About the Kodiak Brown Bear Center

Welcome to our home.

Welcome to Kodiak Island, home of the Kodiak Brown Bear Center.  Kodiak Island’s rich geologic history is evident in the dramatic peaks, deep blue fjords, and emerald valleys that characterize this stunning archipelago like none other on Earth.

The island of Kodiak was sculpted for millennia by glaciers. As the crushing expanse of ice retreated 12,000 years ago, it left breathtaking expanses of land that exhibit the indelible mark of the last ice age. Kodiak Island is the second-largest island in the United States, and Karluk Lake is the largest lake on the island. At 12 miles (19 km) long, 1 mile (1.6 km) wide, and 457 feet deep (139.4 m), Karluk Lake is the vibrant cornerstone of southwest Kodiak’s ecosystem. Karluk Lake forms the headwaters of the Karluk River, which runs 22 river miles (35 km) through the lush foothills of the Karluk River Valley into Shelikof Straits.

This watershed supports five species of Pacific salmon, abundant wildlife, multitude of birds, and generations of Native Alutiiq people dependent upon the salmon’s return. Karluk Lake has a rich history of teaching its people about Kodiak Island. The first inhabitants were the Alutiiq (Ah-LOO-tik) people, who initially settled here approximately 7,500 years ago. Karluk served as a classroom for the Alutiiq by teaching them how to survive, thrive, and coexist with the land while using it to sustain their families. Today, the small villages of Karluk and Larsen Bay are all that remain of the once thriving Karluk population of Alutiiq people, and these Native communities are still dependent upon this area’s natural resources and abundance of salmon for their livelihood and existence.

The cultural heritage of the Alutiiq people lives on today through their Regional Native Corporation, Koniag, Incorporated, which is the owner and operator of the Kodiak Brown Bear Center. Koniag is one of the Native Corporations created by Congress through the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971 to settle Alaskan Native aboriginal claims, and benefit Alaskan Native shareholders. The core values of Koniag stem from its shareholders’ Alutiiq culture, and serves to guide the Corporation’s operations and financial endeavors.  The Corporation remains deeply rooted in the defining traditional core values of community strength, stewardship of natural resources, and importance of personal integrity and character.

The Kodiak Brown Bear Center’s home is on Camp Island, located in the center of Karluk Lake, and is just a short boat ride away from some of the best brown bear habitats remaining on the planet. Our program represents Alaska bear viewing at its best including the fusion of thousands of years of traditional Alutiiq wisdom with modern scientific knowledge.

We are building a collaborative program to continue the Alutiiq heritage of learning from the land in order to continue the stewardship of our resources so that future generations will have the same opportunities we enjoy today. Through sharing this experience with you, we hope to perpetuate Karluk Lake’s tradition of serving as a classroom, and your participation – whether as a bear viewer, a professional wildlife photographer or scientist – as you continue our quest to better understand and respect his great island.

History of the Brown Bear Center

Koniag’s lands in the Karluk Lake and River drainage represent the backbone and bedrock of our native Alutiiq culture and heritage. This is where our ancestors lived for millennia, until they were uprooted and relocated to 7 different villages around Kodiak Island that were created by the Russian’s during their colonization of Kodiak Island in late 1700’s. The villages were created to manage and control any Alutiiq opposition against the Russian colonization efforts and to create an island wide source of forced labor to harvest sea otters and other resources.

It has been estimated that over 10,000 Alutiiqs lived on Kodiak when the Russians arrived, with several thousand calling the Karluk drainage home. Archeologists have found a plethora of barabaras (sod dwellings), fish camps and village sites throughout the Karluk drainage. The Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak houses thousands of artifacts recovered from this area, with much still to be discovered.

