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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Up close with the brown bears of Katmai

We had just beached our canoes and kayak on a low, grassy sandbar at the confluence of the peaceful, gently flowing American Creek and the raging glacial torrent of the Savonoski River. Enormous moose and brown bear tracks dotted the small spit of land like breadcrumb trails, crisscrossing the mud-mixed soil to and from points unknown.

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The sound of bellowing brown bears at close range is a memorable and menacing sound. That we were cascading down a furious and deafening river added tenfold to the exhilaration and experience.
Courtesy / Mint Images
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“There’s a bear, Pete.”

We had just beached our canoes and kayak on a low, grassy sandbar at the confluence of the peaceful, gently flowing American Creek and the raging glacial torrent of the Savonoski River. Enormous moose and brown bear tracks dotted the small spit of land like breadcrumb trails, crisscrossing the mud-mixed soil to and from points unknown.

Having broken camp hours earlier from a picturesque site on the expansive, 18-mile-long Grosvenor Lake deep within Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve wilderness, we took the time to wander around a bit on the sandbar to gather our wits, eat some snacks and secure our gear in our vessels.

Indeed, we would need to focus all our attention on the next leg of the journey; for the ominous, silt-laden Savonoski River hissed before us like a gray, rolling serpent, unfit to ride.

Before launching our canoes and kayak back into American Creek for quick entry into the gushing Savonoski River, the brown bear that I had earlier pointed out to Pete downstream had been lumbering along the thickets on the bank of the Savonoski searching for salmon.

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Watching the bruin through my binoculars, I had marveled at its size and evident power — its dark-colored brown coat rippled like the river, its musculature and giant shoulder hump hidden beneath its shaggy fur. It wasn’t lost on me that where that bear had been, was the precise direction we would momentarily be heading.

Three days earlier, while taking an afternoon break with some of my campmates next to the fire at a different campsite in a secluded, forested bay of Grosvenor Lake, a question was posed to John — who had paddled these same wild waters some 25 years before — about the number and type of bears, behaviorally, that we would likely encounter on the Savonoski River.

His answer, somewhat forlorn, gave us pause: “The fastest, the meanest and the most, but mostly the most."

John and I shared a canoe for the entire 11-day, 100-mile loop. We would bring up the rear of the fleet of watercraft — Pete and Ole leading, followed by Scott and Joe in another canoe, and Mark close behind them in a single-person kayak.

With John in the stern and me in the bow, I had an obstructed view of the line of canoes and the kayak as we, too, entered the boiling current of the Savonoski.

Ahead of us were 15 miles of rageful river water and at least one bear. Yet no sooner had we rounded the first sweeping bend of the river on our rocking, undulating wild ride.

With me pulling and righting the bow with fervent paddle strokes as John rudder-stroked the rear to keep us from the outside bends where sweepers reached out like tentacles ready to capsize us, I heard the unmistakable roar of brown bears above the din of the roiling river.

“Bears!” I shouted, pointing with the paddle.

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Surreal and a living scene straight out of a nature film and spread out before us in impossible numbers were so many brown bears I couldn’t count them fast enough to be certain, but close to 20 brown bears were gathered across a large swath of waterlogged river-bottom: fishing, fighting, roaring and running.

The sound of bellowing brown bears at close range is a memorable and menacing sound. That we were cascading down a furious and deafening river added tenfold to the exhilaration and experience.

The river ride felt like we were canoeing on the back of a beast, and beasts of another cloth were everywhere we went, everywhere we looked, and everywhere we were going.

Upon seeing us whizzing by at over five miles per hour on the swift, braided river, some bears ran away while others stood like bewildered giants to get a better look at us.

Other bears, whether they noticed us or not, ignored us — intent on digging in the dirt, searching for salmon, eating fish or fighting for fish amongst themselves. Most bears were very close by, just a few dozen yards distant. Others were further away, but nonetheless impressive to see near or far.

Miles downstream, after having observed over 40 brown bears, we beached our canoes and kayak on an exposed sandbar littered with the skeletal-like remains of marooned floating trees and assorted other woody debris, the men whooped shouts of relief and wonderment as all of us recounted the thrill of paddling through a gauntlet of bawling bears and surviving a wild river ride.

Standing on wet sand in my hip boots, I leaned onto my paddle and rested my chin on top of my hands clenched securely onto the paddle’s handle as I gazed across the Savonoski while listening to and watching my friends. Absorbing the moment while recalling the frenzied minutes prior, I rested in a subdued and grateful temper.

The brown bears of Katmai ... as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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Related Topics: BLANE KLEMEKNORTHLAND OUTDOORSOUTDOORS RECREATION
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