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Bears, they are Bears! And Beautiful Indeed!




2 Bear Claws up for John Rogers’ Katmai Coastal Bear Tours


All the way to Kodiak for 25,000 miles I consider that a good bang for my buck using American Airlines Advantage miles, which partners with Alaska Air.




Thank goodness for buffer days This trip required a 48-hour buffer up front and about 22 hours on the back end due to weather. Katmai Coastal strongly urges the addition of some buffer days and with good reason. In fact most of my Alaska trips have required at 12 to 24 hours of buffer time. But 70 hours is a record.


Call Anderson Air immediately upon arrival in Kodiak Anderson Air is the float plane charter service that takes guests Katmai Coastal’s boat. The flight is included in the price of the bear viewing trip. When I rang Anderson shortly after my morning arrival in Kodiak, to my surprise they suggested I fly out later that afternoon—two full days earlier than planned! A bad storm was approaching that might mean I wouldn’t get out at all if I didn’t go soon.


Anderson picks up and delivers clients to their air dock so they came and got me. While waiting at Anderson Air for my plane to come in there was an entertaining assortment of friendly dogs, all of whom enjoyed attention. They were so much fun I considered canceling the bear trip and just vacationing at the Anderson Air dock with the dogs.


The big Black Lab belonged to my pilot, who was just landing his floatplane. He dog welcomed his master by running to the end of the dock where the plane taxied/sailed to a halt and then excitedly escorted him back to the office. Then the Lab accompanied us back out to the floatplane, a nice send-off. An even more interesting send-off would have been to hustle alongside the skateboarding pilot who skates down the dock to his floatplane.

Kodiak Inn They have an extensive Continental breakfast that includes scrambled eggs, free airport shuttle, reasonable rates for a decent room, even more reasonable ½-day room rates, and a 48-hour cancellation policy that is flexible when weather and charter flight changes are to blame for the canceled room. They also willingly accept luggage shipped in advance of their guests’ arrival. This last point will come in handy next time for my waders. (I’m hoping there will be a next time.)

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Waders The daily bear viewing routine requires waders for all outings because we wade to and from the motorboat that takes us near shore. Thigh-high waders are provided, free of charge, in various sizes on board. Since I knew we’d be doing a good deal of walking around in these, I wanted to have my own so I could be sure the boot part fit right. I got a great pair of waterproof overall-style waders with boots attached from Cabella’s. Unfortunately Cabella’s must have given my name to some fishing outfitters because I keep getting unwanted rod-and-reel type magazine subscriptions and postcard ads with wide mouthed bass on them.


The bulky waders, along with my other luggage, were too much for a carry-on, so I debated whether I should check them or mail them in advance. I even considered wearing them onto the airplane in a brief moment of insanity. I opted for checking them because all my layovers were three hours or longer, ample time for luggage to change planes. Plus, I thought I’d have two nights in Kodiak upon arrival, which would allow enough time to be reunited with luggage if it did get delayed. (I ended up leaving Kodiak hours after I arrived, but didn’t know that when packing.)


My bag with the waders was #1 off the carousel in Kodiak so no problem on the way up. On the way back, my checked bag with the waders was temporarily lost, and eventually sent to my home. No big deal on the return flight, but I learned my lesson. The waders will be mailed to Kodiak in the future, along with a collapsible mesh stool, and a duffle bag large enough to accommodate them for the return trip. (I’m already planning my packing strategy for a return trip.)



Here’s a funny tale about my waders. When I explained to my mom that I’d be spending time on a boat in Alaska and that I’d be going bear viewing with waders, she responded, “So the waiters serve you your meal, then escort you out to the bears?”


Other gear besides waders for bear viewing Again, you don’t have to go out and buy your own waders. Most of the guests used the ones on the boat.


You also might want to bring your own little collapsible metal and mesh stool to sit on while watching and photographing the bears. One of the repeat guests brought his own. Like waders, the stools are provided for you and the guide (bless his soul) even hauls them around for you. I found the stools provided to be a little low for my 5’ 4” height when seated and looking through my camera on a tripod. Plus, when you spend so much time sitting on these stools in the field, it might be beneficial to bring one that is perfectly suited to your unique rear end. I think I’ll get my own stool for next time (If I find a good bargain on one this summer, I am hoping my backside will still fit into it by 2010.)


