Category Archives: Alaska

Under Scrutiny

Painting by Anders Björklund
Painting by Anders Björklund

Bears are often regarded as unpredictable, threatening and dangerous animals. They have the power to topple a tree, break through the wall of a house, or even tear a human to bits with relative ease. However, after years of working closely with the Kodiak bear, I’ve found them to be very intelligent and gentle giants. Numerous times, I’ve witnessed that bears are both inquisitive and contemplative, and also very tolerant.

One September day, I was filming in a forest when a large boar came meandering down the path. Bears are creatures of habit, and he probably walked that path everyday. It was like a picture from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The boar kept a respectful distance, and I understood that it would take some luck and a bit of preparation in order to capture him on film. I decided that I would be there early the next day, set up my camera and wait for the bear to appear.

I returned to the forest just before sunrise and, with great anticipation, focused on the path. He could show up at any moment. It was incredibly quiet in the forest that morning. Only the wind whispered mournfully in the trees, declaring that winter was approaching. Birds and squirrels awoke at first light and began eagerly preparing for winter, but my attention remained riveted on the path where the bear could soon emerge.

When the day was half spent, I dug out my sandwich, consuming it without taking my eyes from the spot where I expected the bear to appear. Afternoon waned into evening, but the bear never showed up. Disappointed, I packed up and hiked back to my tent.

Why hadn’t he come? Could he have already left the area? Had I missed him by one day? Hoping for better luck, I decided to return early the next morning.

Frost glistened in the grass and the air was crisp. The spruce forest slept quietly in the darkness when I set up my camera and sat in solitary silence by the path. When the sun’s rays began to seep through the spruce branches, the forest came to life as the birds and woodland creatures resumed their activities. With each passing hour it became increasingly difficult to remain focused on the path, waiting for a bear that might never return.

Midday, I took out my sandwich. Sitting there quietly chewing, I became aware of a squirrel rushing back and forth quite close to me. He was burying seeds, mushrooms, and cones in small holes that he had dug between the spruce trees. He was so intent on his work that he seemed completely oblivious of my presence. It was entertaining to watch him eagerly filling his winter pantry.

After observing him for a while, I took the camera off the tripod and, placing it right next to one of the squirrel’s holes, settled down to wait. It didn’t take long before he was back, stuffing more winter provisions into the ground. I got some wonderful footage. Lying down across the path, I pushed the camera a little closer to the holes. When the squirrel returned with another load, he nearly jumped into my lens.

The solitude, which had begun to be oppressive, was quickly transformed into curious camaraderie. Another fascinating citizen of the forest had replaced my obsession for the absent bear. I filmed that little squirrel for about two hours. Completely absorbed by his antics, I was unmindful of any movement nearby.

I was waiting for the squirrel to return with another load of seeds when I suddenly perceived that I was being watched. Furtively, I turned my head and glanced over my right shoulder . . . and there he was! The bear stood a foot away, staring down at me where I lay stretched out over his path.

I have often lectured hunters and nature enthusiasts on how to act if you meet a bear in the woods, but this was an unusually close encounter. I concentrated on remaining calm. With my camera in one hand and the tripod in the other, I slithered over the squirrel’s pantry, keeping one eye on the bear. His puzzled gaze followed my peculiar movements. Half expecting him to pounce at any moment, I raised myself to a crawl and then, in a crouched walk, proceeded in a large half circle to return to the path about 30 yards in front of the bear.

Back on the path, I noticed that the bear hadn’t moved. I set up my tripod, but when I tried to attach the camera, my hands were shaking so badly I couldn’t slide it onto the base.

After two days of waiting, I finally had my chance to capture this bear on film. It was now or never. Exerting great self-control, I managed to still the shaking enough to slide the camera carefully onto the base until it clicked into place. With my eye to the viewfinder, I located and focused on the bear. Just as I pushed the button to start the camera, the bear began lumbering toward me. When he came close, he stopped and waited while I retreated 30 yards to set up and started filming again. We did this three times before the bear proceeded down the path to the river to fish.

I’ve often thought about that bear and wondered how he felt about our encounter on the trail. He was undoubtedly just as surprised as I was and probably also curious about this strange creature stretched out over his path. I’m convinced that he also contemplated just how to react. Bears have an unforeseen ability to think and solve problems, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he realized that I had been waiting for him the whole time.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q)

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.

Gone in Seven Minutes

Uyak Bay, Kodiak, Alaska
Uyak Bay where the SS Aleutian went down in 1929.

The S.S. Aleutian sailed from Seattle in the spring of 1929 with 300 passengers. Her captain was John Gus Nord, a Swedish-American with an unblemished, 30‑year career sailing the North Pacific. During the night of May 27th, most of the passengers disembarked at one of the canneries where they would be working over the summer. The weather was calm and the visibility good as the ship continued deeper into Uyak Bay with the remaining 15 passengers and a 135-man crew on board.

