Sunday, May 24, 2009

"Bear Haven"- Just My Two Cents...

OK, another Alaskan has managed to make national news and we're not talking about our media pursued governor. We all love Sarah but we do wish she would stay off of the television more.

The person I'm talking about is Charlie Vandergaw. In case you haven't heard, Charlie has been feeding wild bears out in the Timbuktoo at his remote cabin and basically making them his personal pets. Despite a state law and good sense that prohibits feeding bears or any other wildlife. He has named his property with the rather ridiculous moniker "Bear Haven". Wonderful. Another news story about an Alaskan doing something stupid in the woods. Timothy Treadwell and Chris McCandless don't really count since they weren't Alaskans- they only perished here but it colored the news for a while all the same.

Charlie has been doing this (self admittedly) for about 20 years and I first heard about him in about 2000 or 2001. Back then he was the subject of a couple of local news "human interest" reports and I believe an Anchorage newspaper article sometime around 2005 or 2006. That was about it. Charlie went off the radar for both the public and apparently for law enforcement. Alaska has a peculiar knack for turning a blind eye to the harmless, law-breaking kook as long as no one is getting hurt. The further in the boonies you go the more prevalent this attitude is. Not that law enforcement here needs any defense from me, but this is a big darn place with some folks bent on mayhem. Those folks get priority attention without argument from almost anyone.

All went well for Charlie for a few years. He or some friends would load up on Sam's Club dog food and Wal Mart stale cookies (reportedly 10,000 lbs and 800 lbs. last year; respectively), pack it all into a bush plane (owned by Charlie and a buddy) and fly it out to "Bear Haven" and give the bears a snack. For the less informed this process is called "food habituating" wildlife. Bears are incredible survivors and exceptionally intelligent. If Charlie is giving out food, they're going to accept.

Some video I saw years ago showed Charlie with bears (unusually both black and grizzly who seldom tolerate each other in their presence) milling about the cabin and getting fed dog food, some even performing "tricks" for a stale doughnut or cookie. It was a remarkable number of bears for the Interior, where bear densities run relatively low. Bears are normally solitary animals in the Interior; on the coasts during salmon runs bears will congregate around salmon streams when food is abundant. Its not really a chummy kind of affair, but rather a group of bears grudgingly getting along for the sake of getting a piece of the action. Point being this- a dozen bears in one location in the Interior is just not normal occurence.

Charlie's food bill must have been getting astronomical because this rather reclusive retired wrestling coach started taking a financial interest in the bears. One of his friends started a company that specialized in "bear imagery"- ostensibly for the commercial purpose of feeding the growing and competitive tourism market for bear photographs, videos and the like. It's an industry that's often as hungry as a bear itself for such things. Getting great bear photos shouldn't have been a problem with a dozen or so milling about in the yard.

Then came Firecracker. A British film company who showed up to do a documentary on Charlie and an Animal Planet sort of thing called "A Stranger Among Bears". Some serious money was starting to change hands now with an expense fee of $76,000 being paid at some point to Vandergaw and his pals. State law enforcement personnel were starting to sit up and take notice- what started out as a harmless kook out in the Bush with a "pet" bear (illegal but not particularly noxious in the realm of crime fighting) was starting to look a lot like an organized effort to exploit Alaskan wildlife for financial gain. Or exploit Charlie. Or both. The fallout of Treadwell's death and resulting investigation of his fundraising (often called exploitation of his wealthy celebrity donors by critics) activities to "protect" Alaskan bears from poachers in the middle of one of the most protected wilderness areas in the state makes some officials wish they'd have sent Treadwell back to California in handcuffs rather than a body bag.
A common view is that his wealthy patrons might have been harder on him than the bears. The perpetual stain left on the Alaskan psyche by having the fruity and misguided Treadwell munched upon by bears (as well as girlfriend/ companion Amy Huguenard) despite numerous warnings by ADFG/NPS to leave the bears alone is a big one. It is held by many that legal action may have preserved Treadwell's life and certainly Huguenard's (or at least prolonged it while he fought it out in court) and that was enough to ignite a response from authorities regarding Bear Haven. It has long been held as public opinion that a human death is inevitable at Bear Haven. A early Craig Medred column in ADN noted the ridiculous level of danger in such an enterprise. A common expression upon hearing of Charlie's recent warrant among locals was-"He's not bear scat yet?"

