The Bears of Kodiak

The island could be its own planet, orbiting the coast of Alaska. Like those other rocks in space, Planet Kodiak was never meant to be civilized. Welcome to a world where bears rule.

Field & Stream Online Editors

The island could be its own planet, orbiting the coast of Alaska. Like those other rocks in space, Planet Kodiak was never meant to be civilized. The roads leaving the one true town -- a fishing village also named Kodiak -- meander and fade after a few miles. Pickup trucks turn into fender-flappers within three years, rusted by salt air and several feet of annual rain.

The people who visit Kodiak travel on jetliners tossed by williwaw winds, and even inside the airport the wind-driven rain can make you feel as if you're in a submarine. In the midst of the milling travelers (some smelling of salmon) a glass case rises, holding a bear taller than an NBA center. He isn't even standing straight, since he's whirling after a buck deer, reaching with paws as big as the average badger. Due to the laws of taxidermy, the bear never catches the deer, but a few people watch him try -- mostly small people, 4-year-olds with open mouths.

Perhaps huge bears (even taxidermic bears) subvert the 21st-century American belief that we've finally mastered the world. I have seen a very cool Kodiak visitor, a Master of the Universe, complete with laptop, glance at the glass case while hurrying toward the baggage carousel and unconsciously shift the computer into the hand away from the bear.

That surface cool tends to dissipate after you fly in a floatplane to the fishing lodge. First the williwaws beat you down, sometimes literally, dropping a Super Cub 80 feet like a crippled kite. Before you're entirely recovered, somebody leads you on a hike up a river so littered with dead salmon that an eternal fish-funk clogs your lungs, the muddy bank covered with bear tracks as big as Thanksgiving platters. The bear-under-glass was huge, but you really shrink after finding a "bald" salmon still flopping where a bear abandoned it after peeling the fat skin.

The salmon run from May to October. This is true of much of Alaska, but aside from Sitka deer transplanted from the mainland, the state's other large mammals -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, black bear, musk ox, wolf -- do not live on Kodiak. If we ignore humans, the island exists as a diner for huge bears. For half the year, life and death circle Kodiak so constantly that even civilized humans feel it: salmon spawning, bears eating, salmon dying.

Until Europeans arrived, the bears and the island's Alutiiq natives shared the fish. After Russian fur trappers almost wiped out the Alutiiq with guns and smallpox, the salmon belonged to the bears for over a century. Even today, when trawlers almost barricade the coastline, I've seen streams that would be considered nice trout brooks in Michigan turn half red with spawning sockeyes. While flying low up a blue river, one bend looked black. A deep pool, I thought, until the pilot said, "Look at those kings." The blackness writhed like a 500-foot trout: hundreds of chinook salmon, each as long as a bear's leg.

Unlike humans, bears grow for their entire lives. Genetically identical to Rocky Mountain grizzlies half their size, Kodiak's bears grow huge by stuffing themselves sleepy on salmon and the endless berry patches flanking the mountains. So the bears grow and grow, perhaps larger than any other bears on earth.

Optimists claim Kodiak bears can weigh a ton; skeptics say 1,000 pounds is huge. But as one zoologist remarked, "Few grizzlies of record come from a part of the country where accurate scales are found." The common method of comparison involves the "square" of their skinned hides. Laid flat, a hide is measured from nose to tail and front paw to front paw, and the total is divided in half. Most hides measure about the same in length and width; the hide of an average mature Kodiak male squares 8 to 9 feet, while a really big bear will square 10 or even 11. In recent times a few 11-foot bears have been weighed, often dragging the scales down to 1,400 pounds or more.

