My Walk To Olga Bay
The ratchetting call of the Rock Ptarmigan emphasized the wind blown solitude of Kodiak's southern ridge tops as I made my way west and south across the snow patched slopes. The Karluk River, visible in the lowlands below, cut its meandering course north to Shellikof Straits among pot holes, small lakes, and beaver ponds. The thread of glistening water appeared
stopped in time under fast moving black billowing broken cloud cover. Patches of skittering sunlight randomly highlighted the grass brown river bottom. A pair of whistling swans traversed the waterway appearing as two white dots drawn along a magnetic course. The wind was coming on hard from the northeast and whistling through the gray shale outcropping, protruding among the lichen and moss carpeted high country. The black clouds spit frozen rain as I moved on. Solitary Lupins thrust their swirls of bluish blossoms skyward in defiance of wind, rain and cold – they wiggled in the wind's torrent. Low bush cranberry lay dormant among the matting of ground cover, a few of last season's berries preserved in winters passing. I plucked the small fruits and smiled as the sour–sweet juices wetted my lips. I was hurried along by the cold wind.
The morning in Larsen Bay had started early for me, with a healthy breakfast and packing my gear for the treck cross–country to Olga Bay. I was living on Jerry and Ester Laktonan's salmon seiner the Cavalier and would be fishing salmon with the coming season. We had spent the previous ten days painting and outfitting the boat. I would spend the following week on my walk to Olga Bay by way of Karluk, Frazer and Akalura Lakes. Jerry picked me up at 8:00 a.m. in the skiff and we set out his subsistence net before I was on my way. Fifteen red salmon in a few minutes. They would soon be filleted and hung in the smokehouse behind his Mom and Dad's place. Nick and Alberta Laktonan gladly accepted the fish and invited us in for coffee. We talked on the old days and the trails from Karluk Village via Carmel to Olga Bay used by trappers and miners. Nick had spent his boyhood days in the village and was quick to recall events of those years.
Soon I was off and disappeared among the budding alder and birch leading to the ridge top paralleling the southern shore of Larsen Bay. I could hear the muffled sounds of the village behind me, generators running, a carpenter hammering together a new house, Dora Agga's rooster crowed. A Golden-crowned Sparrow called in the distance ahead. A Magpie quietly watched me pass as if he thought that I knew little of what lay ahead. I tried not to think of the brown bears that inhabited the area. I was alone now and this would be my world for the next few days. A walking stick cut from an alder branch added a pleasant rhythm to my stride.
By noon I reached the summit. The little village lay quiet below, the old cannery deck jutting out from the shore as it had since the early 1900's. Mid afternoon brought Karluk Lake into view to the south. The wind was subsiding, cloud cover rising and snow covered Katmi lay in a splendorous full view across Shellikof Straits on the Northern horizon. An immature Bald Eagle disturbed the air close overhead, he as surprised as I when we became aware of one another. I spoke to him as he turned an eye on me in passing. My peanut butter and jelly sandwich tasted fine as I sat and rested a spell.
The ridge dropped rapidly as it turned southeast and approached Karluk Lake. The vegetation became greener and more lush. Two deer browsed indifferently on the new shoots of alder. They looked well, one pregnant, I thought, looking at her full rounded belly. Wild flowers glistened in the late afternoon sun; Forget–me–nots, Rain Flowers, Violets, Lupine, Bluebells and a solitary Morel mushroom grew among them. I took him along to add to my canned soup later on. The alder patches grew thick as I leveled out into the flats. A small stream trickled from the foothills, Silver Salmon Creek lay in front of me and I wondered how I would cross. Cottonwood patches dotted its' banks. Bright yellow flowers the back–eddies, and it was deeper than my boots were high. Again I felt the threat of brown bears as the vegetation closed in on me and their trails became more obvious.
The sun was warm down there and the air still. I shed my hat, gloves, and wool jacket as I approached the stream. It was swifter and wider than I had imagined, and no way to cross without getting wet. The water tasted good, was clear and cold. Without further procrastination I took off boots, socks and pants and waded in up to my waist. The bottom of smooth small rocks felt good to my tired feet, but the cold was more than I could tolerate for very long. After reaching the opposite bank, in my haste to unload my pack I sat in a clump of stinging nettles. Not good when you are only half dressed!
After two miles of hummocks, bog, alder thickets and salmon berry briars, I reached the lake shore. There was not a cloud in the sky and the lake's surface was glassy calm. Small bits of driftwood at the water's edge made a good quick fire for my supper. To sit, eat and relax felt good.
It was 6:00 p.m. with more than four hours of daylight left till night fall. I inspected the refuge cabin at the outlet, the smelt weir in the river and charred remains of an old cabin I had stayed in when I first arrived in Alaska in 1966. Puskie grew in thick clumps along the banks as it had then and I remembered the many bears I had become familiar with that fished there in the autumn of that year. Mergansers, Golden Eye, Mallards and Buffleheads whisked low over the rippling water in their hurried evening flights, wings whistling through the still air.
