Close Encounters with Bears in Alaska
Is this really a good idea? I wonder to myself as I pull on my thigh-high boot waders. I look at my boyfriend, who is doing the same, and feel a pang of worry. It is one thing to put myself in this position, but to drag him along, too? I swallow hard and ask our guide, Josh, with a nervous I’m-not-serious-but-sort-of-am laugh, “This is safe, right?”
We are in Homer, Alaska, gearing up for a bear-watching adventure. Here’s the plan: Fly by small bush plane into a wilderness area where no roads go, put down on a beach, and then walk until we find coastal brown bears. What could go wrong? Josh, who is also our pilot and has been leading these expeditions in Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks for years, replies: “The bears are far more interested in the salmon than in us, and we’ll keep a safe distance. They’re accustomed to seeing humans around. On the off chance that one gets too close, we’ll set off a flare to scare it away, but that hardly ever happens.”
Right. Of course. I smile faux-confidently at my boyfriend, and we walk out to the five-passenger Cessna 206, equipped with oversized tires suitable for landing on sand. We load up, don our headsets, and take off toward the snow-draped mountains of the Kenai Peninsula. Banking right, we cross the Homer Spit and set a northerly course over the Cook Inlet. There is no going back now.
The Adventure Before the Bear Adventure
Alaska has so few roads and such vast, wild territory that many locals use small bush planes outfitted with tundra tires, floats, or skis to get around. Amazingly, the majority of these aircraft date back to the 1950s and ‘60s, but their engines have been well maintained or rebuilt, they have updated navigation devices, and they just keep on flying. The nervous flyer in me doesn’t want to know when our Cessna was made—the worn interior, clunky headsets, and archaic-looking instruments suggest it wasn’t within the last two or three decades—so instead I ask Josh, “How do you decide where to go to see the bears?”
“Most of the time, it depends on the weather,” he replies. “Conditions change really quickly in Alaska. We know a number of spots where bears hang out and prefer to go to the ones with fewer visitors, but sometimes the weather makes it impossible to take off or land. Like today. So we’re going to a place that will be a little busier, but nothing like Brooks Falls.” That’s the iconic, widely photographed location that draws 200–300 people each day (to a platform designed to hold 40) to watch bears dine on leaping salmon.
Now across the Cook Inlet, Josh tells us that the weather is good enough for a little detour and steers toward cloud-shrouded Mount Iliamna, a stratovolcano in the Aleutian Range that shoots up 10,016 feet from the sea. Below us, a river snakes its way through a deep valley between verdant mountains with rust-colored peaks. When the green morphs to brown, I realize that we’re above a living, breathing glacier camouflaged by sediment. After another few seconds, the disguise vanishes to reveal the ice field in its breathtaking glory, accented by swaths of aquamarine as it bends around exposed cliffs.
Josh has expertly flown us into the bowl of the glacier, just below the volcano’s summit. The plane bounces and bucks against the rushing wind currents, but I am too transfixed by the lines of rock and ice around me to care. “We’re lucky to get so close,” Josh says. “I haven’t been able to fly in here for the last few days.” I continue to gape at this mountain beauty as we turn back toward the coast, buzzing a number of waterfalls that tumble like long ribbons hundreds of feet into pristine lakes.
Wheels Down in Bear Country
The nutrition-filled estuaries of Chinitna Bay attract coastal brown bears from spring to fall. Between hibernations, the animals munch on sedges (grass-like plants that are rich in protein) and other plants that grow along the salt marsh, extract clams from the tidal flats, and feast on running salmon in late summer.
After Josh lands effortlessly on the gently curving beach and gives us a safety briefing, we set off on foot, moving through grasses that are taller than we are to reach a wooded area along the marsh. My adrenaline surges as I wonder if a grizzly will poke through the grass or out from behind a tree with no warning. We make it to a viewing area at the edge of the marsh and, as if it were a museum display, a gorgeous meadow spreads out before us dotted with 8 or 10 coastal brown bears, far enough away that I reach for binoculars. The nerves fade as I pan from left to right, from a mama lying on her back nursing her cubs (I never expected that!) to a big male fishing in a stream. Suddenly emboldened, I want to get closer.
We head back to the beach and walk toward the estuary along the sensational tableau of flowering yellow plants, evergreen trees, and majestic mountains. It doesn’t take long to find evidence of the local residents (and their very large paws).
Brown Bear Cubs in the Meadow
At our next stop, we join a group of six people sitting on a log at the edge of the beach, backs to the water and faces toward another gorgeous nature scene with Mount Iliamna as the stunning backdrop. I scan the panorama counting 9, 10, 11 more bears. Most are nibbliing peacefully on grass, looking nothing like the terrifying beast from The Revenant.