Charlie had admitted being "slapped around" by the bears on several instances in the past as well as "knocked out". But when video of a visiting cameraman being bitten by a bear surfaced, law enforcement's benignly myopic eye focused squarely on Charlie and Bear Haven. Their intent was pretty simple- shut down this ridiculous operation before someone gets killed or severly mauled. The injury at Bear Haven is reported as minor. A severe bear mauling is not- I'll leave it to your imagination and Google prowess to see the difference.

State Troopers have charged Charlie and his accomplices with 20 counts of feeding wildlife and have seized the plane used to transport the 5 tons of dog food out to the Susitna Valley in the last year. Charlie could face a $10,000 fine and land a year in jail if given the maximum sentence. His accomplices have been charged with other crimes and the future of "Bear Haven" is looking pretty grim at this point. Lest the reader think the state is going hard on Charlie, bear in mind (pun intended) that within the Anchorage area you will be cited for exactly the same crime for poorly managing your municipal garbage can whether you intend for bears to find it or not. Believe it or not ADFG and the Troopers get no pleasure for having to gack garbage bears with a twelve gauge shotgun when they take to foraging through housing developments. If you encourage that kind of thing they're going to make it pretty unpleasant for you because as cuddly as bears look, they are dangerous when attempting to cohabitate with humans.
Hell, bears don't even cohabitate that well with each other.

So the final chapter is still being written to the story but I'll give you my take. Charlie is a nut who's lived in the Bush too long. Despite the opinion of some Alaska residents that this is a case of THE MAN cracking down on poor old Charlie and killing freedom as we know it in the Great White North, I still think the whole bit was just daft. I'm not smart enough to explain anthropomorphism, but this poor guy is ripe with it. Whether it was Charlie or his buddies that first introduced the financial element into the picture, that action was purely scandalous without respect to wildlife in this author's opinion. I also think the media industry willing to pay big dollars for such patently misguided actions is partially to blame as well. It's unclear to what degree money or notoriety fueled Charlie's decisions but a national network's profit motives are pretty clear and historically encourage the less balanced among us to repeat what made someone else famous. While I don't really think jail is appropriate in this case I do hope the judge gets creative with sentencing and puts them all under the gavel hard for such a stunt. Hopefully Alaska's bears will benefit somehow.

What about the bears? Just exactly what do you do with roughly two dozen severely food habituated bears. When I say "food habituated" I mean almost tame, but only almost. Given the bears bold behavior around Charlie and his feeding program I give these bears a zero percent chance of survival in the wild. If folks in Alaska communities are approached by a bear acting like these do- the response is typically a bullet. ADFG , law enforcement and individuals kill dozens of nuisance bears every year in Alaska. Bears who, for the most part, have simply started associating humans or their residences with food and can't be dissuaded. If caught in the act early enough, "garbage" bears can be driven off and learn to avoid humans via bear spray, cracker shells or rubber buckshot. Severely food habituated bears who won't take the hint are typically killed with a rifle or shotgun. Capture and relocation of nuisance bears is costly, dangerous and since Alaska has an abundance (or over abundance in some eyes) of bears seldom attempted. Just how food habituated are "Charlie's" bears?
Well these bears aren't just associating a dumpster, garbage can, or sloppy campsite with food; these bruins are basically hand fed and are associating humans themselves directly with food. What happens when the Gravy Train (pun intended) stops and one of these bears wanders a few miles and approaches another human boldly looking for a bowl of kibble? My guess is it will involve gunpowder and end badly for the bear, the human or both. Also keep in mind these aren't some recently displaced juvenile bears making an exploratory foray into the wonderful smelling dumpster for the first time. Some of these bears were born at "Bear Haven" and have been hand fed the majority of their life. I think the chances of dissuading these bears from human interaction is terribly futile at best.

The more I think about this little Northern debacle the worse taste it leaves in my mouth. We have at least one man who has a sad and remorseful love of wild things gone terribly awry. We have at least one injured cameraman. We have at least one person (and one major network) seeking to profit from the exploitation of taming the wild and humanizing the animal. We have state resources now being funneled into what basically equates to a freaking three ring, nationally broadcast, circus. Lastly we have a couple dozen bears caught in a tough place- not tame enough to live with people and not wild enough to live without them.
Most will likely die because of it.

