Alaska Grizzly Bear Holiday

Dewi Edwards

05 Aug 2013

Grizzly bears of Alaska Holiday Review

"Hey Bear, Ho Bear." So the song goes.
 
Little did we know a few short months ago that we would be singing this excerpt from the children's song featured in Stacy Studebaker's book as we hiked the bear trails of Katmai National Park in Alaska in search of these intelligent animals.
 
I'd promised my niece, Megan, a wildlife adventure of a lifetime and after consulting with Will Bolsover at NWS, the trip was booked. To say that we were both excited at the prospect of getting up-close and personal with the coastal brown bears of the region would be an understatement. 

Part 1

Our initial attempt at landing in Kodiak on the first leg of the journey was thwarted by thick fog, so we returned to Anchorage for the night and tried again the following morning. This time, the skies were clear and we were met at the airport by Linda Himelbloom, the local representative here. Linda took us to out hotel to check in and meet the other four passengers for this trip. 
 

No sooner had we unpacked, we were off for a walk around the quayside, marvelling at the Bald Eagles that were soaring overhead or perched atop the masts of the boats moored alongside the docks. Northwestern Crows squabbled over fish scraps along the water's edge and Glaucous-winged gulls lined the shoreline. Hermit Thrushes sang in the shrubs here, their fluted whistling calls sounding as though they are singing down a hollow tube. Dark race Fox Sparrows flitted along the roadside edges and a stunning Varied Thrush flew across our path, flashing brilliant orange and slate blue plumage as it went. What an introduction to this jewel of an island.

Linda took us on an excursion to a local Salmon hatchery where we learnt about the various species that spawn in the local river systems here and in the evening we dined together after an introductory talk to the region and the bears we were hoping to meet.
 
The following day we visited Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park, took in the views from Pillar mountain and learnt about the flora of the region from Linda, whose knowledge and enthusiasm for the local plant life shone through.

The afternoon was spent aboard the Sea Breeze, a Grand Banks style yacht. Marion & Marty Owen run the Galley Gourmet cruises out of Kodiak, where wildlife and fine dining in stunning scenery is guaranteed. With Humpback Whales blowing and sounding all around, Sea Otters gambolling in the kelp beds and Steller's Sea-lions barking from the rocky islets, we marvelled at the myriad species on show in the rich waters offshore from Kodiak. Tufted and Horned Puffins were numerous, Bald Eagles stole unsuspecting Kittiwake chicks from a nearby breeding colony and a walk on one of the islands made for a memorable day.

Prior to flying over to Katmai the following day, we visited a local river to watch the Salmon run before tours of the local museums to learn about the Aleutliq peoples and the abundance of marine life of the region.

The flight over to Katmai by float plane was an adventure in itself. Spectacular scenery and the excitement of taking off and landing on water for the first time. We were met in Kukak bay by our guide, Brad Josephs, and the Captain of the converted tug, John Mitchell. We unloaded out luggage into the skiff and headed towards our home for the next few days, the Waters.

This little ship is comfortable and homely, with a friendly, relaxed atmosphere on board throughout. Meals on board were excellently prepared by Carrie Hollister, assisted by First Mate Bill Allbrecht, whose home smoked salmon and trout is to die for.
 
Once everyone was settled in, Brad took us ashore to meet our first bears. The scenery was pure eye candy and the sun broke through to give us glorious vistas of the surrounding mountains and coastal flats. We waded ashore from the skiff and set up on the beach to await our first bear. We did not have too long to wait. A bear approached slowly, feeding on the lush sedge grasses here. Before long, he was up close and we marvelled at this experience of being so close to an apex predator. Brad talked us through the bear's behaviour and what to expect. He also taught us how we should behave whilst in their company. Surprisingly, none of us felt any nervousness or anxiety at these close encounters, surely a testimony to Brad's expertise, relaxed manner and intimate knowledge of these animals.

The next few days were spent ashore with these wonderful animals where we experienced many of the behaviours shown by the enigmatic bears. From fishing for salmon, sparring, clam digging and resting, to a mother with two of the cutest little coty's (Cubs of the year) you could ever imagine.

If you want a wildlife experience that will completely blow your mind, book this trip. Do it now. You won't regret it.

Part 2

Nothing quite prepares you for your first encounter with Alaska's coastal brown bears in the wild. No matter how much you have read or how many documentaries you have watched, they can never instill that inner feeling of wonder, awe and emotional well being you get when you are mere metres away from the real thing. (And, I have to admit, a good surge of adrenaline also).

Our Guide, Brad Josephs, settled us down on the banks of one of the rivers in Kukak Bay in Alaska's Katmai National Park where we set up our cameras whilst perched on upturned buckets or folding camp stools for added comfort. Brad has anticipated what the bears will do and positioned us in a spot that they were likely to pass by at close quarters. Although this is not an exact science, Brad's experience pays dividends as one of the bears heads over to check us out and within minutes is so close that I am taking head shots of this amazing animal as it ambles by.

It's mid July and the bears are concentrated in the meadows of the coastal flats and are busy feeding on the lush sedges that grow here. The Salmon run has yet to start in earnest, so the bears supplement their diet of sedges by digging for clams along the shore at low tide or search under rocks for small fish or eels. They will also search for fruit in season such as Salmon berries and dig for roots and tubers when available.

We watch as the bears go about their daily lives, seemingly unconcerned by our presence. We avoid eye contact as that signifies a threat in bear body language and remain seated quietly while each one feeds nearby or heads down to the river to drink. One youngster of around three or four years old and recently weaned and abandoned by it's mother seems to enjoy our presence and takes a bath in the river next to us.

A large male appears and you can just feel the power that this animal has by the way he walks and behaves. The other bears give him a wide berth and eye him carefully over their shoulders in case he disputes their presence on "his" meadow. He ignores us after a cursory glance and heads down to the river to drink.

We sit and watch in utter amazement at the bears acceptance of our little group and the fact that they are not bothered by our presence in their domain. To them, we appear to be just part of the scenery so long as we abide by their rules. I've been close to some of the largest mammals on this planet in the past, but always with the safety net of being in a vehicle, boat or hide. This was an experience that surpasses anything I've done previously and it's one that I highly recommend that you try.

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Comments

Will

24/10/2013 7:30 PM

Awesome Bears blog and write up! Great to see that this trip brings into focus not just the bears but also the other wildlife in and around the area such as the whales, eagles, sea otters and more!

Alex Castle

21/10/2013 9:00 PM

Wonderful blog and some incredible pictures! The cubs play fighting is great to see!

Marty Owen

13/8/2013 10:30 PM

Stunning bear images with great captions. Right on. Thanks for sharing. Marion and I were disappointed that we could not the Persied meteor shower this week -- Kodiak fog and clouds are a bummer. Marion has taken some "killer" puffin images this summer.

Ade

6/8/2013 4:00 AM

Amazing!

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