In Alaska, with bears

17:00, Jul 26 2013
BEAR NECESSITIES: Brown bear Mia walks with her cubs Molly, Mette and Maja.

Kim Spanjol has seen gorillas in Congo and orangutans in Borneo.

But for a honeymoon with her husband Jim, she planned a trip to Katmai National Park and Preserve in remote Alaska, where they started seeing brown bears the minute their floatplane landed on the beach.

"There's a bear in the water, and there's a bear coming down the beach," said Spanjol, a psychologist from New York.

"And then, we were coming in to eat and there was a bear running by, and there were three bears just over there by the river. So, that was amazing to have it so accessible."

About 10,000 people make the difficult trek here each summer to see the bears, some staying at a small lodge or the campground at Brooks Camp, others flying in from elsewhere in Alaska for the day.

The four-million-plus acre park is located on the Alaska Peninsula, about 400km southwest of Anchorage. BrooksCamp is only accessible by air.


At peak bear-viewing season, the end of July, there will be up to 70 adult bears plus cubs within a 1.5km area of Brooks Camp.

It's not uncommon to see brown bears running around the camp, dodging humans as the bruins playfully chase each other.

That there have been only two minor mishaps in the last 63 years between the species is a testament to rules put in place by rangers to respect the bears' right of way.

"I don't think there's any place quite like Brooks Camp in that we've got so many people and so many bears," said Roy Wood, chief of interpretation at Katmai.

What draws the bears here are salmon running in the Brooks River. The bears stand patrol at Brooks Falls, just over a kilometre walk from Brooks Camp, and try to catch the jumping salmon. When they snag one, they usually polish it off on a sandbar or off the side of the river - unless an aggressive male brown bear tries to steal the fish.

Bear-viewing stands have been built at Brooks Falls, an area about 185m downstream, called the riffles, and at the lower river, which is prime viewing area in September. "The bears behave differently at that time of the year, they're really fat," said ranger Michael Fitz.

"Instead of chasing fish actively, a lot of the times they are just cruising up and down the river like battleships. They're looking for anything that can't swim away from them."

The flight here from Anchorage is about a three-hour trip, and if you're lucky, you can see white beluga whales surfacing in Cook Inlet. The ride also can be bumpy, especially through the narrows of Lake Clark Pass. The pass offers stunning views of mountains and glaciers, but if the ride is rough, you might want to keep the barf bag handy.

Air taxis from the Alaska hub city of King Salmon are the cheapest way in, about US$200 ($247.8) a person, but you have to get to King Salmon first.

Other floatplane flights are available from places like Anchorage, Homer or Kodiak. These can range up to US$795 ($985) per person from Anchorage for a round trip but if you can afford it, it's an ideal way to take a day trip to Brooks Camp to see the bears.

For longer stays, the hardest thing is arranging lodging. There are few places to sleep at Brooks Camp and you have to book months ahead. The private Brooks Lodge has 16 rooms, with four beds each. Mike Wheeler of Kansas, said the lodge cost him US$615 ($762) a night, not prohibitive if you split it four ways, but he said the amenities and wildlife make up for the costs.

"In other places, you can pay less for a cabin, but you have to hire a guide to find the wildlife," he said. "Here, I can walk out the front door and fairly quickly see bears."

Lodge owner Sonny Petersen said he'll begin taking reservations for the 2015 season on January 1, 2014. He said reservations for July will be gone within a week, but it will take a little longer for the rest of the cabins to be filled.

Another option is camping at the park service's electric-fence enclosed campsite (US$12/$14.8 per person, per night). The campground can hold 60 people a night, but like the lodge, spaces are quickly gone after they go on sale on January 5, at least for the prime bear-viewing months of July and September.

Another cool attraction in Katmai involves a 37km ride on a bus (US$96/$119 a person, US$88/$109 if you don't take the sack lunch) over three small rivers. The payoff is a stunning view of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

The valley was formed by a three-day volcanic explosion that started on June 6, 1912. It spewed ash as high as 30,000m above the sparsely populated Katmai region, covering the area to depths up to 213m. It was the most powerful eruption of the 20th century and one of the five largest in recorded history.

The valley was why the National Geographic Society petitioned for Katmai to be a national park, believing it would be the next Yellowstone because of its geothermal activity. Early visitors came to see the landscape, not the bears.

But the steam "dwindled away so there's just a few warm areas right now," Wood said, adding: "We started preserving it for this one thing, and weren't even considering bears because bears were pretty much everywhere around and there was nothing special about that. But as civilisation has grown, even in Alaska, these wild areas to observe bears are becoming even harder to find."

By the 1970s, bear-viewing eclipsed fishing and the valley as Katmai's top attraction. Heide Linsmann, and her husband Franz, who live near Dusseldorf, Germany, enjoyed a trip here last year so much, they came back this summer.

"It was so wonderful, we are here again," she said.


KATMAI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE: Southwest Alaska. Bear-viewing July and September. Accessible by plane.


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