Thanks Charlie.
Author's note- The photo at the beginning was found using Google Images without a photo credit attached. I freely give photo credit to whoever took it. You can see more Bear Haven images and read more at

Monday, May 11, 2009

About Those Shoes...

The other day I was privileged by some kind words over at Rasch's Outdoor Chronicles about my bear hunting post. In his brief post he made the astute observation about my “slip on loafers” from a photograph on my site (If Al is that observant in the field then the hogs are in trouble!). I’ve worn that type of shoe almost daily for several years and I‘ve never given it a second consideration. So I thought I would share some thoughts about hunting attire with the readers because I tend to have a pretty non typical (at least among the general hunting populace) view of what constitutes proper field clothing. I tend to be fairly typical of Interior Alaskan hunters that I’ve met. Although I’ve purchased hunting specific clothing in the past and been disappointed often enough (think Gore Tex failures) that I’ve just quit buying it altogether.

First of all, Al is entirely right- those were slip on loafers. Specifically they’re Merrell Polar Mocs and they’re a great shoe for hunting (and lots of other things) in Alaska. I’ll preface this by saying a lot of my hunts are day-type hunts conducted close to home. As a local hunter I have the total luxury of hunting when the weather and conditions are in my favor. If it’s pouring down rain I’m likely to just stay home or at best in camp. I’m usually not travelling long distances and spending mega dollars to hunt either. Seasons also tend to be pretty generous for residents so time is usually on my side as well. If the situation were different, you bet I’d wear different stuff and hunt through a hurricane if I needed to.

About those shoes
Those shoes are really comfortable and furthermore- they’re extremely quiet. On a final stalk there’s no heavy sole or toe cap to drag on debris and blow it at the last minute. The flexible sole hugs the foot and you can feel the terrain through the sole. The tread is a grippy and flexible rubber that’s perfect for holding on to rain slickened rocks. They do surprisingly well on ice and packed snow. The shoes are also waterproof and lightly insulated- not a winter shoe by any means but a very good spring shoe for Alaska. I can run (as much as I ever run) in them and they’re comfortable over long distances when I’m moving fast and not carrying a load. There are no laces to foul and the neoprene collar keeps out rocks and twigs and other unpleasant things I don’t want in my shoes.

Unfortunately there’s not any ankle support but without a load that’s generally not an issue- a’ la Ray Jardine’s The Ultralight Backpacker. I do keep heavy hiking boots in the truck right next to the pack frame in the event I’m successful and need to haul something heavy out of the woods. Otherwise, I’m just walking with guns. They aren’t really appropriate for hunting tundra (not enough ankle support on joint snapping tussocks) or muskeg (not nearly tall or waterproof enough) but for Interior hunting on dry ground they’re just great.

In a similar vein I tend to eschew hunting specific clothing altogether with a few exceptions. During the spring season I’m usually hunting in Carhartts. They’re not waterproof (again that weather thing) but a well worn pair of Carhartt pants (Double knee dungaree type) and a well broken in light canvas jacket are very quiet in the woods and durable as nails when busting brush. If you need waterproof, real rain gear is that and in spades so don't accept substitutes. I was happy for the Hellys in the photo to the left because the temperature was in the low 30Fs and every type of precipitation known to man fell on us in quantity. (Incidentally, that Gore-Tex clad guy behind me was nearly hypothermic by lunch after his gear failed miserably.) However be aware, brand new Carhartts are terribly loud when the fabric is as stiff as sheet tin. About 2 or 3 years of work and several hundred washings do just the trick. In addition, wool clothing is warm, durable and about as silent as clothing gets during those cooler fall hunts for moose and caribou. I positively love still hunting in my wool mackinaw pants and my ugly-as-sin old-fashioned plaid wool coat with a layer of fresh snow on the ground. It’s oversize pockets carry all the goodies the prepared hunter needs without resorting to a backpack for a short outting.

About that camouflage
I also tend to abhor most camouflage clothing as it generally looks goofy anywhere but the field and in the field it’s often just plain ineffective. If I were a Southeastern U.S. deer hunter I might feel differently but in Alaska I just don’t see the point. Every year hundreds and thousands of hunters from the Lower 48 (affectionately and locally known as the Cabela’s Army) pour into Alaska and bring their hunting attire with them. Not to sound snide, but you can spot a guy wearing Mossy Whatever (or similar pattern) out on the tundra at about 3 miles with the naked eye- its just too dark, the pattern is too dense and it appears nearly black at any kind of distance. Neither do dark, complex patterns work well in open mountainous terrain, like the photo to the right. There simply are very few open country patterns that work well up here, but solid color clothing in the right palette can disappear remarkably well over the variable terrain if you keep the extraneous movement to a minimum.