At 5:30 a.m., just south of Amook Island, there was a violent tremor, followed by a horrifying noise coming from the hull. The flagship of the Alaska Steamship Company had struck a submerged rock. Captain Nord, who understood immediately what had happened, ordered full steam ahead, hoping to beach the ship, but she was too damaged. The rock had torn an enormous hole in the hull, and the ship quickly filled with water. With her propellers high in the air, she sank, just seven minutes after the collision. An eerie silence was all that remained after the ship went down, reported one of the crewmembers. Not even a ripple disturbed the surface of the water.

In what was later lauded as the most efficient act of live-saving at sea, the captain and his crew deployed the lifeboats and evacuated everyone on board, with one exception. Manuel Dorras, a young crewman, drowned when he left the lifeboat, returning to the sinking ship to rescue his lucky horseshoe.

Everyone was stunned by the tragedy and their narrow escape. Captain John Gus Nord never quite recovered from the shock. He mourned his ship as if it were his own child.

It was assumed that the S.S. Aleutian had sunk in very deep water, and no attempts were made to salvage her. In 2002, seventy-three years after the accident, Steve Lloyd, author and shipwreck historian from Anchorage, Alaska, found the ship resting just 220 feet below the surface.

Following the dive line into the inky darkness the first sight of the ship is the two masts, now covered in white anemones, rising out of the darkness like ethereal watchmen. The ship is still intact after all these years despite the powerful currents. Shipworms have devoured most of the wood fittings but the hull remains, and the Aleutian is now a living museum, deep below the surface of Uyak Bay.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from http://www.cameraq.com/eng/books.html )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See www.cameraq.com  for more information.

Finding the Kad’yak

Newspapers
The discovery of the Kad’yak made headlines all over the nation.

The California gold rush, which started in 1849, flooded the state with people and increased the general wealth. Along with a higher standard of living came a greater demand for ice, which was a difficult product to obtain and deliver.

By the mid-1800s, the economy in Russian America had hit bottom. The sea otter population had diminished, and the fur trade on Kodiak collapsed. Thankfully, a new source of income presented itself. In 1852, the lake on Woody Island, an island near the city of Kodiak, became one of Alaska’s most valuable assets. In the winter, the ice on the lake was sawed into blocks and shipped to San Francisco. When the first load sold for $75 a ton, the Russian American Company realized that ice was a very profitable commodity. They soon had competition, however, when the first ice machines were invented. Twenty years later, machines had taken over the business entirely.

The Kad’yak was one of The Russian American Company’s smallest ships. She was a three-masted bark, 120 feet long and 30 feet wide. Her hull was covered in copper to prevent the growth of barnacles and other marine organisms.

On March 30, 1860, the Kad’yak left Woody Island bound for San Francisco, loaded with 356 tons of ice. Perhaps he was running late, or perhaps Captain Illarion Arkhimandritov was not superstitious. For whatever reason, he failed to observe the usual custom of paying his respects at Father Herman’s grave to receive a blessing for the voyage. Locals would later blame Kad’yak’s fate on this omission.

Shortly after setting sail, the ship hit a rock, tearing a large hole in the hull and quickly filling with water. The crew abandoned ship and went ashore in the lifeboats. But the ship didn’t sink. Her cargo of ice kept her afloat, drifting between the islands. Four days later, she sank in Icon Bay, off of Spruce Island. Ironically, the top of the ship’s mast and yardarm, still visible above the water, formed a cross marking her watery grave, directly in front of Father Herman’s chapel.

Since the 1970s, people had been searching in vain for the sunken Kad’yak, using the location parameters recorded in the ship’s log. Bradley Stevens suspected that those parameters had been misinterpreted and,143 years after she sank, believed he had new clues about Kad’yak’s position.

On July 21, 2003, we left the Kodiak harbor on board the Melmar. Our captain was Joshua Lewis, a teacher and fisherman from Kodiak. With great expectations, we arrived in Icon Bay, lowered the magnetometer into the water and fastened it behind the boat. A magnetometer, a device that resembles a miniature submarine, is an ultra-powerful metal detector that can detect metal buried or submerged far below the surface. Towing the magnetometer back and forth, we mapped the floor of the bay. When we reached the position Bradley had marked on his map, the magnetometer indicated the presence of large metal objects. Could it be the Kad’yak?

We began diving that afternoon, and by evening, we had found several pieces of copper. Cautiously optimistic, we returned to Kodiak.

