She gave a chuff and pulled up short, as surprised to see us as we were to see her. Her dense, fluffy fur was blond. I watched her square, expressive face very closely because this bear — maybe 300 pounds and 10 yards away — would be the one deciding how the encounter played out. An adrenaline-driven voice in my head said, “This could go badly.” But it was also telling me how incredibly thrilling it was to be so near this animal. Not being on top of the food chain certainly heightens one’s awareness.
We were four people and a dog tucked against a slope, partly hidden by waist-high grass. The bear looked and sniffed for almost a minute, trying to decide what she had come across. Then she pivoted onto a trail and moved away, choosing flight over fight. I was grateful for that; an older male might have stood his ground.
It was the second day of a bear-watching trip on Kodiak Island in Alaska, the largest landmass of the nearly 5,000-square-mile Kodiak Archipelago south of the mainland, and the exclusive home of the Kodiak bear. Our guides, Harry and Brigid Dodge, didn’t seem overly concerned about the close call; it was a young female bear, they explained later, maybe 3 or 4 years old, curious and scared, but with easy escape paths and no food cache to protect.
“If it had been a bigger male we would have been backing away,” Brigid said. “We wouldn’t have let him get that close.”
Still, a bear encounter like ours is something the Dodges try to avoid. As the owners of Kodiak Treks, a small outfitter specializing in low-impact bear-watching trips, the goal is to be a neutral, unseen presence — to see, as Brigid puts it, “bears respectfully in the wild.”
There are certainly other ways to watch bears in Alaska, from half-day bush-plane-based trips to packages that wrap bear viewing in with sport fishing or stays at high-end wilderness lodges. Some of the best-known bear watching spots are on the mainland just across the Shelikof Strait from Kodiak. During a strong salmon run, you’re all but guaranteed to see dozens of brown bears fishing side by side not more than 30 yards from you during the hour your ticket allows you and 39 other people onto a viewing platform.
But that wasn’t the sort of experience I was looking for.
The 45-minute flight from the town of Kodiak to the solar-powered lodge owned by Kodiak Treks on the southern end of the island would have been the highlight of most Alaska trips. The scale of the place — lush and green in the summer — starts to sink in from a few hundred feet up in the air. With clouds capping the mountains, we tracked the coastline and the bush pilot pointed out whales swimming the channels and a “ladder” where countless bears, following exactly the same route to climb a steep knife-edge ridge, had worn treads into the vegetation.
We landed in a cove on Uyak Bay where the photographer Kim Hubbard and I were greeted by the Dodges. Harry, wearing hip waders, provided piggyback rides over the gap between the plane’s pontoon and the beach. Brigid, blond Viking braids emerging from her knit cap, welcomed us as she wrangled their black Lab, Reuben, a squirming mass of eagerness even at 10 years old.
We were fed sandwiches and rhubarb cake and fitted with our own hip waders. Then we piled our gear into the Dodges’ 20-foot aluminum skiff and motored deeper into the bay. Uyak is the longest bay on Kodiak — a sliver of ocean that cuts more than 30 miles into the western side of the island. It runs so far inland that at its back there are views of the interior mountains: sharp, snow-covered peaks forming a spine running most of the island’s 100-mile length.
After nearly an hour of being sprayed and bounced by choppy seas, we pulled onto a headland and into bear country. As soon as we stepped out of the boat the signs were unmissable: paw prints in the mud, more through the forest, scat the size of hubcaps wherever we went.
Cut off from the mainland for the last 12,000 years, Kodiak Island is something close to paradise for bears. Two-thirds of the island is a national wildlife refuge, and the human population is low enough (around 13,000) that the bears face very few natural threats or competition for food. Such advantages have allowed Kodiak bears — a subspecies of brown bear — to become some of the largest in the world, with exceptional males capable of growing to 11 feet tall and 1,200 pounds.
The island also offers a special opportunity for observing such bears, at least for those willing to rough it. With few amenities and challenging terrain, Kodiak Treks does everything it can to immerse visitors into a bear’s world.
Previous to this trip I had spent a total of about 14 months in the Alaskan wilderness over the course of nine summers, primarily leading backpacking and sea kayaking expeditions for the National Outdoor Leadership School. I’d seen wolves, moose, caribou and a few grizzly bears — all at a comfortable distance. To keep those distances comfortable I had learned to alert animals to my presence by reflexively making noise whenever I came to a rise, entered brush or rounded a river bend.
