Candy Moulton: On the Trail 10-8-12
October 8, 2012
My hip-waders were at least two sizes too large, even with the three pair of socks I had on so I walked a bit like a duck as I headed toward the float plane that would take me from the Kenai Peninsula across the Cook Inlet to Crescent Lake. This remote location at the base of Mount Redoubt in Alaska was the intended destination for a salmon fishing expedition I was doing with my family.
I'm not really a fisherwoman, but I do love salmon, and more important I wanted to see the country and with any amount of luck to see one of the big Alaskan Coastal Brown Bears (down here in the lower 48 we'd call them grizzlies). So with my over-sized boots, wearing rain pants, a ball cap and a new rain jacket over my light down jacket, I was ready to board the plane. In addition to our group: Steve, Shawn, Erin and Luke, there were two other fishermen with us, and the pilot of course.
Son-in-law Luke took the co-pilot's seat and the rest of us found our own seats, one to a side in the small plane, which was great as we all had a window for viewing the scenery. There were no instructions from the "flight attendant" in part because there was no flight attendant, only the pilot. He told us to put on our seat belts (not even bothering to show us how to buckle them), and to take the headphones by each of our seats. That way we could hear him talk, and block out much of the engine noise.
Then we were off, skidding across the small pond at the AirWest location and soaring into the air — to an elevation of perhaps 400 feet! We flew across Cook Inlet toward our fishing destination. It was about 45 minutes of flying time.
As we reached Crescent Lake, we saw a bear with a cub beside the edge of the lake. Our pilot flew close, turning the plane both directions so we could all get a good view (and a few photos) of her. I was thrilled.
Then we landed on the water and coasted to the shore, where a party of fishermen who had been out during the morning awaited us. They would take the plane back to the Kenai while we stayed with the two guides to fish.
After unloading and loading gear and people, the plane took off and we stood by a small boat that would be used to shuttle us to the fishing area at the mouth of the lake to the Crescent River. Our guide told us there were too many people to travel together in the boat, so some would need to remain behind while he did the shuttle. The logic was to leave Shawn, Erin and Luke behind, while the rest of us took off in the boat.
Our guide, who went by the name Badger, took a shotgun out of the boat and placed it on the shore. Just as we were revving the motor, it dawned on me: I was leaving my kids on that shore and THAT BEAR was just about 200 yards down the lakeshore from them. As we got underway, Badger, yelled, "One of you guys know how to shoot?"
"Yes," said Luke as he took the gun. (Well, Shawn does, too, but Luke was faster to respond).
Badger told him the first shell was one that would simply make a noise to scare the bear, and that the second shell had buckshot in it. "But try to scare any bears away. We are in a national park, if you shoot one … lots of paperwork," Badger advised as he gunned the motor and the boat took off.
I took a photo of my kids standing there … It was a rather scary feeling to leave them.
It took us less than 10 minutes to get to the fishing site, and we no more than landed when a sow bear and cub popped up on the bank beside us! OK, I wanted to see bears, but I wasn't so sure seeing them this close was in my best interest. Badger waded in the water at the lake edge and stood between us and the sow and cub. I thought he was crazy, but I was surely glad he was between me and the bear family!
We had quickly unloaded and sent guide Josh back for the kids, who arrived at our location before too long (Whew!). We all started fishing and I did not do very well, in spite of Badger's help. Everybody else in our party caught silver salmon, while I remained "skunked."
At one point some fishermen in a boat farther out called to warn us that a bear was moving up the shoreline. Luke, who was the farthest down of our group, was watching over his shoulder in the direction he thought the bear would appear, when all of the sudden she was right behind him … and bounding toward him in a charge.
You can bet he yelled and waved his arms, and we all did the same. Fortunately when she was 25 feet or so from him she broke off the charge and moved back into the brush and trees. It was quite a bit too close for comfort, but now Luke has a great story about the bear that charged him while he was fishing in Alaska. (It's a great, true story!) I did not get any photos of this event because I had stuffed my camera into a waterproof bag since it was drizzle rain most of the time we were there.
We could see more bears up and down the river, and as I think back on it now, it seemed less frightening than I would have expected. The truth was those bears were WAY more interested in fishing for salmon themselves than doing us any true harm.
After about five hours of fishing, we headed back to the spot where the float plane would retrieve us. Again we needed to shuttle our party and this time Steve, Shawn, Erin and I went in the first boatload. When we got to where we were to be let out, we found the beach occupied by a very large bear. He was right where we needed to be and it did not look like he really wanted us to join him there. Josh, drove the boat pretty close a couple of times (we think to gauge the true intent of the bear) and when Mr. Bruin didn't lunge toward us, Josh went down the shore about 100 yards and let us out. That bear was RIGHT THERE, and I was none too comfortable thinking I'd be standing on the shoreline for at least 20 minutes. (My trepidation came in part because I KNEW if it came to a race for my life, I was the Slowest runner in our party!)
Josh gave Steve the gun, which gave us a mild sense of security, but I can assure you we kept our eyes on that bear. He finally started moving our direction, but we were making plenty of noise, and he went around behind us in the thick brush. We could hear him passing, and finally saw him about 50 yards away and lumbering away from us. Which let me breathe a bit easier.
I was mighty glad to hear and then see the float plane, which got to our location a few minutes before the boat returned. We loaded and flew back to the Kenai, seeing more bears along the river as we flew along it. In all that day we saw 21 bears, most of them quite close and while we were on the ground fishing. It was amazing!
Only when we returned to the main lodge did we realize that there were only TWO shells in that shotgun! One was the "sound" shell and one was loaded. I think we had a sense of security that we had a gun for protection, when in reality, we would have probably just made any bear madder than heck if we had needed to shoot.
We had over 13-pounds of salmon that we shipped home for a holiday meal we are planning … and most of all we had the most awesome adventure. I'd do it again in a heartbeat! ❖