Bear King Island
Fog - rain - wind - „Welcome to Kodiak,“ locals laugh after you ask them when is the weather going to be little bit better. I am sitting on a bank of a nameless river full of salmons dying in an ancient fight for the kind survival in this weather. I am watching raindrops pouring on a waterproof objective cover. Flocks of gulls are flying around fighting for what was left from the fish. The silence of the wild is disturbed only by their scream.
Suddenly a young bear with a big white scar on her back appears in the crook. Fully absorbed by taking pictures I do not notice another bear coming from the other side. It is their land – the kingdom of the largest subspecies of brown bear - Kodiak. You realise that at every step you make. You realise that when walking along a pathway already used by hundreds of large pads and you realise that in the moment when walking through high grass and feeling their proximity. A close proximity! Human volition means nothing here. You travel back in time by millions of years here. The law of nature is the only law here.
Munsey´s Bear Camp
Wheels of trolleys loaded by luggage brought by tourists and fishers jolt on a wooden landing stage run by Andrew Airways. Backpacks, fishing rod covers, cooling boxes and things necessary for surviving in the nature. Mail for Mike, a new rifle for Ray or a replacement electric generator for a hunters’ campsite on the opposite side of the island. The cargo holds of small orange hydroplanes are getting full. There is no other way of transporting people and cargo to remote parts of the island. The transport infrastructure is limited to only tens of kilometres of roads near the town of Kodiak. Pilots know inhabitants of camps, hunter or fishing cabins by name. Actually it seems to you that everyone knows each other. The arrival of hydroplanes is always a small function. People have chance to chat about news in the town and usual problems of the life in the nature. I try to make my objectives be on the top of a pile of luggage and not on the bottom.
Suddenly I sit on a co-pilot seat wearing headphones and feel floats taking off dark-blue waves. The harbour and the small town are disappearing behind us. We fly low above the tops of the central mountain-range, which is called the emerald one because of its green colour. We can see hillsides partly covered by snow, deep river valleys, rocky gorges, or white dots of mountain goat herds. The view of the beauty of the untouched nature is calming.
The pilot turns his plane to the Uyak bay after an hour flight. I can see a red log cabin and a small tier with a motorboat between trees. They are going near quickly. Pilot Billy moors the hydroplane to the tier in few minutes. We are welcomed by Mike and Robin Munseys, the owners of the camp. Housekeeper Marscha, who is the third, however, only a seasonal, inhabitant, gives homemade cookies to the pilot. Her cooking art is almost legendary on the island.
I stand on a front yard of a wooden cabin and watch the orange plane disappearing in the blueness of the autumn sky. Wind sometimes blows down first yellow leafs from nearby aspen trees. The sun is shining and I have no idea that this was my last sunny day on Kodiak.
No sounds of the street, no lights, no voices of drunken people from the bank and no sound of a washing machine from my neighbours. There is only darkness and silence here. It is so dark that you cannot see your fingers when you stretch your hand. The darkness can cover you just like two comforters and make you sleep so you are wakeless. It is the first night in a wooden cabin on the other side of the world, on the shore of the Uyak Bay. Sweet dreams are interrupted by the sound of a generator before the sunrise. Blueberry pancakes with maple syrup. A fog above the bay is dispersed by first sunbeams. Shouting gulls. Boarding to Mike’s fishing ship and a trip deeper to the bay. We travel up to the end to the estuary of nameless rivers. I feel the morning as fragments of small events connected by a string of euphoria from the stay in the wilderness. I stand on the board with a binocular stuck to my eyes. Where are they? Where to hell are they? There is only a fox running on the rocky shore exposed by the falling tide. It stops. It looks behind and it disappears in the moment it stops just like when using some kind of magic. Its summer fur perfectly blends with the environment. Seals bask on a rocky island. They look almost white on a black rock. Where are the bears? I look through the cabin glass and see Robin smiling behind the rudder. The smile contains both the understanding and the answer: “You’ll wait to see!“
When Mike pushes off the motorboat Robin used to take us to the shore, we leave to the country ruled by the largest subspecies of brown bear. It lives only on this island and it was named after that. Kodiak. A giant beast of prey, which can reach the weight of about 700 kg and the height of 3.5 meter after it stands on hinders. The population of the bears totals about 3,000. It is one bear per each ten inhabitants of the island. The rate is probably vice-versa at this part of the island. There are not many places in the world showing more beasts of pray than people. We can sense their presence everywhere.
