Buskin River State Park

24th September

Landing on Kodiak Island and reassembling my bike at the airport felt like the real start of my journey: my first miles cycled and my first night under canvas. In preparation for almost a week on Kodiak Island – an island with one of the highest densities of bears anywhere in the world – I’d read up on bears. I knew all about storing food well away from my tent, making noise when out and about to avoid catching a bear by surprise, and always keeping bear spray to hand. Perhaps the only thing I hadn’t considered was how it would feel to actually set eyes on a bear, to see my first bear as I cycled through, or camped in, their habitat. Or how I would manage to lie inside my tent listening to the sounds of a bear beyond the canvas in the hours after sunset.

It didn’t take long to find out. Low water levels had closed Buskin River to salmon fishing and the State Park was deserted. My plan to camp near the loudest group I could find quickly evaporated. The only sound as I cycled the pot-holed forest tracks looking for people was the scrunching of the damp, grey gravel beneath my tyres. I don’t recall any bird song or movement amongst the lichen-encrusted trees, all was still and quiet. Emerging from the gloom of the forest, I rolled to a halt on a wooden viewing platform beside the river. Dead and dying salmon languished in the shallows, those that could still pushing slowly upstream.

One of the tired salmon in Buskin River

The light beneath the trees was fading fast as I put up my tent, bear spray in hand and heart thumping. I scanned for movement between the trees as I secured the fly sheet and rolled a couple of boulders into place to keep each of the porches open. Finally, it was time to scoff a quick sandwich then crawl into my sleeping bag for the 12 hours of darkness. Keen to eat far from my tent, I hopped back on my bike and headed for the river, the weak light of my headtorch barely reaching the ground ahead of my front wheel. Looking up in the hope of some light to steer by, the beam of my headtorch illuminated a pair of green eyes directly ahead of me on the track. My bike and breathing stopped simultaneously, my body completely frozen. The eyes were marginally higher than my own and not more than five metres ahead of me. For a moment, neither of us moved. It was only when the eyes swept sideways off the track and back into the forest, that I swung my bike back round and cycled at full speed back to the tent, pausing only to throw my unopened sandwich into a bear locker.

An illustration of my bear encounter by the incredible Alina Loth of Engaged Art. I love it!

What followed was undoubtedly the most terrifying night of my life. I’m amazed I managed to sleep at all, but it wasn’t for long. The scrunching of gravel not far from my head woke me soon after midnight. Sounds came and went, none of them reassuring. Every so often, I’d let out a shout and give a blast on the airhorn I’d left beside my pillow, next to the only knife I had. Wired with fear and jetlag, I wrestled with the part of my brain that was flicking through worst case scenarios as the minutes crawled by. Eventually, finally, the light slowly arrived, heralded in by the national anthem blasted over crackly loudspeakers from across the river and, just like that, I’d survived my first night of camping.  

Serious scenes in the early hours

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