“Costal brown bears have the same DNA as grizzlies,” Josh shares, “but coastal bears have different behaviors and grow bigger than their inland brothers because of their richer food supply.” I contemplate this information while falling in love with an adorable pair of cubs sitting side by side. The babes grow increasingly sleepy, leaning into one another with heavy eyelids, only to jerk back awake like I used to do in morning algebra.
Josh pulls us away and we continue walking into the estuary. We move through a small river, laughing as the swift current threatens to push the water up and over our waders. I struggle to maintain my footing while keeping my camera dry, and then to unstick my boot from the mud to take another step. Progress is slow. I look up to see that there are bears to our right (a few young ones romping in the marsh), bears to our left (digging for clams in the shallows), bears in the meadow behind us (napping and grazing), and bears in front of us (diving for salmon in the bay). What if I need to make a quick getaway? I panic inwardly, then remember Josh’s advice to never run from a bear. Thankfully, none seems to be interested in us and we complete the crossing and find our next perch on a raised sand bank.
“Those three teenagers are probably about three or four years old,” Josh tells us, as they awkwardly (and hilariously) chase a seagull that has caught a fish and are in turn chased by another couple youngsters. “Mothers spend about two years raising their cubs and then kick them out of the nest to fend for themselves. Since they don’t really know what they’re doing at that point, they often group together in little gangs like this to help each other and to play. They haven’t yet figured out the most efficient use of their energy.”
Shifting my gaze to the bay, I see an adult bear throw his front paws enthusiastically into the water and pull out a fish, while seagulls swarm hopefully nearby. “Just as each bear has a different personality,” Josh explains, “each has a different fishing technique. Some slap the water to stun the fish and then grab them, others swipe at the water to knock the fish onto land, others pounce directly onto the fish in the water, and then some, at waterfalls, just open their mouths and let the salmon jump right in.” I’m surprised to hear that not all bears are good fishermen, and smile to myself watching the animals around me, noticing their individual behaviors, wondering who’s a good hunter and who isn’t, who’s the bully, who’s the clown, who’s the peacemaker, and I realize that I’m surrounded by bears and completely relaxed. I feel like I’m getting to know these animals and appreciating them in a new way.
The Stare Down
Adrenaline bursts back into my body when I see another bear making a bee-line for us from across an arm of the river. We watch intently, waiting for him to focus on trapping a fish at his feet, but he keeps moving toward us and I feel as though his eyes are locked on mine. He comes out of the water and up the beach right at us. “Stay on the ground,” Josh instructs us as he stands up, readying his flare. Every muscle in my body is screaming at me to RUN, but I stay put. The bear looks more like a hyena, skulking along with a partially wet, unhealthy coat. He’s about 12 feet away.
“Hey, bear,” Josh says firmly. “Get out of here. Turn around and be on your way! There’s nothing for you here.” The bear pauses, drops his head lower, reminding me of a pet dog who knows he’s misbehaving. He looks right at me again and takes another step in my direction. Could my salmon-colored jacket have anything to do with this? I wonder. “Get out of here, bear! Now. It’s time for you to go,” Josh repeats calmly but loudly. This time the bear stops, takes a last look at him and at me, then lumbers off down the beach.
Our group breathes a collective sigh of relief and then erupts in nervous laughter, astounded by this close encounter. “That must be the troublemaker I’ve heard about recently,” Josh says. “He’s about five years old and is going through an ornery phase. You can tell he hasn’t been eating so well lately.” We wearily walk past The Troublemaker a bit later en route back to the plane, but he’s too busy prospecting for clams to notice.
In Her Way
At our last stop of the day, we find a female bear grazing on grass 30 or 40 feet away. After a while, she sits down and looks at us. She casually glances to her left and to her right and then back at us, seemingly in deep thought.
Josh figures it out: “She wants to go to the beach and we’re in her path.” At that moment, she gets to her feet and slowly moves in our direction. Zap! The adrenaline is back. Josh tells us to sit on the log in front of us and be still. She turns to her left and opts for a slightly different route, putting a tree between us before she pops out beside us and carries on to the beach, only glancing over her shoulder at us once. I’m filled with awe.
When we touched down in Chinitna Bay earlier today, we parked next to three other little Cessnas, also there for bear watching. Now, in the glowing light of late afternoon, we are the last to leave. The beach is quiet. The air is calm. I see no bears, but I know there are plenty in close proximity, doing the things that coastal brown bears do—things I can now visualize clearly—each in its own way. I feel grateful to have spent five hours in the (mostly!) comfortable company of these handsome mammals, getting to know them and feeling connected to them in a way I never thought possible.
The propellers spin to life and we taxi down the beach, but just when Josh is picking up speed for takeoff, he slams on the brakes and turns us around. “Bears on the runway,” he says, grinning. We roll easily to a more distant starting spot, accelerate, and nimbly take to the air. I am elated.
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