As happy as I was to have hiking guides and transportation for my last day on the island, I was a bit disappointed to see a dog in the car when they arrived to pick me up. I love dogs—especially labs—but my main goal on Kodiak (and the main reason I extended my trip two days) was the opportunity to see more brown bears. Earlier in the week, I had seen a sow with two cubs, but at such a distance that even through binoculars they were little more than specks. Now, with a retriever along, I couldn’t imagine getting close enough to a bear for a decent look, much less a photograph. But I wasn’t going to let what I perceived as decreased odds prevent me from enjoying a hike on Kodiak.
Coming on the heels of several days of heavy rain, this second day in a row of clearing skies made for near perfect October hiking weather. The trail began in what is most accurately described as a swamp. Emerging from the swamp, it followed—and often shared—the path of a steep drainage. Our destination was a small natural lake with views across the bay. Borrowed Xtratuf boots proved to be best friends when I more than once sank nearly a foot into the muck as we criss-crossed in and out of the shallow creek. Throughout the climb, the retriever took great delight in flushing, chasing, but never catching snowshoe hares through a seemingly impenetrable tangle on the slopes up either side of the draw. Watching the giant rabbit appearing thirty yards ahead of the dog, I couldn’t help but think of br’er rabbit saying, “Please don’t throw me in the alder patch!” Though only a mile-and-a-half, the trek was strenuous enough at times to work the lungs and make arrival at the picturesque Heitman Lake feel earned.
Following a brief rest and lakeside snack, we decided to hike to the upper end of the basin and summit a rocky outcropping my hosts assured would provide the best views. Pausing to take some photos before climbing the peak, I couldn’t imagine the perspective from the peak to be any more spectacular than where we were. The lake formed a wavy-edged trapezoid, tapering away from us toward Broad Point—a rough and rocky spit of land separating Middle and Kalsin Bays. Beyond the point, the much larger Chinak Bay reached towards the edge of the earth where it merged with a dramatically layered, cloud-filled sky. The nearest layer of clouds, a patchy mix of cottony cumulus, was mirrored in the calm lake at our feet.
As we photographed the scene, distant voices from over my left shoulder caught my attention. I turned to look across a narrow, shallow valley expecting to see some hikers, but the voices were carrying from farther up the trail than I could see. Turning back towards the lake, movement across the valley caught my eye. A single brown bear was following the far ridge. Our plans to summit the peak changed.
Our first order of business was to corral the dog, which was easy to do with the exceptionally well-behaved lab. Second order of business was to move a little closer and find a good vantage point for photographs.
We had not been watching the bruin long when the source of the voices appeared. A pair of hunters, accompanied by a dog and packing out a deer, were heading our way, paralleling the path of the bear. They were a safe distance behind the bear and would soon meet up with us on the trail. As the hunters reached us, we heard a second set of voices coming from the opposite direction, and a young couple with their dog appeared on the trail ahead. Soon there were eleven of us—seven Homo sapiens sapiens, three Canis lupus familiaris, and one very dead Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis which we figured must smell mighty good to one quite large Ursus arctos middendorffi.
An easy decision was made to stick together, and we followed the bear from behind as she browsed, sniffed, ambled and shat her way along the valley, choosing a perfect route and exhibiting great behavior for photo opportunities. She crested the low ridge for stunning profiles, sat for a while to survey the bay, and occasionally looked over her shoulder at the twenty-six legged beast following her. When she stood on hind legs for dramatic effect, she looked like a giant teddy bear—dark brown legs contrasting a much lighter brown body and head. From a distance she looked darn near cuddly until I raised the binoculars to see the three-plus inch claws curving out from the ends of her giant paws. Always aware, she never showed any concern and never posed any threat to us. The dogs were well-enough behaved, and the couple who had been hiking in the other direction decided to cut their hike short and walk out in the comfort and safety of numbers.
We were an interesting lot, to say the least. The hunting party was comprised of a young novice, and a not much older mentor who mostly talked about how he would come back and “drop” that sow or “stick” her. He was confident that he had seen this same bear the year before and it was only a matter of time before he skinned her in an act of great masculinity. On the other end of the spectrum, the young couple was not comfortable in such close proximity to a great Kodiak bear and was more than relieved to have found us before the bear found them. As for our party, I think we were all simply in awe of such an animal and honored to have the experience. For my companions who live on the island and work for Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, I suppose hiking alongside such a magnificent creature might be routine, even old hat. For me, however, it was an unforgettable experience. It was not my first big bear, but it was the closest I have been to one that big, and I do believe it might have been the most beautiful bear I have ever come across. (Although the honey-colored little grizzly I saw on the Russian River in 2015 certainly comes close.)
We stayed with the bear until she… I should pause here to say that I was not able to identify the bear as a female. I say “she” throughout this writing only because that is what the hunter said. When I researched the difference between male and female grizzlies, I was led to think this might be a male, but I don’t know. Perhaps a reader with more experience and knowledge can weigh in with a definitive answer. As I was saying… We stayed with the bear until (she) crossed the ridge in front of us, passed through the top of the drainage we just hiked, and disappeared over the other side.
Our hike back down was a bit of a circus. Out of harms way, the dogs were let loose and they took full advantage of their freedom—running, playing chase, nearly knocking people off their feet more than once. They had earned it, and nobody complained.
Next time I visit Kodiak, I hope to return to the Heitman Lake trail. Next time I want to continue beyond where we turned back. According to Alaska.org, it is a strenuous ten mile round trip beyond Heitman Lake to Raymond Peak and Heitman Mountain. And and if they are interested, I would love for my hiking companions—all three of them—to join me for the trek!