You need top notch rain gear, including waterproof hats and gloves. Expect both drizzle and cold driving rain that may last for hours. Your gear needs waterproof protection too, such as a waterproof cover for a backpack or dry bags used in river rafting. For cameras in use, either the waterproof sleeves are needed for the big lenses or a plastic bags for smaller cameras. Bringing a couple of garbage bags is a good idea so when you set your stuff down, the garbage bags can offer protection from the soaking ground.


A mosquito headnet comes in handy. Most of us used one at some point and even our guide said sometimes he uses one. These are also provided for you (be sure to request one before your outings) and toted into the field by the guide. I had my own from home. Of course mosquito repellant, in addition to a headnet, is a must.


No need to bring hiking boots. You’ll always be wearing the waders and you cannot remove them and change into hiking boots. A canvas Tilley type hat would probably be sopping wet in a hurry if it’s raining, and remain damp for days, so don’t bring one of those. No cruise wear is needed. People wore very casual clothes and I noticed the same garments on people day after day. I made very few on board costume changes. One guy even lounged around in cotton pajamas most of the time, explaining his clothing choice with, “I love my jammies.” He was perfectly attired for the boat.


As to the weather you can expect during the summer, our boat captain quoted John Rogers as saying, “It’s always 60 degrees. When the sun is out, it is the hottest 60 degrees you ever felt. When it is raining and windy, it is the coldest 60 degrees you ever felt.” Weather Underground showed highs in the low 50s during my stay.


I always wore a couple pairs of socks for warmth. On the bottom I layered silky long underwear, close fitting fleece pants, and rain paints. On the top I layered silky long underwear, a long sleeve T-shirt, a long sleeved fleece, a puffball pullover, and a waterproof raincoat. Then the waders went on. Of course I had my waterproof hat and gloves. I tend to be cold, but never felt chilled with all my layers. Others with fewer layers mentioned they were cold.

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The boat Katmai Coastal Bear Tours has several boats. I was on the Kittiwake, a 9-passenger former crabbing boat. The cabins are a 2-person, 3-person, and a 4-person cabin upstairs with its own bathroom. The rest of us shared a spacious flush toilet, sink and shower downstairs. The cabins are attractive and very small with bunk beds. It was tight enough that I could not sit up and read on the top bunk. If a steady droning sound from the generator could cause problems sleeping, bring some earplugs. Because it was a constant noise—not stop and start—it did not hinder my sleep.


The only lounging area was a nicely decorated galley where we gathered around the table to eat. This area also contained a library, round the clock snacks (fresh fruit, pretzels, cookies, mini candy bars, granola bars, and wrapped Toblerone bites generously donated by our Swiss photographer who was also my lovely cabinmate), and a TV & DVD player.


Except during the storm we spent scant time on board. When we did endure the 48-hour storm that required me to depart Kodiak two days early and that vastly altered the river running through Hallo Bay, those 40+ mph winds, driving rain, and high seas were barely noticeable on the Kittiwake. The captain wisely had us anchored in Kukak, a protected bay, but there were still waves with white caps visible. Nonetheless, the Kittiwake was incredibly stable and motionless to the point where we would think the storm had passed until we stuck our heads outside.

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The passengers To their credit the six photographers readily accepted me and we had many good laughs on land and at sea. I knew we had developed a palpable esprit de corps when we started labeling any other bear viewing day trippers, visible in the distance, as “sh!t heads.” It was as though the spray of the sea and the salt in the air had inspired a crude piratesque camaraderie that had overtaken us. We were mateys, all for one and one for all, regardless of the size of our respective lenses (well, actually, my lack of lenses). Any other landlubbers within our sights were deemed to be trespassing sh!t heads, regardless of the size of THEIR lenses. Arg! Of course we kept this derogatory slur as our own personal joke and did not shout it to the sh!t heads who were standing across the meadow, minding their own bear viewing business.




