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Off the Beaten Path: The bears, wolves of Kupreanof Island

Posted: June 26, 2014 - 11:02pm
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A black bear chases a river otter toward the tideline last month on the shore of Duncan Canal, along the Lindenberg Peninsula. The otter barely escaped into the water.  Bjorn Dihle | For the Juneau Empire
Bjorn Dihle | For the Juneau Empire
A black bear chases a river otter toward the tideline last month on the shore of Duncan Canal, along the Lindenberg Peninsula. The otter barely escaped into the water.

The morning dawned clear on the Horn Cliffs that led toward Thomas Bay, the setting for Harry D. Colp’s iconic narrative “The Strangest Story Ever Told.” Colp describes a series of strange encounters prospectors had with “devil creatures” and insanity as they searched for a supposed gold deposit in the early 1900s. Since then, Colp’s narrative has inspired several “sequels” in the Thomas Bay saga. Last year, for instance, Charlie Sheen went to the bay looking for devil creatures. I imagine Sheen, a few pounds of coke and however many prostitutes came along for the expedition may have been the strangest thing that’s ever happened in Thomas Bay.

Ben and I paddled into Sumner Strait, around the southern tip of Mitkof Island. With the tide running hard against the wind, we were happy to slide into the protected waters of the Wrangell Narrows. Dark clouds rode in from the southeast as we studied two nice bucks grazing along the high tide line. Wet, but happy to be out of the wind, we made camp on Woewodski Island. In the early morning, amidst pea-soup fog, Ben and I said our goodbyes. He headed toward Petersburg and I toward the Duncan Canal. He had to get back to Juneau to get a boat ready for the upcoming gillnet season.

I paddled through the fog thinking about the trip Ben and I’d made to Kupreanof Island two winters prior. I’d heard talk about too many wolves on the island, and that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was considering a wolf control program. The deer population was so low there, some thought if the majority of wolves were culled from Mitkof Island, Wodebok Island and the Lindenberg Peninsula of Kupreanof Island, the deer might be able to rebound. Weather and a fair bit of logging have likely contributed to low deer numbers, as well.

In March of 2013, when the board of game was about to meet to debate whether or not to approve the control program, Ben and I went to the Lindenberg Peninsula, for a long walk, with hopes of seeing wolves. We covered more than 70 miles of beach, muskeg, old growth forest and logging roads in the week we spent out.

Thinking we were going to be up to our elbows in wolves, we were surprised to just see two sets of tracks. We encountered two trappers, both who commented on low wolf populations and guessed most of the wolves had moved beyond the proposed control area.

When I returned to Juneau, I learned the wolf control bill had passed.

Currently, more research is being conducted on wolf and deer numbers before the program begins.

On this trip, I paddled up Duncan Canal, along the Lindenberg Peninsula, as the sun burned through the fog. I watched a black bear graze, then suddenly charge down the beach, chasing a large river otter. The otter barely escaped into the water. Now that it had gotten a good self esteem boost, the bear slowly postured its way back up to the grass.

The wind and tide ran hard against each other in the afternoon as I bobbed in and was splashed by waves. Numerous expansive logging cuts scarred valleys and mountains. Forty or so eagles stood perched on an islet staring out expectantly at the rolling ocean. I made camp nearby, then hiked late into the evening looking for critters. A few black bears emerged from the forest, but not a single wolf track interrupted all the miles I walked.

I woke early and kayaked into a stiff northerly. A rookery of seals flopped into the water and a few bears paused to study me as I paddled by. I made camp early in the Towers Arm — outside of the control area — and spent the rest of the day hiking. Two old sets of wolves, moose, black bear and river otter tracks crisscrossed the flats.

The following day was hot and calm. I paddled along the entire west side of Duncan Canal without seeing anything large and furry. In late afternoon, an otter screamed like it was being torn apart in the nearby woods.

Cabins, houses and lodges lined the Wrangell Narrows. I felt a little shell shocked with all the boat traffic. I tried to laugh as a man shot fireworks over my head at one of the state ferries.

“Don’t worry, I won’t hit you,” he said. “Well, this one might.”

I paddled on past a giant log raft, near the Tonka port, soon to be towed south. A large black bear eyed me lazily as it made its way down the beach. The Devil’s Thumb jutted above Petersburg as a couple seiners motored past. I made camp near the mouth of Petersburg Creek. A black bear grazed on grass as I ate dinner. The bears are protected in this watershed, so it was pretty cool watching it do its thing without being worried about being shot.

Mergansers, tree swallows, red-breasted sapsuckers and a number of bears made my acquaintance during the long and windy hike up to Petersburg Lake. I came across a couple wolf tracks, but nothing indicating an overpopulation in the area. I made it back to camp in the late evening and lay in my tent listening to trees creak and moan for a couple of hours. In a stiff wind I launched my kayak into the undulating water. By headlamp, I paddled across the Wrangell Narrows toward the ferry terminal. Talking to the friendly ferry workers and feeling a little groggy, I didn’t regret not getting the wolf picture I’d hoped for. Just being out in the country was enough to keep me happy.

• Bjorn Dihle is a writer based out of Juneau. He can be reached at bjorndihle@yahoo.com.

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