But that’s the opposite of what Kodiak Treks wanted us to do. The idea, as the Dodges explained while we explored a sedge flat on the bay’s northern shore, wasn’t to scare the bears away but to move through their habitat in a way that let them ignore us. So as we walked beaches, forded creeks and even bushwhacked through alders, we were as quiet and unobtrusive as possible. When we spotted a bear, often at a distance of 200 or 300 yards, we moved only as close as cover and a favorable wind allowed.
In nine years working in Alaska I had seen six bears. On my first day on Kodiak I saw nine.
By the time we returned to the boat, the bay had stilled. We crossed it to set up camp among some trees on a bluff — two tents and a small campfire. A short distance away, tucked out of sight, was a simple pit latrine, an open wooden frame with a toilet seat propped on top and a roll of toilet paper in a Ziploc bag. Reuben was served his kibble as we waited for the Coleman camp stove to boil water to rehydrate our freeze-dried pasta primavera. Although Kodiak never gets truly dark in the summer, it has extended sunsets, which lingered through our dessert of cookies and cocoa.
The Dodges offer three- and five-day trips, which can either be heavy on the camping or not. They speak with every potential client to make sure the physical challenge, low-impact approach and uncertainties of wildlife viewing are all well understood. “We haven’t ever had a trip where people didn’t see bears,” Brigid said. “You never know when it might happen. We don’t want to give people the impression that this is the Garden of Eden and we are bear whisperers.”
The lodge and three guest cottages, while not luxurious (there is no running water), are cozy and allow visitors access to a homemade sauna, which is a simple shed with a stove, a large bench and a galvanized metal tub for bathing. Meals are simple and include ingredients gathered from the wild or from the Dodges’ garden. That might mean fiddlehead fern tempura or salmonberry syrup for pancakes.
Our second day began with a slippery walk across kelp-covered rocks along the shoreline. Passing a bank eroded by storms, Brigid pointed out something protruding from the exposed earth: a very weathered human skull and a jawbone not far away. Kodiak has been inhabited for over 7,500 years and there are countless unstudied archaeological sites on the island. Centuries ago, Harry explained, salmon runs turned this area into a seasonal fishing camp. It was apparently busier then; in three days with the Dodges we didn’t see another person.
From the rocky shore, we followed a stream inland. Enormous stands of cow parsnip crowded the narrow bear trails, and their succulent stems broke as we moved through, releasing a pleasingly verdant stink. Merlins and song sparrows flew past. We spotted a northern hawk owl silent in a snag. Sitka black-tailed deer crossed nearby river bars. A goldeneye duck with chicks circled a pond. With mountains climbing straight out of the water and eagles all around, it was almost preposterously majestic.
We settled onto a meadowy hillside for a lunch of apples and ham and cheese sandwiches that Brigid made crunchier with freshly gathered fiddlehead ferns. At the base of the meadow, a merganser and three chicks paddled past in a shallow creek. Then an eagle, which had apparently also been observing this domestic tableau from the bank, flapped twice and lunged.
The chicks submerged, but it was too shallow. The eagle held a little bird in one talon as it flew toward the far wooded shoreline. The merganser and remaining chicks made a dash for deeper water. In just seconds, and without a pause, the family was one smaller.
The uncertainties of life in the wild showed up in other ways, too. For all the bears we did see, there were probably many more that we passed unaware. As we finished lunch, what we had believed to be two logs on a gravel bar got up and wandered away. We spent the next few hours making our way along the periphery of the gravel bar taking our cues from the logs turned bears — moving when they did and settling in when they flopped down for a rest.
By late afternoon we were ready to start back toward camp. Retracing our route up the sloping meadow into the forest, we dropped onto a large sedge flat on our way to the shoreline. The new grass makes for nutritious, easy grazing, so it is popular with the bears, but it grows so tall that it can be hard to tell who is on the flat with you. Which is why we were startled when a blond head popped about 150 yards away — our first sighting of the young bear. We managed to get within 50 yards from her without being spotted. Tucking the camera tripod among alder branches to give it cover, we waited for her to pop her head up again.