The crew It consisted of Captain Menken; First Mate-Fisherman-Handiman Tim; 5-Star Chef Kathy; Bear Guide Brad; and for a couple of days, owner John Rogers. The 5-Star part I just made up, but it is an apt description. They were all lovely and highly competent.


I appreciated Captain Menken’s overriding concern with safety. At one point during the storm’s lull, three of us wanted to venture out. From the time we decided to set off until the time we were loaded into the motorboat that would take us ashore, the wind and waves had picked up. Menken indicated she was no longer comfortable with our decision to head out, so we nixed our plans, removed our waders, and remained on board the entire day. I appreciated that sound judgment, even when it curtailed our activities.


When the storm died out some of our passengers were very eager to leave the protection of Kukak Bay and go back to Hallo Bay, with an overnight return for morning bear viewing. Menken insisted that we would go to Hallo Bay only if and when the sea, still churning from the storm, permitted safe passage. When the sea cooperated she made an early morning voyage so we arrived at Hallo Bay just after breakfast.


Near the end of the trip, when I found out I would not be flying back to Kodiak as soon as I had planned and the activities I had scheduled would need to be cancelled, Menken offered to make the necessary calls from the boat’s satellite phone. She successfully took care of three different cancellations, briefly exchanging her captain’s quarters for a concierge desk.


Tim was an enjoyable and entertaining young man who told tales from his childhood spent with missionary parents who lived amongst tribes deep in the jungles of Venezuela. He kept the boat working, caught us a delicious halibut, fixed my cabin light, and mended somebody’s tripod. I’m sure he did a whole lot more to keep us afloat, but he managed his duties unobtrusively.


Chef Kathy was in constant motion and produced one delicious meal after the next, plus creative snacks. (More on food below.) I inquired about her culinary background and discovered it was her grandmother that had taught her to cook. Kathy maintains her skills by running a restaurant in Arizona during the winter months.


In such close quarters, there was usually one of us in her kitchen, just hanging around, putting a dirty dish in the sink, looking out the window, or checking out what she was making for the next meal. Kathy was always good natured and tolerant of the intrusions and the bodies bouncing around her workspace. Some of the uppity high-strung chefs on the food channel could take temperament lessons—and probably some cooking lessons—from Kathy.


Brad is The Man when it comes to The Bears. I had the pleasure of being guided by him a few years back and was thrilled when I found out he’d be my guide again. He did a great job of catering to the needs of the photographers who strive for uniqueness and perfection in their shots, even carrying their heavy equipment around. He also adamantly would Just Say No when requests for that perfect bear photo crossed the line. But in addition to this group of six photographers, he had me. My interests were equally divided among observing bear behavior, learning more about them, and capturing images. Brad did a super job of accommodating everybody on the trip both while in the field and around the galley table back on the boat.


Because Brad’s many years of experience with bears meant he understood their behavior, we were able to get close—so close that some of the photographers had to stow their big lenses for a while. What a privilege to have a bear choose munch sedge grass within a couple of meters of us and remain for half an hour.




He had us approach the bears in single file so our silhouette was reduced and less ominous from the bears’ perspective. (When I had told my 5-year old nephew about my upcoming bear trip, he focused on the word trip and related to that term from his flurry of year-end school field trips. “Will you walk in a line?” he asked. The insight into bear behavior of this little boy proved to me once again the child simply must be gifted!)


When we sat near the bears, we minimized gaps between us, which put the bears at ease and encouraged them to graze very near us. We saw some other groups where the photographers had much more personal space and were standing at their tripods. But the bears came nowhere near as close.


John Rogers was with us on the boat for a few days before he had to return home. He was a delight and had tremendous knowledge of the bears’ behavior and their environment. He explained that the boat-bear tourism business began after the Exxon oil spill. The people cleaning up the beach near Katmai were ordered to return to their boats whenever a bear was sighted. Turns out they spent more time fleeing back to the boats than cleaning up. John Rogers’ livelihood was adversely affected by the oil spill when the fishing industry was decimated. The decline of his fishing business and the potential he saw in the bear viewing market went hand in hand. The end result was: there he sat with us on the Kittiwake, one of the boats in his bear watching fleet. I meant to ask him which was more difficult—fighting a raging storm in the Bering Sea on a fishing vessel or dealing with a boatload of bear watching tourists? (I’ll have to wait for my answer until 2010.)


