Written by John F. Kozub
Collections of writing and short stories about Kodiak Alaska and the Kodiak Bear.
Bears are not companions of men, but children of God, and His charity is broad enough for both. Bears are made of the same dust as we, and breathe the same winds and drink of the same waters. A bear's days are warmed by the same sun, his dwellings are over domed by the same blue sky, and his life turns and ebbs with heart-pulsings like ours and was poured from the same fountain...
-- John Muir
The Bears of Kodiak Island and this web site is dedicated to my late father, Edward F. Kozub. More about this very special man can be found at www.edkozub.com. My dad encouraged me to follow my dreams and the bears too. He was, and is, the inspiration behind each and every one of my trips to the backcountry. To my family – my wife Donna; and my sons Jordan and Preston. To my mother and siblings. Thanks for not, once, complaining about my travels to Kodiak or my being away for weeks at a time without the ability to call home. To my co-workers who put up with bear mania all over the office! To Chet Wysocki, thanks for sharing many trips with me. To LB Wood, a man of few words but one heck of a fisherman! To my brother Paul who has been out on a half dozen trips! To Tony Potts, a dear friend who has traveled with me on several trips. To Scott Shelton who passed away many years ago and was my hero on Kodiak. You, my friend, motivated and taught me more than I could have ever wished for. I will never forget those early days in the backcountry with you - your bear spirit lives on in me each day! To Joe Scarfo and Mike Gordon, guys who have opened up my eyes to the important things in life! I would also like to mention my great buddy Tom Barber, a heck of a guy who never gave up, even with the deck stacked against him from day one. I am so lucky to have spent time in the bush with Tommy, and I look forward to many more trips to the backcountry! Fish on Shorty, and make sure you have the Leatherman handy to deal with the next problem!
A special thank you needs to go to my great sister-in-law Tara Kozub for making sure you can understand what I write! She is a special gal, with, I think after last count, eight kids! Last but, certainly, not least, I would like to say thank you to Leslie and Peter. In my opinion, these two individuals, by far, are the two largest and truest supporters of the Kodiak bear on the planet today! They live for these bears, as I do. Each year they spend serious time on Kodiak with them. I only can dream of spending the time these two do! I have had the opportunity, on a few occasions, to be in the bush with both Leslie and Peter. Leslie, who can click 100 perfect pictures faster than you can say “bear,” and Peter, who can catch a salmon with both eyes closed faster than you can say “fish on,” are very special people to me. At the end of the day, it is easy to understand why not too many people in this world do what we do. So, when I find individuals with the same passion for bears that I have, I feel very lucky. We all live to spend time each year with the bears. This passion of ours monopolizes our thoughts the second we fly off the island at the end of the season! We have this bond that has been formed, and at the end of the day the Kodiak Bear drives it. These special and fantastic creatures, found only on Kodiak Island, have brought us together. I am looking forward to a long and lasting friendship with each one of these good people.
“To walk in the footprints of the Kodiak bear deep in the high, lush green mountains of the Emerald Isle sends a tingling sensation through my entire body each and every time.” Welcome to a spot on this planet where brown bears rule and the humans, amidst them, are always humbled! Each amazing visit leaves an indelible mark upon me, as I always look upon my experiences with awe and gratitude.
My web site kodiakbears.com has become very popular over the years around the world. Many have asked me to share more of my travels. As a result, I was thinking about writing a book but decided to post some of my thoughts instead on-line. Just to clarify, I am not for hire nor do I offer private trips. My web site provides adventurers with a good list of people who will be happy to help you in that area. I have traveled to Kodiak on my vacations and hope to always keep it that way. I would like to avoid turning my trips into work. For me, they are an escape from the “daily grind,” my “oasis,” if you will.
Over the next few years I will add chapters to this free, on-line collection. They will include my thoughts and experiences during my travels in bear country. I was taught that in life one should always share and give back, and that is what I plan to do with these stories. For those people who do not have the means to travel, my goal is to make this special spot come alive for you. For those who do, I will help educate you! Keep in mind I am not a professional writer, just a guy who loves bears. I am just a person who wants to share my passion and hobby with both the vicarious voyager as well as the audacious excursionist.