Early the next morning, we were back in Icon Bay, and on our first dive, we found what appeared to be part of the ballast. We also found two cannons, an anchor, and a chain that matched the time period of the Kad’yak. Convinced that we had made a substantial discovery, we reported our findings. The news spread across the nation, and all diving was stopped in Icon Bay. Because of the historical significance of our find, all exploration rights for the shipwreck had automatically transferred to the State of Alaska.

The following summer, the East Carolina University organized a marine archeological excavation of the lagoon, and we who had found the shipwreck were invited, somewhat reluctantly, to join the expedition. With support from NOAA and the National Science Foundation, the university had the resources and the competency to complete the task. Though many artifacts were uncovered during the excavation, the most significant find was the copper hub of the ship’s wheel with the name “Kad’yak” inscribed in Russian letters, which positively identified the shipwreck.

When the excavation was completed, the remains of the Kad’yak were again buried in sand. A large portion of the hull and other artifacts from the ship lay in wait for someone with the authority and the resources to uncover her secrets. Barring that, Captain Arkhimandritov’s old ship will rest in peace at the bottom of the lagoon for centuries to come.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.

Below the Surface

Diving in Kodiak water
Kodiak is a diver’s paradise with enchanting kelp forests inhabited by colorful and curious creatures.

I got my PADI diver’s license in 1980 while working on the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Since then, I have explored most of the premier diving sites of the world, like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Red Sea, the Andaman Islands south of Burma, the West Indies, and the South Pacific. But few places are as rich in fish, shellfish and other marine wildlife as the coral gardens and kelp forests that surround Kodiak. A calm, sunny day in Kodiak waters is one of the most exciting dives a diver will ever experience.

There are many odd and colorful creatures in the ocean around the Kodiak islands. Besides the five species of salmon, there are several species of cod, herring, halibut, starfish in every color of the rainbow, sea cucumbers, octopi, shellfish, sea otters, several kinds of whales, and the giant salmon shark.

My first dive on Kodiak was off the shores of Fort Abercrombie. After a few minutes in the water, two curious sea lions approached me, poking at my diving equipment. On land sea lions are large and cumbersome animals, but in the water they are elegant and graceful. Their familiarity was both exciting and alarming. One little nibble on my rubber air hose could have had devastating consequences. But they soon decided that I was a rather boring playmate and left me and my equipment without harm.

In the 1940s and 1950s, new radar equipment revealed large hoards of king crabs in the waters around Kodiak. This discovery launched a boom in the fishing industry, and in just five years, Kodiak was transformed from a small fishing community to one of the largest commercial fishing ports in the United States. Annual catches of up to 100 million pounds were pulled from the waters around Kodiak and delivered to the canneries.

Commercial fishing of king crabs continued for 25 years. Then, in the 1970s, the population of king crabs dwindled. By 1982, the catch was so poor that fishing was stopped. No one knows for sure why the king crabs disappeared, but researchers believe that overfishing could be one of the main factors.

Pete Cummiskey, one of my good friends on Kodiak, is a diver and marine biologist who has been working with the king crabs since the mid-80s. I asked him to show me the crab pods. There is protection in numbers, so juvenile crabs group together in giant balls to protect themselves from predators. A large pod can have several thousand crabs.

One gorgeous but cold November day, we went out in Womens Bay in search of crabs. Earlier that year, Pete had tagged several individuals and attached transmitters to their shells. Pete lowered the receiver into the water and soon picked up a signal. We prepared for our dive.

The pod was about 90-120 feet down, engulfed in a dense cloud of sediment churned up by the crabs. It was so thick, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, and it took a few minutes to locate the pod. Because of the poor visibility, I had to get really close to the crabs in order to film.

The king crab is an impressive animal with a leg span of up to 6 feet across, and with large powerful claws that could easily snap off a finger. As they get older and larger they are less dependent on the pod, but the crabs in the pod I was filming were still fairly large.

Lying on the bottom, trying to get as close as I could with my camera, I felt the sharp pinch of a claw grabbing on to my arm through my thick diver’s suit. It was so painful I almost dropped the camera. I tried to pull the crab away, but it refused to let go. I realized that the only way to free myself from the monster was to rise to the surface. Halfway up, the crab finally let go and sank to the bottom. I had learned my lesson – Give the king crabs a wide berth!

I did descend again, however, and resumed my filming of the remarkable crab pods on the bottom of Womens Bay, keeping a respectful distance.

We located more pods and made several dives in the bay that day. Through his research, Pete has learned a lot about the king crabs’ environment and their migration along the ocean floor. Hopefully his research will lead to a rejuvenation of the king crab population so that commercial fishing of this wonderful delicacy can resume on Kodiak.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.

The Naked Salmon

Stefan Quinth holding a skinned salmon
The salmon refused to give up, even after a nasty encounter with a bear. When I released it back into the water, it swam away quickly.

