Thursday, October 30, 2014

Night Visitor

A urine track left by a brown bear as he(?) followed our driveway , peeing as he walked.   Bears are nothing if not casual.

     I was surprised to find this bear sign not far from our front door early this morning.  Not that I necessarily expected all the bears to be in their dens by now, but I wasn't sure what one would be doing near town.  No fishing, very unlikely to find a moose, no good denning sites that I can think of nearby....  Unfortunately the only thing can think of is garbage left outside by careless people.  I hope I'm wrong.

     On two consecutive days a week ago I heard and saw swans flying high overhead, heading southeast.  On the third day I did not hear or see a one, nor have there been any since.  The magpies and ravens, on the other hand, have returned to town after their summer truancy.  The ponds and smaller lakes are frozen over, and ice lenses are flowing down the creeks.  Winter is here.

A urine track left by an adult brown bear on the trail to Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park, in July of this year.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, 2014

Proof that you can get fat on a low carb, high protein diet.

I returned home from Brooks Camp for the last time this year on the 18th of this month.  I was the last seat-fare for the year on a float plane otherwise carrying lodge employees returning home at the end of their summer stint.  It was the end of my third visit this summer, for a total of 14 days by the Brooks River.

Even though I blogged about my visit there last year, I've been hesitant to write more about about Brooks.  It already gets more human traffic than it should, at least when the bears are there in July and September.  Unfortunately, because of political realities too complex and dreary to go into here, there is almost zero chance that human visitation will be limited at Brooks, at least not before something very bad happens.  I don't want to add to this problem by encouraging yet more visitation, but the fact of the matter is that the attention drawn to Katmai and Brooks Camp by the mainstream media, and the otherwise wonderful Katmai Bear Cams, utterly dwarfs anything that ever has been or will be created by this blog.

My hope is that I can add a little more candor than what other sources offer, in order to offset what harm I may do in further publicizing the wonders of the place.

While I am busy with disclaimers, I will also note that as per usual I am making a virtue of necessity in relation to the bears, and focusing more on writing than photos, given the inadequacy of my camera and photographic skill-set, and the fact that the web is already replete with Katmai bear photos.  Handily, the bear cam and its related blog have relieved me of even more of the burden, especially since I was contemplating posting an entry for fellow bear geeks filled with my observations about the individual bears.  The bear cams and blog, and the Bears of Brooks River guidebook are a much better way to get to know them however, at least short of visiting.

I'll also go ahead and put one of the main morals of this post up front:  If you are going to visit Brooks and are seriously into bears, stay for at least four days if at all possible.  Getting to know them as individuals enriches the experience exponentially.  Just don't think you'll be satisfied with one visit.  I met people who have been visiting for multiple days every summer for over a decade.  If I can manage it, I'll do the same.

As much as I wish it were otherwise, there's no way to recount all the interesting things I saw and learned while watching brown bears for 10 hours a day for 2 weeks, not to mention the many conversations with rangers and biologists about the ursine locals.  I can't help but pass on a few thoughts and experiences, however...

Either 856 or 747 (or both, it can be hard for me to tell from photos) near the falls.  856 is undisputedly the most dominant bear of Brooks River at the moment.  One ranger described him as "crazy, over the top dominant" and it was fascinating to see just how true that is.  747 was the only other high-status male present while I was there in late June / early July, and even he resisted 856 only hesitantly and never for long.  All others fled without a shred of dignity whenever 856 made even a modest move in their direction.  I was hoping to see both bears when I returned in September--though I was not sure I'd be able to recognize them with all their fall fat--but they were not around during that stay.

The first three weeks of July, during the salmon run, are when most people visit Brooks Camp.  The number of cabins and tent sites available, the relative expense of day trips from King Salmon, and the logistical and other problems of camping outside the camp boundary would put something of a natural limit on the number of visitors even then, but there are now day-trip flights out of Homer (and Anchorage?) that deposit a small army of visitors during he middle of the day in late June and July.  After a while I just altered my daily routine so that I was on the falls platform as soon as it opened and was off of it by 10 am.  I would return to camp, doze, catch up on my journal, etc. and not return to the platforms until after 5 pm, staying until it closed..  Fewer people visit in September, presumably for all the reasons that fewer people visit Alaska in September and also because the sockeye salmon are not jumping the falls and the bears are not as concentrated there.  Nonetheless during the middle of the day the platforms were at times crowded too, but not so much that I made a special effort to avoid them.

The one thing that I discovered about going to and leaving the platforms early is that it greatly increases your chances of running into bears off-platform.  Such encounters are, depending on your perspective, either the best or the worst thing about Brooks.  I'll let you guess what my take is.  I had about 15 at Brooks Camp this summer that were both off the platform and less than 40 yards.  The closest one took place at less than a yard.

