Do grizzlies have a sense of humor?
Are bears naturally curious?
How smart is a grizzly bear?
How long is a bear’s memory?
These questions puzzled me during a recent stay in Kalinin Bay, a favorite anchorage on Kruzof Island, just 30 miles north of Sitka. Kalinin’s estuary holds the Sea Lion Cove trailhead, one end of a well-marked, well-maintained hiking trail that runs from inside the bay 2.5 miles up and over the ridge to a stunning crescent-shaped sand beach on the west side of the island. This scenic hike involves climbing up a steep, notched log ladder, scrambling up rocky hills, crossing boggy muskeg on slick boardwalks green with moss, strolling around a picturesque lake, and finally descending to the wide expanse of Sea Lion Cove. It’s a memorable trip, though a bit challenging for this city girl.
We’re accustomed to viewing several grizzlies grazing on tall grass in the Kalinin estuary, but have never encountered one close up on shore. That’s just fine with me, no close encounters necessary. Coming upon a pile of steaming fresh bear scat deposited on the trail’s boardwalk once was more than close enough. Our group of six made a lot of noise during that hike and any bear that might have been nearby kept its distance. We haven’t hiked the whole trail from end-to-end for ages, and it seems the experience has become more… well, interesting.
Kalinin lacks a dock or mooring buoys, so access to the trailhead is an issue. The shoreline is rocky and uneven, not at all boat friendly. Some hikers choose to have someone ferry them in by skiff, nosing carefully up to a large, flat rock to offload people and gear, then return hours later for pickup after the hike. Other hikers come ashore in lightweight skiffs, or paddle to shore in kayaks, dragging their crafts above the high tide line while they hike. One bear has shown a strong interest in beached kayaks and their stored gear. He seemed to claim territory over one kayak early in the morning, then ambled away to graze on tall grass. What’s with this kayaking bear?
Later the same afternoon members of a guided, multi-day kayak tour returned from their hike only to discover the bear grazing near the shore, positioned close to the path between them and their boats. The grizzly was reluctant to leave the area, perhaps attracted by the scent of humans or their provisions. The bear had been interested enough to tear up some life jackets and do some structural damage to at least one kayak. Unable to open a storage compartment, he pried part of the kayak’s top away from the hull. The kayakers leapt and shouted and threw rocks in his direction, but the bear wasn’t ready to leave.
The Capt and my brother Mike fired up our skiff and raced over to assist if needed, but the bear slowly ambled off away on his own, grazing his way into tall grass farther up the estuary. The kayakers reported they had thrown rocks at the same bear to drive him off when they had arrived earlier in the day… hmmmmm, not a well-thought out plan it seems. I wonder how much sleep that group enjoyed as they camped out in tents on the other side of the bay. Their campfires blazed high late into the night.
Late in the evening a third group of hikers arrived in two small aluminum boats. They unloaded some backpacks and surfboards, and then reeled their boats back out offshore on a 3-point anchor system. This energetic group seemed well-organized, locals perhaps who knew better than to leave boats, gear or even the scent of provisions on shore. While the unloading was in progress that same bear returned to graze in the same area adjacent to the hiking path. Both bear and hikers noted each other’s presence, each calmly continuing on with their own activities. Bear and humans moved separately up the estuary and soon the rocky shore was empty. Maybe the kayak-loving bear doesn’t surf.