One last caveat - I am not an expert by any means! But I am an honest straight-talking individual who has been traveling to this area for many years. I lost count, years ago, after my 40th trip to Alaska!
If the average individual was asked to articulate his vision of Alaska, he might describe a land that is cold, desolate, and barren, a frozen hinterland. The Alaskan Adventurer, however, would surely take issue with this illustration. Although Alaska is known to have its share of cold areas, there is one spectacular spot known to many as the “Alaskan Emerald Isle.” This “oasis in the desert” called Kodiak Island has been an object of affection for those fortunate enough to make the journey. Reminiscent of Norway or Sweden, this captivating isle is home to a beloved and revered mammal, namely, the Kodiak bear.
My great love for the Kodiak bear and the land it inhabits has inspired me to share my passion with you. Each trip I take into the backcountry has been unique and special and has changed the way I look at life. I hope these writings awaken the excursionist in you, as you travel into the bush with me in your mind’s eye. Hopefully, you will then understand why I keep going back to Kodiak Island year after year. The isolation away from human beings for weeks at a time, close encounters with bear, and harsh, yet ever-changing, Kodiak weather all contribute to the excitement and euphoria I experience on this magical and mystical island. Written for the independent traveler like me, these writings will provide straight-shooting talk on how to survive in the bush while respecting these awesome creatures and the land they call home.
Located 225 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, this pristine island can only be reached via plane or boat. But these limited travel options only add to the mystique of this amazing place. Kodiak is part of what is known as the Kodiak Island Archipelago, a large group of islands roughly 30 miles off the coast of Alaska. The archipelago is similar to the state of Connecticut in both size and shape, 177 miles long and encompassing about 5,000 miles. Kodiak Island is the largest island in the archipelago and the second largest island in the United States.
I have been giving presentations to schoolchildren about my trips to the remote lands of the Kodiak Refuge for years. It is very exciting to watch the children’s faces light up with enthusiasm as I recount some of my more memorable excursions. The same reaction is evident on the faces of friends and family members as they, too, exhibit a genuine excitement and interest as I share, with them, my life’s passion.
I encourage you to delve into these pages with anticipation. Experience some of my more than forty trips into the bush and learn how, with careful planning, you, too, can do the same. Novice and expert, alike, will be left with a desire to someday experience the beauty and wonder of this Alaskan Emerald Isle.
It all started more than a decade ago when my wife and I decided to travel to Alaska on our honeymoon. Upon arrival we were the quintessential tourists, visiting, among other places, Denali Park, Brooks River, and Admiralty Island. These were group related bear viewings reminiscent of a visit to the zoo. We followed the crowds, got herded to the next picture opportunity, and sat back on the bus until we were told to get off again. I asked myself whether we were viewing the bears or the bears viewing us? Anyway, in a word the whole experience was BORING! Travelers were forced to stay in a certain area, walk on special trails, and most of the bears were habituated to people. Unfortunately, this is how most see Alaskan bears these days. Tourists may only see them in glass cases as they walk off the plane in the airport. This seems fine for some, but for me it was definitely not enough. I wanted the genuine Alaskan experience of being outdoors and feeling like I was the only man to walk the land that day. And, going back to the lodge each night with all the amenities certainly did not make me feel like we were “roughing it.”
As a sidebar, I should note that I have also traveled through the Canadian Rockies including Baniff and Jasper Parks in search of the grizzly or brown bear extensively. Again, each of these trips left much to be desired in my quest for the perfect wilderness experience.
A year after my first trip to Alaska I decided to sign on for a journey into the backcountry of Kodiak Island. I anticipated an adventure that would bring me back to nature and allow me to experience the richness of this vast land in much the same way as the Alutiiq people hundreds of years before me. In other words, I wanted no phones, running water, or electricity or the many things we all take for granted on a daily base. This setting, smack dab in the middle of the Kodiak Wildlife Refuge, is an inspirational experience that words cannot adequately articulate.
In order to prepare for this long-awaited adventure, I read everything about Kodiak I could get my hands on and learned a great deal in the process. I was happy to learn that most of Kodiak was without roads and the more remote areas were accessible only by floatplane or boat.
