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Sunday, January 27, 2008

From the Archives - Sturgeon River 2004

In October of 2004 my brother Dicky and I had an epic adventure on the Sturgeon River. In the quest for a remote wilderness experience we decided to float the Sturgeon River. Not many people float the Sturgeon because you cannot fly to its headwaters. You have to walk overland across swampy, hummocky tundra about 4 miles from a small lake where a floatplane can land to the headwaters of the river where you can float your raft. 4 miles is a long way across tundra with no trail, but we did not mind. The hike is why we had the river to ourselves.

The ‘epic’ in our adventure was the bears. We saw far too many, far too close. The first bear we saw was hiking over the tundra from the lake. We surprised a bear pretty close and there was that moment where we wondered if he was going to run away or not. But run away he did. Playing the role of the ‘expert’, I informed my brother that ‘they always run away if you give them a chance’. I poo poo’ed the ‘baranoia’ of most hunters, and emphasized how lucky we were to have seen a bear. This was not to be the last bear we saw on the trip.

So we got to the river, camped in a downpour and woke up to a glorious day. Perfect for floating a river (see top photo). However, my ‘expert’ eyes did not notice that the wind was blowing up the river and that the tall grass made it difficult to see much further than the next bend downstream. This is not the ideal conditions for floating a creek in bear country, and about 5 minutes into our trip we came around a corner and barreled into 2 juvenile bears. My brother bailed out of his raft as the two bears ran playfully up the stream to check us out. I managed to pull our shotgun out and worked the slide and the bears took off. This encounter rattled us both, and we decided, hence forth, to make a lot of noise.

So yelling ‘hey bear’ we continued on our way, and not 10 minutes later, while rounding a bend I noticed a pair of bear ears sticking up above the grass. We pulled over – and good thing that we did because around the bend was a sow and 2 cubs (second photo). Obviously, due to the creek noise and wind they had not heard or smelled us. Now both my brother and I were alarmed, and we decided to climb a nearby hill to see how many more ‘surprises’ awaited us downriver. What we found was devastating. In the next half mile or so we counted 18 bears in the creek. I wanted to cry. How were we going to get downriver?

We decided to camp and think it over. Using our SAT phone I called a bear biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and he told me ‘I could have told you not to float that river. At this time of year it has the highest concentration of bears on the island. Last week they counted 100 bears in the two miles of river where you are now.’ Great - another body blow to my fragile ego. ‘So what do we do’ I begged. I was thinking evacuation in a helicopter. He suggested banging pots and pans as we floated down the river, ‘bears don’t like metallic noises and the sound carries much further than your voice’. He also informed us that once we got out of the narrow valley on the upper portion of the river we would be largely free of the bears. So we had a goal, and a method.

At this point, complete bearanoia had taken hold of my brother and I. We even worried about the electric fence around our camp. Would it keep the bears out? After a restless night we woke up and tied the rafts together. The plan was for me to stand in the bow and bang the pots together while Dicky held the other end and walked the boats down the creek from behind. Where there was lots of brush by the creek we fired off cracker shells in the shotgun. The cracker shells were impressively loud. We also put away the rifles – we did not want to have the option of shooting a bear. Our reasoning was that the bears were too close anyway, and that shooting one would only make any situation worse. Better to hope the bear decides not to maul us – rather than shoot him and really piss him off. Even if you hit a bear perfectly with your first shot at 15 yards he’d still maul you. So we put away the rifles

Our plan worked like a charm. We made one hell of a racket and we could see bears running from the river in all directions. At any one time we could see up to 10 bears running up the hillsides away from the river. I actually felt pretty bad about disturbing the bears. And all the noise sort of ruined the wilderness experience. Still not all the bears got the message and we did run into a big boar who charged the rafts. My brother fell out of the raft and I worked the shotgun slide. That got to him – he stopped (less than 10 feet away!), turned and fled. But that was the last bear we encountered on the River. That section of the river was choked with spawning silver salmon; once we left the valley the creek got deep and muddy and there were far fewer fish (and hence bears).

I’ll post part 2 of our trip sometime in the next few days. Patrick

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