Photo: A brown bear feeding on sedge grass in the Kalinin Estuary.
We had heard rave reviews of the hiking trail from Kalinin Bay to Sea Lion Cove on Kruzof Island in Salisbury Sound, but had never been able to hike it. Either it was pouring rain when we were there or we arrived too late in the afternoon to chance it. So when we arrived at Kalinin Bay at 1:30 on an almost sunny afternoon, I jumped at the chance to hike it.
Steve, John and I took the dinghy ashore to the south end of bay, where a sign marked the beginning of the trail. From the beach, we followed the trail along the edge of the Kalinin Estuary, a beautiful marsh intersected with winding streams and framed with spruce and hemlock. It was an easy trail to follow but slow going because of the mud from the previous day's hard rains.
We hadn't got very far when I spotted a brown bear across the stream, feeding on sedge grass. We stopped and watched it for a while. We carried bear spray and were far enough from the bear that Steve and I felt only somewhat nervous about walking on. But John, unused to walking among bears, wasn't so sure.
"What if we come back and the bear is ahead of us on this side of the stream?"
"We'll wait until it moves on." I told him, sounding surer than I felt. "I know one thing, Alaskans would just walk on."
We walked cautiously on and the bear ignored us.
From the estuary, the trail led up a steep hill covered with tall spruce and hemlock. In places the trail consisted of stair steps cut in trees laid on the slope. Whoever laid out the trail must have been a giant because I had to hoist myself up the tall steps.
At the top of the hill we stopped to snack on blueberries. It was obvious we weren't going to make it to Sea Lion Cove so we decided it was a good place to turn around.
Walking back along the estuary, we kept our eyes out for the bear, but didn't see it on the marsh. We shook our bear bells and I called, "Mr. Bear, we're coming. Please stay away."
John had been leading but dropped back for a while and I walked ahead. I came around a bend and stopped, horrified. The bear was in the woods just off the trail, only 10 ft away.
I knew that turning and running would be a mistake but also knew I was too close. So I walked backward, talking to the bear. John and Steve who were behind me didn't see the bear and thought I'd gone crazy.
"The bear's right there," I said.
We all backed up and waited. I blew my whistle, we shook our bells and shouted, trying to drive the bear away. John walked quietly forward, looked around the corner, then retreated. "He's still there."
There was no way to walk by the bear without getting close--or swimming. The trail led close to the woods with just a few feet of marsh on the other side of the trail and the creek beyond it.
We positioned ourselves where we could just see the bear's head and waited. The bear appeared to be eating skunk cabbage or other plants but was aware of us, occasionally raising his head to look at us. Most of the time all we could see were two large brown ears.
"Mr. Bear," I said. "Please let us by. We don't mean any harm." The bear kept eating.
As we were waiting for the bear to leave, a Coast Guard helicopter flew low overhead, startling the bear, which retreated a few feet into the woods then went back to eating.
The bear was obviously not going to leave. My idea of waiting for the bear wasn't working. The bear had more patience than we did.
Each of us grabbed our bear spray cans and armed them. Then we walked abreast across the muddy marsh, right by the bear who ignored us. Once around the corner we picked up speed.
"We're safe," I thought, then turned around to see the bear out of the woods, crossing the creek and heading toward us. But the bear followed only a short distance before stopping to graze. He wasn't after us; he just wanted to cross the creek.
Photo: The brown bear crossing the stream.
Nevertheless, I was glad to get back to the dinghy and to Osprey. The whole incident had been too close for comfort.