There have been numerous reports of bears wandering the neighborhoods and parks of Kodiak. Bears were also a concern at Dig Afognak, a culture camp at Qattani Bay on Afognak Island.
Camp Program Coordinator Susan Malutin said this past summer, encounters “we’ve had with bears have been frequent and close.” But, she added, there were no significant problems. Bears were spotted on the periphery of the camp and, at times, they came closer to the conglomeration of tents, weatherports and buildings.
“We had to make sure the kids knew where the boundaries were” and were familiar with signals that alerted the rest of the camp to the presence of bears, said Malutin. “There seemed to be a couple of bears that were insistent in staying around.”
For five years I spent most of the summer cooking at Dig Afognak.
My first year I came to camp a day after the others had arrived. As soon as I got off the float plane, Mary Fearn, the manager, told me that they had a “visitor” the night before.
One of the camp workers had been minding his own business in the “nush-nik” (outhouse) when he heard a thump. As he felt the tiny green building shake, he figured that one of his fellow crewmen was playing a prank on him.
“It’s occupied!” he shouted.
Pretty soon a huge, brown furry bear walked by the building.
Two other workers were taking a banya when they saw a reflection of the bear in the mirror. They made sure the bear was out of sight before they put their clothes on and walked to the main camp shelters.
During my second day at camp, I went to the spot where the men were strenuously putting up the yurt — the gathering place for camp participants throughout the summer. Then I walked toward a cape near the camp. As I turned the corner I almost stepped on a brown bear digging for food on the beach. It most likely was the “visitor” Mary talked about.
The bear didn’t look up, but kept digging in the sand.
I quietly turned around and walked toward the yurt, occasionally looking behind me. He still was engrossed in scavenging on the beach.
By the time I reached the yurt, the bear started walking toward us. Then he cut into the grass and headed toward a lake near the banyas. Shortly after that he showed up near the yurt where the men were in the final stage of putting on the roof. He got very close to one of the men who held tightly onto a line. If he dropped it, the entire roof would collapse. One of the crew fired a shot with his rifle. The bear fled. We didn’t have any more problems from him that summer.
In 2008 I was part of a skeleton crew that set up camp for the summer.
I told myself that, in another week the weatherports and cabins would be inhabited by kids and elders. The sound of laughter, shouting, the beat of the drum, the singing of Alutiiq songs would reverberate through the forest. But tonight it was quiet. Most of the crew slept in the newly built log cabins tucked a few hundred yards back in the forest.
I slept in a weatherport next to the kitchen tent and a pantry full of groceries that were expected to last for the next few weeks. I felt it my duty to protect the staples from any invader.
As I started to drift off to sleep, I heard the sound of tin cans being thrashed about. Oh no! A bear! That was a logical conclusion. After all, the camp was set up near a network of bear trails. Early in the season, they were known to show up at night. It took them some time to understand the camp’s boundaries.
He’s going to break into the kitchen tent and wreak havoc, I thought. I wasn’t worried about me as much as the groceries. I hollered for the assistant manager, who slept in a nearby tent. No response from him. I kept on hollering. He must have been fast asleep.
So, I realized, I was going to deal with this nocturnal creature by myself.
Just one rifle shot would scare the bear away. I didn‘t have one. The noise got louder. The bear was coming closer.
I had to get help as soon as I could. I slipped on my trousers and bolted out the door in the rainy night, running down the muddy trail toward the cabins where other workers had bedded down for the night.
I banged on the door of the camp manager’s assistant. “Steve!” I shouted. “There’s a bear out there!”
Steve didn’t seem very excited. “Let me get my pants on,” he said. In a few minutes he was dressed. He grabbed his gun and a flashlight. He beamed the light on the trees and the tents as we walked down the trail. He stood quietly for a moment. Not a sound.
I assured him that my imagination was not running away with me. There was a bear; at least, there was some animal rifling through the garbage.
“Well, whatever it was, it’s gone,” said Steve.
Then I smelled something. A familiar smell. A fox. Just a harmless fox had gotten a rise out of me.
For the next few days the crew ribbed me about running out into the night because of a harmless fox.
That was my last summer working at Dig Afognak (No, I didn’t get terminated because of the false alarm) and therefore, it was my last Dig Afognak bear encounter, which turned out to be an imaginary one. But sometimes those imaginary creatures can stir up more excitement than the real ones.