Alaska hosts the most remote and unyielding landscape in the United States, and field work here has its charms and challenges. It has rained in Kodiak every day since we arrived on May 15th, with temperatures between about 40 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and the forecast for the next week predicts more of the same. Although digging holes in the rain isn’t the best way to spend time in Alaska, the views from the planes and from our field sites more than make up for the wet weather and the shifting schedules and delays that sometimes result. Problems can even happen offshore Alaska, where the R/V Sikuliaq was forced to wait out a storm for 15 hours in Kodiak Island’s Uyak Bay, described in a previous blog post. Weather can hinder data collection, but in Alaska we also need to prepare for wildlife as well.
Humans share the Kodiak Archipelago and surrounding waters (series of islands around and including Kodiak) with many large animals including bears, goats, deer, seals, bison, and whales. We’ve been lucky enough to see all of these throughout our travels around Kodiak, but the ones we’re most worried about are bears. Kodiak is well known for Kodiak bears, a subspecies of brown bear that has been isolated on the islands since the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. Because of the abundant food, high number of bears, and the terrain, Kodiak bears are the largest brown bears in the world! Average mainland brown bears can weigh around 500 pounds when fully grown, whereas Kodiak bears can grow up to 2200 pounds! Although these beautiful animals are gigantic predators that have been known to injure and kill humans, bears tend to be skittish around humans, running away at the first sound or sight of a plane or people yelling. There has only one death by bear attack on Kodiak between 1935-2010.
We have had seen bears at two of our sites. At McDonald Lagoon, a bear emerged on a mud flat ~100 m away from our site, chased away two foxes that had been eating mussels there, and then promptly ran and swam to the opposite shore. The pilot of our float plane waited until after we boarded to leave to tell us that area had a much higher bear density than most of the other islands. Our second bear sighting was at Akhiok, where a sow (female bear) and two cubs appeared to be running away from a large boar (male bear) about ~100 m away from our site. Someone from the village heard us yelling and rode out on a four-wheeler to divert the bears away. Sows with cubs are more dangerous, but these interactions are regular experiences for Alaskans. Sadly, we were too surprised during both sightings to take better pictures (see blurry distant photo below).
So far, the Kodiak team has installed 11 of the 13 stations. Yesterday we installed two stations, one on Uganik Island and another just east of Amook Island in Uyak Bay. We even had a few curious seals and otters watching us while we worked on Uganik! Overall, things have been going smoothly. The only site that had a problem was one of our most remote and difficult to reach at Anvil Lake on the western side of the island. The disk (the “baler”) did not work when we plugged it in, forcing us to add on another trip out to the western tip of the island. We’re currently ahead of schedule, but cautious to say that we’re almost done – these things never go according to plan…
Michael Mann, Cornell University, Graduate Student