Saturday, April 2, 2022

The Biggest Bear

 Virtually every Alaskan or visitor to Alaska, who has spent more than 40 seconds out-of-doors, has a bear story.  And while the settings and species vary, every story has two things in common:

1.  Each bear — black, brown aka grizzly, or polar — is the largest of it’s species ever encountered by any human being.

2.  Every adventurer, be it a housewife picking peas in her garden, a motorist driving down the highway in an 80-foot Winnebago, a passenger in the bar of a Princess cruise ship, or wilderness camper in a rain-filled tent, comes within the width of mosquito’s antenna from ... well, that's why it's their story.  

Those are simple facts of every bear encounter that cannot be disputed.  Period.  Other details can vary in infinite directions as long as bears play a central role.  Karen and I are no exception to the rule.

One of our adventures began with a two-week planned (note planned) kayak trip to a seabird rookery on a Pacific Ocean island south of Cold Bay, Alaska.  That’s the last you’ll hear about the seabirds where I, as an aspiring wildlife photographer, planned great things.  

Kayaking down the salty Cold Bay as differentiated from the urban Cold Bay, we encountered Thin Point, a sandy spit laced with bear trails and vegetated with nothing taller than waving blades of grass.  Beyond lay the rolling Pacific.   There, Karen and I paused.  Umm, we could get a bit damp launching our kayak in those waves.  Could we land on the island?  Could we get back off?  My camera equipment costs $$.  Lots of $$.  Could there be a hole in our plan?  Maybe two.

We pitched our dome shaped tent “camouflaged” in the color of a grizzly and cached all our food plus anything that might have an odor in the tallest tree.  Oops, there weren’t any trees.  There weren’t any bushes.  So we wrapped it all in multiple layers of plastic plus one more and stashed it in a low spot in the sand dunes well away from our tent.  Safe!

The wind blew.

A night passed.  We took a hike.  Wow, bears.  So many!  I stood guard while Karen bathed in an icy pool of water in a creek draining Frosty Peak as a sow and cub brown bear grazed in a distant meadow above her -- an idylic Sierra Club calendar shot. 

Another day, more wind and I noticed the blowing sand and my shotgun had become good companions.  It felt gritty..  Time to clean it.  I unloaded the gun and laid the shells on my sleeping bag.  I took the gun apart and searched for the cleaning supplies.  Oh dear, the oily and thus smelly gun cleaning equipment nestled among the freeze-dried food in the food cache.  

I strode out into the dunes with the two section of the disassembled shotgun, peeled away the plastic, and found the oil and a rag.  That’s when I glanced towards the tent.  

There a rangy Volkswagen-sized brown bear, not a pleasant-looking creature, stood, it’s nose to the tent door with Karen, totally unaware, engrossed in a book inside.  Now the bear had possession of my wife and worse, my ammo.  Or should it be vice versa?  

What to do?

I had no choice.  

I charged the bear — okay slowly, but a meaningful charge, a noisy charge probably registering on the Richter scale, waving the two halves of the gun over my head, never considering that the bear may have dined on a creature or two with big thingies over its head — caribou antlers.  But, I had no plan B.  Actually I had no plan A either.  

And with a calm glance, with no malice, the bear looked up and simply exited stage left.  

The wind blew.

We moved stage right as we packed the tent the other direction down the beach to a place where there must have been an old cabin because some weathered gray boards lay scattered on the sand.  We re-pitched the tent so the boards lay in front of the tent.  We propped the kayak paddles on two sides and the kayak on the other as a defense warning system.  Safe.  Sort of.

That evening our bear “friend” cornered a sow brown bear with a watermelon-sized cub on top of a nearby bluff.  His apparent plan — dine on her cub.  We fell asleep that night to the sound of the two bears bellowing at one another as darkness enveloped Cold Bay.

Sometime in the night a paddle crashed to the sand.  I leaped out of my sleeping bag to peer in the darkness out the two tent portholes, the door.  Nada.  Surely the wind.  We returned to peaceful slumber.

The scenario repeated as the other paddle crashed to the sand and again, nada.  Wow, some “wind.”  Back to those dreams.

Then … Creak.  something large, something heavy stepped on a board.  That wasn’t the wind.  In dawns early light I peered out the tent door straight into the amber eyes of that Volkswagen-sized brown bear.  I yelled.  The bear, that creature ten times my size, with jaws that could crush a jar of peanut butter, simply turned, and once again, never displaying the loss of a shred of dignity, waddled back down the beach.