Little did I know that this next trip to Alaska would forever change my life. I convinced my wife, Donna, to spend a week in this remote bear viewing camp that was set up by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Participants were selected on a lottery basis. And, my wife and I won a spot in this coveted camp! The area was located in a very remote section of the refuge only accessible by floatplane. (In order to protect the integrity of these secret spots, I have chosen not to name specific areas. However, a good floatplane operation on Kodiak knows these places. You can find these air service operators at www.kodiak.org.) We stayed in weather ports (i.e. a thick canvas tent-like housing unit) with a group of six other people who we met for the first time on this trip.
We were all advised to bring our own gear and told we would be traveling to an area where the salmon run upstream and the bears congregate. I was ecstatic and attempted to convince my wife of the importance of this trip of a lifetime. We landed on Kodiak filled with many mixed emotions. For the first time we would be camping in tents in the middle of bear country! – Gone were the days of running back to the lodge with a soda machine out front. Suddenly my thoughts were flooded with “what ifs.” What if a bear came into the camp? What if I need to go to the bathroom at night in the middle of thousands of acres of virgin land loaded with huge bears? What about the bugs? Where do we put our food? My wife and I were both haunted daily with the questions that only rookies like us would ask.
We were fortunate enough to have two wonderful guides with us on our adventure. I will forever be indebted to these two fine gentlemen whose years of experience in the heart of the Kodiak Refuge benefited us tremendously. In fact, I attribute my vast knowledge of Kodiak to the great foundation laid by these two men who advised me on how to survive in bear country. Since that first trip, I have had the good fortune to go into the field again several times with them and, in doing so, absorbed every possible way to live and act in bear country.
Once in bear country, one might have the tendency to feel invincible. I call it the “it won't happen to me syndrome” that sometimes takes hold of an excursionist. But, I assure you, you become very humble as the moan of the floatplane leaves the depths of your ears and all you are left with is a feeling of, “Oh my, I am alone in a very remote part of the world surrounded by some of the world's largest bears.”
I travel to Kodiak in the spring, summer and early fall months to take advantage of the salmon runs. These runs are sure to give rise to optimal bear viewing. If the fish are running and you venture to remote areas inside the Kodiak Refuge, you are almost always guaranteed a glimpse of the bear.
The Bears of Kodiak Island, Alaska was written to share with you my experience and expeditions into the backcountry. At first I was hesitant to share this great place with the rest of the world because I wanted to keep it the secret it has been for me for over a decade! After a while, I had a change of heart. I felt it important to share this special place with others –most especially, the armchair adventurer and as well as the willing excursionist. I was lucky enough to travel countless times to this wonderful island and felt I should start to let others know about this special place. Up to this point, I had only shared it with a relatively small circle of family and friends. I was hammered with e-mails from all over the globe from individuals who wanted to know more about Kodiak and the bears. I soon came to the conclusion that many would never have a chance to see a huge Kodiak bear in the wild, as I had. Over the many years, I have had the chance to see hundreds and hundreds of these creatures in their natural and remote habitat. Viewing these bears through the zoo display is just not the same, and I needed to let people, at least, see and feel what I have over the years. Yes, it is true, over the years several short articles and videos have been published about Kodiak, bringing the island closer to the armchair adventurer. However, I had not found writings that prepared those interested in taking steps to visit Kodiak in person or, perhaps, even travel there in their mind’s eye. This special area, dubbed “The Emerald Isle,” affords the traveler many awesome opportunities, such as streams choked with huge salmon, a front-and-center view of bald eagles’ nests (the size of a small car!) that line the lake, the many foxes and Sitka black tail deer just off at a distance, and picture perfect scenery around every corner. In addition there are miles of black sand beaches with whales just off the shore, so close you feel you can run out and touch them! These are some of the many reasons why I have chosen to return to Kodiak year after year. To be honest, my true inspiration in sharing this “Garden of Eden” with you is my hero and the creature I dream about, the Kodiak Brown Bear! I live for this world’s largest carnivore. I sit for hours at a time deep in the backcountry waiting to get that perfect picture or even a quick glimmer of spring cubs running behind their mother. I’m often pounded by poring rain or bugs, relentless in their attack on human flesh in pursuit of that next great picture. I even have this animal tattooed on my shoulder so I can look at it in the mirror everyday when I cannot be on Kodiak!
