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A Katmai Kuma Sandwich

These bears are enormous creatures, and great salmon snatchers.  National Park Service website
National Park Service website
These bears are enormous creatures, and great salmon snatchers.

   This month, I’ve been out at the University registering voters once or twice a week for the Juneau League of Women Voters Registration Drive. We do this in pairs, and we’re there for two hours over lunch time. There’s lots of time to talk.

   Anne Fuller was my registration partner on September 25th. Anne is a Storyteller and Gatherer of Stories. I told her I was doing this blog and felt a responsibility to do it in a community building, yet interesting, way. At one point, Anne said, “The question is why do we tell the stories we tell?”

   This is a very compelling question. We had a great conversation about this. Anyone who has any age on them has a mental library of stories. I have lots of them, but why do I tell them? My first blog on this was about my family, but I had to ask myself, "Why did I write about that?" So, I rewrote this blog to tell one of my own stories, and let my subconscious work on why I wrote about my family's stories first.

   Here is a fun adventure story I have that I tell folks when they ask me, "What's it like living in Alaska?"

   Grizzly bears have heads the size of my dining room table. That was my second reaction after meeting one head-on near the Brooks River in Katmai National Park. My first was sheer panic. As in wanting to run away as fast I could. But I couldn’t run away. I was the leader of nine Japanese seafood buyers on a “fam tour” (familiarization tour) of Alaska. They were all my responsibility and I knew I had to force my heart back down my throat and figure out what to do.

   It was 1995 and I was working for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Each summer we did two or three fam tours of French, Japanese, British or French seafood buyers, processors, chefs, and members of the media. I loved these tours and took a lot of pride in making them unforgettable, as well as educational. Our job was to get them to buy Alaska seafood, use it in their restaurants, and write about it in their media. We always added a few tourism activities to get them to bond to Alaska.

   We had started this particular trip in Anchorage a few days earlier. There were 18 members in the group. None of them spoke English except for the two interpreters and I spoke no Japanese.  When the floatplanes dropped us off at Brooks Lodge in Western Alaska for the day, my friend and co-worker, Mary Gore, took nine people, including the photographer, and I took nine. We watched the Park Ranger’s video on bear safety in English and in Japanese at the Visitor Center, and headed for the river.

   Standing on the bank, we watched the bears snorkel for salmon. It felt like being the middle of a National Geographic documentary. After awhile, I took my group of eight seafood buyers and Kimiko, the woman interpreter and only female among the Japanese, and headed for the viewing stand at the waterfalls further upriver.

   We hiked up a dirt road about a half mile and turned off on the trail that went through the woods to the river. I tried in vain to get the Japanese to make noise as we walked single file on the narrow footpath. We hardly knew each other, and just 2 days earlier they had been in Osaka and Tokyo. There was no way they were going to sing for me or the bears. I clapped my hands together and made as much noise as possible. I was beginning to wonder about the Park Service’s policy (and I’m paraphrasing): “There are lots of gigantic grizzly bears all over the place. Don’t mess with them and they won’t mess with you.”

   In twenty minutes we were at the falls, a little disappointed that we hadn’t seen any wildlife at all. We climbed up on the viewing platform and just like clockwork, a big grizzly came out of the woods on the other side of the river and ambled out to the center of the river. She batted at the salmon with her paws, and caught the sockeye in her powerful jaws as the fish made one last dramatic attempt to escape. Another bear came and then another.

   Mesmerized, we watched and took pictures for 30 minutes then, reluctantly, I signaled the guys that that we had to leave. We were on a schedule, and it was Mary’s turn to get the photographer and the rest of the group out to see this incredible display. The photographer, draped with lenses, was particularly anxious to get to the falls while the light was still good.

   About five minutes down the trail, I heard Yuki, the man in front, say “kuma.” Everyone stopped in their tracks. I went up to the front of the line and saw a huge grizzly bear heading straight for us. That’s when all I could think of was, “Run away! Run Away!” But someone said in a low voice, “shrowry, shrowry.” I knew he was remembering the video and cautioning us to go slowly. They all looked at me for direction. Swallowing my fear, I signaled them to turn around and slowly walk back to the viewing platform. After just a few minutes, I heard “sandwich, sandwich” from the man who was now in the lead. Sure enough, another grizzly was heading toward us on the path from the river. A kuma on each end and nine Japanese and a scared American in the middle – a sandwich.

   There was high grass on all sides of the path. I took a deep breath and led my nine charges off the path and into the grass, circling back to the viewing platform area. We all used the signal for a beating heart – hand pounding on the chest – then they all grabbed their cigarettes. It was several minutes before I mentally calculated that the bears had probably gotten wherever they were headed, and I started us all back down the path toward the road. Laughing, the guys put Yuki, the one with the most meat on his bones, out in front. This time they sang. Nothing like terror to loosen people up.

   It took us almost an hour to get within sight of the road. We had to return to the viewing platform one more time, and we saw seven more bears by the time we arrived near the road. When we saw a bear lying in a swale not 20 feet from the path with just that huge head showing, I signaled everyone to walk right on by. We did that with a blend of false bravado and stubbornness. None of us wanted to turn around and start all over again when we were so close.

   Just as we began to see an open space up in the trees up ahead where the path met the road, Yuki held up three fingers and said, “Mama kuma. Baby kuma.” We waited. Then Kimiko, all five feet and 90-pounds of her, walked past everyone, went right up to the road, peeked out around the brush, and said, “The bears are gone. No kuma.”

   Within minutes, we were back at the river, completely drained of adrenaline. Our group told the others about our experience and I could tell that nobody believed the story. Exhausted, we sat down on the banks of the river, and Mary took her group down the dirt road. Forty minutes later they returned. They never saw one bear. Not one.

 

 

 

 

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