Reuben usually napped during these prolonged periods of stillness, but a casual pet from Brigid set his tail wagging. She laid a calming hand on him that only increased the speed and vigor of the wags. I was sure that the thwacking of his tail, not to mention the hoarse coughs he started to make, would scare the bear off, but Brigid said that for some reason bears accept his presence the way they do the birds, deer and other animals.
Nonetheless, we decided not to push things. Leaving the young bear to the sedge flat, we found a small track along the edge of the woods, intending to get out of her sight to arc around and get back to the shore. But as we paused for a moment to check on her, she headed for our trail. We tucked ourselves against the hill, giving her the open ground, but within minutes there she was — just 10 yards away — nothing but grass between us.
The change in the Dodges’ demeanor underscored that there would be no “pause” button if things went wrong. They remained calm but became visibly more alert, whispering with each other and us as they assessed, made plans and contingencies. In that instance, the young bear moved on, easing the tension, but blocking our planned route along the beach back to camp.
It was when we were figuring out an alternate path, our bodies starting to relax again, that a new bear emerged from a creek bed 200 yards away. Even to novice eyes, it was obvious from his battle-worn gait, the size of the shoulder hump and the sharp blockiness of his head that this was one of those big males that would stand his ground. The young female had seemed huge to me; this one was three times her size — a 900-pound male bear by Harry’s murmured estimate.
We didn’t move. As a safeguard against chance encounters going wrong, Harry carries a field-worn .338 Winchester rifle. Both he and Brigid also carry fireworks; they say that the combination of noise and flash can be more effective at scaring off an aggressive bear than a warning shot from a gun. That said, the Dodges noted that they have never had to use either while guiding clients. They believe that the keys to safe viewing are being able to assess the size and attitude of a bear quickly and then to respond correctly to the many variables of a given situation.
In this case, we remained still and quiet, but the old bear stopped. He stretched his neck, extended his nose straight into the air, and, with uncanny certainty, turned to look directly at us, apparently pinpointing our location by smell. He didn’t seem pleased.
The next thing we knew, he was heading off in the same direction that the young blond bear had taken. Facing the possibility of being pinned between the bears, with the young bear ahead of us and the older bear behind, we retreated uphill into the forest and began moving overland toward camp.
We hiked steadily for about 15 minutes, before finding a way down to the beach, where we fell into a single-file line. After the closeness of the tall grass and the thickets, the openness of the shoreline was a relief. At a waterfall we stopped to fill our bottles, gladly gulping down the cold snowmelt. Seeming to acknowledge the change, Brigid said, “It’s a different world. That is where they do what they do.”
On the morning of our third and last full day in the wilderness, we moved slowly as we took down the tent. Though tired from long days, we were reluctant to leave. We would be back at the lodge by midafternoon, and the next morning the Dodges would take us by boat to the outport of Larsen Bay to catch the mail plane, the first leg of our journey home. Lingering made us late.
Often being 10 minutes behind schedule doesn’t mean much, but we could actually see the tide ebbing as we apologized for not heeding Harry’s request to be at the boat by 7:30 a.m. We were only partway across the bay when it became too shallow to go farther. We jumped out to push the skiff over a last skin of water, but the boat settled into the mud.
Rather than bemoan our plight, Harry set up the camp stove on the stern seat and prepared tea and oatmeal. Arctic terns and kittiwakes dive-bombed the shallows at the center of the nearly empty bay. We breakfasted surrounded by miles of mud flats and purple mussel beds accented with bright-green sea lettuce, enjoying views of the mountains rising from the near and far shores.
Brigid agreed to stay with Reuben in the boat until the tide returned while the rest of us trudged to shore and settled on a treed hillside that would hide us from bears and the periodic rain showers. By 9 o’clock or so we had spotted five bears that Harry identified as young adults (somewhere between 3 and 5 years old) on the flats. They were 300 or 400 yards away, but the view was open. We spent the next five hours watching them.
It was like observing toddlers. They randomly galloped across the flat chasing each other. They wrestled. Two seemed to be facing off to do battle until they dramatically collapsed into competing naps. Much of it was what gets edited out of wildlife documentaries, but actually being there, getting stiff from squatting on a tussock to witness little moments, let us see what it is to be a bear.