Five species of salmon return every year to the creeks, rivers and lakes on Kodiak. Having spent 2-4 years swimming all over the Pacific Ocean, they return to the same body of water where they once hatched. The thousands of salmon that spawn in the Connecticut Creek have had to swim several miles through a network of rivers before coming home. It is a journey wrought with danger. Like runners in a gauntlet, the salmon race as fast as they can up the shallow water, while hungry bears wait expectantly on the shore.

I was wading up the middle of Connecticut Creek one day, when several salmon swam past my feet. This was not an unusual occurrence, as the stream was often full of fish, but one of them looked odd. On closer inspection, I saw to my surprise, that it was naked! It had apparently just escaped after a close encounter with a bear, leaving behind the skin off its back.

Striding through the water, I chased after the naked salmon, wanting to get a picture of the fish that wouldn’t give up, despite incredible adversity. I caught up with it at the next bend and managed to coax it up on the sand. Carefully, I lifted the salmon in my hands to take its picture. It was stripped of skin from head to tail. Such a tenacious character, giving all it had for the next generation! I released the salmon back into the river, and as soon as it felt the cool water, it took off with a powerful swish of its tail, probably very much aware that time was of the essence.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q)

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.

A Playful Bear Cub

The young bear clowned around outside my tent, keeping one eye on me to see if I was paying attention. He kept me company for over a weeks
The young bear clowned around outside my tent, keeping one eye on me to see if I was paying attention. He kept me company for over a weeks.

My first visit to South Frazer on Kodiak Island was in late August. Although it was quiet and deserted, evidence of the summer’s activities could be seen everywhere. The grass lay trampled and dotted with bear scat. Piles of rotting salmon lined the riverbanks below the waterfall.

I set up my tent by the lake, just north of the outlet. The fishing was great, and I lived like a king on freshly caught trout.

Waking early one morning, I opened the tent flap to find a young bear watching me from a few yards away. He studied me carefully. Then, after a minute or two, began rolling around in the grass, turning somersaults, and playing with his back paws, keeping an eye on me the whole time. He seemed to want to play … with me! Is it possible to play with a 300-pound bear cub?

The cub had dark fur, like most males. About 20 yards away, there was another cub, this one lighter in color, probably the sister of the cub near my tent. Sows, ready to mate again, usually abandon their cubs during their third summer. Left alone, not really knowing how to act, the cubs are most vulnerable. Bears are very social animals, and abandoned cubs often seek the company and security of other creatures, even humans. I’d been “adopted” before by cubs on Kodiak. While a great honor, it’s not entirely without risk.

I had plenty of opportunities to film and photograph the playful cub that stayed near me the whole time I was there. When I went down to the lake, he followed me, and when I went to bed, he laid down just outside my tent. His sister, the lighter bear cub, kept her distance.

Since then, I’ve returned to South Frazer many times and have often wondered what happened to my little friend. Maybe he is one of the giant bears that roam the mountaintops. Hopefully, he’s learned to be a little more cautious and keep his distance from dangerous humans.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.

Kodiak, Alaska

Kodiak, Alaska

Alaska! What is it about this great, unspoiled wilderness that is so alluring to some people? It is a destination that often requires a challenging and costly journey, with accommodations lacking creature comforts like hot water and dry socks, swarming with mosquitoes and other bloodthirsty critters, and completely cut off from communication with the outside world. Why are we willing to go to great expense and difficulty for the opportunity to abstain from comforts we strived for generations to obtain? Is it a longing for a simpler life, a desire to escape from city noises, smog-laden air and bumper-to-bumper traffic or simply a challenge to see how much we can handle? I would like to take you on an exciting adventure to the Kodiak islands in the Gulf of Alaska, a place laden with history and hidden secrets.

It’s a little known fact that most of the natives on the island are descendants of a group of Scandinavian men who arrived on Kodiak about 100 years ago, married Sugpiaq women, and raised large families. This explains why so many of the natives have names like Olson, Gustavson, Haakanson and Svenson. With its high mountains, clothed in emerald green and cut through with deep blue fjords, Kodiak has many similarities to the Scandinavian Peninsula.

I first came to Kodiak more than 25 years ago to film the Kodiak bear, the largest land carnivore on earth, but I found the islands so intriguing that I have returned year after year. For a documentary filmmaker, there is a never-ending source of inspiration in the dramatic landscapes, unique wildlife, and rich cultural history.  I would like to share some of my adventures in the wilderness, my experiences with the great bear, and my encounters with history through sunken ships and archeological digs.  I found a multitude of film projects on Kodiak, and I also developed friendships that will last a lifetime. Every time I return to Kodiak it feels like I’ve come home.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.