Mike Polocz of Soldotna was hoping to commune with nature when he made the decision to float the upper Kenai River last weekend. He never expected his commune to be such an intense experience.
"I've been on many fishing and hunting trips in my life and I've never experienced anything like this," he said.
Polocz, owner of Alaska H20s Pros, was hoping for a fun weekend away from work, but with the bag limit for sockeye salmon being liberalized to double the normal harvest, he wasn't interested in being among the big crowds of combat fishermen that had come to catch them. He wanted to do something a little less stressful and more serene, so he decided to target trout with his son and a family friend.
"We had put in at Jim's Landing, and had just gotten through the final set of rapids when we noticed a brown bear sow and her cubs fishing for reds," Polocz said. "As we got a closer look, though, one of the cubs wasn't fishing. It was stuck in a whirlpool and drowning."
The sow -- which Polocz said was a behemoth of a bear -- wasn't far away, but he said he felt compelled to help the cub. It looked to be about 4 to 6 months old, less than 50 pounds, cinnamon-colored and was shrieking an ear-splitting, teeth-grinding, terror-stricken racket as it swirled in the foaming whitewater just yards away from his boat.
"I was so close I could look into its eyes and they were wide open and filled with just sheer terror. I couldn't watch this defenseless animal suffer. I was ready to go in after it if it went under," he said.
But the bear did not fully submerge. Instead, with his son steering the boat, Polocz used the rim of a landing net to try to push the cub out of the current holding it in place. This, however, was more difficult that it seemed, due to the tiny bruin's desperation.
"He was so physically exhausted and distressed that when I put the net near him, he tried to climb into it. I wanted to save him, but I didn't want that. If it got in the net, I knew we would have to get him in the boat and possibly commit to physically putting him on shore, and that seemed way too risky," he said.
For about 10 to 15 minutes, Polocz did his best to push and prod the cub to the safety of slower-moving water. Just as it seemed the cub was on the verge of complete exhaustion, Polocz got in a lucky poke.
"I gave him one last nudge with the net and he broke out of the eddy," he said.
The cub wearily paddled to shore and climbed out of the water. Once on dry land it gave out another loud cry. The sow locked onto the sound and came crashing through the woods to reunite with her offspring. Polocz said it was an emotional moment for everyone watching.
"There were three pretty tough guys in the boat, and there wasn't a dry eye among us," he said.
What particularly moved Polocz was how serendipitous it was that the whole incident transpired when it did.
"I've never been on that river and not seen several boats, but we were the only people on the water that day. We didn't see another person, and I honestly think if we had come by five minutes earlier we wouldn't have seen a thing, and had we come by five minutes later, that cub would have been drowned," he said.
Polocz's friend captured much of the incident on his iPhone, but it cut out just before they finally got the bear to safety. Still, they uploaded what they had to YouTube, and he said the footage they got is an amazing reminder of a float trip none of them will ever forget.
As to what the bear may have taken away from the incident, Polocz said he hopes it learned to steer clear of that particular area.
"I'd like to think he'll be eating berries, rather than fish, at least for a while," he said.