KODIAK ISLAND, Alaska -- When the first Paleolithic hunters arrived on what would become Kodiak Island some 7,500 years ago, the big bears were already there. Like the hunters, they had walked across the frozen Shelikof Strait from mainland Alaska, only they’d made the 30-mile trek at least 2,500 years earlier.
It had taken the bears a quarter of a million years to work their way across Alaska’s mountains and tundra and river valleys after they’d crossed the Bering land bridge from Europe and Asia where they’d originated some 20 million years earlier. For 18 million of those years they’d been gradually evolving and adapting to their changing environments, and when the ice covering Shelikof melted and effectively isolated them on Kodiak, they adapted and evolved even more.
The brownish-colored bears became omnivores, and on Kodiak this preference for vegetation, berries, and grubs suited them well; the 3,600-square mile island provided not only an abundant source of food but more importantly, a reliable one.
Click image to see Kodiak bear photos
The bears also found another reliable food source on Kodiak – six different species of salmon that migrated up the island’s streams each summer and fall. In the Pacific Northwest alone (including Kodiak) nearly 300 million fish are thought to make this epic movement. As a result, Kodiak’s bears became larger than their counterparts on the Alaskan mainland, larger than any bears anywhere in the world. Only three land mammals on earth – elephants, rhinos, and hippos – are larger.
Now, as Mike Munsey and I made our way along the slippery, tide-washed rocks edging Kodiak’s Uyak Bay, one of the giant bears suddenly appeared 75 yards ahead of us. It stopped as abruptly as we did, sniffed the breeze to find our scent, then changed its course so we’d meet head-on. This one wasn’t a thousand-pounder like some, but it was still huge and as Mike and I crouched and waited, it was easy to see the animal wasn’t aggressive. It was just curious.
The bear stopped less than 15 feet away and, crouched as we were, its shoulder was higher than our heads. As we studied each other, I thought I detected amusement in its dark eyes. Certainly there was intelligence there. We were on Kodiak because the bears allowed us to be there, and this bear knew we knew that.
Munsey wants to keep it that way. Short, solid, and generally quiet, he’s been in the bear business one way or another since the day he was born on Kodiak 55 years ago. When he was eight, he began helping his father, Park Munsey, guide hunters and later photographers to see the big bears. Park Munsey was the first Kodiak guide to take out photographers commercially and when Mike bought his dad’s operation in 1980, bear viewing quickly became a major part of his business. His camp at Amook Pass on Uyak Bay is the same house in which he grew up; few know Kodiak or its bears better than he does.
In 2007, he and his wife Robin, along with local Alaska Game & Fish Department personnel, established the Kodiak Unified Bear Subcommittee, or KUBS, a special committee that deals with anything related to Kodiak’s bears, but especially the bear viewing industry. One particular KUBS brochure, Bear Viewing Etiquette, is on prominent display throughout Kodiak and Anchorage.
“Our primary accomplishment is a week-long course we offer through Kodiak Community College specifically for bear viewing guides,” said Munsey, who helps teach the course. “Our goal is to get anyone who takes guests out to see bears, whether they are sportfishing guides, pilots, or even taxi cab drivers, and to convey to them the importance of safety, ethics, and respect for the animals.”
That’s critical, because bear-viewing takes place during the most crucial period of the year for the bears. During the six-to eight week salmon run, an adult grizzly will consume more than a ton of fish, more than 20,000 calories a day. Unlike other animals, almost everything a grizzly eats turns to fat, which is the only way it can survive its long winter hibernation.
During our days on the streams, Munsey and I watched bears catch and eat fish until they could hardly walk. They’d crawl up on the bank or into the weeds and go to sleep, but an hour or so later we’d see them fishing and gorging themselves once again. This feeding binge is known as hyperphagia, and some bears will gain 100 pounds a month during the feast.
They essentially eat for seven months to survive for 12, which means that if anything disrupts the salmon migration and feeding, the bears won’t make it. They know this, and so do the KUBS committee members. There are about 3,500 grizzlies on Kodiak, but even so, a third of the cubs, born during hibernation, do not survive their first year, and as many as 60 percent do not reach the age of three.
Some viewing is done at distances of less than 20 feet, but the bears are generally tolerant as long as they’re not disturbed. This, too, is critical, since mother bears have to teach their cubs how to catch fish, not an easy task because the cubs often lose interest once their appetites are sated. They’re also easily driven into the brush by loud noises and undue commotion. Among other things, the KUBS subcommittee has basically convinced guides to stop flying their planes flying low overhead and landing on nearby sandbars to get clients close to the bears.
“I’ve been watching bears catch salmon from the very same places on these same creeks for more than 25 years,” Munsey said, “which tells me the bears are returning both from instinct as well as from memories and habits. What we’ve got to insure through KUBS is to make certain we don’t break those habits.”