I appreciated John’s policy of allowing extra days on board due to bad weather as an attempt to provide the full tour I had booked. I realize I was given 3 complimentary nights in addition to the 3 nights, 4 days I had booked. To me, that flexibility is the mark of a class act operation, and all the other aspects of the trip were too.


Food on board I mentioned our 5-star chef earlier. For breakfast you could have toast, cereal, yogurt, the previous night’s dessert, or bacon and eggs prepared to order. Lunch was usually built around a delicious, hearty soup—lentil, pea, chili, chowder, etc. Dinner had great soup too, and for some of us that sufficed for our meal, along with the bread or biscuits, hors d’oeuvres, and nightly dessert. The leftover desserts were accessible throughout the next day. One night we were served lasagna, another night was steak, and there was fresh halibut, caught earlier that day by Tim.


I did not request vegetarian food as I have on other types of trips where menu deviations are easier. I did see a substitution made for one guest who was unable to eat seafood and one who was allergic to nuts. Red and white wine were usually offered and I saw some people drinking beer. Water from the tap was safe to drink and there was a canister of water to fill up the water bottle they provided.


When our outings lasted past the normal lunchtime, Brad brought along nuts and other snacks to tide us over. There was no problem eating while bear viewing. We just could not leave anything behind.

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THE BEARS We came ashore and saw the piles of bleached driftwood, remnants of the 1964 tsunami that now lined the meadows and formed a fence-like semi-circle. As we watched the bears grazing contentedly on the sedge grass in front of the driftwood, my first thought was, “We’ve reached the bear corral.”


Upon closer inspection of the bears in their fluffy winter coats that showed no signs of summer shedding, it looked as if they had been preened and groomed for the Westminster Bear Show. Could these really be wild bears? They looked like show bears!


There was one bear in particular that could pass for a giant Pomeranian, minus the yapping.


I had come early in the year in hopes of seeing fluffy, dry, grass eating bears—as opposed to shedding, soaking wet fishing bears that I had enjoyed on previous trips. Mission accomplished!


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Quote of the Trip A particularly attractive sow with a thick golden coat that rippled in the breeze prompted one guy from our group to declare with the adoration of a schoolboy’s crush, “She p!sses perfume and sh!ts ice cream.” For better alliteration, I’d offer this revision: she p!sses perfume and sh!ts sherbet. We worked on making the phrase more bear relevant. P!sses honey and sh!ts Crackerjack. Peanuts and a prize would never be the same. Anyway, she was a beautiful bear.




Without being anthropomorphic, there are some bears that enjoy the company of humans and choose to graze near people. There is a whole giant meadow and no need for the bears to head our way when they see us and remain with us as they eat and sleep. Throughout, Brad checks to make sure everyone is comfortable with the distance and what is happening. The goal is to view the bears without disturbing them and that is always apparent.






We witnessed some adorable rollovers. One sow appeared to be putting on a show for us—more likely her male bear admirers—and forgot her stage abruptly ended with a 5-foot drop off. She rolled right off the sandbar and appeared to make an embarrassed recovery as if to say, “I meant to do that. Yeah, that’s the ticket. It was all part of the act.”


She remained hidden for some time until the gaffe was forgotten.

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We also had some courtship and mating. Among the bears, not the photographers—at least I detected no evidence in the galley. There was a striking difference in the courtship ritual for young sows that had never mated and the older sows with several mating seasons behind them. The boars chased the young sows in serpentine circles around the meadow, never getting too close. At times the young females would seek refuge from their suitor by approaching our group.


In contrast, we watched a boar wander up to a more mature sow and within minutes he was accepted and they began mating. After about 10 minutes this coupling ended abruptly with some vocalizations and the pair went their separate ways. Brad explained that was unusual and he had an interesting theory of what may have happened: the male bear might have suffered a sprain. Unlike human men, male bears have a bone in this organ. After a dazed look of bewilderment, the boar turned his attention to grazing and appeared to be ok. I can only wonder about the psychological damage.


