A huge Kodiak bear climbs the riverbank across from you, his white claws gleaming in the sunlight. He glances at you and then stretches out for a nap. Suddenly, a bear charges out of the woods to your left and into the river. She pounces on a salmon and carries it to a fallen log. You hear bones crunch as she consumes her lunch, and you hope your video camera is picking up the sound. Splashing water and pounding feet cause you to lift your head from your camera and glance to your right, where you see one bear chasing another bear down the middle of the river. The lead bear has a salmon in his mouth, and his pursuer seems intent on stealing the prize. You realize that you are nearly surrounded by bears and look nervously at your guide, but when he smiles and nods, you return to the difficult task of deciding upon which bear to focus your camera first. Welcome to Munsey’s Bear Camp.
Our 2011 summer was different from any we can remember. The pink salmon run was a month late and much smaller than predicted, and while bear viewing was good all summer, we didn’t see many bears catching salmon until August. That, coupled with a poor berry crop, had us concerned that the bears wouldn’t get enough to eat, but by the end of the summer, the streams were full of salmon, and the bears looked fat and healthy.
Marcia Messier was our cook and so much more again this summer. While salmon runs aren’t always predictable, wonderful meals from Marcia are a sure thing!
We began our season on July 10th with the arrival of friends Val and Terry Zimmer from Kansas, and Zac Bishop and Francesca Teeters, both from Colorado. On their first day, this group saw several sea otters and particularly enjoyed seeing the mothers with babies on their stomachs. They watched three bears chase each other and feed on grass, and one walked down to a stream near them and drank water. This group caught several halibut and enjoyed an afternoon of Dolly Varden fishing in Brown’s Lagoon, where Frankie caught our first pink salmon of the summer.
On July 15th, we welcomed back Mike and Chris Sargenti from New York and greeted David and Ann Jefferson from Scotland. On their first day, this group photographed foxes and deer and watched two bears nap in the sunshine. On July 17th, Dan and Yehudit Mizrahi from Israel joined the Sargentis and Jeffersons. This group saw a bear in the woods that rubbed his back on a tree and then walked down the bank to within 30 ft. of them before continuing on his way. Awhile later, they watched two sub-adult bears play, standing on their hind legs to bat at each other. On another afternoon, a bear seemed to follow them as they walked up a stream, and he paid little attention to them as he fed near them.
We welcomed Bink Frayne from Australia and Steve and Deb Bootz from Wisconsin on July 20th. This group enjoyed a leisurely day of fishing that included a lunch of grilled salmon. Steve, Deb, and Mike watched several bears, including one that caught a salmon and was immediately chased by another bear who was trying to steal the fish. The first bear gulped down his lunch before the second bear could catch him. Later that day, this group enjoyed watching a sow with three newborn cubs. Meanwhile, Bink experienced the excitement of catching and releasing a 40 lb. halibut in 20 ft. of water. Bink’s halibut placed him in our prestigious halibut club (40 lbs. and over).
On July 25th, we were pleased to welcome back Bud and Joan Coughlin from Pennsylvania and Diane and Gene Fantini and Junior and Carol Constrisciani, all from Delaware. Fishing was this group’s main interest, and Bud got things rolling with a 35-lb. halibut the first afternoon. The next day, Joan caught a 54-lb. halibut and joined our halibut club. On the third day, Bud and Carol caught salmon and Dolly Varden in Brown’s Lagoon, while Gene, Diane, Joan, and Junior kept five halibut and released four on the Mary Beth. On their final day, this group kept 10 and released 38 halibut, and Carol caught our first silver salmon of the summer. One evening, Diane and Gene videotaped a bear that walked along the shore near their cabin, and this group had the unexpected thrill of watching a mountain goat on the beach by our dock.
On August 4th, we welcomed back our dear friend Dick Zander and greeted Beat and Marie Christine Frankhauser from Switzerland and their teenage daughters Karin, Sabine, and Nadine. On their first morning, we encountered three orcas just minutes after leaving our mooring. The whales swam beside us for a distance and even dove under the boat. On a cruise to the mouth of the bay, the girls loved the bobbing sea otters, and Nadine showed her elders how to fish when she landed a nice halibut. By this point, the salmon run should have been hitting its peak, but there were few fish at the head of the bay, and this group saw the heart-breaking consequences of a poor salmon run when they watched a sow abandon one of her three newborn cubs. The sow probably wasn’t getting enough nutrition to support three cubs. Sows abandoning cubs is a common occurrence in nature, but it is rarely observed, and we saw it happen twice this summer.
On August 9th, Dick was joined by Peter Rim de Kroon, Elisabeth Schippers, and their teenage children, Rimke and Ferk, from the Netherlands. When we reached the head of Uyak Bay on August 10th, we were thrilled to see that the pink salmon had finally arrived, approximately one month late. We saw twenty-five bears fishing on the tide flats, and the de Kroon family and Mike sat on a riverbank and watched twelve bears fish and walk in front of them. One bear caught four fish right beside them. On another day, they watched twenty bears, including three very large males, fish and interact with each other. The de Kroon family all proved to be excellent fishermen, and Ferk decided fishing was almost too easy after catching his limit (five) of silver salmon and releasing twelve halibut.