With adrenalin flooding every cell in my body I emerged from the tent to find a well-worn bear trail circumventing it.  A sandy bear paw print that dwarfed the size of my hand showed proof he had tested the nature of the fabric.  Just once.  He had bitten our Klepper kayak so the hole punctured the air chamber.  Just once.  We peacefully slept through all that — the repeated walking around the tent, the testing the tent, the chomping on the kayak.  And I claim to be a light sleeper.

Our food cache?  Down the beach I found piles and piles of bear scat full of freeze-dried foods, peas, lentils, beans, carrots, shredded plastic, in fact all of our food and wrappers except half a jar of peanut butter and a packet of instant cocoa.  Everything.  The freeze-dried food had shot through the bear’s digestive system virtually unscathed.  In truth we really could have salvaged it.  We didn’t.  He must have had quite some night.  Oh, for the record, the bear didn’t eat the gun cleaning rag and oil either. 

The wind stopped blowing as we gathered up the remnants of our food cache and lit a bon fire.  It stopped blowing as we patched our kayak with the ubiquitous duct tape.  And it stopped blowing as we launched our kayak to retreat to Cold Bay paddling all evening and night to arrive in time to see the most glorious crimson sunrise over Pavlov Volcano, a sunrise that quickly yielded to a horrendous storm, a storm with horizontal sheets of rain that flattened our tent into our faces and defied all our illusions that it could repel water — a storm that would have pinned us on Thin Point with no food, soaking wet and that Volkswagen-sized bear had we not retreated the previous evening.

By the way, for the record, it was the biggest bear we’ve ever seen.  Just say’n.

Now Karen wonders what that bear tells his grandchildren about those odd two-legged kayakers.

Lacking any photos of any of the bears we saw on that trip (three were too close and the rest, not close enough) and those were the days before digital photography, I'm including a painting of a smaller brown bear on Chichagof Island I did a few years ago.

                                   Termination  18 x 24 inches  Alkyd on Canvas

Monday, March 7, 2022

Saving Karen's Sole

After a long hiatus of binge watching Sunday services at Petersburg Lutheran Church on Facebook due to covid concerns, Karen and I have returned to in-person appearances.  And, despite our masks, people even recognize us.

Thus this morning Karen opted to put on her Sunday best — a beautiful brand newly acquired, 50 cents at the Salvation Army Thrift Store, imitation Dansk leather shoes.  They dazzled as she dashed through the rain from our red Honda CR-V to church.

Of course, thanks to her husband, arriving a tad late in a bit of a rush Karen failed to notice the shoes were not waterproof like the red-rubber boots people often wear to church on these soggy Sundays.

Nor did Karen glance at her feet during most of the service until….her feet felt strange as she prepared to go to the front of the sanctuary for Communion.  It seems her pair of imitation Dansk leather, 50 cents at the Salvation Army Thrift Store shoes were made for a climate approximating the Sonora Desert.  Apparently the addition of water to the glue on both soles dissolved the glue.  Both soles dangled like bats hanging from a cave ceiling off the balls of Karen’s feet.  Pieces of the soles littered the floor under her pew.

At that moment seconds before she needed to rise and go forth, before I could say “go barefoot,” Karen gestured to our friend Carol sitting next to her.  Like a magician in an "America’s Got Talent" variety show, Carol pulled a pair of red shoes out of her handbag which, similar to Cinderella in Grimm’s fairy tale, fit Karen perfectly.  In a flash Karen slipped them on and stepped up to the Communion table like the princess she is to me.  Alas, the congregation lost the chance for a memorable public display of the "holiest" soles ever to grace Petersburg Lutheran Church.

Lacking any photos of the event, here are a few photos Karen took this winter that are one way she shares the beauty of God's creation. 

Female Bufflehead

Abstract Ice Pattern

Red-breasted mergansers.  Could they be saying grace before their next meal?

Common loon with shrimp dinner

Sitka black-tailed deer


Thursday, December 23, 2021

Merry Christmas from Snowy Petersburg, Alaska

What follows is our annual Christmas letter (sort of) to family and friends which we're posting here for anyone curious how we spent this past pandemic year. So, here goes:

We’re not sending Christmas greetings this year.  You probably say we haven’t sent them in years, that they only came from an itinerant squirrel.  However, said rodent has been deported south to a lovely spruce/hemlock forest where she can observe swans but not us.  Her sin…making an unauthorized border crossing… to move into our abode.  She wanted to spy on us as she gnawed on the wood frame that keeps our cabin standing erect.