The approximate bear count during our 6 outings was: 0 because we were out in the midst of a rain storm for only an hour and ventured not far from the beach, 5, 7, 8, 12+, 20+. On outings when bears were present, at least one was always in view and usually several were

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Daily routine Of course, it is weather permitting: Breakfast around 7:30. A little after 8:00, start getting the camera equipment ready and putting on the waders, which are hung up on deck in a section protected from rain. Don the life vests, load the gear, and hop into the motorboat (with assistance) about 8:30. Arrive maybe 50 meters from shore about 15 minutes later and hop out of the boat (with assistance), into knee-deep water, remove the life vests, have your gear handed to you, and wade to shore. The captain drives the boat back to the Kittiwake. Bear watch until 12:30-2:30 with snacks provided as needed. How far you walk on land depends on where the bears are and the wishes of the group. Most of the viewing is done in a seated position on the mesh collapsible stools.


In the many hours spent on shore, it is likely nature will call. When it does the other members avert their eyes and their 600 lenses and you go about your business, leaving no man-made matter behind.


Should a bear venture too close just because it likes people or because it is fleeing another bear or whatever, Brad redirects it with his voice or his stands up, which is intimidating to the bear. Brad can also toss the mesh stools on the ground to make a point. We had no unsettling too-close encounters; but if needed, the guides carry flares to frighten off a bear that is too assertive. Resorting to a flare is extremely rare.


When bear viewing is completed, the guide radios the captain to bring the motorboat back. Wade back to the motorboat, hand over your photo gear, don the life vests, hop back into the boat (with assistance) and head back to the Kittiwake. Board the Kittiwake (with assistance), take your gear as it is unloaded from the motorboat, remove the life vests, remove the waders and hang them up on pegs to dry off. Time for lunch, thanks to Kathy.


Anywhere between 4:00 pm to 5:30 pm the routine is repeated with dinner being served as late as 10:00 pm. There is no need to get onto land at the crack of dawn as there is when viewing wildlife elsewhere without nearly 24 hours of daylight.


We spent time in Kukak and Hallo Bay, but there is no standard itinerary. Weather and the location of the bears dictate where the shore excursions take place.



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Sightings and such in addition to bears

- Flock of Black Scoters

- Flock of Common Mergansers

- Ravens

- Black billed Magpie

- What is that scooting along the ground? A rabbit, a mouse? No it’s a bird and it’s injured. It was a Savanna Sparrow putting on the injured act to attract our attention away from its nest, which remained hidden from us.

- A metal airplane part—a little disconcerting. Not as disconcerting as finding a piece from a ship on the shores of one of Galapagos islands and reading the name San Jacinta—the boat I had been on less than two years earlier. It had sunk. I think we brought the airplane piece back to the boat.

- Red foxes in Hallo Bay, 2 separate sightings both of which I proudly claim to have spotted

- Otters, several spotted from the float plane, big rafts of them in the morning

- Harbor seals checking out our activities

- Eagles—A highlight of the trip was an eagle nest in Kukak Bay with a chick!!, attended to by both parents. We could see the chick. I have some photos that will never make National Geographic but they show the chick being fed.




- Moose antler being reclaimed by the earth with lots of mold and plants growing on it

- Sundew, a carnivorous plant with tiny red flowers

- Bladderwrack, a plant which we ate and it tasted like nothing

- Gooselips, a plant which we ate that was quite tasty

- Bear fur on the ground. We picked it up and sniffed it. It smelled pleasant, almost like a baby after its bath. I scooped up the souvenir to be shared with my gifted nephew who knew we’d be walking in a line and his equally gifted older sister, who is less enthused about lines.

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What to do in Kodiak With only about three actual hours of sightseeing time (despite allotting several days) before I had to fly to the bear boat, I was able to visit three of Kodiak’s museums, each just a couple of blocks from the centrally located Kodiak Inn.


