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Wed, Sep 05, 2007 - Page 13 News List

If you go down to the Kodiak woods today ...

Kodiak, Alaska, has the highest concentration of grizzly bears in the world and is a haven for nature lovers

DPA , Kodiak, Alaska

A fawn looks at its reflection in the door at Paul Lutheran Church in Kodiak, Alaska, Jan. 9, 2007. The deer stayed at the church for about two hours according to Rose Faucette, preschool and day care supervisor at the facility who said that others have stopped by in the past.

Alaska is considered one of the prime destinations for people who like to get far from the madding crowd and who long to spend their days in unadulterated, natural surroundings.

Sport fishing, hiking and wildlife observation are very popular thereabouts and Kodiak Island, the 9,000km2 land mass across the Shelikof Strait to the south of Alaska, is one of the best places to pursue all of these activities. It is home to countless grizzly bears, eagles and fascinating marine life, including whales.

This is a wilderness just waiting to be explored and that is why Kyle Eaton is in something of a hurry to get there. The 27-year-old pilot maneuvers his amphibious plane onto the start of the runway, in this case a small lake near Kodiak, the tiny capital of the island which carries the same name. The somewhat grandly named City of Kodiak is home to just 12,000 people but its importance can be gauged from the fact that there are only 13,000 people living in the entire archipelago. After a brief dash across the waves the plane soars aloft and glides over the green-clad hills of the territory.

"Look," says the pilot via the intercom and points to a bay down below where minke whales are on the move. The three dark shapes are clearly visible through the crystal-clear waters. After a flight lasting 20 minutes, the turboprop plane touches down in Zachar Bay. The remote lodge here is located in a nature reserve in Kodiak's southwest. There are no roads leading to it and it can only be reached by air or on water - a perfect place to watch animals in their natural habitat and a boon for bear watchers.

The island of Kodiak is home to the giant Kodiak bears that can grow to a height of 3m and more. "We have 3,000 of them which gives us the highest density of grizzly brown bears in the world," said former bear hunter Jim Hein, who travels down the Frazer River with groups of tourists keen to see a brown bear in the wild. The creatures are known to be elusive which makes it all the more of a surprise when a brown bear is spotted on the other side of the river. It slips into the undergrowth shortly afterwards. There's nothing to do now but wait and several hours later the patience of the observers is rewarded.

A huge female bear with two cubs ambles into view along the bank, moving closer with every step. The animals wade through the waters and come to within a few meters of the tourists. For a moment the brown bear remains motionless, looking up. Both bear and watcher stare each other in the eye, the pulse of the onlookers quickens and they can hear their every breath. For the tourists this is a magical moment of excitement mingled with a feeling of being at one with nature. Suddenly the bear family decides to move on.

The desire to experience nature at close quarters was almost certainly not what brought the settlers to Kodiak in the first place. In 1784, the first Russian explorers came here to hunt sea otters, which were much sought-after at the time. In 1867, when the US bought Alaska from Russia, Kodiak was a center of Russian fur trading. The Orthodox Church is a landmark and also a distinctive reminder of that era.

Modern-day visitors tend to be more interested in the relics and remains of the Alaskan natives who lived in these parts for thousands of years. The museum in Kodiak contains many artifacts of the Alutiiq people whose history can be traced back nearly 6,000 years. The items range from bones sharpened for use as harpoons through to works of art fashioned from the ivory trunks of the walrus.

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