After unsuccessfully erecting a US Customs and Border Protection certified barrier (a stick stuck in a hole) and using a subsonic, undetectable-to-the human-ear noise-making machine, which only caused the pretty lady to ask “what’s that sound?”, we surrendered.  The impetus came in the form of the grouch presenting amaurosis fugax (look it up) which necessitated his being temporarily exported to Seattle for investigation.

Thus, we deported our Christmas letter scribe on the day of the grouch’s departure.  We feared she would solidify her reign on our log cabin home and bar us from reentry to the pile of sawdust that remained of the abode.

Not only did said rodent betray our loyalty, but even the grouch’s favorite tree, a cottonwood he conceived by sticking a branch in the ground in the 1980s, betrayed us.  After our basement toilet erupted in a volcanic explosion rivaling Mt. St Helens, a camera forced through the sewer line revealed said cottonwood tree’s roots hanging like stalactites throughout the pipe preventing the movement of movements.  Beautiful, but…  We replaced the sewer line.  The tree?  It remains unscathed except it’s “toenails” have been “trimmed.” 

Barely relaxing after back to back traumatic events, we received a phone call.  A house painter would arrive the next day.  This necessitated the panicked removal of every ornamental and not-so-ornamental object reclining against the house and car port — enough to furnish three condos.  Once begun, the paint job resulted in covering our windows with opaque plastic during this past summer’s only decent spell of sunny weather.  It gave us the unparalleled nightly opportunity to marvel at the beauty of an illuminated sheet of plastic as the sun retreated behind Petersburg Mountain.

Without the invasions of a rodent, a tree and a painter, life seemed boring so we took an autumn road trip to Wisconsin and Iowa.  A couple of days prior to our Alaska ferry departure, a friend of daughter Amanda offered a suggestion.  Since Mandy was taking a well-earned break between nursing jobs and her parents, at least the grouch, is getting decrepit, why shouldn’t she be their chauffeur?  Thus, the pretty lady rode shotgun while the grouch sat in the back seat for much of the trip as the two ladies up front still fulfilled their duties as back-seat drivers to the grouch.  

After a family rendezvous on the sun-drenched shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin and in Iowa, the three Corns aimed for Seattle via road and/or air.  In transit the grouch and Mandy toured Colorado Springs guided by son/brother David a deliverer of people for Uber and Lyft and stuff for Amazon.

While traveling, Mandy demonstrated the modern day convenience of locating coffee/pastry shops and reviewing restaurant menus on her cell phone.  The pastry part awed the grouch but he found comparing restaurant menus exceeded his level of desire to find basic grub.  As a bonus Mandy (a barista in a past era) taught the fair lady in seven simple hand-written steps the fine art of ordering a latte that wouldn’t drive a barista nuts.

Regarding cell phones, a significant part of family time involved convincing the grouch that he and the pretty lady needed to be brought from the 18th century into the 21st.  The clincher!  So he could track her via “find my” as she wanders with her camera through territory inhabited by significantly sized black and brown furry creatures.  The hardest part, more difficult than purchasing an AK-47 with 1000 rounds of ammo — signing up for cell phone service.  We couldn’t convince any cell phone service provider who was skeptical we live in a post office box that 1002 Wrangell Avenue exists.

Can’t forget, just because we banished last year’s scribe doesn’t mean the pretty lady has ceased communing with non-humanoids.  Beyond our windows seven days per week you’ll spy large pleading brown eyes and hear clucking sounds.  The pretty lady’s personal deer herd and neighbor’s chickens all consider her to be their guardian angel as she hands out organic apples, carrots, cantaloupe rinds and halves of pomegranates minus their seeds… even popcorn she pops just for them and not the grouch.


Incidentally, now that the pretty lady has a cell phone, the grouch knows she’s at the dentist’s office as he writes.  Alas that’s because he didn’t get a call from the dentist saying the didn’t show up.  The $1,200 cell phone?  It sits atop a dresser where it might as well be glued because she doesn’t want to damage it.  She just needs to dust it from time to time. 

And so, with this level of activity and, let’s face it, because the grouch gave up coffee which he blames for his laziness, we will not have a Christmas letter.  

However our prayer for each and everyone of you is simply this:

Rejoice that you are alive! Many of us struggle with aging knees and arthritic hands, but be thankful it means you have both knees and hands.

Rejoice that you have family and loved ones and friends that love you for who you are.  Friends who want the best for you are irreplaceable treasures.