Chapter 2: My Passion For Bears
Well I need to be honest. After the first few trips to the bush my wife had enough. The lack of outlets for her hairdryer and no room service caught up with her! The constant use of head nets to hit the hundreds of bugs attacking her every second was not her idea of fun. However my wife saw I needed more and supported my decision to continue traveling there year after year with family and friends.
If you go the route of the independent, you have nothing other than what you fly in with when traveling to the Kodiak refuge. However, many commercial lodges can be found on Kodiak located near the refuge. If you are a traveler that likes to have the comforts of home wherever you go, you can start by visiting www.kodiak.org to view the list of companies that offer travelers an opportunity to stay in that special place. But, as you will see, this can be expensive. For some people this choice provides the best of both worlds – namely, the opportunity of seeing bears in the wild and then, at the end of the day, going back to a warm bed. But as I have stated I am the type of person that likes to do the trips on my own. This is how my adventures over the years started and continue, still, to this day.
After several additional years of learning from local guides in the bush, I began to bring many of my family and friends to Kodiak with me. This has turned into a serious hobby, and tradition, over the years. And, I have rented cabins from both the native organizations and refuge.
Over the years, I’ve learned that the pre-planning of these trips is critical to ensure a successful expedition. In some cases, visitors must be willing to sit for hours to see bears. So, for example, if you looking for a quick fix view of the bears, then I would suggest the “day trips” the island floatplane operators on the island offer. However, if you are looking for that ultimate experience of living with the land and bears, then I suggest at least a five to seven day stay in the backcountry.
I can’t over emphasize the importance of adequately preparing for one of these trips. Believe me, I learned the hard way. On the fourth day of our six-day excursion through Kodiak, my wife and I ran out of food. This was one of our first trips, and I had no clue about things like this, pretty embarrassing! We were so careful not to pack too much as the floatplane had weight restrictions. Lucky I always have my fishing pole close by and a native fish to Kodiak called Dolly Vardins are a constant catch each year.
The town of Kodiak is a very neat place to explore if you take the time to drive around the Islands road small road system. But, most of the roads are dirt, so you need to take your time. Many rivers off the road system offer some great fishing during the salmon runs. The road system that Kodiak offers also has breath-taking views around every corner. Caution: many roads on Kodiak are not paved. I have first hand experience how dangerous driving can be, especially in a rainstorm. One year I rented a SUV from a firm at the airport. I was traveling down one of these unpaved roads looking for adventure, and bears, of coarse, and we were caught in a very bad rainstorm. What I thought was a small puddle I drove through for several seconds before I realized we were into a massive flow of deep water! I thought, “Shit, I just submerged a brand new SUV with less than 2500 miles on it!” Yet, that was the least of my worries! As we began to bob up and down in the water thoughts of drowning flashed in my mind. Though, my empty feeling of guilt and stupidity soon left me. My other passengers quickly were able to release a back window and jump out as water poured in the thru the doors. I have never seen rain come down so hard and fast anywhere in my life. That two-mile walk back to the main road seemed like it would never end. We were several miles in on this road with not another human or automobile in site. My point here is simple. NEVER go off the main road unless you know where you are going! At least have a pair of hip waiters available to walk through what may look like just a puddle. And, make sure the ground is firm before you attempt to cross it in a vehicle; and by all means, if it is a rainy day think twice. Over the course of my life, it seems I have always learned things the hard way and this time was no exception to that rule. Take it from one who looks back on this stupid mistake that cost me a great deal of money! What may look like an easy adventure off the beaten path could have end in disaster. However, take time to explore, rent a car and get out of town. The small Kodiak Airport offers several car rental agencies to choose from.
A great deal of the time I am asked, “What is the chance of seeing bears off the Kodiak road system?” Well in my many trips to Kodiak, I have only had the opportunity to view bears from the road a few times. I’ve even spoken to many people who live year round on Kodiak who have never seen a bear! The island is so large (the second largest in the USA), and bears have so many areas to roam. And, over the years, Kodiak town officials have done an excellent job with waste removal and the “dump bears” of Kodiak are no longer in the area as in the days of old. This, however, cannot be said for other remote areas of the island, inaccessible by car, where fences and proper waste storage has not taken place. The old saying is true, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Please keep this in mind whenever you travel in bear country. One of the most important things I have learned over the years is criticality of proper food and waste storage. It is part and parcel of a wonderful experience in the backcountry. In fact, it is so essential, that I have chosen to expand on this in greater detail in a later chapter.
