rumors that a mother grizzly bear was feeding on spawning cutthroat trout in a stream near the hotel. We went out to inspect, and sure enough, there stood a mother grizzly bear about 100 yards in the distance. A Yellowstone Ranger had the formidable task of keeping about 100 tourists behind an imaginary line he had drawn. With a Nikon N70 35 mm camera and 300 mm zoom, I hoped to grab a few photos of the bear. The light levels were a bit low for my lens, but I did manage to at least capture the bear and one of her two cubs on film.

That first grizzly bear fascinated me, and I have been enthralled by them ever since. I watched in amazement as the mother bear would jump out of sight down into the creek bed, and then suddenly, up would come a cutthroat trout, flying through the air and onto the bank. The cubs would then proceed to pounce on the trout and devour it. I watched this scene repeat itself several times. That first encounter with a wild grizzly bear left a lasting impression on me, and I hoped it would not be my last.

Another lasting impression on that trip to Yellowstone came in the form of the photography of Thomas D. Mangelsen. We were in Jackson Hole, Wyoming one day and visited his art gallery in town. The photograph that became permanently etched in my memory was one of a grizzly bear the split second before it closed its jaws on a leaping sockeye salmon. I would learn later that this photo was not taken at Yellowstone, but at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. The photograph made me realize two things, the importance of salmon to grizzly bears, and the incredible hunting skills these bears possess. To be able to catch a salmon with its teeth while holding its position against a torrent of whitewater seemed like an almost impossible blend of concentration and agility.

One thing I noticed on that first grizzly encounter is there are two kinds of people; those wanting to get closer to grizzly bears, and those wanting to stay as far away as possible. That day, I discovered I am of the former persuasion, much to the dismay of friends, parents, and my lovely wife, Karen. And while I do like to get as close as possible to bears, I don’t want to be a fool, and two things I will always do when in bear country are 1) make every effort not to surprise a bear and 2) Make any bear that shows even the slightest interest in me or my campsite feel very unwelcome.

In 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed Yellowstone grizzly bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. However, with the combination of good management practices and abundant food, Yellowstone’s grizzlies came off the threatened list in March of 2007. But how did they get on the threatened list to begin with? In 1800, there were an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears in the lower 48 states. By 1975 only 1000 remained.

The massive decline of grizzly bears was primarily a result of ignorance on the part of American settlers combined with a love/hate relationship with grizzlies. Just the mention of the name “grizzly bear” is enough to get an emotional response from the average person. The early settlers loved grizzly bears as a food source, as well as a source of profit through the sale of skins. In California, “Bear grease” was a sought after lubricant for greasing wagon wheels. Bears were also hated, especially by livestock owners. In his 1881 book, Reminiscences of a Ranger, Major Horace Bell recounted that in the 1850’s, “grizzly bears were more plentiful in Southern California than pigs”, and were so numerous in some areas they made cattle ranching nearly impossible.

Worst of all, grizzly bears killed humans. Lewis and Clark, in their famous journey through the American West at the dawn of the 19th century, described how the “Indians [gave] a very formidable account of the strength and ferocity of this animal, which they never dare to attack but in parties of six, eight or ten persons; and are even then frequently defeated with the loss of one or more of their party.” One 1852 report from California stated that “schools were closed because it was unsafe for children to use trails”.

These factors, along with creation of the Sharps rifle in the 1840’s, led to the rapid decimation of the grizzly bear. Meriweather Lewis frequently walked alone in the mornings, but “armed with my rifle and espontoon; thus equipped I feel myself more than an equal match for a brown bear provided I get
him in open woods or near the water.” Although Lewis used a muzzleloader and not a breech-loaded Sharps rifle, he felt quite confident in his rifle. However, it was the spear-like espontoon that saved him in one incident. He had just killed a buffalo with his rifle when he noticed a grizzly stalking him less than 50 yards away. “I thought of
retreating in a brisk walk as fast as he was advancing until I could reach a tree about 300 yards below me, but I had no sooner turned myself about but he pitched at me, open mouthed and full speed, I ran about 80 yards and found he gained on me fast, I then run into the water the idea struck me to get into the water to such depth that I
could stand and he would be obliged to swim, and that I could in that situation defend myself with my espontoon; accordingly I ran hastily into the water about waist deep, and faced about and presented the point of my espontoon, at this instant he arrived at the edge of the water within about 20 feet of me; the moment I put myself in this attitude of defense he suddenly wheeled about as if frightened, declined the combat on such unequal grounds, and retreated with quite as great precipitation as he had just before pursued me.”

