Kenai River guide Dustin Klepacki, 22, did not expect to perform a rescue mission when he, his father and their friend floated the upper river last weekend.
They just wanted to avoid all the combat fishing — just float rapids and fish trout down river, he said.
But after a section of rapids, their sunny scene changed — a brown bear cub was drowning in a whirlpool.
“So we’re getting closer and closer and this thing starts screaming,” said Mike Polocz, Klepacki’s father and Alaska H2O Pros owner. “And we’re like, ‘What do we do here? What do we do here?’”
The sow and another cub watched from shore, frightened off by the approaching boat as the three assumed their roles.
Polocz grabbed a net, Klepacki gripped the oars and their friend Charlie Mettille filmed from his iPhone.
Polocz said he was trying to bump the bear out of the whirlpool with the net. If he could do that, he said, then the bear could swim ashore.
But the more they tried, the more the two parties fumbled. The whirlpool just spun the boat in circles, Polocz said, and the bear became increasingly frantic.
“It was just so stressed, so stressed,” he said. “Looking in its eyes, it was just saying ‘Help me, please. Help me.’”
If it could have, he said, it would have crawled into the boat.
Finally, the current pressed the cub against the boat, he said, pinning it just long enough for him to nudge it into slower water.
The cub then swam ashore.
“The really weird thing (happened) at the end of it,” Klepacki said. “He laid on the beach, all pooped and tired, and he just looked at us and cried one time and ran away, like saying, ‘Thank you.’ I just don’t think that’s ever going to happen to me or my dad or anybody I know for the rest of my life. That’s a once-in-a-life-time thing.”
Klepacki said that by the end of the ordeal, his father was shaking, with tears in his eyes.
“It was the most amazing thing that has happen to me since I was able to carry the American flag on the field at the Chicago-Minnesota game after 9/11,” Polocz said. “Those emotions were the same when that bear caught that (net). It was spectacular.”
Although their story had a happy ending, Polocz said it could have been far worse.
He was worried the cub would drown or, in its desperation, would crawl in the boat. If either happened, he said, the mother might have charged them.
“It could have went south in a hurry,” he said, “and the story could have had a very unhappy ending as far as us drowning the bear and Mom coming out and saying, ‘I’m killing all three of you guys.’”
Polocz was also ready to jump in, despite the water’s temperature. As an ex-white water guide, he said he knew he would have only lasted 45 seconds.
“The chances were worth it because I could not have lived with myself if I would have just passed that thing up and had to watch it drown,” he said.
In hindsight, Polocz said they should have conducted the rescue differently.
He said he would have preferred to drop anchor, leash a life jacket to the boat and throw it to the cub.
“It would have grabbed that life jacket,” he said. “It would have held on. We would have been able to row that thing right out of the eddy, instead of being the Three Stooges trying to get it out of there (the way we did).”
From the time they left Jim’s Landing, and on the trip back to Skilak Lake, they did not see a single person. Had they left five minutes later, Polocz said they would not have saved the cub.
“It was like it was meant to happen,” he said.
This story has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling of Charlie Mettille's name.