So many in our world struggle with bodies no longer whole and able; they struggle with broken relationships and shattered dreams; and they struggle with prejudice because of their nationality or color of their skin or with themselves because they are not receiving encouragement for the gifts they do have.

We are thankful for all of you who have been so much a part of our lives.  

We are thankful for knowing where to take our gratitude, realizing that the kind of joy and peace that surpasses all understanding is found in that stable where a very little baby lay so very long ago.

Blessings and Joy to all of you, and, despite the notice at the start of this message, Merry Christmas.

Don and Karen

Friday, December 10, 2021

A Thanksgiving to Remember

For me Thanksgiving while I was “migrating” towards adulthood meant one of two things — often both — the obvious combination of duck hunting and football.  With a workaholic father, those moments we spent together were my favorite memories of dad.  Thanksgiving mornings, at least when we lived in Utah during my early/mid-teens, were the days he would take me duck hunting in the marshes along the Great Salt Lake.  Initially, dad assigned me the roll as the family Labrador retriever — until my 14th birthday.  I shivered with excitement that Thanksgiving Day, the day I initiated my first hunting license.  Fortunately for the ducks, no adolescent ever did a better job of educating them on the perils of duck decoys.  Never mind, with no ducks to clean, my brother and I had more time to toss the ball around at halftime during football games.

One year, shortly before Thanksgiving, an errant shotgun pellet that I launched accidentally hit a Canada goose.  I swelled with pride at the admiration I received from passing hunters as I lugged that “monstrous” bird down the dike leading back to our car.  Back home dad announced that we should let it age before cleaning it.  That's what he did growing up close to Barnegat Bay in southern New Jersey, but perhaps not the wisest strategy considering the heat of the garage during that warm Utah autumn.  

Finally, too long afterwards, we cleaned the goose — the centerpiece for a Thanksgiving dinner in the tradition of our forefathers and mothers.  Soon the aroma from the roasting bird wafted through our house — driving everyone outside.  Maybe, we wondered, had it aged too long?  Still mom dutifully finished her job mistakingly assuming that dad knew best.  At last we gathered around the table as dad carved my goose — a Thanksgiving dinner to remember.  Alas, from there on, our story diverged from the original Thanksgiving, because after one sniff, no one touched my inedible Thanksgiving goose.  Yes, it was indeed, a Thanksgiving to remember.

Now in our autumn years Thanksgiving is still a time when birds remain a part of our season’s attractions, but in a more gentle manner.  No longer am I the center of attraction dragging an enormous Canada Goose down a dike, but rather it's Karen attracting comments and dogs as she stalks birds throughout Petersburg.  For Karen who would never even consider shooting a goose, duck or any avian (or mammalian) species, any bird is a wonderful target -- for her camera.  But throwing a football around — nah.

Karen, it turns out, is a far better hunter than I ever was.  Here is just a sample of the many recent photos she has taken of birds.

Vancouver Canada geese in Petersburg sense Karen is a "big threat."

                                       As do mallard ducks that are obviously distressed by her presence.

A common loon stretches it's wings.

A Wilson's snipe contemplates if it should have migrated south.

A "tiny" flock of long-tailed ducks land in front of Karen

An American dipper wonders about that one-eyed critter (the camera lens)

A surf scoter enjoys a bath.

A Barrow's goldenye surfs the waves of Frederick Sound.

And her favorite, a raven with whom Karen exchanges pleasantries.

These images are just a tiny sample of very patient Karen's latest "trophies."  You can't eat them, but they don't drive you out of the house during Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Revenge of the Nerds

We did it!!!  Yes, we finally became the 7th to the last people on earth over the age of six months to acquire iPhones or their equivalent.  That’s partly because we opted to clear out deleted stuff from our previous Samsung phone —  all 7.99 Gigabytes of the 8.0 Gigabyte phone that refused to depart when we said “depart,” “OK, please depart.” “PRETTY PLEASE!”  

The writers of software inserted in every modern electronic device have one personality defect, er, trait — they delight in human suffering.  It’s revenge for being harassed for acting nerd-like during their middle school years.

Thus, unable to take even a single photo with the Samsung, thereby reducing it to no more than a metallic object useful for alerting TSA agents that we needed full body pat downs because we forgot it was in our pocket and little else, we followed Miss Google’s advice and pressed reset to factory settings.  

“Are you sure?”  


Surely that would truly purge everything we had purged including photos I can’t replace and viola, we’d have a healthy, practically new cell phone — the one ATT gave me free for forking over $100 to sign up for our original plan back when — I forget.

Purge completed we turned the phone on and began setting it up again, a process as smooth as talcum powder until….

