In the Valley of the Bears – Returning to the Wild

Graham Stanford is 18 years old. Standing just a few inches over five feet tall, he carries a short-barreled .40-caliber rifle as he walks through the waist-high brush in front of me. He stops, holding up his right hand—a signal for the four of us behind him to hold back. I can see over his head: a small field of brown grass divides the nearby lake’s edge from a thick stand of alders and a wall of snow- dusted mountains rising up behind them. From our guide’s slightly lower vantage, I’m fairly certain he can’t see more than a few feet beyond the barrel of his gun. I clutch my camera, as if it might help.

“There,” he says, pointing off to our right. Squinting into the rising sun, I see two small brown forms and one big one, slowly lumbering along the bank about 50 yards away. My heart skips a beat.

There’s no mistaking what we’re looking at: Kodiak brown bears, the largest subspecies of brown bear on the planet, and the largest carnivore in the world next to the polar bear. I raise my camera and click the shutter release, but forget to focus.

“A sow and two cubs,” Stanford says, smiling, tufts of his short, shaggy hair sticking out from beneath his baseball cap. “We’ll stay here and see if they get any closer.” A bit nervous, I ask him if a bear has ever hurt anyone on a guided trip like ours. “No, never,” he says confidently. “No bear-viewing guide has ever even needed to fire one of these guns we’re required to carry.” Later, I’ll find out that this is true. But for now, I don’t believe him. I swallow hard.

The Karluk River basin, located on the remote southwestern corner of Kodiak Island, is home to one of the highest-density populations of brown bears on earth. The mouth of the Thumb River, right where we were standing, happens to have the highest-density population of brown bears in the entire basin. “It’s hard to find more bears in one spot,” Stanford would tell me later.

That’s why the Kodiak Brown Bear Center (KBBC) exists. The joint research center and lodge is located on a small island on the north end of Karluk Lake. I got there by taking a short, one-hour flight across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, followed by a 45-minute floatplane ride from the town of Kodiak. It took me only half a day to get to a place so remote, I felt like I was the first person to ever stand there.

It was an illusion, of course. On the flight in, our pilot, Jay Wattum, pointed out the ancient stone weirs that you can still see scattered throughout the upper reaches of the Karluk River. “Before the Russians came, there used to be 30,000 people living in this river valley,” he told us over the intercom as we flew low over the water. “They put these stones into the river to create eddies. The spawning salmon swimming upstream would collect behind the weirs to rest, and then the people would scoop them up with nets. The bears use [the weirs] for the same purpose now.”

Owned and operated by the Koniag Native Corporation, the KBBC appears, at first, to be nothing more than a series of small, well-kept buildings and cabins set on about two acres of well-manicured lawn. The site’s significance didn’t become clear until I talked to the manager, Ed Ward, who greeted me with a big smile and a bear-like handshake as soon as I stepped off the floatplane and onto the dock.

“Everything had to be flown in,” he said when I asked him about the site’s construction. “Every nail, board, bucket and frying pan.” He oversaw the entire building process, which had to take place during Kodiak’s short summer. “Each Beaver flight in here costs $1,225. Just think about that.”

They had to rent an Aircrane helicopter to bring in the heavy equipment, including a custom-designed catamaran that had to be cut in half so it could be flown in, then welded back together on-site. In total, the KBBC cost more than $3 million to build. The end result is completely self-sufficient, with solar power and a state-of-the-art septic system that cleans the facility’s wastewater and releases it back onto the island as a fine mist. “I’d drink it,” Ward told me. There’s wireless Internet and a phone line that’s free for guests to use.

Ward lives at the KBBC year-round, along with Stanford, the head (and only) bear guide. “It’s actually cheaper to keep us here through the winter than trying to winterize the place and run the risk of something going wrong,” Ward explained. “Just imagine if the pipes froze and no one was here.” So he and Stanford spend nine months of the year by themselves, alone on the island, surrounded by bears, waiting for scientists and a handful of paying tourists to come during the few short months of summer. “We love it out here,” Ward assured me. During the months of July, August and September, only six people are allowed to stay at the KBBC at a time. “For both the visitors’ and the bears’ safety,” Ward explained.

After A few minutes, the sow and her two cubs wander closer to us—so close, I no longer need to use a telephoto lens. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to a bear without a fence between us. I can feel the difference in my bones—a sort of primal fear that stems from the knowledge that I could be disemboweled and eaten at any moment, and that there’s nothing I can do about it. The bears don’t seem to notice, however; their heads stay down as they focus on fishing for salmon.

The salmon runs coming up the Karluk River to the south, through Karluk Lake and up the Thumb River, are some of the largest in Alaska—and the bears have figured it out. When I asked, Ward estimated that they can eat upwards of 50 fish a day, without even really having to try. Looking down at the shallow riverbed, I see the backs of countless sockeye salmon stretching from bank to bank across the river. I could bend down and pick one up. And that’s exactly what the bears do, waking up at around 9 a.m. each day, fishing for about two hours, taking a nap, then fishing again in the evening for another two hours before calling it an early night.

I get the sense that, as long as I don’t try to take a bear’s fish, they don’t care that I’m there. I begin to relax a little, and concentrate on taking pictures. That’s when I feel something brush against my ankle. Looking down, I see a red fox sniffing at my boot. It looks up at me, eyes wide. Our stares of wonder and surprise meet for a moment, then break. The fox darts off, stopping just 10 feet away to look back at me, more curious than afraid. I kneel down and snap a picture before it turns and runs off into the tall grass.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” I say aloud.

“They don’t see too many people here,” Stanford explains to me. “They don’t know to fear us.”

After dinner on the third night, snow starts to fall—heavy, wet snow that comes down so thick it’s hard to see as I walk along the beach from my cabin to the banya (sauna), which I have taken to using every night of my visit. It’s early September, but winter is already upon the island. The stars, which had been so clear and bright on previous nights, are now covered in a dark, swirling whiteness. Stanford started a fire for me in the banya’s cast-iron stove almost an hour ago. I’m grateful for that after walking a hundred yards from cabin to banya in nothing but a bath towel, keeping an eye out for bears lurking in the edge of the woods.

The small, windowless sauna is warm and bright. I linger perhaps a little longer than I should, contemplating my visit. It all seems a little surreal—the bears, so close I could almost touch them. The fox, and everything else I have experienced in this most unlikely place. I feel lucky, and a little light-headed, so I step back out into the night.

Steam rises from my arms into the falling snow, which now covers the ground in a blanket of white. My bare feet are so warm that they don’t feel the icy flakes beneath them. Stopping by the lake, I drop my towel and step into the water up to my waist. I can feel the cold now, but it seems manageable. I dunk the upper half of my body into the water and resurface with a gasp. Adrenaline courses through my body as I slog back to shore, snatch up my towel, and dart back toward my cabin. There, I sleep harder and deeper than I have in years, subconsciously plotting my return, and dreaming happily of bears.