KEVIN GRINDE: Rhythm Of The Trail — An Alaskan Canoe Trip And The Smell Of Death

We told our brown bear story matter of factly to Ken and Neil Marlow.

Their reaction confirmed what we had suspected. In their words, we had a very dangerous experience with an Alaskan brown bear despite not having seen nor heard the bruin.  But the odor of the bear itself, or the carcass of its main course, probably a moose, was unmistakable. I can instantly recall the stench sitting here right now.

Ken runs Marlow’s Lodge on the glacial Kenai River in Alaska with his wife, Judy, and son, Neil.

Both listened intently to our tale. When my partner, Bob, reached the end of the narrative — the part about us seeing the moose carcass mostly underwater at the head of an island, their eyes widened as large as eyes can get when you’ve lived in Alaska most of your life.

But it was our description of the stench near the river bank that really caught their attention.

“What does a brown bear smell like?” I asked Neil.

“Death,” he said.

The overwhelming wreak emanated from a clump of willows on the bank of the Moose River. The odor was worse by a factor of a thousand compared with some of the worse smells I’ve encountered over the years:

  • The most odoriferous outhouse I’ve ever had to use.
  • The smell of fish gut perfume in the garbage can five days after leaving it in the summer sun.
  • The reek of freezers Red River Valley residents carried out onto berms after the Great Flood of 1997. Mine was particularly ripe. The huge Sears upright had spent a few weeks underwater in the basement. The hulk was too heavy to rescue before we were evacuated by helicopter; at least it was just one item we didn’t save from what would become a 1,300-square-foot by 5-foot-deep  swimming pool. The freezer contained venison steaks, hamburger, chicken, ruffed grouse, processed frozen food and believe it or not, a couple of bear roasts I was looking forward to grilling. In a quick fit of morbid curiosity, I opened the freezer door when it stood on our cul de sac. Bad idea. My instant gag transformed the chicken sandwich and Oreo cookies I’d had for lunch into instant vomit. You get the idea. Bears reek like rotten meat, which they consume by the boatload if they can get it. Like a Wisconsin governor and senator, rotten meat produces a sickly stench and all you can do is haul it outside and get rid of it.
  • American Crystal Sugar Company’s putrid mid-summer lagoons in East Grand Forks.

But let’s backtrack to the day before our adventure.

Go fish

“Take the canoe and head up the Moose River to catch some rainbows and dollys,” Neal told us.

canoeWhen a Kenai Peninsula fishing guide offers a suggestion, Alaskan visitors from Minnesota are wise to accept it.

Bob and I were on Day Three of a two-month excursion to the land of the midnight sun, where Bob would hone his skills as a guide apprentice under the Marlow mentorship. My role was to assist him however I could and soak up the Kenai and all of its brutally handsome splendor.

Last year was Bob’s eighth trip to fish Alaska. He’s heading northwest again in June. You could say he’s an Alaskan salmon addict, and he’s damn good at catching reds, pinks and silvers, what residents up there call sockeye, pinks and coho salmon.

Two years ago, Neil asked Bob to assist him in guiding anglers on Kenai River salmon fishing trips. Guides don’t just head down to the Soldotna Fred Meyer department and grocery store and buy a license. You’ve got to earn it by attending guide school, passing tests, acquiring state and Coast Guard permits and really, really, really want to fish with strangers.

Guides worth their salt are mature, dependable, friendly, honest, know the regulations (they can change daily during peak salmon migration), understand their quarry and master the tools and techniques to catch salmon, and maybe most importantly, be able to safely navigate the 82-mile Kenai River.

As part of the peninsula experience, Neil insisted we explore the river’s tributaries either by hiking or using a canoe or a drift boat. Paddling up the Moose River seemed like a logical way to invest our time. The possibility of catching 5-pound rainbows and chunky dolly varden cemented the plan.