“Enter the google password you used to set up your phone.”

What Google password?  There was no Google password.  I never could get on the internet to access Google with that contraption — ever!!!  And I don’t want to get on Google anyway.  I just want a phone.  A TELEPHONE!

However, those programers provided no options and over the eons I had Google passwords, maybe 38 of them, all deleted.

Enter the world of three guesses and you’re out!  Reset your password and wait 24 hours until you get to try again.

And again but each time just one try before having to enter another new password on that tiny screen where my finger spanned three letters.

And again.

And again.

Did I mention again, each time another 24 hour wait?

Are there any humanoids out there?

Another 38 passwords later that cold piece of Samsung metal with all it’s electronic components and rare earth components and unlimited minutes of calling and texts and 3 G of internet usage per month that I never could use because of — see discussion above — that I recently paid $200 plus tax to use until next April, sits glaring at me with its one eye, daring me to try again.  I narrow my eyes and glare back.

So now I am the owner of a brand new Apple iPhone which I wii never ever ever press reset to factory settings — if I can only figure out how to use it.  Hint — so far when I try to take a photo, half the time I take a short movie, the other half — nothing.  But, if I keep at it, I’ll soon be able to splice the movies together to create a feature length film.  You can look for it coming out at a drive-in theater near you next winter.

OK, this needs a photo.  How about a couple of Karen's from this week?

                                           Looking across Wrangell Narrows from Petersburg

                                                 Just checking up on ya. (Sitka black-tailed deer)

Monday, October 25, 2021


A prudent pilot leaves their plane tethered to the ground when fog rules the skies.  However, a co-worker whom I'll call Joe (by coincidence his real name) failed to return from a moose hunt the previous evening.  We had to do something, anything, so Lyman (actually his real name, too) offered to start an aerial search.

The call reverberated through our office.  Any volunteers to add a pair of eyes?  So there I was sitting in the back seat of a red Citabria headed towards a snow encased birch forest west of Talkeetna, Alaska.  Never mind that visibility in the area could be compared with peering through random keyholes while Lyman squeezed the plane between the frozen tree tops and a dense fog bank, a layer of air barely wide enough to accommodate the plane, it’s red-painted wings the only color in our line of sight.  Down below we knew searchers reinforced our efforts, but the thick mantle of snow on the trees obscured any sign of them -- and of course, Joe.  Undeterred, we persisted.

We knew it would take a miracle to spot Joe, but the point of the entire exercise, we were doing something and you can never spot a miracle in advance. 

Now, daylight, if you want to call it that, ends early in November at that latitude.  That also coincided with our similarly dwindling fuel supply.  Reluctantly, we turned towards Anchorage in the early afternoon.  That's also about when a voice in Lyman's headset gave us the news.  Searchers had found Joe, or was it vice versa?  Either way, he had simply lost his race with nightfall to get back to his car the previous evening.  Other than a frigid night and feeling embarrassed, he had a story for his grandchildren. 

That's also about the time we crossed the Petersville Road.  Now remember, we constituted the filling between a white layer of fog and a white layer of snow-covered tree tops.  What we did not know was a power line had been added to that filling -- strung along that road, just above the tree tops.  That frost encased line bore a striking resemblance to everything above and below it.  Talk about cammo!

That was the moment the lights went out in some homestead along the Petersville Road.  However, all I felt was a slight hesitation in our forward momentum.  That's all.  No sparks, no flying wires, no Hollywood-style pyrotechnics, just a momentary hesitation.  Lyman turned to me and muttered, "we just screwed up." 

With that he banked left towards Talkeetna to make a stealth approach.  We landed far out at the end of the runway, hoping our landing gear was intact and to escape notice.  Lyman leaped out of the cockpit and dashed around the plane to make a hasty inspection of the plane's exterior. Satisfied that the apparently thin wire hadn't inflicted any obvious damage we roared off into the gathering twilight aiming south towards home.  Joe was safe, we were safe, and we’d let someone else puzzle over the mystery of the severed power line.

Today, well beyond 40-years later I wonder why we survived.  I've read multiple accounts of aircraft encounters with power lines.  The wires always won.  Always.  Except this time.  Like I said, you can never spot a miracle in advance.


Lacking any digitized photos from the days of this event back in the 1970s, this seems like the time to augment a post with some of Karen's images that include, surprise, fog.  

Wise "aviators" remaining grounded waiting for fog to lift.

A commercial fishing boat sails into fog in SE Alaska.

Fog bank over Frederick Sound, Alaska.