The rifle gave men a sense of strength they never had before, and I think in many cases they failed to realize just how well it was working. Technology has a way of instantly replacing skills that used to take months, if not years, to acquire. Digital cameras are a great example. Excellent photos used to take great skill, with bulky and expensive equipment. Now however, someone with almost no experience can pick up a digital SLR and start shooting fantastic photos. This is a good example of technology, because it allows more people to capture beautiful images, but it also forces professional photographers to take their game to a higher level in order to offer something truly unique and original.

Guns are another good use of technology, unless of course they are put in the hands of a fool. For someone looking to defend his household, feed his family, or protect his country, guns are a useful weapon. However, put in the hands of a fool, a gun can be a dangerous tool. I feel sorry for people who live in countries that do not give their people a right to bear arms, but I am also glad I live in a country that doesn’t allow fools to carry guns.

And just like a digital SLR in the hands of a novice, the Sharps rifle allowed instant access to skills that used to involve much greater danger and more time to develop. Instead of building skill and knowledge about grizzlies first, many ignorant people used technology as an excuse for pragmatism, thoughtlessly and needlessly killing many grizzlies. I think the same thing happens today, and we have all been guilty of replacing skill and knowledge with ease of use, whether its overharvesting a fishery with no thought of maintaining a balance, or a young person overusing a calculator without first memorizing their basic math facts. Technology is a gift from God, and we need to use it to improve our abilities to rule His kingdom, not to destroy it and ourselves.

The removal of grizzly bears from the lower 48 states followed the Westward expansion; the last grizzly bear in Texas was killed in 1900, the last in California in 1922. Although currently extirpated, the grizzly bear is still California’s state animal and adorns their flag.

Trophy hunters also took their fair share of grizzlies during the late 1800s and early 1900s. I am not a hunter, but I am a fisherman, and while I do enjoy catching a large fish, my main goal when fishing is not to go on a “trophy quest”, but rather to enjoy God’s creation and bring home some good tasting fish for dinner. While there are a few trophy hunters that have self-esteem issues and have a need to conquer something more powerful than themselves using an extremely unfair advantage, I think most of them are simply in awe of the animals they pursue, and they want to put the animal to some use after killing it, whether that use be food or decoration. But no matter what the use, the main issue is that it is a limited resource, and unless someone has a reasonable estimate of how many animals are alive, it is impossible to know how many can be hunted while maintaining the population.

Some people have a hard time with the idea of “limited resource”. I have noticed this mostly with the boys on my adventure camps. In their immaturity and naivety, I think boys tend to believe that they are “the only ones” who have walked the land and rafted the rivers we are on, and therefore, they are free to take as much as they want. Unless we are short on food, I follow the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game regulations, and in some instances go above and beyond their expectations. I do not believe in wasting the resource, and we do not keep the allowed number of salmon “just because we can”. We only keep enough for the campers to eat in one night. I also encourage the use of barbless hooks even when it is not required. Most of the fish we catch on a trip are going to be released, and this is fun to be able to do, but it is extremely detrimental to the fish when it gets hooked in a way that the barb does considerable damage. You lose a few more fish with barbless hooks, but the damage to the ecosystem is considerably less.

In hunting though, the goal is to kill the animal, and there is no “catch and release” like there is in sport fishing. This makes it even more important for somebody or some group to have a population estimate of the species being hunted. To understand the importance of population estimates, consider for example a certain small pond, small enough to throw a stone across. If no one knew how many people were fishing and how much they were catching, it would be easy to catch all of the fish in a short amount of time. This is basically what happened in North America with the near extinction of the grizzly bear. No one had a good estimate of how many bears there were, and no one knew how many bears were being killed each year. There were some famous bear hunters such as Ramon Ortega from California, who reportedly killed 200 grizzlies in his career and 15 in one day. For the most part though, few records were kept, and it was the love of hunting grizzlies, combined with the ranchers’ and other humans’ hatred that led to their demise in the lower 48.

I am also a proponent of using the plants and animals God created for our purposes. This is what God intended, but he also told us to “rule over” His creation. We can be good rulers or bad rulers. People have a hard time being good rulers, especially when it comes to something like grizzly bears. While grizzly bears have many opponents, there are those who want them for their parts as well. For example, the bile from a bear’s gall bladder has been used for medicinal purposes in China and other Asian countries for thousands of years. I do not know much about the use of bear bile in medicine, but if it is truly helping human beings, then I think hunting bears for this purpose should be allowed as long as it doesn’t destroy the bear population. Many places currently permit the sale of gall bladders taken from hunted bears, including Nova Scotia and Maine. If more places permitted the sale of bear parts, it may actually curve the tide of poaching and black market trade that occurs. Also, it may help to eliminate the cruel “bear farms” that exist in some Asian countries, where bile is extracted directly from live, caged bears. Taking bile from a bear is NOT the same thing as taking milk from a cow or eggs from a chicken, and is a very cruel and painful process for the bear. Other parts of the bears can also be sold.

