In the Field

My First Kodiak Bear Encounter

First encounter with a Kodiak brown bear. Kodiak Island, Alaska.

Life is full of memorable firsts! Your first day of school, your first car, your first job, your first date, etc. One first that I’ll especially never forget is my first Kodiak bear encounter. I moved to Kodiak Island, Alaska, during the summer of 2011, and as I began to explore my new home I was constantly aware of the fact that I lived among huge bears, however, weeks, and even months had passed, and I still had yet to see one. I’d seen many black and grizzly bears over the years in other parts of Alaska and the lower 48, but I was especially looking forward to seeing my first Kodiak brown bear.

During those first few months on Kodiak, I’d constantly notice fresh bear tracks along the rivers that I fished, ripped apart salmon carcasses lining the stream banks, and piles of bear dung everywhere in the areas I frequented, but despite all the fresh sign I was seeing, I still had not yet encountered a bear! Like many folks who come to Alaska in hopes of seeing abundant wildlife, I expected Kodiak bears to be hiding behind virtually every alder thicket I passed by, that they’d be watching my every move, that I’d be literally surrounded by bears everywhere I went! However, that was certainly not the case. Bears and other wildlife generally don’t like being around people and tend to avoid areas and times where people are present and active.

Fresh Kodiak brown bear sign. Tracks and eaten salmon.
Despite seeing fresh bear sign, such as tracks and eaten salmon, I did not see an actual bear for months upon moving to Kodiak Island, Alaska.

But then one particular cool, autumn evening…it happened! I decided to do some salmon fishing on a nearby river, and as the evening progressed almost everyone had left, except for myself and one other group of fisherman downstream a ways. It was a quiet, still, peaceful evening. The sun was beginning to set and it beautifully illuminated the slow-moving clouds overhead. The emerald green grasses and tall spruce trees were reflected like a mirror in the calm waters of the river. The euphoric silence was only interrupted by the splashing of incoming salmon and the singing of perched eagles high above in the cottonwood trees. I was truly entranced by the stunning beauty of the moment. As I admired my surroundings with a grateful heart, I suddenly noticed something moving out of the corner of my eye. I looked to my right and noticed a young Kodiak bear…being followed by not one, not two, but three tiny cubs…and moving rapidly in my direction!

Kodiak bear sow with three cubs. Kodiak Island, Alaska.
The young Kodiak bear sow with her three cubs…headed right in my direction!

All the terrifying stories of people being killed or mauled by fiercely protective sows with cubs came racing through my mind! From what I learned over the years, hell hath no fury like a mother bear when she fears her cubs are being threatened! I immediately ceased fishing and froze! I then began going through my well-rehearsed bear safety routine: talking to the bear in a calm, loud voice, slowly raising my arms, and doing all I could to make sure the bear knew I was a non-threating human, and also doing all I could to keep myself from running away and getting the heck out of there, as that’s one’s usual first natural instinct…but…which can also trigger a chase response from an otherwise nonaggressive bear. It’s an indescribable feeling to be in close proximity of an Alaskan brown bear with no fences, bars, steel cages, or major restrains of any kind. The bear gave me a casual look as if to acknowledge my presence and confirm the typical safety routine I displayed, but she didn’t break stride at all. She and her young were headed right in my direction, and moving fast!

Kodiak bear sow with three cubs. Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Moving in closer! Nerve-wracking, to say the least!

I looked around for my immediate escape route, and realized that I was sort of trapped! Right in front of me and to my left was a deep, turbulent pool in the river, and to my right was the only path out of the area…which the bears were now blocking. I could either jump in the river and try to swim across, bushwhack through the woods like a frantic deer, or, as recommend by all the sources I studied about Kodiak bear safety, hold my ground and wait till the bears moved on, which I decided to do, as I really had no other choice at the moment.

As the bears continued to approach, they finally stopped when getting to a rather uncomfortably close distance…uncomfortably close for me, anyway. The tiny, adorable fuzz-ball cubs stayed in the tall grass and playfully wrestled around as the sow left them and came even closer to me. She slowly entered the river’s edge and took a few more steps in my direction, all the while looking me over intently. She then plunged in the water and grabbed my stringer of salmon. She yanked it off the underwater tree root I had it secured to and took my entire evening’s catch back over to her cubs, which they all proceeded to feast on with great delight! I had secured my stringer of fish to that underwater tree root hoping that doing so would keep the fish smell down and not attract bears, but it was of little help. Bears have the best nose on the planet and she could easily smell all that freshly caught fish, even under the water.

Kodiak bear sow with three cubs. Kodiak Island, Alaska. Stealing salmon.
The Kodiak sow stealing my hard earned catch to feed to her cubs.

Bears that hang out in popular fishing areas and other places that are frequented by humans can be very smart and know how to get the food they want, despite one’s best efforts to safely deter such a thieving act. I was a bit upset as I watched all my work and what was to be my dinner for the weeks ahead being devoured in a matter of minutes. But, I also knew it was my chance to get out of there! So, as the bears were busy feasting on a freshly caught salmon supper, I was able to maneuver around them and leave safely. (By the way, the bear photos featured in this blog are the actual photos from that encounter. As you can see, they’re pretty lousy photos, as quality photography work was the last thing on my mind at the time! However, since I was standing there with nothing else to do but watch, I thought I’d get a few shots with my little pocket, point & shoot style camera, which did have a significant zoom. As I always stress in my bear videos and blogs, safety and respect is the highest priority at all times in bear country.)

As I drove home that evening, I was both nerve-rackingly rattled and incredibly excited at the same time! It felt like my heart was pounding with adrenaline for hours afterward. I ran through that first Kodiak bear encounter experience over and over again in my head for days, evaluating my every move, making sure I did everything as safely as possible, given the extremely close interaction, and unexpected circumstance. All in all, I was just happy to have made it back home without any altercations. I had a lot to learn still about bears and bear safety, and that’s a topic I’ll be exploring in a future video, so stay tuned

How to photograph bears. Photography book. Joseph Classen.
To learn more about bears, check out my book, How to Photograph Bear – The Beauty of the Beast.

To see more photos, check out the video version of this story by clicking here.

(Stay up to date on new blog posts and media by subscribing to our newsletter. Go to the bottom of the home page or the sidebar of this blog and sign up today!)