North American Bear Journal
John Kozub

Kozub Is Crazy About Kodiaks

Massachusetts Man Has Love Affair With Bears
By Bill Hilts, Jr.

"To walk in the footprints of the Kodiak bear deep within the high mountains of Alaska's Emerald Isle sends shivers through my body each and every trip." -- John F. Kozub

So goes the opening statement of a website created by John Kozub as it reflects his inner thoughts and feelings about one of North America's largest land animals. Kozub has a love affair with bears. In particular, with Kodiak bears and that special island in Alaska that's second in size to Hawaii as the biggest within the boundaries of the U.S. The website, www.kodiakbears.com, shows off much of his passion and enthusiasm toward these mighty denizens - including some excellent photography that helps to capture some of his special moments in time. That being said, though, there's nothing that can come close to comparing what it's actually like being there. That's what Kozub says on the website; that's what he says in person. This is only a tease of the real thing.

In visiting the website or talking to Kozub, you get the impression that he's lived a long, long life chasing the bears of his dreams. The reality is that he's accomplished an awful lot in a relatively short amount of time. Born in Western Massachusetts and currently residing in the small town of Wilbarham (60 miles west of Boston), Kozub is the current president of Janlynn Corporation, a leading manufacturer of fine hobby and craft products - dealing with the likes of Walmart, Michael's and many stores that would feature these types of products. He's only 37 years old and his first trip to Alaska was just 12 years ago. But don't let that fool you. He's both knowledgeable and well traveled. His bear passion has consumed his life. In those 12 years, he's been to Alaska some 50 times to give you an idea how intense that love of the bear is.

John's father, Ed, started up Janlynn Corporation back in 1979. Early on, John attended and graduated from American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts. He eventually became Vice President of Sales, logging over a million miles in the air. Traveling was not a problem for him. When his father passed on in 1998, John bought the rest of the family out to take over the business. When I finally spoke to him, he was in the process of moving into a much larger building if that's any indication as to his success.

What triggered the interest in bears? Was it his interest in the outdoors as a child? According to Kozub, who sponsors and coaches a youth hockey team, he was never really "into" the outdoors. "I fished in a stream behind my house quite a bit as a kid," said Kozub, "but that was about it."

It was his first trip to Alaska that started to plant the seed just a dozen years ago in the early 1990s. He bought into a canned package that took him into the Brooks Range around Katmai, onto Admiralty Island and elsewhere. He was touched by the beauty of Alaska and he had his first bear encounters. That seed really began to grow when he won a lottery that allowed him to be part of a group with view wildlife on Kodiak Island.

His first experience with Kodiak was life-altering. Spending time in the Karlak River and Lake area, he fell in love with the country and the bear that inhabited this unique terrain. It soon became a passion. The people who lead that first viewing expedition became his mentors to the wilderness as he continued his quest for knowledge about America's last frontier and about the Kodiak bear that roams this countryside.

"There's nothing like being out there in the wilderness with no human contact at all for a week or two," says Kozub. "My experiences in this unique part of the world have created many special memories."

The headline act is the bears themselves. The excitement of encountering a bear in the wild gives Kozub the same adrenaline rush that it did a dozen years ago and he doesn't see that going away any time soon. "Imagine being on a river in Alaska that's absolutely packed with salmon and seeing the Kodiak bears start to move into position for their annual feeding frenzy, like they've done year in and year out with the passage of time. Imagine following a game trail that's frequented by the bears - following the path of least resistance - and hearing a rustling in the bush that would indicate that a bear is close by. It'll raise the hair on the back of your neck." Some of these paths are hundreds of years old, forged by the bears of time eternal. While the Kodiak bear sounds the siren for Kozub, the land has it's own appeal as well. Kodiak Island has hundreds of miles of shoreline, 117 streams and 14 major watersheds. Two-thirds of the island makes up the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, totaling 2491 square miles. Despite the size, there are less than 100 miles of road on the island. This is good news for the bears. But that doesn't mean that they still aren't being threatened by humans. Threats of development in the way of condominiums and power plants have led to groups like the Kodiak Brown Bear Trust (www.kbbt.org) being formed. Kozub is an honorary board member to this group, protecting the wilderness habitats, funding research and creating a better public awareness through education. Kozub does his part not only through the Trust, but also by giving slide talks to schools and other groups. He committed to protecting Kodiak. He's bought his own land on the island, too, with the hopes of someday building a home there.

Getting to witness these huge carnivores in their "living room" is not an easy task, though. Kozub emphasizes how hard he works at making this all happen. Timing is critical for peak viewing, coinciding with the peak of the salmon runs, if you want to guarantee success. Sometimes Kozub prefers to take advantage of the early and late runs of fish, all the while taking advantage of the fishing and the bears. And it's not cheap, either, to do what's he's doing. "Many times we'll take a float plane into an area, get dropped off and left with nothing but our equipment for two weeks." Tents, freeze-dried food and other gear are their only links to civilization. "I've met people that live on Kodiak that have never seen a bear, if you can believe that," Of course, Kozub isn't crazy. He respects the bear and what they stand for.

He carries pepper spray and has actually had to use it a couple times to minimize encounters with a sow and her cubs - the most dangerous of situations. You don't want to get too close, especially when bears aren't used to the presence of humans. He also carries a .44 caliber pistol with him in the bush, but he's never had to use it and hopes he never does. "Make plenty of noise when you're in the bush," says Kozub. "You don't want to surprise a bear." Kozub's quest for bears has taken him all around the North American continent. He's been throughout Alaska, down into the lower 48 states to places like Glacier, Yellowstone and Yosemite; into the Canadian Rockies to areas like Banff and Jasper. There's nothing like Kodiak, though, and that's the place his spirit needs to return to. It provides a fulfillment like no other, a passion that has consumed his existence here on earth.

The bears are the king of this ecosystem. To observe these majestic creatures in their natural habitat and interacting with other wildlife like bald eagles, foxes and the like is what Kozub yearns for. It's what he lives for. You could say it's an affair made in Kodiak, his heaven here on earth. We should all be so fortunate to find such a place.