In the Field

The Kodiak Bear in my Backyard

Kodiak Bear in my Backyard

During my first year on Kodiak Island, Alaska, I discovered that I had a big Kodiak brown bear living in my backyard during the fall and winter months. As it turned out, he was living there for quite some time before I even knew it. That first year, as the cold, autumn months began to set in and winter was rapidly approaching, I made it a regular practice to feed the many birds and squirrels that inhabited the wooded area around the house I was living in at the time. There was a big, homemade birdfeeder on an old tree stump that had been there for decades…leftover from the previous residents. Every few days or so I’d put out some bird seed, a few pieces of dried bread, vegetable peelings, and whatever small bits of scrap food I had laying around. The squirrels, crows, magpies, and other birds would gobble up my offerings almost instantly!

As time went on and the days grew shorter and colder, I noticed that I began to have other guests who came by to investigate my birdfeeder, including some young blacktail deer and a bald eagle. One morning as I went to refill the feeder with the usual sunflower seeds and few table scraps, I found it knocked off the stump and broken to pieces. I knew the birds and squirrels were not responsible, and I seriously doubted if the deer caused such destruction, so I figured the birdfeeder was destroyed by one of the many drunken derelicts that often roamed through at night and sometimes vandalized things. I sadly retired the remains of the old feeder and that was that. The birds and squirrels would have to look elsewhere for handouts. As the days progressed though, I began to notice more things out of place and disturbed around the woods that surrounded my house. There was also a trail that seemed to be getting a lot of recent use. I figured it was the deer that moved into the area for winter or maybe the alcoholic derelicts camping out back there, so I started keeping a closer eye on things.

A hungry blacktail beer eating birdseed and breadcrumbs.
A hungry blacktail beer eating birdseed and bread crumbs.
A bald eagle lands on top of a bird feeder on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
A hungry bald eagle that raided my birdfeeder.

A few weeks later, I came home after a late dinner with some friends one night, and as I pulled up to the house, I saw a fast, bounding flash of movement around the corner. I knew it was not a deer, so I drove down the driveway a little bit, shined my flashlight into the brush…and there he was! Back in the woods about ten yards or so was a huge Kodiak brown bear just standing there looking at me, with glowing eyes that looked like blue halogen light bulbs. I could see the lenses in his eyes focusing as he just stood there and stared at me. It was wild!!! I circled back around, got in the house and turned on all the outside lights. I also noticed some State Troopers driving around, so I flagged them down with my flashlight and filled them in. It turns out they were looking for the big bear as well and were trying to drive him out of town, but, he got away. As I would find out, that bear was an old, crafty, elusive one!

One of the first images of my backyard Kodiak bear that showed up on the trail camera.

The next day I consulted with a biologist from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who from the tracks judged him to be about a nine and a half foot bear. I also learned that contrary to popular belief, not all bears in Alaska hibernate for the entire winter. On Kodiak Island, while the majority of them do sleep throughout most of the peak winter months, there are other restless bruins that stay awake for all, or at least some of that time, depending on the weather and food availability. The Department let me borrow a trail monitoring camera to help keep an eye on the bear’s activity, as there was a church and school right night door and safety was, of course, a top priority. Over the months that followed I checked the camera for new photos and constantly monitored the area for fresh bear sign…which there was lots of…on an almost daily basis. The trail camera photos featured here are some of the hundreds of images that I got of him.

Trail camera photo of Kodiak bear.
One of the hundreds of trail camera photos that I got of my backyard Kodiak bear.

That bear was essentially wintering over in my backyard. He went as far as building a day bed in the thick brush, which looked like a giant bird’s nest, and at times I’d even hear him snoring. But, anytime the authorities came around to try to send him back to the wilderness where he belonged, he vanished! He was very elusive during daylight hours and would lay low in hiding. However, when the sun went down, he would go on the prowl! He had no interest in humans thankfully and avoided people at all costs. Instead, he would roam the nearby streets, looking for his delectable meal of choice: used baby diapers and beer!

Yes, he was a helpless street bear, addicted to food waste, poo-filled diapers, and most especially, the beer that the local street people hid in the woods around my house. In fact, that bear went as far as making a dirty diaper and beer food cache! Just as when bears kill and eat part of a prey animal, then bury the rest of the meat for later, he did the same thing with the garbage and booze he rounded up from the neighborhood. One day I found a freshly dug, partially buried pile of both diapers and dozens of empty beer cans, with gigantic canine teeth tears in the aluminum. The only exception to his strange diet was a cat that he ate one evening, and possibly a deer, as seen below in the bear’s mouth…though a different bear might have been responsible for the deer, as this photo was taken at a neighboring property.

A huge Kodiak bear with a Sitka blacktail deer in its mouth.
A huge Kodiak bear with a Sitka blacktail deer in its mouth.

At night the big Kodiak bear would roam around my house…and would even take little bear-naps right on my front porch, as I discovered from all the fresh tracks and bedding imprints he’d leave in the snow around the house and the yard. I encountered my big, furry friend quite a few times at night, but I only saw him once during daylight hours. He had apparently raided the dumpster of a nearby restaurant, headed right out into lunch-hour traffic, and made a mad dash for his protective sanctuary in my backyard woods. Multiple witnesses called in the event to the local authorities. Within just a few minutes, my house and yard were completely surrounded by Alaska Fish and Game personnel, State Troopers, and local police. As they were closing in, I was sure my backyard bear buddy was about to meet his demise, but to everyone’s surprise, he simply vanished into thin air! That 900 lb beast was nowhere to be found! He eluded his pursuers in broad daylight! Ahh yes! He was a crafty one! He had a network of secret travel routes that he would follow when pressured too much that would lead him out of town, to the more remote outskirts, where he belonged, naturally. But, when the smoke cleared, he’d head back to town to feast on dirty diapers and beer once again.

The huge, fresh Kodiak bear tracks that I would regularly find around my house in the mornings.
The huge, fresh Kodiak bear tracks that I would regularly find around my house in the mornings.

All in all, he was a good ol’ bear. He never caused any trouble or bothered people…other than stealing their beer and eating trash. He came around in the same manner in the years that followed. He was an old bear, in his last chapter of life. As many “trash bears” do, he most likely took to the streets and ventured into civilization for an easier existence than what he experienced in the wild. I don’t know what became of that bear in the end. Many rumors circulated about him, but he eventually disappeared. This final photo of his track, frozen in the ice on my driveway, is one of my most memorable reminders of my big backyard bear buddy. I think of it as his artistic signature upon a fondest series of memories from my first years in Alaska.

Frozen Kodiak bear tracks.
The big Kodiak bear tracks frozen in the ice around my house.

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

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