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Walking with bears on Afognak Island

“This land is for the bears,” Nancy tells us over and over as we sit together on the deck of her cabin. “There is a cycle: the bears eat the invertebrates that live in the kelp that washes ashore on the beaches, providing their first source of protein in the spring. Then a few months later in the fall, the coho salmon that spawn in the wetlands and streams here are their last source of protein before hibernation.” Every year it repeats.

During the summer, the world famous Kodiak brown bears Nancy is referring to use a well established network of trails in the remote wilderness of Afognak Island. Over the decades, their footprints have worn deep holes into the earth, a humbling reminder that we are in bear country.

Take a flight from Anchorage, Alaska to Kodiak Island, and then hop in a float plane to Afognak Strait before a long walk across the beach and you’ll find yourself at Nancy Hillstrand’s place. If the flight views didn’t take your breath away, you‘ll probably need a few moments of silence to take in the wide expanse of rocky shorelines and majestic old-growth Sitka spruce trees that surround you.

For Hillstrand, it didn’t take long for her to fall in love with the property.

Nancy Hillstrand moved to Alaska solo when she was 17 and is the owner of the Coal Point Seafood Co. in Homer. She bought the 145 acre property on Afognak Island because it provides important habitat for brown bears and she wanted to protect it forever.

This small peninsula, on the southern shores of Afognak Island, is a unique geographic feature in the Kodiak Archipelago. Due to its position, it catches an amazing amount of bull kelp on its beaches from ocean currents in Afognak Strait and Marmot Bay. Imagine wading waist-deep in a kelp forest after a storm blows in from the Gulf of Alaska!

We walk along the beach knowing that this place will be protected forever.

Flying over Marmot Bay. The surrounding waters are rich in bull kelp (Nereocyctis) forests and eelgrass (Zostera) beds. Looking down on this incredible marine ecosystem helps understand the importance of it to support such a rich terrestrial ecosystem and the largest land carnivore in North America — Ursos arctos middendorffi, which could not persist here without the diversity of plants.

Gulls fly over kelp beds near Afognak Island in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. We have helped conserve 36,000 acres between the Refuge and Afognak Island State Park. This kelp provides habitat for up to 20 different species of fish, sea lions, whales, otters and countless invertebrates. Kelp in Alaska can grow up to two feet a day depending on light and nutrient availability and species can live for seven years.

Walking around the property we quickly grow to understand how special it is. The salmon berries are ripe, and we fill our pockets to add to our morning oatmeal. The Devil’s Club is taller than we are. Back on the deck we are treated to a visit from a Sitka black tailed deer.

A Sitka black tail deer grazes on the property on the southern shores of Afognak Island, Alaska

It’s a wild, beautiful place that provides habitat for many animals and sea life. Now, thanks to Nancy, this land is permanently protected forever.