Chapter 3: Planning A Successful Trip
I start to plan my Alaska trips almost six months before I head out. Good logistics play a big role in having a trip you will never forget. Because the weather is so unpredictable, getting to Kodiak can be tricky. I give myself at least a 24-hour buffer on Kodiak to account for weather before I fly out to the refuge. In the past, I have been stuck waiting to fly out to the refuge for days. When the fog and rain rolls in there on a summer day, on it seems like the sun will never be back, and some weeks it doesn’t come back for days. So, when you schedule a trip, plan on spending an extra day in town, just in case. This will also give you more of a chance to explore. As I have touched upon, my trips to the backcountry require that I bring everything in and haul everything out. In town you can find several retail stores to buy all the food and gear you need. I try to pack my coolers with frozen foods; they not only act as a cooling agent but also provide me with some great meals. I have plenty of gear that also helps such as propane stoves, all the cooking materials, water purification bottles, and plenty of bug nets!! I also carry several bottles of pepper spray and a shotgun. The pepper spray has come in handy several times, and I am proud to say I have never had to use the firearm! I arm myself with a good pair of binoculars and a camera loaded with 200 and 400-speed film.
I usually have at least 20-30 rolls of film on all trips to the bush. Over the years taking pictures have become more important to me, so I have upgraded my cameras to change with the times. I now use a Nikon F-100 35mm camera along with a back up. When you are in the refuge at any of the public use cabins, you will need to hike or raft to areas to have a better chance to view bears. You will find it takes a great deal of time as well as luck to get the perfect day, which to me includes bears and no rain. I find the best months to be June, July, August and early September. No one can time the salmon runs on the button, but in my years of trips to Kodiak, I was never let down when I traveled to Kodiak during these months.
How important is hiring your floatplane pilot? Wow, I advise spending a great deal of time researching this area. Some questions to ask include the following: How long has the operation been in business? How many flight hours do the pilots in the area have? What type of maintenance do they do on the planes? Keep in mind you will be flying in some of the toughest conditions with brutal air currents that can bounce you up and down like an amusement park ride. In most cases you will be landing on water, which is also another challenge for these planes because some of them are 30-40 years old. Although dangerous, these flights are both exciting and breath taking.
You can get a whole different perspective from the air. As you’re flying in, you can look onto the land and chart some of the areas you may want to check out. Even after years of heading into the refuge, find new spots to explore via this method. A simple tip to remember as your scanning is to always look for flowing streams, and bear trails. It’s also important to look for well-worn areas of grass or paths, as I can assure you, these are not man made! I have always found bears within hours of spying these clues from the air! With an estimated 3000 Kodiak Bears on the island you will have a good chance to see the coolest animal on the planet!
For your information, I have listed some essential items that I never forget when traveling to the Kodiak refuge. They include, but are not limited to:
Chapter 4 Visiting Bear Country
After an estimated 40 plus trips to Kodiak over a period of years, the most frequently asked question by children is “Are you scared when you are with the bears?” My answer is always the same. Before traveling to the bush, one needs to be prepared both mentally and physically. My fear, over the years, has never changed. My respect has never waned. Having the opportunity to get very close to these huge creatures, for size comparison, reminds me only of a large milking cow. When you are one half mile away, these bears seem like just your average size bruin. But, if you have the opportunity to get a close view, you will see just what I mean.
Always plan as if a bear is around every corner. Always stay calm, and never get excited. And, I have to stress how important it is to never run. I would be lying if I told you that my stomach doesn’t churn each time I hear the bushes moving in the middle of the night.
The night brings to me many different thoughts and feelings, as it surely is a markedly different experience than one gets during the daylight hours. My late summer trips involve short and longer nights. I would not suggest traveling at night in bear country. I have never done this and have no plans at this point to try. No need to be a macho hero when you travel in Bear County. I never want to surprise a bear, and this is just what can happen if you participate in nighttime gallivanting. Stay close to camp. If you do need to walk around at night the words “hey bear hey bear” should be shouted as loud as your body can yell.