The Alutiq Museum and Cultural Center (admission $5 or less) had a nice intro video and displays of current and past native culture. A fascinating collection of antique Alutiq ceremonial masks was on display, loaned from a French museum.


The Baranov Museum (admission $5 or less) is the oldest building in Alaska and represents Russia’s influence in the region. Dozens of historical photo albums document events such as the 1964 tsunami and the volcanic eruptions of 1912. Only Indonesia has more volcano activity than the Katmai Coast. The collection of delicate grass-woven baskets was impressive and some of these works of art were for sale in the gift shop. On the lawn outside the museum, excavations were taking place for artifacts. Literally, a work in progress.


I had to make it to the Kodiak Wildlife Museum (free admission) to see the whale skeleton I had heard so much about it in the first four hours of my arrival in Kodiak. The whale had beached itself and died. The officials decided to bury the carcass and let nature take its course with decomposition. After a few years the whale was dug back up again, with only bleached white bones remaining. The impressive skeleton was hung from the second floor of the wildlife museum where it served as the apex of the natural history exhibits.


The harbor was picturesque, even on a foggy rainy day. I was told the cruise ships stop on Fridays. You may want to inquire on cruise ship arrival days when planning your days in Kodiak.


I managed to squeeze in a short escorted walk when I returned to Kodiak after bear viewing. It was arranged by Mary Stephenson of Kodiak Adventures, who has a little tourist info booth across from Wells Fargo Bank at the water’s edge. Robert was kind enough to halt his salmon cleaning from a successful catch and agree to be my guide at the last minute. And what a delightful guide he was. He had retired as Chief of the Kodiak Coast Guard Station—the largest in the US—so we began with a driving tour of the facility. En route to a beaver dam on the grounds, we passed the Coast Guard water storage facility, the golf course, the river next to the golf course where Robert had scooped out 50+ balls when the salmon fishing was slow, and remnants of WWII bunkers. When we got to the beaver dam, we could not locate the occupants so we tried our luck with mountain goats. We scored with the goats and observed about a dozen through binoculars, including mothers and kids.


Robert detected my enthusiasm for the goats and my interest in returning to Kodiak, so he immediately began planning our ascent of the goat mountain in 2010. I cautioned him that I might not be able to keep pace as his stride was twice mine. He assured me we would be poking along up the mountain because his wife would come too and she would want to stop and explain all the plants and flowers. (How can I disappoint Robert and his botanist wife, not to mention the goats, if I don’t go back in 2010?)


I’ll be sure any return trip is completed well before hunting season in the fall. Robert explained that the best way to attract the billies when hunting is to wear all white so you look like a goat. He claims it works for him but he has not taken the strategy as far as one of his hunting buddies, who not only wears white clothes, but also puts a pair of white underpants on his head with goat horns drawn in magic marker.


We had a good walk along the Buskin River and I wished I could have done some more hiking as I had originally planned. Besides missing some hiking, the weather delays made me miss a kayak outing (I sat next to a woman on the plane out who was gushing about having been surrounded by 8 humpback whales on her escorted kayak trip from Kodiak), and a scenic photography dinner cruise with Marion and Marty Owen’s Galley Gourmet. This cruise came highly recommended by John Rogers of Katmai Coastal. The Owens also run a B&B which they suggested to me for next time. (But they weren’t ready to take reservations for yet for 2010.)



Returning I am thinking mid to late July of 2010. It is possible to do the 4 day/3 night Katmai Coastal trip through Natural Habitat Adventures and they arrange activities in Kodiak beforehand. It is also possible to do an 8-day bear trip, instead of the 4-day trip I did. I’ll have to consider the specifics and start racking up my American Advantage miles.


Bear viewing in 2010, anyone? I have no preference between upper or lower bunk.


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Superb, Lynn ...... Thanks for sharing!!!

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Lynn, thanks for sharing your nice fluffy bears! I didn’t know you used pig terminology for bears. It sounds like a very interesting trip, but I prefer to go to places where you take your clothes off when wading!

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Beautiful pictures and a wonderful report. Great to read.


Thankyou for sharing.

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