The Kodiak Brown Bear Center (KBBC) is a wholly owned subsidiary of Koniag, Incorporated, one of 12 Alaska Native Regional Corporations created by Congress in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). Koniag is the native regional corporation representing the native Alutiiq people of the Kodiak Island Archipelago. ANCSA was created to acknowledge and settle native Alaskan aboriginal land claims and rights to pave the way and access for the 800 mile Trans Alaska Pipeline to transport oil from the recently discovered oil rich Prudhoe Bay fields to Valdez, Alaska.

Part of Koniag’s land ownership includes 112,000 acres along Karluk Lake and River on the southwest portion of Kodiak Island in the heart of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. This area is not only our ancestral roots but home to the legendary Kodiak brown bear, the largest omnivore on the planet.

The KBBC was commissioned by Koniag in 2010 to help preserve, protect and manage these sacred lands and to provide an opportunity for the people from around the world to see and experience first-hand, the legendary bears, salmon, landscape, and rich cultural history in this incredibly pristine and diverse natural habitat.

In order to preserve and respect these lands, and because of our remote location, everything needed to construct and maintain the facilities at KBBC was airlifted onto Camp Island.  This presented daunting challenges and expenses, and it took two years and over 300 helicopter lifts for the KBBC to become the state of the art facility it is today.  Power, water, septic and communication systems had to be designed and built in a way that allowed transport and construction on-site.   Even the catamaran that we use was specially designed to be airlifted in parts and reassembled once it reached the KBBC.  We are currently planning the next phase of construction which will include a lodge, more guest rooms, and wind turbines to provide our electrical power and reduce our need for fossil fuels.

The KBBC program was originally designed to offer personalized guided tours to view Kodiak bears in small groups of 6, while providing quality accommodations, meals, communications, and privacy. To better serve our clientele we are planning to expand our offerings to include fishing, kayaking, bird watching, nature photography, archeological tours, and organizational and corporate meetings/retreats.  The KBBC is an all-encompassing wildlife, educational, sport and leisure facility designed to manage, preserve and protect our Alutiiq cultural roots, heritage and ancestral home. Because of the foresight and dedication of Koniag Incorporated and staff of the KBBC, you now have a chance to experience this one of a kind facility in a remarkable remote unspoiled wildlife venue that has been a place where people and bears continue to co-exist as they have for thousands of years.

 

Alutiiq Origins

The Kodiak Alutiiq story began more than 7,500 years ago, when daring paddlers in skin covered boats left the security of the Alaska mainland to explore a distant island. Who were these people? Some think they were the descendants of interior Alaskan caribou hunters who adapted to life on the coast. Others argue that they were members of an ancient seafaring culture with ancestral ties to the shores of Siberia. Whatever the answer, both Alutiiq legends and ancient settlements on the Alaska Peninsula suggest people colonized Kodiak from the west.

From first settlement, Kodiak’s residents were skilled mariners, dependent on the sea for the necessities of life. Over 7,000 years, small, mobile, tent-dwelling bands developed into prosperous, permanent villages through human ingenuity. In response to climate change, population growth, and pressures imposed by neighboring societies, Alutiiq’s learned to harvest resources with increasing efficiency. They made more effective hunting tools, captured fish in larger quantities, processed foods for storage, and organized community labor – creating the powerful chiefdoms encountered by Russian traders in the eighteenth century.

 Classical Alutiiq Society

By AD 1200, Alutiiq society flourished in every corner of the archipelago. Spread from Shuyak to Tugidak, the population may have reached 14,000. Whaling villages and fishing communities sheltered extended families, who lived in large, multi-roomed sod houses. Chiefs and their families were the central figures of village life. Leaders, who inherited positions of authority from the previous generation, organized labor to insure the harvest of huge quantities of natural resources for food, barter, and festival.

To maintain their prestige, chiefs traveled long distances to visit and trade. In huge open skin boats, a wealth of Kodiak resources – hard black slate, red salmon, bear hides, and spruce root, were transported to the mainland and exchanged for antler, ivory, horn, animal pelts and exotic stone. Peaceful trading was interspersed with conflict. Chiefs initiated raiding parties, traveling hundreds of miles to avenge insult and invade rival communities for plunder and slaves.