It is a fact that bears flourish on Kodiak as they do throughout the rest of Alaska. They are very intelligent and, potentially, dangerous. I had several encounters with them over the years, and, thankfully, all have ended on a positive note. I will dedicate a chapter to this subject down the road. Most of my close encounters have ended up with the bears running away. Respecting the bears, allowing them ample space to move, and never approaching these huge animals will increase your odds of having a great trip to the backcountry.
Making noise, and lots of it, is very important when moving around in the bush. I always travel with at least one other person when hiking on Kodiak. If you do venture out for a hike, you will find that the word “bushwhacking” will come to mind quickly. Most trips I’ve taken have start with hundreds of bugs flocking to my body. This gets worse when moving into the high grasses and tree areas. If the wind is not blowing, than the bug problem is twice as bad. Nowhere in the world have I ever seen the bugs as bad as in the bush of Alaska.
Kodiak has areas that have dense vegetation, and bears tend to seek refuge in these areas during rainy and sunny days. Bear, just like humans, use trails that they have made over hundreds of years. These are the trails that I hike on, and just like water, they usually follow the path of least resistance, following mountain ridges or side of streams that are fed by salmon. Moving step by step in the footprints of these huge bears will just fill your mind with so many imaginative thoughts? How many of these bears have walked these trails over the years? The well-worn paths cut swathes thru the land like a small tractor.
I am not advising anyone who reads these writings to head out for a day of hiking without first familiarizing themselves with the area and the challenges bear country brings with it. This type of exploring is much different than many areas in the world. It took me many years to feel confident to head out to there without the help and suggestions of individuals who have spent years doing this themselves. So many issues should be considered before leaving the comforts of your cabin or campsite.
Traveling in these areas of Kodiak is rough, in most cases, unless you stay on the water. However hiking to a top of a mountain for that perfect view is well worth the work. Some of the best bear viewing I have done over the years has come after I have reached a remote area overlooking some feeder streams. A clear view, no rain, 60 degrees and sunny is one of the few perfect days I have had in terms of weather. This does not happen too often, but when it does watch out! You will have an incredible day!
Most bears not habituated to humans are prone to run for cover when they come in contact with humans. I get more excited to watch those who still have the fear of humans. You will work very hard to get these types of opportunities, because these bears are very hard to watch. A mother and cubs usually fall into this category. I’ve been very fortunate over the years to view hundreds of these types of bears from a good distance away via spotting scopes and binoculars.
It has taken me hours to reach mountaintops overlooking lakes on Kodiak. What looks like a half hour hike is usually always triple the amount of time for which you plan. Bring plenty of water, and be ready at anytime for strong winds and rain to creep up from nowhere. Along with water, I carry light snacks like trail mix and candy bars. My pepper spray is always on my belt for added safety. But when the wind is strong, this can become tricky to use. Be aware of your surroundings, and take time to always watch behind you. I have had many hikes where I have turned and found a bear walking my way. I simply move in another direction, as the bear will always have the “right of way.”
I want to make mention of the fact that in the summer months you should have a great deal of daylight, which will extend your enjoyment of the hike. But, as mentioned earlier, later in the summer around the month of August, the days get shorter and night falls sooner.
Again bears that do not run in most cases have become accustomed to people over the years. Kodiak has several areas that the bears have become tolerant of people. These are usually the areas where the floatplane operators offer “day trips” to venture out to for three or four hours. Some spots on Kodiak have predicable bear activity in the summer months and that is what you need when only a few hours are possible. This will, indeed, give you a close look at bears and was one of the options, I chose years ago. You will not find the crowds of people on Kodiak when you do these days trips. In some cases these floatplane pilots will choose to fly you to the mainland, which is a short flight off Kodiak. Over the years it has been a challenge for the companies offering day trips to seek out open spots on Kodiak for quick bear viewing. And, only a few remain as a result of areas being closed to commercial operators. The fact is it is much harder and more expensive to venture to Kodiak in terms of flights out of Kodiak and than flights to the bear areas than it is to other areas in Alaska. That is what keeps the crowds away from the Emerald Island.
Copyright © 2010 - All rights reserved