That well broken down and faded Carhartt brown (or grey, or green, or tan) with the accompanying work stains just blends into the natural colors and patterns provided by the terrain. If you’re observant and realize most animals trigger primarily on movement and noise and not color you can get amazingly close to some animals wearing stuff you’ll even wear out in public. I once approached a small caribou band to within 30 yards- wearing a bright blue sweatshirt (The photo I took is to the left). In the bear hunt photo from a previous post that is actually what I wore to the office that day. Works great at work, works great in the field and will last through years of hard use- that’s a very good deal in my book.

My sole exception is winter camouflage when I’m predator calling. There is just no good way to hide in color when the world around you goes black and white. For calling in the wary predators like lynx, wolves, coyote and fox that are attuned to every variation of their environment, a good winter camouflage is essential. They all work reasonably well although I’m currently partial to NatualGear’s Snow Camo. A friend of mine sews ponchos made from el cheapo white bed sheets and does just as well so I’m sure its not rocket science. I think in winter the rule is to look like twigs, like snow or like both. There just isn't a lot of variation in the winter terrain's appearance.

About Scent control…
I realize a hot topic among some Lower 48 hunters is Scent-Lock clothing. I’ve never used it and it may be the cat’s meow on a white tail stand in Iowa but out on the open tundra or in the mountains if you follow the ages old advice of “wind in your face- fair chase”, scent control is kind of moot. I don’t advocate shaving in Aqua-Velva and wearing Hai-Karate but playing the wind is a certain way of ensuring animals don’t ever smell you. On a realistic note, most Alaskan animals aren’t terribly scent adverse to start with (unless you're wearing Hai-Karate!). There are numerous stories of moose walking into a camp (with a fire no less) while the hunters are cooking dinner. I’ve personally been winded by caribou without spooking the herd- bow range might have been iffy but rifle range was pretty simple in retospect. A bear’s sense of smell is so good (2600 times better than human ability or thereabouts) that I doubt the best Scent-lock ever made stands a chance. Bears do trigger on scent but I think that it sometimes works both ways in that scent often just makes them curious. Bears are infamous for dual identification- sight and smell, hearing and smell, smell and hearing etc. before bugging out once they know you’re human.

So in short I look for some different things in hunting attire than lots of folks, namely- durability, adaptability, and quietness. Not that everyone should do it my way but on your next hunting adventure give some things out of your closet you hadn’t considered a try. You might even be surprised at how well they work in the field despite what some hunting gear company's marketing department will have you believe. Good Hunting!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Porky Tree and Other Bear Tales...

Well spring bear season is progressing rather well and although I've not got a bear yet I'm spending lots of time in the field and getting to see some really interesting things. That's the bottom line- being outside and having a good time. One of the things I found is some trees that porcupines have been feeding on. The appearance of this tree gave us some hope as it looks somewhat like a tree that a bear has marked. Alas, no bear hair or tracks and the resulting damage is notoriously porcupine like.

Porcupines will climb up and strip the outer layer of bark and consume the sap rich inner bark. The damage to the trees can be significant including death and collapse of the tree. After we finally decided this wasn't a bear mark (curses) we discovered numerous trees in the area that were causalities of the porcupine feeding frenzy.

The height of the mark was exciting. If it had been a bear mark it would have been a really big one. I'm 5'11" and reach over 8', so as you can see the bear would have been a really good one to mark that tree. Darn porkies...

The other piece of excitement came when we explored up a creek bed. The creek ice has only recently receded and left the banks a muddy mess of clay. Hard walking but great for tracking. We found this bruin's track and it got us really excited. This is the Interior grizzly that every hunter dreams of.

The track itself measures 8" across the front pad (my foot as shown in the picture is 6" across for comparison). If the rule of thumb about sizing bears from tracks holds true this is a very nice bear indeed. The rule goes like this- you take the width of the forefoot track in inches and add 1. The result is what the bear should "square" when skinned. Let's see- 8"+1= 9 feet!

