It’s not your typical summer job: Trekking into the woods looking for bears.
For 18-year-old Randall Friendly it’s the internship of a lifetime. He’s working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at its Brown Bear Research Camp at Karluk Lake on Kodiak Island.
“No bears, just some sockeye swimming up the creek,” said Friendly as he scanned the area.
Unfortunately, all the bears are likely in the mountains foraging for berries. That means there’s a swarm of spawning sockeye that have taken over the creek.
A couple issues researchers are looking into is the declining bear population around the lake and why bears choose to feed where they do.
“It is surprising just having had past field season to compare it to,” said biologist technician Caroline Cheung. “It seems a little bit quieter, especially when you see these creeks filled with salmon. You think they’d be having a buffet.”
Dead salmon pile up with no bears around to eat them. Friendly wades into the water to kick some of them away from the research equipment.
He’s from Tuntutuliak, a small village of 400 people just outside Bethel. The rotting reds aren’t a sight he’s used to seeing.
“Where I’m from is between fresh water and ocean water, so it’s estuary. So we can fish there where the fish are healthy and silver.”
With no bears in sight, Friendly helps change out the memory cards and batteries in the bear and salmon cameras.
He knows every part of the project is important and he’s thrilled to help in every aspect.
Friendly is one of about 25 interns around the state from the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP).
The goal is to get Alaska Native youth interested in math and science and prepare them for college. Nearly 80 percent of ANSEP students have graduated college or are currently enrolled.
“It accelerates students and motivates them, so they believe they can do it,” Friendly said. “At first I thought it was going to be a hard thing but now I have the confidence to work harder.”
Friendly is the second ANSEP intern to work at the Brown Bear Research Camp, and staff welcome the help.
“It’s great having Randall out here, being able to share these experiences with him,” Cheung said. ”It’s not only enriching and rewarding, it’s exciting to see him so happy to be out here and to be eager to learn.”
The search for bears wasn’t a total bust. Friendly spotted a pair along the shore.
“They look like siblings because they’re both big,” he said while looking through his binoculars.
The team wasn’t able to get very close before the bears retreated into the woods.
Luckily, throughout the summer Friendly’s been able to tag along with researchers and get some very up-close encounters, almost too close for comfort.
“The exciting part is when we got to see the bears and when you’re watching them up close,” he smiled.
At Camp Island, he used the cards he collected from the cameras to start counting.
It’s his final week at work at the bear camp and he’s more than grateful for the opportunity.
“It helps you learn how to cooperate with others, work with other students and other people,” he said.
He’ll take those life lessons with him to college in the fall. Right now he plans to study biological sciences at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Editor’s note: KTVA would like to thank ANSEP for providing travel to Kodiak.