Ear in the century, before the salmon waned and overhunting (both legal and illegal) shortened the average life expectancy of a Kodiak brown bear, there were reports of 12- and even 13-foot bears. Some reporters only measured the length of the hanging hide, which stretches from its own weight of 150 to 200 pounds, but any bear over 13 feet from nose to tail is almost unimaginable. Did they exist? After the Alutiiq were decimated, and before sonar-equipped trawlers scoured the salmon runs? As Jake Barnes said in The Sun Also Rises, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Records of North American Big Game, the book of the Boone and Crockett Club, judges bears by the combined width and length of the skull. The first page of the 10th edition lists 32 Alaskan brown bears, more than two-thirds killed on Kodiak Island. Most come from the 1940s and '50s, before trophy hunting grew a little too popular, including the bear killed in 1954 in Uyak Bay by my late friend Walter White. Walter and his guide climbed a ridge and found an enormous bear across a small river. The bear dropped at the first shot from Walter's .375 H&H;, then came for them. Walter kept shooting, but the bear swam the river with several bullets in its chest, and Walter remembered filling his Winchester's magazine once more before the bear finally fell, a few yards away. While skinning the bear, they found several 300-grain bullets broken up in the bear's massive shoulders.

Walter wasn't interested in records at the time and didn't have the skull measured for years. It's one of the very few that measure 30 inches or more, including a length of 18. He always wondered what it would have measured in 1954; skulls dry and shrink considerably over time. But they did measure the skin, laid on the deck of the guide's boat. It squared nearly 111¿¿2 feet. An 11-foot bear, whether lean in spring or fat in fall, will stand over 12 feet tall on its hind legs. Go outside and reach as high as you can on your house with a 5-foot stick, then imagine a bear looking down from that height. Today's hunters can take a bear only once every four years and have to draw a Kodiak permit in a kind of lottery. More 11-foot bears are showing up.

Until the 1960s many of Kodiak's bears were shot by salmon fishermen and cattle ranchers. As early as the 1930s, the bears were growing noticeably scarcer, which can change human sympathies. In 1941 Franklin Roosevelt signed the bill creating the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge out of two-thirds of the island. The third not included surrounded Kodiak-the-town and the biggest cattle ranch.

Ranchers still had permission to kill bears that wandered off the refuge. Eventually they hired a former fighter pilot to fly a Piper Cub mounted with a semiautomatic .30/06 to literally strafe bears like enemy soldiers. Soon several bear guides claimed the pilot himself often wandered over the refuge line. The ranchers denied it, but eventually it became illegal to kill bears unless they were caught killing beef -- not eating or chasing cows but actually killing. Today it's so difficult to legally kill a cattle raider that some ranchers resort to the "shoot, shovel, and shut-up" method. A few years ago I talked to a former ranch hand who, influenced by a few beers, admitted to night-shooting two 9-foot boars by spotlight.

For a long time some people used any excuse to kill Kodiak bears, while others maintained that none should be killed. Most Kodiak residents fall somewhere between. One place I visit is a sport-fishing camp off an arm of Uyak Bay called Zachar Bay Lodge. For a few years a boar kept breaking in when nobody was around. One summer, Zachar's owner, Marty Eaton, gave a tour of the kitchen that included the greasy stains left by the bear's head when he stood to tear off the massive door of the walk-in refrigerator. The fridge's door still shows paw-dents, and the ceiling is so high few people can jump to touch it. Marty never even took a warning shot, though he admits a certain relief when a hunter finally bagged the 9-foot bear one year.

On my first trip to Kodiak, I saw more brown bears than all the grizzlies seen in 30 years of traveling the Wyoming and Montana backcountry. The biggest showed up one sunrise, underneath a floatplane, while we slowly flew 100 feet above a salmon creek. A bear walked out of the alders on one side of the stream, its summer hide half blond, and by the time his nose entered the alders on the other side his rump was just emerging. He never looked up, having long ago learned everything necessary about airplanes. A few hours later we hiked up the creek, catching sockeyes as red-and-green as ripening peppers, the guide carrying a 12-gauge and me an extra-jumbo can of bear spray. We paced the creek in hip boots, taking three-and-a-half strides to cross where the bear had.

Most big boars want nothing to do with humans, except on rare occasions when they steal a Sitka buck from an unfortunate deer hunter. But smaller bears often share salmon pools with people. I've done it, each of us occasionally taking a glance from 100 yards, the bear's round, flat face far more intelligent than that of some anglers.