I am all for using plants and animals to cure ailments, but if humans can find a less destructive method, then we should do that. Since the Japanese synthesized bear bile in 1955, it seems like killing bears just for their gall bladder is not a worthwhile pursuit. Current estimates of prices for bear gall bladders vary anywhere from US $30 to $3,000, and not being a bear gall bladder expert, it is difficult to say which price is more realistic.

Ironically to some, hunters were probably the reason grizzlies did not become completely extinct in North America. Although often stereotyped as bloodthirsty savages, more often than not hunters are some of the best conservationists around. One of the best hunter/conservationists was America’s 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was an avid hunter of many animals, including grizzly bears. But he also loved bears and wanted to make sure future generations would enjoy them too. He set aside more land for national parks and preserves than all of his predecessors combined, 194 million acres (785,000 km²). Roosevelt explained, “There is an intimate relation between our streams and the development and conservation of all the other great permanent sources of wealth.” During his presidency, Roosevelt promoted the nascent conservation movement in essays for Outdoor Life magazine. Roosevelt believed we should find a balance between use and conservation of our natural resources. A Christian man, Roosevelet understood the meaning of taking dominion, and realized that America’s future depended on it. But he also understood there was a proper way to do this, one that included the Christian principle of unity and diversity. The Trinity, and the “body of Christ” are two of many examples of unity and diversity in God’s kingdom. The concept can be applied to many situations, including resource management. One place, like a forest for example, should have a diversity of uses, and we should learn how to properly care for and use such places. God did not give us His creation to plunder and destroy, but rather to manage and enhance. Roosevelet saw forests as places to protect, but he also saw the benefit it would provide if timber were harvested. Instead of making large tracts off limits, Roosevelt encouraged the efficient use of the resources.

I think Roosevelt would be appalled at the current state of affairs regarding oil and gas production in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and other places. This is a perfect place to show that man and animals can coexist. Although we have failed miserably in the past with destructive mishaps and polluting practices, man has also learned a great deal about how to properly mine for oil and gas. One amazing fact is that even though there were hundreds of oil and gas platforms in the path of Hurricane Katrina, there was no significant loss of oil from that storm. No beaches were soaked with crude oil, no oil soaked birds to clean, no fish kills from oil. Even the recent BP Macondo disaster was not as bad as predicted, and was stopped in 1/3 the time of the Ixtoc spill of 1979, even though the BP spill was over a mile deep, while the Ixtoc spill was only 160 ft. down. This is really quite amazing, and is a testimony to just how far we have come regarding oil spill prevention.

Nevertheless, thanks to Roosevelt and others, the grizzly bear did not go extinct, and its numbers are currently increasing in the lower 48 states. In March 2007, the grizzly was removed from “threatened status” in Yellowstone National park, and now over 500 live in the park. Established in 1872 under Ulysses S. Grant, Yellowstone was the first national park in America’s, and the world. Setting aside tracts of land as parks “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” was not a new concept, but no park had ever been created of such a vast size that also had the purpose of providing “for the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition” as stated in the 1872 Act establishing the park. Yellowstone has been a huge success, and millions of visitors flock there annually to see not only bears, but wolves, bison, elk, and countless other natural wonders.

Grizzly bear populations are on the rise in other places as well. While only receiving about 20,000 visitors annually compared to Yellowstone’s millions, Alaska’s Katmai National Park is home to more grizzlies than any of America’s national parks. More than double the size of Yellowstone, the current grizzly population is around 2,500. Alaska has the most grizzlies of any state (32,000) and more than all of Canada (22,000). Russia, however, takes the prize for most grizzlies, with current estimates around 70,000 to 80,000 bears, and most of these living in the eastern half of Russia, an area roughly the same size as the United States.

Poaching and other illegal hunting activities still affect bear populations worldwide, but overall their numbers are on the increase. And with human populations also on the increase, the number of grizzly/human encounters is only going to go up. So will we start killing bears off again? I don’t think so. I think the attitude towards bears and most wildlife is different than it was in the 1800s. We have lost some animals, such as the passenger pigeon, that people loved dearly, and we almost lost many other great animals, such as the bald eagle, whooping crane, and bison. These have been humbling experiences, and people are more concerned now than ever to have wild places for animals to run free.

So how do we deal with more bear/human encounters? How do we better manage bear populations? Well, probably the best way is through education, and that is part of the goal of this book. Through the setting of a rafting/camping adventure in Katmai National Park, you will learn what it means to humans to have wild places, and you will learn a lot about survival in the wild and what it is like to live in close contact with hundreds of grizzly bears. You will experience some of the raw beauty of Katmai National Park and other parts of Alaska, and you will learn the importance of taking dominion of His creation. With that said, let the adventure begin!

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