A well-worn bear trail led south along the east shore of the lake. I followed it thinking it to be the easier traveling than the steep banked west side. Spring Creek, Morain Creek, Cottonwood Creek – all easily crossed and soon left behind me as the sun set over Karluk's western slopes. Bear Point seemed an appropriate place for me to camp for the night and left me with two–thirds of the lake's length to travel tomorrow.
A pleasant spot it was. Beaver had dammed a small stream there and were working on their dams as I approached. I sat and watched them as a buck deer suddenly appeared a few feet behind me – then dashed off into the brush. A small duck was nesting atop one of the two beaver houses. I made camp nearby on a small rise between beaver pond and lake shore. I rested by a small fire to the frequent slap of broad flattened tails on the pond's surface as the beaver toiled in the fading twilight. A pair of eagles nested high in an old cottonwood to my right. They scolded me for my intrusion but soon settled down to the nest. As I rolled up in my sleeping bag, the silhouette of the female on her nest was distinct against the western sky. A mosquito or two buzzed about before letting me alone to sleep.
Morning's stillness greeted my little sanctuary with clear skies. Not the slightest whisper of a breeze stirred about. Shortly after a light breakfast the drone of a skiff and kicker caught my ear. I stepped clear of the alder thicket so that the oncoming pair might see me. They quickly throttled down their engine and turned into the shore. Tony and Neil, employed by the K.N.W. refuge, took me aboard and on to Camp Island. The fresh coffee at their camp was a good way to start the day as we exchanged thoughts about the refuge and its well being – a unique little segment of wilderness in all the world. Hopefully it will remain that way for generations to come, for the brown bear, eagles, salmon, reindeer and all others that inhabit this special island.
After a second cup of coffee, Tony and Neil volunteered to run me the remaining six miles to a small cabin at the south end of Karluk Lake, near the base of an impressive mountain named Seven Sisters. Still snow capped and looming in the distant clear blue sky, this peak dominated the landscape as we approached my home for the night.
This was not my first stay in Bill Pinnell and Morris Talieson's bear hunting cabin. I had guided for them several seasons in the past and soon fell into the usual routine about the place. I felt at home. The wood fire was soothing, wet socks hung in the crossbeams, boots hung up to dry. The history of many bear seasons is recorded on the board walls by both hunter and guides. Some of the names I recognize – many I do not. A bath with hot water warmed on Morris' home built stove felt particularly invigorating. I stood on the bottom of the old turned–over skiff and poured the warmed water over my head. A bite to eat followed by a short nap readied me for the comforts of my stay here in the old cabin.
Soon I had visitors. Harley landed the Kodiak Western float plane at the mouth of O'Mally Creek and introduced me to Kevin Smith and Glenn Sheehan. The two archeologists would be spending the summer in the Karluk drainage system mapping and surveying for the Brynmaur Karluk project initiated by the Brynmaur College in Pennsylvania. Further studies will be carried on during following summers. They camped nearby and we had an enjoyable afternoon together. We talked far into the evening under the hiss of the Coleman lamp before turning in.
A small blond bear moved among the cottonwoods just south of the cabin on the following morning. The sky was overcast, lake calm and sparrows chirped in the elderberry thicket growing by the weathered old sawhorse stand among several years accumulation of wood chips and sawdust. Young shoots of grass supported droplets of water born by a midnight's rain shower. I vaguely remembered the patter on the roof during my slumber. Breakfast finished, dishes washed, floor swept and firewood replaced – I shouldered my pack and headed up Cascade Creek to the southwest. This route would take me to the low pass that drops down into a wide canyon leading to Dog Salmon River, the outlet of Frazer Lake at its south end.
The climb was steep and brushy at first, then opened up into a broad sweeping majestic dead ended canyon about three miles in length. It seemed to be a brown bear paradise. A young bear ambled just a hundred yards ahead of me in the open grass along the stream bank eating greens as he found them in his path. A mile upstream a large dark bear moved in and out of the alder patches. High to my right, near the snow line, a sow and her cub poked about the small rivulets and rock outcroppings. In a world that barley felt realistic to me, I view them through binoculars from below.
The rushing stream filled this bear world with a constant rhythm of sound, the rhythm of life's force in a slow motion world of evolving events. I could think of no other place on earth that I would rather be than on the spot that I was standing at that moment.
A slow moving charcoal gray sky slowly descended on the mountains, the bears and me. A heavy mist in the air dampened my clothing. The atmosphere cooled as I gained elevation approaching the pass. Deer had walked in the muddy trail, fox tracks, bear prints and then those of my own marked my passing there. Soon I reached the high point, trodded through snow patches and was overwhelmed by the clouds. I could see nothing below, in front or behind me. I was wet, unsure of the area beyond and could hear the stream no more.
