Growing Up Alaska: 23 Bears

When I was 16, I spent a summer in Olga Bay on Kodiak Island, home of the Kodiak Brown Bear. I worked on a survey team and we had many adventures and misadventures over the summer.

This story takes place on July 4th. We’d already been in Olga Bay for 5 weeks with a little over 2 weeks worth of food, so we were tired and hungry and living off of the land. But that is another story.

On this day, we’d tried to finish up the main survey by placing the corner posts in hopes of finding our way back to the civilization that through a series of events, we’d been cut off from. It took us sixteen hours to finish the survey which found us on a ledge on the side of a mountain.

Below us, the tide was coming back in and we had a long trek back to the boat. The other issue is that between us and the boat was a large stretch of grass and brush and bears who’d come to feed on the incoming salmon. The grass and brush were so high that you could easily run into a bear before you saw him.

We decided to divide into two groups. My boss and another 16 year old, Sam, would hike down the mountain and head for the boat while we guided them by hand held radio. From our vantage point, we could see the bears pretty well and would hopefully be able to steer them around them safely. Then they would take the boat down the coast to a place were Mike and I could climb down and go through a narrow stretch of brush far from the creek teeming with fish.

This also meant I had to carry all of the big equipment and the pack frame so Mike could carry the gun and listen to the radio.

Amazingly, we guided them through the grass and brush safely to the boat. Along the way, I was able to count out 23 different brown bears heading to or fishing along the creek.

Once we saw them push the boat off the beach, Mike and I headed down the steep mountain side. My pack and boots made it a difficult trip as I slid down the slope in many places because of the long grass. I had to use my shovel to help slow me and keep me from tumbling head first.

Exhausted, we reached the brush between us and the beach and began making our way through it. With all the gear it was tough and Mike didn’t help much when he let go of limbs and they smacked me in the face or the thighs.

We cleared the brush to not find the beach as we’d expected, but another patch of tall grass and more brush beyond that.

We repeated the process only to find another grassy area and more brush beyond that. Only we could hear the ocean now over the din of mosquitos and gnats that threatened to eat us alive.

Then I smelt it, the pungent smell of bear. I couldn’t tell how close it was, but I knew which direction it was, to our left and somewhere in the grass. We stumbled onto a well worn path devoid of grass from the hundreds of paws pf bears that had ambled by on their way to fish.

This gave us a start and we didn’t hang around to see if the smell got any closer and plunged headlong into the grass and brush beyond.

The trip had already taken at least twice as long as we’d expected and this batch of alders was tight and thick. I often had to stop and let down the pack frame and lift it through the knot of trees or untangle it from the branches. This only slowed us down and with each snap of a limb, Mike’s eyes got big as he was sure a bear was tracking us.

So it should’ve been no surprise when the radio on his backpack growled and squawked, he let out a scream and bolted through the brush leaving me behind.

I yelled after him, but he didn’t look back and I was pretty certain who wouldn’t hear me over the waves anyhow. So, after considering leaving the gear behind, I methodically made my way through the brush, shuffling gear forward before going back and getting the rest.

Finally, as I shoved my shovel through a tangle of limbs, it disappeared as it fell over the bank and crashed onto the rocky beach below. I hefted the pack and found a clearer patch of brush to push my through and thankfully emerged to the fresh breeze of ocean air.

The boat was drifting on the swells a few feet up the beach where I’d tossed the shovel through. Sam was retrieving my shovel and I spotted Mike lying in the boat with his foot propped up on a pontoon having apparently run off the edge and fell onto the rocks and severely sprained his ankle, if not broken it.

Even from that distance and over the sound of the crashing waves and boat engine, I could hear our boss berating him for leaving me behind.

Sam helped me lug the gear into the boat and I climbed in. Sam gave me the last of his smoked salmon and some water which I gratefully ate.

As we motored out into the bay, we spotted many more bears roaming the beaches and the embankments, some curious to the sound of the boat.

Despite the bumpy ride and the cold spray, I passed out and slept nearly the entire six mile ride back to where we called camp.

Author: matthewlasley

I am a school teacher and an author. I like to write picture books, middle grade, science fiction and short stories. I live in Alaska and I love history, so those two things often influence my creative writing.

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