Paying our respects as bears emerge

Sara Loewen

KODIAK -- Our son's favorite book is Blueberries for Sal, a story about a mother and daughter and a sow and cub berry-picking on the same hill. I don't think Liam connects the bears in the story to the bears we live with all summer; I think he just loves blueberries.

When we read the story each evening, I think of our cabin sitting empty in Uyak Bay. Kodiak brown bears will soon emerge from their dens, and I hope our electric fence is still up and functioning.

Not many people outside Alaska have to worry about maulings or their house being damaged by a creature twice the size of Sasquatch. Our fish site is in bear territory, and the best we can do is to live carefully and hope the bears steer clear of our cabin those months we're away.

Sometimes bears are not the best neighbors, like the sow and cub that didn't bother to hibernate this winter and instead broke into nine cabins around Olga and Moser Bay. Though it's unusual for brown bears, a small percentage of Kodiak bears won't build a den or hibernate if there is a steady food source available throughout the winter. It's commonly the 3- to 5-year-old bears that break into empty cabins on the island.

"Those are the juvenile delinquents in the bear world who cause most of the problems. They're the teenagers of the bear world, and like human teenagers, most of them are really great, but a few others are a real pain," said Larry Van Daele, the Kodiak area wildlife biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The bears in Olga and Moser Bay weren't deterred by plywood over the windows and doors. They chewed and tore their way into one cabin after another. When they were done, the cabins looked as if they had been shaken like a snow globe and then set back down again. They ripped off countertops, destroyed furniture, broke propane fridges and washing machines, chugged liters of motor oil and left scat everywhere.

When Chris Kouremetis flew down to the family fish site in Moser Bay in February, he had to heat water in a crab cooker to keep it from freezing as he cleaned. Many setnetters on the south end of Kodiak will have to head to their fish sites early to repair the damage before the salmon season opens. It may be the bears' habitat, but the destruction of a home still feels like a violation.

As a child in the village of Old Harbor, I wasn't afraid of bears. I never saw them except on fishing trips to Big Creek or Barling Bay. When we roamed outside or climbed the hills behind the elementary school, our only worry was getting home in time for dinner. But on a recent trip back to Old Harbor, when I asked friends what had changed since we were kids, everyone mentioned the bears.

Bears are now so common around Old Harbor that parents are afraid to let their children play outside. There have been bears on the playground, at the lagoon, at fish racks and dumpsters as well as bears at the dump that rush out for the bags of trash that people toss from their cars.

There were more bears around the city of Kodiak last summer as well. The number of bears on the Kodiak archipelago has been steadily growing since the '80s to over 3,000.

"Not only do you have more bears around the island, you have more bears that are comfortable coming around people. People are more tolerant of bears," Van Daele said. "We haven't had more bears hurting people, but we have had a lot more encounters."

"Something else that's changed over the last 25 or 30 years is that we're more of a throw-away society. With more tasty things in landfills or dumps, bears are going to be attracted to that," Van Daele said.

During the salmon season, our mail comes to the village of Larsen Bay. The walk to the post office crosses a salmon-spawning stream in the middle of town, but in the summer months the bears we see are usually well fed, and a fenced-in incinerator at the dump has helped with problem bears in Larsen Bay.

"In Larsen Bay, it wasn't because Fish and Game told them to, it was the people who decided they wanted to make the effort. Through those kinds of grass-roots efforts, the village can be a much nicer place for both people and bears," Van Daele said.

The sow and cub that broke into cabins on the south end of the island will likely be legally shot before summer. This fishing season Liam will be 2 years old and determined to explore the beaches around our cabin. I would like him to enjoy the same freedom I grew up with, but he'll have to learn to be mindful and cautious outdoors.

Last fall, in the last light of the day, we watched a huge, graceful bear make his way slowly down the beach. At the perimeter of our site, he swung deliberately in the other direction. We could see his dark shape between patches of green alder as he skirted the cabin. It seems right to follow his example and try to maintain that respectful distance.

Kodiak-based Sara Loewen, formerly a teacher and now a student in the Master of Fine Arts program at UAA, fishes in Uyak Bay with her husband, Peter, and son, Liam.