Posted tagged ‘Katmai National Park’

An Unimaginable Boom

June 6, 2014

It’s hard to imagine that the 380 m wide by 68 m tall Novarupta dome is the site of the largest volcanic eruption in over 100 years! However, the undulating pattern of the surface in the foreground is the first clue that something more powerful than any of us have witnessed occurred here not so long ago.


What is the loudest explosion you have ever heard? How far away could you hear it? 1 mile? 2 miles? 10 miles? What about 100 miles? If something exploded, and you could hear it from over 100 miles away, that would be impressive, wouldn’t it! I can’t imagine an explosion that big. Now, think about an explosion that could be heard 800 miles away, and you are on the scale of the explosion that started the Novarupta-Katmai eruption of 1912!

Today, June 6, 2014, is the anniversary of the largest volcanic eruption in over 100 years, the June 6-8, 1912 eruption of Novarupta-Katmai. Located in Katmai National Park in remote Southwest Alaska, the eruption was more like an explosion. The 60-hour blast filled the surrounding valley with sand-like flows up to 700 feet thick in places. And most of that occurred in the first 16 hours!

As magma blasted out of Novarupta’s vent, the magma chamber supporting nearby Mt. Katmai also started to empty out Novarupta. With its internal support gone, the top of Mt. Katmai collapsed, creating a massive hole (caldera) that all the buildings in New York City and then some could fit inside.

Although I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Katmai National Park studying this gigantic eruption, it is still hard to imagine what it must have looked like as ash clouds bellowed and the surrounding valley rapidly filled with one ignimbrite package (sandflow) after another. But it did happen, it happened very quickly, and the evidence is there for all to see.

Surrounding Novarupta-Katmai, evidence also exists for an Ice Age, preceded by Noah’s flood. You see, Novarupta-Katmai materials rest atop glacial till (Ice Age deposits). And the Ice Age deposits rest atop the 15,000 foot thick Naknek formation, a water-deposited sedimentary rock layer (Flood deposit).

Would you like to learn more about this amazing eruption? One way is by purchasing our new Journey to Novarupta audio adventure. Produced by the creators of the popular Jonathan Park creation adventure series, Journey to Novarupta follows our 2009 and 2011 trips to the volcano. It also flashes back to the 1900’s and the expeditions of Dr. Robert Griggs, the first human to see the eruption site. Journey with us as we search for and find evidence of Noah’s Flood, reveal huge problems in the radiometric dating methods use as evidence for millions of years, and more. This family adventure will build your faith as you discover powerful scientific evidence for a young and active planet!

Journey to Novarupta is on sale now through June 12, 2014! Click here to listen to the opening scene, and/or to order. To receive the sale price, copy/paste coupon code JourneySale682014. Digital downloads are on sale for $7.99 and CDs for $11.99.






The Other Side of Novarupta

August 8, 2011

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For 60 hours on June 6-8, 1912, Novarupta volcano in Katmai National Park spewed a massive amount (3 cubic miles) of magma out its vent, causing the biggest eruption of the 20th and 21st (so far) centuries. In 2009, myself and some other adventurers traveled to the site of the Novarupta lava dome and surrounding Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. You can watch a YouTube video of our adventure here:

What most visitors to Katmai National Park see is what we saw in 2009, although only a few dozen adventurers hike out to Novarupta. However, there is another side to Novarupta, that few have ever seen, and in 2011 we set out to explore this mysterious place.

The explosion of Novarupta was heard over 750 miles away in Juneau, AK! When Novarupta blew, a magma chamber under Mount Katmai drained, leaving a void that caused the top of Mt. Katmai to collapse. This was about 1 cubic mile of material that fell over 1,000 feet into the void. With cataclysms of such incredible magnitude occurring in such a short period, it is not hard to understand that entire mountains were shaking and falling apart. And that is what is in the image below, the jagged leftovers of a huge piece of Noisy Mountain that came sliding down into the valley, and was later cut through by the Katmai River.  Click on the image to enlarge, and note the conical piles which are characteristic of landslide debris.

Katmai River cuts through a landslide from Noisy Mountain. Copyright 2011, David E. Shormann, PhD

That’s all for now, more will be coming soon of this amazing part of God’s creation!

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

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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Novarupta and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes

August 14, 2009

In July I visited Katmai National Park and hiked through The Valley of 10,000 Smokes. If you want to go somewhere that is vastly different than pretty much anywhere else on earth, then this is the place to be! Here is a YouTube video I made about the trip, that includes a discussion of a young Earth, and me getting zapped by a bear fence.

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