That my friends might not be much to get excited about if you're talking a big Kodiak or Kenai Peninsula brown bear (personally it would excite me anywhere..). But for an Interior bear that is absolutely huge. The "square" of the bear is determined like this- you take the bear's hide and measure from tip of nose to tip of tail. You also take the outstretch arms and measure from fore claw to fore claw. Add those two numbers together and divide by two.

To give those dimensions some meaning it would be a bear that measures 9' from tip of nose to tail and 9' from claw to outstretched claw. The measurements could also be 8' and 10' but any way you slice it- it's a big, big, Alaska big Interior bear.

Disappointingly, we followed the tracks about 1/2 mile to a bait station. The station looked like a war zone. On the previous evening this guy had absolutely demolished it. I don't know what the owner had in the bait barrel but the bear had moved the 55 gallon drum about 25 feet and emptied it after pulling several 1/2" lag bolts from the tree it was attached to. Then he squashed it flat. The raw power of these animals is nothing short of amazing. A grown man can stand on a drum on its side and jump up and down without much damage- the weight on this bear must be nearly 900 pounds. The rule of thumb is one hundred pounds per foot of "square" in the spring season- fall weights can be much heavier.

With the presence of the bait station I can no longer hunt this bear legally (unlike black bears you can't hunt grizzlies over, near, or in the influence of bait). I can't imagine the bait station owner will leave it up and continue feeding this monster as it would eat an enormous quantity of bait and nothing else will even dare show up. I plan on keeping tabs because if the bait owner calls it quits and takes down his stand the season officially reopens on this big boy!

In other hunting news I tried predator calling for bears using a diaphragm call. Didn't manage to alert a bear but I did call in a fox and a coyote. This is the wrong time of year to take either of those species but the entertainment value was immense. We've also seen hundreds of sand hill cranes, swans and thousands of geese over the last two weeks as well as they move through the area on their annual migration. Spring is here and I'm out enjoying it!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Isn't It Cute?

My family was privileged to an unexpected treat today. About mid-morning my wife spotted this cute little guy wandering aimlessly about the backyard and took several photos and a video. The moose calves came about two weeks ago and as you can see this young calf is already the size of a decent pony. Next year about this time that "little" moose will weigh 800-1000lbs if it manages to avoid bears, wolves, trucks and starvation over the winter.

A lot of folks would think this little one is lost or has somehow been abandoned by its mother and every year several calves are inadvertently killed by well meaning folks wanting to "help" these "abandoned" calves. A couple of scenarios can occur- the people manage to move the calf and the mother cannot find it and the calf dies or the mother moose (not as far away as folks believe) finds the calf being harassed by bipeds and some people die. A charge by a moose with calf simply must be seen to be believed. As an aside I am many times more afraid of mother moose than grizzly bears while roaming the back country or even my own backyard. By the way- this one rejoined his mother about two hours later and they went back into the boreal forest together.

In the normal course of a day (18 hours long and mostly browsing) a mother moose will often leave a calf in a safe looking spot and pillage the woods for young vegetation to produce more milk to feed these young ones. The caloric needs of a lactating moose are simply phenomenal and the fact they even can pull it off on a diet of willow buds is even more amazing. In fact, the rate of "twinning" (producing two calves) is one of the leading indicators to game biologists of the quality of the browse in the area. As twinning rates drop the game harvest is often increased to take pressure off the habitat and allow willow to grow back. In the old days the harvest was often left static and the moose would strip the area of willow and it would be replaced by alder, a less nutritious browse and a preferred habitat of the Interior grizzly. This would set up a long term decline of moose numbers in the area that could take decades to reverse.
Moose calves are often the victims of predation by grizzly bears (who it seems time their exit from the winter den to coincide with calving season), wolves and the odd large, mature black bear boar. Other dangers more prevalent near civilization are well meaning tourists and cheechakos as well as the more usual motor vehicle.

What are this calf's chances? Given a recent ADFG study about 50/50 in this area to reach next spring. If he were born farther south in the predator control area it would be slightly higher- call it 60/40. If he were born farther north near McGrath his chance would be only slightly higher than zero according to a recent game count that showed "zero" yearling moose survival rates. Given his reasonable chances I look forward to seeing this guy wandering around the area all summer and hopefully next year.