Remains of fish. Droppings. Dens, where they spent the night. I almost hit Mike walking in front of me after I tried to wipe off the bear dropping from my wellington boot. There is a bear in front of us. It only turns over its shoulder and walks along the river. We meet other two in ten minutes. They stand on their hinders in high grass to check intruders and disappear. We wade through the small river several times and finally continue on its left bank. There are dead fish everywhere. We can find them in the river and on the bank, too. The bank is shaggy and we can see only few meters in front of us. We walk very slowly. Mike carefully examines every meander and every bush. “We will wait here,” he chooses a place among trees as our stand point. I prepare a tripod with the objective aimed against the flow and wait. Mike knocks on my shoulder after few minutes. A beautiful male bear comes from the other side. He throws a salmon to the air with his huge clawed pad and catches it to the mouth. He throws the salmon to the river bank, holds it by the pad and tears off a mouthful of pink meat. He leaves the river after finding our presence. It was my first close encounter with the king of the island. Nothing special happened that day with exceptions of spotting other two bears, a dinner, which represented another divine cooking masterpiece by Marscha, and a gathering with people you think they were your close friends even after only few hours spent together. It was simply a usual day on the Kodiak Island.
The island has decided that one day and half of a sunny weather was too much for my stay. It is raining when I walk to the breakfast along a stony pathway. One realises that he would not even leave his home in such weather, however, here you forget the cold wind and rain drops jabbing at you like small needles during the motorboat ride. Everything is grey and unkind. It is cold and wet. It is only few degrees of Celsius above zero. It seems like a great weather for sitting on a river bank and waiting for bears. Mike chooses a spot on the brushwood border, so we cannot be seen. I sit near a young aspen tree and wait. One hour. Two hours. Three hours. I see several bears in a long distance. They are in open space on the bay shore, but it is too far to take pictures. The river is calm. Mike takes out a thermos bottle with soup and toasts. Water falls from my hood to the cup with hot salmon cream soup. “Let’s move to some other place,” Mike commands and hides the rest of the snack to his backpack. I come down to the river with the tripod on my back. I strange noise makes us face round. A bear is on the spot we were eating at only few moments ago and scratches its big furry head by the aspen tree. The bear was most likely only few meters far from us for the whole time we were waiting for bears coming along the river. One thinks:”Was the bear there when I went to pee to the nearby bush?” During my one-week stay in the remote part of the island I found out several times that one can meet a bear everywhere and every time. It is really hazardous to move across their territory without an experienced guide. I spoke about that with Mike several times. Mike grew up here and he knows the wilderness more than anyone else. Bears are individuals, just like people. You have to treat every individual in a different way. Some of them are “friendly” and others are sulky fellows one should rather avoid. There were only two mortal attacks of bears against people during years of the close neighbourhood between bears and men at Kodiak. Both cases involved hunters gralloching their catch. The attacks came in the same year and were most likely caused by a lack of the natural food. Fortunately there were enough salmons during my visit and bears had no reason to eat photographers …
It is evening. Only few minutes before the generator is shut down. It is just like an apocalyptic sci-fi movie. The time before the generator and the time after it. The light bulb twinkles and goes out after the growling sound gets silent. The day is officially over and my stay in the Munsey´s Bear Camp is over, too. But the nature does not care about human intentions. It does not care about my flight to the mainland. In the morning the radio says that all flights on the island and from it have been cancelled due to bad weather. I stand on a pier made of old barrels watching the wind storm bending trees and raising waves. I do not mind the cancelled flight and problems caused by that. I am grateful for every other moment spent at a place, which is among those few left in the world.