Going down was easy and I bounced along through the mist in an uneasy gate as I guessed my way across the open terrain. An unexpected break in the clouds let me view the large winding stream far below. I assumed it to be Dog Salmon River and would reach Frazer Lake within the next two hours. What I didn't know was the excitement that I was to encounter during that time.
A well-used bear trail led me in the direction I needed to go, paralleling a small stream as I lost elevation. Near the bottom, as the trail branched out in many directions, I found myself wondering in and out of alder growth as I neared the lowlands. The weather was improving and lifting a bit. I entered a grassy clearing on a steep incline and found myself almost on top of a sleeping sow and her three yearling cubs. I was too close.
They hadn't heard me coming through the wet ground cover. My heart was pounding as I tried to settle my wits by standing still for a minute or two. Turning back seemed impossible, especially if I needed to do so in a hurry. The wind was from behind them so they wouldn't know that I carried that terrible human scent. A quiet greeting didn't wake them. Kind words concerning their moving on brought them all to their feet in a huff to stand and stare at me. Shouting, arm waving, whistling and beating my walking stick on the ground made no difference. They just stood there. And for me, trouble seemed inevitable.
Hurling my stick into the midst of them did finally set them off, but only for a few steps in the opposite direction before stopping and returning my way. I made a few feeble steps toward them with more shouting, whistling waving; and telling them how nice they were, appreciated their being around but that this was too close. Nothing made any difference, they continued to close the gap between us. This was all too much for me. I ducked into the alder brush loosening my pack as I went, planning to drop it for them to chew on instead of me if they followed. Fortunately I broke into another opening that let straight down to the base of the mountain. I hurried along in the direction of the beaver pond below before looking back. When I did stop to rest and have a look, they were high above me and still inspecting the area where I had stood earlier.
Examining the beaver damn, I decided that the wall of sticks and mud would have supported my weight but not hers had I needed a temporary escape route. I moved on to Frazer Lake. The light rain persisted. A dry warm bed along my path in a brush patch again reminded me that I was definitely an intruder within this domain of the Kodiak brown bear.
A brief stop at the fish and game cabin above the fish ladder on the river afforded little relief from the persistent wet weather. The two summer employees were more interested in getting into their fired up banya than to visit with a cross country traveler over a cup of hot coffee. This wasn't the Alaskan hospitality that I was use to. I studied the fish ladder and all the paraphernalia associated with the project before crossing the catwalk to the opposite bank. My destination for this evening would be another familiar cabin just up the western shore of the lake, about an hour away.
The cabin was soon warmed by the wood fire in the Yukon style stove. This was a little paradise among the cottonwoods overlooking Frazer Lake. I slept to the music of the rain on the tarpaper roof. My walking distance was about nine miles for the day.
The morning was warm, overcast, still and the visibility several miles in all directions, an appropriate atmosphere for my final jaunt to Olga Bay. I left camp by 8:30 a.m. and walked west to skirt Small Summit Lake in the pass leading down to the much larger T-shaped Akalura Lake. A spacious alder patched, grass-brown valley overwhelmed me as I viewed the meandering stream leading down to the lake shore more than three miles ahead. Sweeping, gently rising meadows gave rise to familiar rocky ridge lines on both sides as I walked on. Small, fast flowing rivulets often cut the trail in the boggy wet bottom land. Bear tracks in the soft black soil were often visible. An airplane in the distance disturbed the peacefulness of this island wilderness. Reminding me for an instant that this was not all mine.
I was soon quickly stepping along the rocky lake shore in anticipation of arriving at the old abandoned cannery at Olga Bay, now only an hour away. A small black sandy beach suited me for a rest and lunch of hard boiled eggs and canned salmon. Reaching the outlet of Akalura I turned south and followed the well-used trail leading to Bill P. and Morris T. Bear Camp headquarters. Soon the towering boiler stack and rusty roofed, weathered old reddish brown building were in view. I felt as if I had come home – home to one of my favorite places in Alaska.
Having spent several bear hunting seasons here and two winters alone trapping and keeping an eye on the place, I felt a pleasing familiarity about my presence here again.
Bill and Morris were here alone, the bear hunts just over and the guides gone on to summer action of their own. The three of us spent most of the next two days talking over old times around the old cook stove reliving bygone bear hunts of Karluk, Frazer and Red Lakes, Upper Station and Dog Salmon River. Morris worked in his green house – Bill at the typewriter, while I explored the old cannery again – and fished for dollys in the lagoon. We picked fresh fiddle head fern for our supper. It seemed that time had stopped here. All was as I remembered it was, ten years ago. The window at the head of my bed in the front room let me view Olga Bay through the branches of the spruce tree, now taller, overwhelming the front of the house. It had grown some.