Bob and I are experienced canoeists and know how to catch a fish or two. Through the years, we’ve covered miles and miles of Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness. My brother and Bob’s friendship goes back 30 years at least. The three of us and a group of Pine City, Minn., friends also have bombed around with backpacks in the Beartooth Mountain peaks of Montana.

Solitude and fish are the two main reasons we enter territory where critters are more common than people. We’ve found the animals to be much friendlier in general, more honest, less greedy and instinctively more intelligent. Large mammals don’t screw you over for a percentage with every step you take. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, brown bears just kill you and eat you (I suppose that’s not unlike what our so called patriotic multinational corporate CEOs are doing to the American public at an ever more rapid pace, but that’s another story).

The critter list contains the usual suspects: wolves, marmots, foxes, big cats, moose, birds and bears. Our piscatorial targets mainly have been walleyes, bass, crappies and three trout species: splake, brookies and rainbows. Add salmon and some saltwater species and the list is complete.

Bears abear print 002re cool

Bears inhabit both the BWCAW and, appropriately, the Beartooths. We’ve learned how to get along and take precautions as guests visiting Minnesota black bear territory. The same tools and techniques work for grizzlies out West. Basically, you hang your food in a container from a tree, cook and eat a good distance from where you sleep and be alert.

Alaskan brown bears are another animal altogether. The largest of bear clan, males can dwarf their black cousins in weight by hundreds of pounds. Brown bears and grizzlies are the same species and their names are interchangeable. Alaskans call them brown bears. A few refer to brown bears as Texans.

Except for one experience Bob had on the Russian River, a tributary of the legendary Kenai, we’ve never had a nasty run-in with a bear when hunting, fishing or wildlife watching in Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Alberta, British Columbia or Alaska.

 I’ve heard Bob tell the story about the young brown bear that was acting aggressively even though it was 50 yards away on the other side of the Russian. It paced along the shore, he says, and entered the water a few times as though considering a swim toward the fishing party’s sockeye stringer. Bob and his buddies reeled up and retreated back to the RV rental.

There have been a few times, however, when the bruins were too close for comfort in the Beartooths. 

We had been backpacking up to high country to fish brook trout when we had to cross a fork where two creeks meet. Water was still seeping into the soft mud of the bear track, which was much larger than any of our boots. The other little set of prints gave us the willies, but the mother and cub had melted into the woods by the time we invaded their space. This was good.

Another time, a Montana bear researcher from Bozeman and three female interns met me on the trail leading from the trailhead to Lady of the Lake northeast of Cooke City, Mont. He chewed my tail about hiking alone. He explained a large female bear with a cub had bluff-charged a grandfather and grandaughter near Zimmer Creek the day before. I told him I was only five minutes ahead of my two partners. “Doesn’t matter,” he scolded. “Don’t hike these parts alone. Got it?”

Alaskans frequently share the same advice. “Not even with a dog,” Neil said.

For sure, people, lightning, dogs and sharks are more dangerous than bears. But maulings and deaths do happen.

Four people were mauled by brown bears last summer in Alaska, two of them near the state’s largest city, Anchorage. A sow with two cubs attacked a 59-year-old female jogger south of Anchorage in July. The woman was listening to music with ear buds and wasn’t carrying bear spray. In another incident, a man was mauled by a 200-pound sow while hiking with two dogs near Anchorage. He managed to kill the bear after shooting it four times with a .44 Magnum handgun. Both bear attack victims survived.

Black bears kill, too, not only in Alaska but throughout their range in North America. As more humans invade traditional black bear habitat so they can “live in the wild” or whatever, encounters are becoming more common in the Lower 48.

Last year, National Geographic reported 92 black  bear attacks across North America from 2010 to 2013; attacks climbed to 32 in 2013 from 19 in 2010.

Alaska’s residents and bears get along rather well all things considered. People have learned to tolerate all wildlife up there. But people use a couple of tools as safety precautions, just in case.