Females with cubs have a larger personal space. One day we flew over a big sow with two yearlings as they stood on a long-grassed hill above Red Lake. She stood and swiped a paw toward us, perhaps because bears cannot raise the middle digit. On another trip a crew of us hiked around a point on Zachar Bay and surprised a mother and three cubs. One fool in our group ran forward, video camera ready, and mama bounced toward us, popping her teeth with a sound that was like a Louisville Slugger hitting a hardball. The guide had a rifle, but the tourist stood between him and the bear. The cubs milled and whined but eventually ran up the hill behind mama, and she left with a growl.

That is as near as I've come to trouble with the dozens of Kodiak bears I've encountered. In decades of hanging with grizzlies -- whether Kodiak's enormous salmon-eaters or the little tundra grizzlies of Arctic Canada -- I've learned that the rule of thumb is that the bigger and better fed the bear, the more tolerant they are of humans. Kodiak's bears hurt stupid humans much less often than do Montana's grizzlies, whereas Arctic bears make Inuits who hunt polar bears with .22s very nervous. Perhaps the gentleness of Kodiak's bears keeps me from wanting a 10-foot bear hide -- though I've spent enough wild-time to know that any mature bear can kill me and someday, through my bad luck or lack of attention, very well might.

But there is also something about a place where bears are the masters, if not of the universe, then at least of their island planet. Perhaps in order to maintain a certain balance in the circle of life and death, it. Marty never even took a warning shot, though he admits a certain relief when a hunter finally bagged the 9-foot bear one year.

On my first trip to Kodiak, I saw more brown bears than all the grizzlies seen in 30 years of traveling the Wyoming and Montana backcountry. The biggest showed up one sunrise, underneath a floatplane, while we slowly flew 100 feet above a salmon creek. A bear walked out of the alders on one side of the stream, its summer hide half blond, and by the time his nose entered the alders on the other side his rump was just emerging. He never looked up, having long ago learned everything necessary about airplanes. A few hours later we hiked up the creek, catching sockeyes as red-and-green as ripening peppers, the guide carrying a 12-gauge and me an extra-jumbo can of bear spray. We paced the creek in hip boots, taking three-and-a-half strides to cross where the bear had.

Most big boars want nothing to do with humans, except on rare occasions when they steal a Sitka buck from an unfortunate deer hunter. But smaller bears often share salmon pools with people. I've done it, each of us occasionally taking a glance from 100 yards, the bear's round, flat face far more intelligent than that of some anglers.

Females with cubs have a larger personal space. One day we flew over a big sow with two yearlings as they stood on a long-grassed hill above Red Lake. She stood and swiped a paw toward us, perhaps because bears cannot raise the middle digit. On another trip a crew of us hiked around a point on Zachar Bay and surprised a mother and three cubs. One fool in our group ran forward, video camera ready, and mama bounced toward us, popping her teeth with a sound that was like a Louisville Slugger hitting a hardball. The guide had a rifle, but the tourist stood between him and the bear. The cubs milled and whined but eventually ran up the hill behind mama, and she left with a growl.

That is as near as I've come to trouble with the dozens of Kodiak bears I've encountered. In decades of hanging with grizzlies -- whether Kodiak's enormous salmon-eaters or the little tundra grizzlies of Arctic Canada -- I've learned that the rule of thumb is that the bigger and better fed the bear, the more tolerant they are of humans. Kodiak's bears hurt stupid humans much less often than do Montana's grizzlies, whereas Arctic bears make Inuits who hunt polar bears with .22s very nervous. Perhaps the gentleness of Kodiak's bears keeps me from wanting a 10-foot bear hide -- though I've spent enough wild-time to know that any mature bear can kill me and someday, through my bad luck or lack of attention, very well might.

But there is also something about a place where bears are the masters, if not of the universe, then at least of their island planet. Perhaps in order to maintain a certain balance in the circle of life and death,