That one occurred while I was walking the trail between the campground and Brooks Camp itself, right around sunrise.  A big fat brownie was sleeping on the other side of a thick clump of spruce beside the trail, I did not see him until I noticed this huge foot next to mine as I walked by.  Fortunately he was asleep and, after I reflexively said "Hey bear" (not the best time to do that) he gave me a groggy growl/snore of the "Buzz off pipsqueak, I'm sleeping!" variety, lifting his head slightly before dropping it and dozing again.  At least 8 other people walked past that bear that morning.  

My other encounters were of the more typical kind; getting off the trail while a bear or bears--who of course always have right of way--walked past.  Normally the bears are relatively nonchalant about things, but on one occasion I got an annoyed "Whoof!" from a big male (probably 747) who did not expect my coming around a bend in a trail, and on another occasion I got some jaw popping from a subadult and adult male who were coming down the trail as I went up it toward the falls platform.  At least one of them was also foaming at the mouth a little.  I got off the trail and they walked past without making any move toward me.  They just wanted me out of the way and, I suspect, had been agitated by something else a few minutes before, probably a more dominant male.

So are the bears of Brooks safe?  No.  Given the thousands of people who visit there every year, and the many hundred of if not thousands of encounters like the ones I've had that must take place every summer (there is no reason to think that mine were anything other than typical for someone spending a similar amount of time there at the same times of year), and that there has not been a mauling at Brooks in decades,  it can be safely said that for huge, wild mammals they are amazingly tolerant.  Nonetheless the rangers at Brooks never use the word "safe" either about the bears or the Brooks Camp experience, and for good reason.

That said, I have no doubt that the odds of being seriously hurt by a bear while visiting there are much lower than being killed while driving somewhere within 3 miles of home, even if you visited Brooks Camp for a week every year for the rest of your life.  Nonetheless, at some point someone is going to get hurt or killed, especially given political resistance that would arise to any proposed changes that would lessen (but could never eliminate) the odds of something bad happening, and the fact that certain people are determined to push the limits in how they behave around bears.  When the time comes, I hope that there will not be an irrational reaction in relation to it.  The American Way, however, seems to be to avoid dealing with difficult problems until things are about to go (or have gone) over the edge, and then to over-react in response--a well-orchestrated media frenzy adding zest to the general freak-out.  For that reason, frankly, I sometimes worry about Brooks, all the more so because I love it.

Photos and considerably more cheerful commentary below.

This is 402 and her cub before she abandoned him and he was adopted by the now famous (as bears go) Holly.  See here, here, and here for more of the story.  I first saw the cub shortly after he and 402 arrived in late June.  He was thin, hunched, and somewhat listless and it was clear that 402 was not a particularly cautious or attentive mother.  As friends and family no doubt tired of hearing me say, I quickly became attached to the cub. His various unfortunate adventures during that visit (most of which have not been reported in the media) kept me on the edge.  After returning to King Salmon, I kept up with the cub's situation as best I could via the blog and park personnel temporarily in town.  I was saddened when 402 abandoned him early, in the middle of his second summer.  I thought that was it for him, and after all he'd been through only a slow death by starvation was in store, or a quicker death by being killed by an adult male (as occurred to at least one of his siblings).  Needless to say I was thrilled to learn that Holly had adopted him.  I had seen Holly with her spring cub fishing at the mouth of the river while on my first visit, and it was clear that she was a considerably more careful and attentive mom than 402, especially given that she was already well-known locally for having seen her cub Backpack through a bad injury.  While on my last visit I was able to see the new family all together, even getting to see Holly nurse the cubs, and the two playing together.  The adopted cub was now in much better condition, even getting a bit fat, and was incomparably more confident and relaxed, with a healthy streak of cub cheekiness. 

At the dock in King Salmon at the start of my September trip.  Included just because I like it, and to give an idea of a somewhat typical September day around here.

Some views from near the bridge, in September.

Poop:  Facebook for bears.

Brooks Falls this September.  It was somewhat unusual, I was told, that there were bears at the falls most of the time this month.  When I was there they were usually the big males Lurch and Otis, sometimes with a smaller male fishing the middle of the falls, as in this photo.  September was also noted for a relatively smaller number of bears overall but a much higher number of sows with cubs.  The mom and her cubs in the video here were frequently fishing and resting in the same spot shown in the linked video, just upriver from the bridge platform.  They also caused me, a ranger, and a group of fishermen to walk backwards along the road to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes until they turned off to take the trail to their favored spot by the platform.  She also seems to be an attentive mother bear, always making sure her cubs are close by, and checking to make sure that they are keeping up when the family is on the move.

A bear sleeping by the falls platform this September.  The bears, now tens or even hundreds of pounds heavier, were visible sleeping much more often in September than in July.  By the time I left last week they were starting to push the limits of sleeping in or near the lodge and cabins, and the bear management team was working hard every morning as they woke up and wandered around, near, or through the area.  The most experienced person of the bear management team told me that the bears clearly had some way of sensing that the humans were about to leave and that the camp would soon be theirs, as every year they would start pushing the limits a few days before things (mostly) shut down.  The bear management team works to keep bears out of the camp proper (i.e. where the cabins and lodge are) and if necessary will run the sows, cubs, and subadults out, usually by approaching them and shouting judiciously.  The team members do not attempt this with the more dominant males, who roam freely but normally do not seem to be all that interested in the area near the lodge.  