On August 15th, our friends Barb and Tim Gilligan from Kansas joined Dick. Tim and Barb both caught silver salmon and their limit of halibut one day, and Tim joined our halibut club with a 45 ponder. Janet Ward and David Cresswell from England joined Dick, Barb, and Tim on August 17th. This group spent two days sitting on a riverbank watching bears fish and parade in front of them. Barb said there were so many bears she didn’t know which way to point her video camera, and Tim commented that he could hear bones crunch on their video when one of the bears ate her catch near them (as you may have guessed, my scenario at the beginning of this newsletter was drawn from actual events this summer).
On August 21st, we were pleased to welcome back Andy Vena II, Andy Vena III, Charles Reilly, Dennis Reilly, Albert Strydesky, and John Mayer, all from New Jersey. As always, these guys brought high energy and kept us smiling. They caught fifteen silver salmon and four halibut in two hours at Greenbanks. The next day, they caught eight halibut, and Andy Sr. demonstrated the perfect technique for landing a 52 pounder and joining our club. Mike took this group bear viewing on a side stream one afternoon for a couple hours, and they watched a large male catch several fish.
We greeted our second straight group of fishermen on August 26th. We were happy to welcome back good friends Dan Robertson from Nevada, and Gene Fanucchi and John Mendoza, both from California, and we were pleased to meet first-time members of the group (aka "the new guys") Ray Arreola, Bob Lipscomb, and Michael Saner, all from California. Bob claimed to know little about fishing, and I knew immediately who would go home with the most fish. Bob began the first afternoon by landing his limit of halibut, and he won the largest-fish bet with ease by catching the three biggest halibut of the trip. The other guys caught plenty of halibut too, and Dan caught his limit of silvers one day. Mike took "the new guys" bear viewing, and they watched five bears, including two large males, fish on a small stream.
We were happy to welcome back Andy Erickson from Rhode Island and Rene Bär from Switzerland on September 3rd. Andy and Rene were joined by Tony and Karin Ross from Pennsylvania. On their first day, this group watched several bears fish, including an accommodating bear that caught a salmon and then carried the fish up the beach within full view of the cameras before eating it. On the way back to the boat the first afternoon, Andy slipped and broke his ankle. He had to be flown to Kodiak to have the ankle stabilized, and then he traveled home to Rhode Island for surgery. Although he never complained, I know it was a painful ordeal for him. Rene, Tony and Karin were joined by Walter and Eva Ortwein from Germany on September 4th. This group experienced the fury of a Kodiak storm when the wind blew nearly 60 mph, but they spent the following two, beautiful days watching bears on the main river. One bear ignored the live salmon, preferring to dig dead fish from the river bottom and eat them. Other bears were obviously getting more than enough to eat and would only take one or two bites out of a salmon before tossing their catch.
On September 8th, we welcomed Shinji Sato, Kazuko Yamade, Sho Komorizono, Ayuko Shiobara, Kazuhiko Yakushiji, and Kume Shizuko, all from Japan. This group enjoyed a spectacular first afternoon when we sat in the midst of ten fin whales that fed and surfaced around our boat. They spent the next four days photographing bears. One day, a large male strolled past them, and at the same time, another bear emerged from the brush across the river from them. Meanwhile, a bear walked toward them from upstream and caught a fish beside them. The dilemma was which bear to photograph first. One afternoon as we cruised back to the Mary Beth, we were surprised to see two orcas in the shallow water at the head of the bay. The whales, including a large bull, surfaced near us several times.
On September 13th, we were pleased to welcome back Gene and Denise Brown and their friends, Cynthia Spawn and Janis Allen, all from the state of Washington. This was a fun group to close out our summer season, and they enjoyed four beautiful days of bear viewing. One afternoon, they watched a bear take a bath near them in a stream, and on another day, they photographed two young bears play and wrestle. The bears got so carried away that one rolled down the bank onto the beach. When a third bear approached, the playing stopped and a tense standoff ensued between the three bears . After a few moments, they all continued peacefully on their way. Finally, this newsletter would not be complete without mentioning that this group as well as several previous groups enjoyed watching a cute, curious weasel that inhabited a log pile near where they sat to bear view.
The salmon run is crucial to the Kodiak ecosystem. Many animals, including bears, seals, eagles, orcas, many species of fish, humans, and yes, even the curious weasels depend on salmon for sustenance, and once they spawn, the nutrients from decaying salmon support everything from bacteria and fungi to plants and trees, to the salmon fry that emerge from the eggs that were just laid, all of which provide food for other organisms. Our summer season is carefully planned around the expected arrival of salmon in our bay. No one knows why the salmon run was late this year or why it was smaller than expected, but we assume it was one of those anomalies of nature that make our jobs frustrating at times but never boring. It is difficult to watch a sow abandon a small cub, but it is also fascinating to see how nature adjusts to deal with variances from the norm. When there is less food available, a sow must abandon one cub to expend her resources on successfully raising the two she has left.
I want to thank Marcia again this summer for her wonderful food and great sense of humor. She always keeps us smiling. We had guests from nine different countries. Half were new and half were returnees. One hundred percent of our guests were enjoyable, and I want to thank each one of you for sharing a piece of your summer with us. We wish Dick Zander and Andy Erickson speedy recoveries, and we hope to see you both back here soon.