During the dark winter months, the products of summer subsistence activities, trade, and warfare were invested in the community through public displays of prowess. Priests and shamans, specialists in the arts of ceremony and communication with the powerful spirit world, were hired to organize winter festivals. By honoring the events of the year, displaying their wealth through lavish feasts and gift giving, honoring ancestors, and thanking the spirit world, the Alutiiq elite perpetuated their status and provided for the economic, social, and spiritual needs of their communities.

 

 

Life on the Karluk

For thousands of years, people have been drawn to the banks of the Karluk River by its rich and predictable salmon runs. Biologists believe that salmon were present in the system by at least 6,000 years and that salmon runs grew increasingly large and stable over time. People have lived here just as long. How do we know? There are over 100 archaeological sites in the drainage and many document the evolution of fishing practices by Alutiiq people.

More than 5,000 years ago, ancestors of the Alutiiq speared fish in the shallow rocky waters at the outlet of Karluk Lake. Archaeological finds suggest that they tipped their spears with slender points ground from slate. People probably visited the region seasonally, camping in tents or small sod houses built along the lake and river shore. Here they harvested fish for immediate use, spearing individual salmon.

Over time, people built communities of sod houses and sheds to dry large quantities of fish. By 4,000 years ago, people were fishing with nets, a technology that allowed them to harvest salmon in bulk. Pits filled with burned rock and wood charcoal suggest that they dried fish over slow burning, smoky fires to create a store of winter food. Net fishing took place along the gravely shores of the lake where fish spawn, or in the deep waters of the central Karluk River.  About 1,000 years ago they used huge boulders to build V-shaped fish weirs across the entire width of upper Karluk River.  At the apex of these weirs, they placed woven fish traps or nets to more efficiently gather salmon heading into Karluk Lake to spawn. Remarkably, those stone weirs are still visible today from our bear viewing area at the Outlet.

Researchers have long suspected that residents visited Karluk Lake primarily in late summer and fall, with most returning to coastal villages for the rest of the year, but recent evidence points to the possibility of year-round inhabitation of some sites and we are anxious to continue our partnership with the Alutiiq Museum to expand our knowledge of this area.  As a guest of KBBC, you will become part of this effort because a one year membership in the Alutiiq Museum is included in the price of a reservation.

 Cultural Change

In the late 1700s, Russian explorers and fur traders discovered Kodiak and dramatically changed the Alutiiq way of life.  In their quest for sea otter pelts, local residents were coerced and later enslaved as hunters and sewers.  Villages were decimated by new diseases, warfare and assimilation into western traditions.  Scandinavians and Americans followed the Russians, pursuing fish and whales after the sea otter populations dwindled.  Within a couple hundred years, several thousands of years of tradition and culture were overwhelmed.

Alutiiq society today is an amalgamation of its historic roots. Single-family, ranch-style houses have replaced communal earthen homes, and hunters work from aluminum skiffs rather than skin boats. Family get-togethers feature perok and polkas, the Russian fish pie, Scandinavian dances, and music from around the world. Alutiiq villages, like all American communities, are connected to the larger world with airline flights, postal service, satellite television and the Internet.

Yet, an Alutiiq way of living persists. Western-style Native corporations act much like traditional chiefs, working for the economic, social, and even spiritual health of their members. Every January, revelers celebrate Russian New Year with a masquerade ball that maintains elements of traditional winter festivals — masking, feasting, dancing and oration.

Fishermen pull halibut from icy waters with tackle that is essentially the same as handcrafted rigging used for more than 5,000 years. And Elders light seal oil lamps at cultural events that are identical to the stone vessels that illuminated Kodiak for its first settlers.

Alutiiq identity is a marriage of genealogy, worldview, and experience that transcend the inevitable changes of time that influence, but do not define, all societies. The journey that began long ago continues today.