Beware the buffalo

After telling me how careful I needed to be camping at Buskin River, the shop assistant in Big Ray’s mentioned that my next stop, Pasagshak, was one of the least bear-y places on Kodiak Island. My spirits rose immeasurably.

“I’ve only seen one bear there in 30 years. There are wild horses and cows on the way, and the Highland cattle can be obnoxious”, he explained. “Oh, and you need to watch out for the buffalo”. Wait, what? “Sometimes I’d rather deal with a bear”, he added. Great.

The cycle out to Pasagshak was a slog. Exhausted after my night of bear terror, my bike was heavy with supplies and the hills felt endless. Strong gusts of wind seemed to hinder me no matter how much the road twisted and turned. Mike the friendly roadwork guy waved me over to talk bikes, offer me energy bars and share bear stories. Initially teasing me for having a bear bell jingling as I cycled, he grew serious when I said I’d just come from Buskin River. “That’s a bad, bad place for bears” he repeated a couple of times. “You get 1000 lb bears there every day.”

Many hours later, having taken nearly twice as long as Google had expected, I rolled into Pasagshak. A bay hemmed in by mountains, with a shingly beach and river mouth, Pasagshak is very nearly the end of the road. A small campsite, a few houses set back from the beach and a boat ramp, that’s about it.

The campsite – more of a gravelly car park – was empty so I claimed the least rocky pitch as my own and battled to set up my tent in the blustery wind. Between the gusts that tore at my tent and the surf that crashed onto the beach, a whole team of bears could have been tangoing around the campsite all night and I wouldn’t have known. Perfect. Now my main concern about getting up in the night was that my tent might blow away without my weight to anchor it.

I spent three happy days at Pasagshak exploring, testing Alaskan camping food, collecting water from a nearby stream and trying to befriend the ‘obnoxious cows’ that turned and fled each time I approached. Reggie, the campsite warden, told me of summer months when the whole bay fills with gray whales, and how they come to the shallows to rub on the rocks. Puzzled that I wasn’t fishing, he delivered some salmon he’d caught and smoked himself. It was delicious.

Had the weather not turned, it would have been difficult to leave this quiet bear-free haven. As it was, fierce winds brought relentless rain that made the return journey an uncomfortable one but the prospect of heated accommodation in Kodiak all the more tempting.

Local knowledge & spider senses

Just a mile from Kodiak airport and four miles from town, Buskin River Recreation Site was conveniently located for my first night of camping on Kodiak Island. Having reassembled my bike at the airport, I wheeled into the park.

I was hoping I could manage a night without bear spray, camping gas and matches, all things I couldn’t bring on the plane, and my plan was to see what other campers at Buskin River reckoned. Except there weren’t any other campers. The place was deserted and my spider senses were on high alert.

Plan B had me bursting in to Big Ray’s outdoor store three minutes before they closed having cycled into Kodiak at top speed. As the shop assistant directed me towards the bear spray, I asked if he thought I would survive a night in a tent at Buskin River. He didn’t laugh, or even smile. After a pause, a list of rules followed: always have bear spray in your hand, with the safety catch off, and test fire it to know its range. There was no debating whether there were bears there, there were. But with the abundance of salmon in the river at the moment the bears were well fed and quite mellow. Massive but mellow.

Back at Buskin River it was getting dark. I cycled a lap of the site, pinging my bell as I went. Some cars passed through but none stayed. Site selected, I quickly set up my tent. Bear canister (the bear-proof container my food lives in) and toiletries went into a bear locker about 70 metres from my camping spot. The bear spray stayed by my side. By the time the tent was set up it was pretty dark, just time for a sandwich then bed.

Not wanting to eat near my tent, I cycled towards an open area near the river. Cycling through a darker stand of trees the light of my head torch suddenly illuminated a huge pair of eyes directly ahead of me. They looked straight at me, bright and green, then moved smoothly sideways back into the trees. Screeching to a halt, I turned circle. The sandwich went back in the bear canister and I dived into my tent.

What followed was a night of terror. Noises in the darkness had me shouting at the trees, blasting my air horn and gripping the bear spray, putting way too much faith in a can of aerosol-propelled vegetable extract. Something – perhaps the wind, perhaps not – caused one of my tent’s porches to collapse against the tent where the fabric rustled in the wind. Those were slow, slow hours. My fear levels spiked during a pee expedition in the dark hours before dawn.

Unhappy face at 04:00

Daylight eventually crept through the trees. Jet engines roared from the airport and the national anthem played from somewhere. My bike was loaded in record time and it wasn’t until I reached the airport that I finally ate my sandwich.

Since then my friend, Lars, has asked how I can know how bear-y a place is. I’m sticking with local knowledge and my spider senses, but with more attention paid to my spider senses. I won’t be camping at Buskin River again.

Packing up in double quick time

Squirrels’ teeth & meteorites

Visiting the Alaska Heritage Museum was hands down the highlight of my stay in Anchorage. The single room on the ground floor of the Wells Fargo bank – inconspicuous and easily missed – houses a treasure trove of artifacts and is free to enjoy.

Models of umiak boats, made from walrus or seal skin stretched over driftwood frames, sat next to 1000 year old harpoon heads and blubber hooks. There were baleen buckets, baleen sleds and baleen baskets. Many of the baskets had carved ivory starter pieces of the heads of marine mammals, as they’re seen from a kayak. Woven from thin strips of baleen, the baskets were light as a feather and seriously robust.

A collection of carved tusks caught my eye. Incredibly intricate maps, scenes and animals had been etched into the ivory, whilst others also had three-dimensional figures on pegs that slotted in to holes in the tusk. The curator of the museum, clearly very knowledgeable and with a mischievous air, opened up the display so I could take a closer look. “The people would have traded metal tools for carving these designs”, he told me, “and they also collected metals from fallen meteors”. Really? “And, apparently, squirrels’ teeth are incredibly hard”, he added. Wait, what? If trying to find fallen meteorites seemed crazily unfeasible, what were the chances of happening upon squirrels’ teeth? It only occurred to me later that whole squirrels – teeth and all – are easier to locate, but I’m still not entirely convinced.