Agony and Slapstick in Kukak

Wed Sep 09 2015


As our group was gathering at the main lodge to head out for the morning, we heard the call come in from a radio in the kitchen: there was a sow and spring cubs out on a rocky point near where our boats waited for us to board. I recognized the voice of Perry, the manager and our host here at the Katmai Wilderness Lodge in Kukak Bay of Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Soon, I was following my fellow guests down the “Short Trail” to two boats waiting to take us out for a morning of wildlife viewing. There was a group of four friends from the United Kingdom, a couple from Israel, and Alaskan writer Nick Jans, there to get fresh experiences to write about for Alaska magazine and for my book, Where Water is Gold. As we walked, we overheard more updates on the radio that Angela, Perry’s wife, was carrying with her. It turns out there was not a sow, but a pair of potentially orphaned spring cubs. While we all continued in the same pace down to the beach, it was clear that the mood of some of us had changed.

As we arrived at the beach, we could see the cubs on the rocks down the shore. I climbed onboard the boat with Nick and the Brits, Perry cast us off and we headed over to view and photograph the cubs. At first, they appeared to be merely sunning on the rocks, cuddling together as cubs often do. After a while, they came to notice us and stirred a little bit, shifting their positions. We hovered off shore for a while, but no sow came to ensure that her cubs were safe, that we posed no threat. The discussion increasingly turned to the likelihood that they had been abandoned. The closer we got, the more they looked lethargic to me, somewhat thin, with seemingly sunken eyes. Perry assured me that their physical appearance was typical for young cubs. And while they perhaps may still be physically healthy, I could not help but see a sadness in them, a resignation that all they had was themselves.

Had these cubs been found almost anywhere else in Alaska, a call would have been placed to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For safety reasons, it would be inadvisable to attempt to gather the cubs. But it would also be illegal under Alaska law to be in possession of wildlife without the appropriate permits. Then, the Department would likely have delivered the cubs to the Alaska Zoo, where they would have a temporary home until placed with some zoo or game reserve somewhere in the Lower 48.

But unfortunately for the cubs, they were found on lands managed by the National Park Service. The park service’s usual management practice is to manage for natural biological diversity and have a “hands off” approach to nature that precludes intervention. As we talked about the cubs’ predicament, I became increasingly saddened by what I was seeing before me. Adorable and vulnerable, isolated and alone, they continued to huddle together, shifting positions, seeking solace in each other. I wondered whether they would possibly be adopted by another sow, which has happened on rare occasions, even in this park. As we increasingly became convinced that we were watching the beginning of a slow death for these cubs, we decided to turn away and head out into the bay for the morning.

Later into the morning, further into the bay, we came across a three-year bear, who apparently was on his own for the first time. Soon, we came to realize that he had a companion; a young red fox. Over the next hour or so, we watched as the two played a bit of banter on the beach. The bear would settle in to chew on or play with some bit of trash on the beach – a tarp, a storage container – and the fox would linger nearby. When the bear wasn’t looking, the fox would get closer. The bear would pause and look at the fox, and they would both take a moment. The bear would move slowly, in a non-threatening way, toward the fox, and the fox would hold his position until the bear got really close, and then dart off. Later, the fox found an old shoe on the shore and chewed on it for a while until the bear came by and chased off the fox, only to take the shoe and chew on it for its own pleasure. Back and forth they went, like a comedy team playing out some sort of skit. At one point, while I was shooting video, I heard Nick say, “This beats the shit out of watching baby bear cubs starve to death.” I couldn’t agree more. For a full accounting of these two, read Nick’s piece in the September 2015 issue of Alaska Magazine.

After the two disappeared behind a hill, we continued along the shore, only to find a sow with two yearling cubs. They were scouring the beach, eating blue mussels and grasses. After some time, the sow moved down to the shore, checked the waters and slid in. For a swim. She headed straight out across the water, toward a shore maybe a mile away. She did not even look back to see if her cubs would follow. And she did not have to, because soon, they reluctantly headed out into the water after their mother. The sow seemed to have a steady lead on the cubs, but eventually they started to gain ground, catching her around halfway across.

She initially tried to shrug them off – they were getting a little big to catch piggy-back rides on mom these days. But the cubs were insistent; they were not going to let go. So mom kept them on and kept going. After a while, she began to tire. She tried to shrug them off again; this time, much more insistently. She threw them off, violently, growling and snapping at them. One of the cubs was shoved under the water, disappearing for a few seconds. It came back up, rejoining the struggle for life, with a mother fighting to stay alive even at the risk of killing her own children (who were in the process of killing her). But her desire to stay alive could not overcome her protective instinct; eventually, she relented, allowing the cubs to climb back on her back, shoving her down into the water, with her mouth barely above the waterline. It was time to turn back.

From our vantage point on the boat, the decision made no sense. It looked like the sow and cubs were already past the halfway mark – all she had to do was keep going to the other side and it would have been a shorter swim. There is no way to know what was going on inside her head, but she made up her mind and started the long, slow paddle back to the shore where they started. Her progress seemed imperceptible for a long time, as if she were paddling in place. Even at our distance of several hundred yards away, we could hear her grunting, hear the sound of water gurgling in her throat, hear the sounds of spitting as she struggled to keep the water out of her lungs. Either she or the cubs gave out periodic, loud huffs.

She kept a steady pace for some time, and it was clear she was making progress. But at some point, she must have realized that she could no longer bear the load. She made one last effort to expel the cubs from her back, force them off so she could survive to see land again. She succeeded in getting one of the cubs to get off and stay off – it swam ahead of its mother toward the shore. It made shore several minutes before its mother did, with sibling cub still clinging. Grunting, huffing, and struggling, the sow eventually made it to shore and all were reunited. From beginning to end, the ordeal lasted 45 minutes.

In the same day, we would encounter harbor seals with pups, including one pup who, when calling out to its mother, sounded just like it was saying “Mom!” All-in-all, a heart-wrenching, exciting, fun day of wildlife viewing; just the sort of thing that makes wildlife photography challenging and rewarding.

when the bear wasn't looking, the fox would get closer
the bear would pause and look at the fox, and they would both take a moment
we continued along the shore, only to find a sow with two yearling cubs
she did not even look back to see if her cubs would follow
soon, they reluctantly headed out into the water after their mother