On the Kenai River when the salmon migration is in full swing, which it is from June to early August, the locals are easy to identify because they fish with bear spray mounted in a holster for fast and easy reach. You also see many anglers wearing big bore handguns strapped to shoulders or hips — .44 Magnum revolvers and .45-caliber semiautomatic Glock pistols are popular.

However, bear spray is the first tool of defense; guns are a last resort.

In Alaska, guns are considered a tool, not unlike a fillet knife, ax or spade. Alaska has the highest gun ownership rate in the country. More than one out of two people owns a gun, which basically means there’s a gun in every house. (Interestingly, the homicide rate is 4 per 100,000 people — that’s compared with 19.4 per 100,000 in Chicago, a city with a storied Bear population.) But that, too, is another story.

What was striking to me last summer was the number of women carrying handguns as they fly fished for salmon. Both guides and residents believe it’s tough to protect friends or clients if you can’t protect yourself. So guns are part of the fabric of the state — no big deal.

We were armed with Counter Assault when we headed up the Moose. The stuff is what people call bear spray. If a bear exhibits aggressive, dangerous behavior —jaw popping, fake charges, or if a cub is visible, you shoot a stream of the stuff, and it hopefully will stop the attacking bear with a cloud of active ingredients, mostly concentrated capsaicin made from peppers. The stuff will affect the eyes, nose and lungs of the critter. We weren’t that worried about bears because we would be in a canoe.

On the water

The Moose flows lazily in its last mile before meeting the magic turquoise colored Kenai in Sterling. As we dug our paddles into the clear water, we found the current barely perceptible. The river’s speed increased the farther up river we paddled.

Six miles upstream, we encountered a rapid strong enough to produce a bicep burn as we pulled the canoe against the aquatic treadmill. Ripples and white water covered both channels where a thin strip of island interrupted the Moose.

Both Bob and I were gassed when we reached the calm pool at the rapid’s head. A grassy bank and clumps of willows against a backdrop of trillions of wrist thick spruce beckoned us to climb out, rest and cast from shore.

We eased up to the bank into an eddy and finally relaxed. I was in the front seat, so naturally I’d step out and secure the boat. I jumped onto the bank and grabbed the bow rope. I was about to tie up when I smelled the “death.”

The stench instantly assaulted Bob, too.

We looked at each other with just a bit of puzzlement. Instantly, Bob uttered something profane about immediately departing the premises. Clearly, we’d picked the wrong spot at the wrong time, and we needed to haul ass away from the bank — and we did and had no time for fear.

The current grabbed the canoe and before we knew it, we were at the head of the rapid at the tip of the narrow island.

Bob yelled, “Did you see that? There’s a moose carcass in the water!”

We tried paddling a few strokes against the river but failed to gain distance. The rocks, river and grade sent us shooting downstream like an arrow. We really wanted to get a better look at the moose. We just hadn’t seen the carcass in the river when paddling upstream.

Math has never been one of my strengths, but I needed only a nanosecond to compute the odor on the bank plus the dead moose in the river. We talked about the possibilities of what our senses of sight and smell had detected.

Back at the lodge, we finished telling our story and hoped for an interpretation.

What we smelled was either a bear or its breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The moose in the river was the wrench in the puzzle.

Bears, the Marlows said, will often drag a kill into the water to hide it and cover its scent — sort of like armpit deodorant — so scavengers and other predators can’t find it. But to have two dead moose cached within yards of each other is unusual for Alaskan brown bears. We will never know whether the origin of the odor was indeed a bear or a dead animal.

People are encouraged to report all bear incidents to Alaska Fish and Game. The danger alerts are frequently posted and updated at trail heads and boat ramps. I didn’t like reading  “a mother with cubs” on those postings.

One brown bear story on Day Three of our two-month visit was enough excitement. For the rest of our stay, both Bob and I hoped we wouldn’t have another close encounter to explain to the Marlows.

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