As you may know from my Finding Grizzlies in Yellowstone post, Grizzly bears or brown bears as the coastal grizzlies of Alaska are referred to, are my favorite animal to watch and photograph. Since developing my love of the Grizzly, I have dreamed of going to the holy grail of brown bear viewing, Katmai National Park. The majority of Katmai tourists go to the Brooks Camp and viewing area at the Brooks Falls, where large numbers of brown bears congregate in a relatively small area to catch spawning salmon. The viewing platform is always crowded. In researching our Alaska trip, I found there are a number of bear viewing tours from Homer that go to either Katmai National Park or Lake Clarke National Park to less heavily visited areas. These tours are a bit pricey at almost $700 per person but offer a chance to watch brown bears up close.
I chose to go through Alaska Bear Adventures with K Bay Air, who takes daily trips to these National Parks. They are rated #1 on Trip Advisor with many glowing reviews. They offer a morning trip which meets about 6:00am and an afternoon trip meeting about 12:30pm. Departure time is dependent on tides and weather. Each trip’s destination is also dependent on weather and where the bears have been most active. A tour includes flying in a single engine 6-seater Cessna 206 for about 1-1.5 hours each way and 3 hours on the ground with the brown bears. They use wheeled planes not float planes. They take a small group of tourists (up to 20 total at one time) using up to 4 planes twice daily. Each plane carries up to 5 tourists and a pilot, thus 6 seats. Because this is a small plane, they will weigh you and the backpack you take along, so that they can distribute weight evenly side to side and front to back. Each tourist is limited to about 10 pounds of gear. My backpack was 11 pounds which they said was fine.
Gear I took: binoculars, camera with extra batteries and memory card, rain jacket, sun hat, bug dope (must be pump- no aerosols allowed on plane), a snack, a Nalgene liter of water, a jacket and gloves. The temperatures can be cool, dressing in layers is important. Alaska Bear Adventures provided each tourist with a life vest that is in a small waist pack with pull string if needed. They also provided a pair of hip waders to each participant as we would be walking up to 3-4 miles through boggy areas, across streams and low tide mud flats. They have hip waders that go on over your shoes and attach to your belt or belt loops. Having completed the tour, I agree the hip waders are nice to use.
I signed on for a morning tour. Based on the tides, my tour ended up meeting at 6:30am. We went through a safety briefing about the plane ride, got hip waders & life vests, ear plugs for the plane ride and signed waivers for the dangers inherent in the plane ride & brown bear viewing. Finally we were ready to go. We were assigned to groups of up to five tourists. I joined a nice family of four from New Jersey. Our assigned pilot was Derick. Each pilot doubles as both pilot and naturalist guide on the ground. Once on the ground, we mostly stayed with our group of 5 tourists & 1 pilot with a good amount of distance between the groups, but we did have some time with 2 or more groups together. There were no other visitors to the area. My group also spent time with pilot/guide Joe, who hails from my home town of Fort Collins, Colorado.
One bonus to bear viewing can be the flight-seeing on the trip there and back. We had outstanding aerial views of the Kenai Mountains, Mt. Iliamna, Kachemak Bay and Katmai National Park. The flight-seeing is dependent on cloud cover. We had good viewing on the way going, but fairly heavy cloud cover on the return trip.
Our tour went to Hallo Bay in Katmai National Park, which was my desired location. If you are familiar with Timothy Treadwell, Hallo Bay is the area where he spent the majority of his summers filming brown bears for 13 years. He collected wonderful film footage in the mud tidal flats and open meadows of Hallo Bay before meeting his untimely demise at his secondary location, the Grizzly Maze, about 20 miles away. But I digress, back to my trip.
Our pilot, Derick, was very friendly and had a great sense of humor which he used to try to make his group feel more comfortable. Strangely, I was not nervous about either the plane ride or the bears, but some other members of my group were nervous. He did a great job flying the plane, it was a very smooth ride and landing onto the beach at Hallo Bay. He also shared information about brown bears and answered questions throughout our tour. Before landing, we flew a loop over the meadows and saw a sow with two cubs and another bear even before landing!
The four planes flew as a group, landed on the same beach and parked in a line. We disembarked and had a safety briefing on spending time near brown bears. There were two basic rules: Never Run and Stay Together in your group. Both are good rules. Running causes a bear’s predator instinct to be triggered and you become the prey. Historically, groups of people that are six in number have not been attacked by a brown bear. We were not allowed to bring any bear spray or weapons. Curious, I had asked one of the owners what is carried by the guides and was informed they carry flares. After our bear safety briefing, we walked down the beach and into the meadow.
But the main event, the reason for the trip, was the brown bears. We quickly found evidence of bears, piles of bear scat and bear beds dug in the sand on the beach. And then we spotted our first bear from the ground, a large male resting in the tall grass. He raised his head to look at us for a short time, but decided not to take any other action and went back to resting. During the summer, bears need to pack on the fat to prepare for hibernating. Bears basically eat and sleep in continuous cycles.
We continued around that bear and went further down the beach to a stream flowing from Hallo Glacier. We walked a distance upstream. On the other side of the stream we spotted a female brown bear and her two cubs who were all resting. The cubs were starting on their third summer, making them 2 years old and fairly large. At anytime in the next year, these cubs are old enough that their mom will send them off to be on their own. Our group of six sat down on some logs to observe the family. The bears spent a good amount of time resting, but did strike some fun poses, rolling onto their backs, on their sides, legs sprawling different directions.
After a while, the mother got up and headed to the edge of the stream to watch for salmon who would be easier targets in the shallower water from the outgoing tide. She sat down and watched carefully for any movement in the water. Both cubs had gotten up and headed in her direction, one of them plopped back down for some more napping, while the other stayed with mom at the side of the stream.
Out beyond them, another bear was heading towards them, but decided to turn around and head back the way it had come from. While watching the bears, we were also able to view a bald eagle and a family of mergansers.
The fishing was slow, so mom and her cubs decided to head further up the stream.
We got word on the radio that several bears were now in the low tide waters, so our group headed back to the beach. There were three bears who were watching the outgoing tide for signs of salmon. Not much was happening, so after some time, two of the bears decided to head to the meadow to eat sedge grasses, which make up a large portion of their diet before the salmon run.
We started to follow these two bears, and as soon as we were a good distance a way, the third bear got up and started running back and forth through the water trying to catch fish. He was not having much luck. After watching him a bit, we went on into the meadow where we watched two bears, a male and a female, eating sedge grasses. The large male probably weighed at least 800 lbs! This was the closest we were to bears during our tour, other than a brief time near the first bear we spotted. We were about 50-100 feet from the male (boar) bear and 150-200 feet from the female (sow). We watched the two bears grazing with Hallo Glacier in the background.
By this point, our time was up. Derick asked if we were ready to go, to which I answered, “Never.” But it was time to leave. I said good-bye to the bears and headed back to the planes on the beach for our return flight.
As we approached the planes, we were greeted by two Katmai National Park Rangers who welcomed us to the park and answered any questions people asked. In total, we saw at least 8 distinct brown bears on the ground and 4 from the air, for a total of at least 12 brown bears in just 3 hours. It was a great trip. I highly recommend a bear viewing tour to anyone who loves bears or at least really wants to see bears in an uncrowded area. I would tour with Alaska Bear Adventures and Derick again if given the opportunity. This has been my favorite activity on this trip thus far.
Note: We did not receive any services, payment or discounts for writing about Alaska Bear Adventures or K Bay Air.