5 float planes on the beach by the main camp.  This was the only occasion when I saw this in September, but it was typical during the middle of the day in late June  and July.

Bear 500, a rather pert subadult female, having a salmon snack by the gate to the bridge.  In a way, this photo sums up the Brooks experience for me:  It's not wilderness, but wilderness is very close by, and the things that happen there can be ever so cool.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ghosts of Boilers Past: A Walk to Libbyville

On the beach at Libbyville

I have been busy all of the last week helping out, as an instructor and bear guard, with the science camp for high school students that is hosted each year by the refuge.  Last Monday, the first class day for the camp, we walked to Libbyville from Pederson Point on Ralph's Road, north of Naknek.    Libbyville is a set-netting site, occupied during salmon season, that was formerly the location of a sizable cannery (as can be seen in archive photos here and here and here).  The cannery was started up in the late 19th century and was closed around the middle of the 20th.

Of the cannery almost nothing remains standing.  Elements of it have been incorporated into the cabins used by local set-netters, but most of it is buried, being buried, or has washed out to sea.  No one, as far as I know, lives there year-round.

Susan and I had to return to Pederson point yesterday morning to look for some keys lost during the walk on Monday.  While in the area we walked back up the beach to Libbyville (there are no roads that go there) and took a few photos, which are posted below.

A set-netter's day shelter from this summer's season.  In the four days since we had passed it by on Monday it had already been damaged by winds and partially covered by mud eroding from the bluff.  I can't imagine it will survive the winter, but I guess that was never the point.

A set-netter's cabin on the bluff above the beach at Libbyville.

The two photos immediately above show how the tundra has already covered much of the cannery.    Most of what we see here will in all likelihood either be taken by beachcombers or washed out to sea by storms over the next few years.

The beach and tundra just north of Libbyville.

A "bear board" at the entrance to one of the cabins.

Some of the set-netting cabins at the old cannery sight, many of them utilizing elements of the old cannery for boardwalks, etc..

A stool, made (I believe) from a piston and a tractor or dozer seat, beside the fish-cleaning table at one of the cabins.

On the way back to our car, the Pederson Point Cannery in the background.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Upper Ugashik Lake, Pt. II

Sunrise on our last morning, conditions not cooperating in making it easy to leave.  The cone of Chiginagak volcano is just visible on the horizon near center.

A few more photos and comments from our trip.  Part I is here.

The tracks of a momma brown bear and her first-summer cub near the mouth of Ugashik Creek, along with those of a sandhill crane.  We were able to follow the tracks for some distance, and it was fun to see how the cub would wander off in the direction of some awesome discovery, only to bolt back to mom as she pressed onward.

The remains of isopods found along the shore of the lake.  To our untrained eyes they look like Saduria enton.  They were something entirely new to us.  We think it is likely that the sandhill cranes feed on them when they have washed up on shore, in that we often saw the cranes foraging in the wrack line. We had almost never found anything organic in the line except driftwood, feathers, and these isopods.

The largest bear dig-site for ground squirrels that we found on this trip.  The tundra above the lake was full of ground squirrel burrows, and we heard the squirrels frequently, but for some strange reason (and in defiance of all our previous experience) we almost never saw them.  The bears seemed to take surprisingly little interest in the squirrels, since the number of digs we found was low in comparison to the number of burrows, at least in relation to our experience elsewhere.

A sure sign that you are beyond hope as a nature nerd.  Spending a sunny day sketching bugs and plants in the field notebook.  This dragonfly was a great find, still pliable, and it was astonishing just how intact it was given that it had been washed ashore in a serious storm.

A marsh at the edge of the lake.  These appeared to be formed by the prevailing winds and surf pushing the beach sands in such a ways as to block the path of small streams to the lake.  We enjoyed the fact that all of them had river otter tracks running back and forth across the beach from their waters to the lake.

Where the waters of Ugashik Creek meet Upper Ugashik Lake, with an unnamed (as far as we can tell) island and Blue Mountain in the distance beyond the sandbar.

Peulik volcano in the distance.  As mentioned in the previous post, Peulik only emerged (and then only sullenly) from the clouds on the next to last day.

The antlers of a caribou on the tundra, not far from camp.

Susan waiting for our flight out.

Debris avalanche deposits from a previous eruption of Peulik, to its northwest.

The Gas Rocks, dacite domes on the edge of Becharof Lake near the Peulik/Ugashik complex.
For more photos of this part of the peninsula, taken during the most dramatic episode of air sickness I've ever experienced, see the series of posts starting here.