Brown bear watching & wildlife tours on the coast of Katmai National
Coming into Bear Country
Excerpt from An Adventurous Nature: Tales from Natural
Habitat Adventures to be published by Natural Habitat Adventures
by Brad Josephs
This isn’t human country; it’s bear country. Prone to volcanic eruptions,
rattled frequently by strong earthquakes, and battered by brutal storms all
winter, the coast of Katmai on the Alaska Peninsula is too remote, too
rugged, and too risky for colonization. Hemmed in from the north and west by
the volcano- and glacier studded Aleutian Mountain Range, and to the south
and east by the treacherous Shelikof Straight, this coast is among the most
pristine areas on earth.
I am guiding a group of, serious wildlife enthusiasts who have come here for
a “Katmai Coastal Bear” expedition. They seek to experience, explore, and
immerse themselves in the heart of the world’s largest population of
protected bears. In a sense, such a visit to Katmai is a step back in time
to a North America that is raw, untamed, and wildly beautiful. The group
will spend four days living comfortably aboard the, Waters 70-foot tug or
Kittiwake, a 100-foot, ex-Bering Sea crab boat converted into a charter
vessel. Each morning, we’ll wake up in a bay or fjord, surrounded by
snowcapped volcanoes, glaciers, and emerald-green slopes. Each day, we’ll
travel ashore by skiff and venture into the rich intertidal kingdom of one
of the planet’s most feared, loved, and respected species, the grizzly bear.
Our goal is to observe the bears while having no impact on their behavior.
We will walk slowly, single file, in a small, tight line. We will stay
visible and make enough noise to alert the bears to our presence. We will
position ourselves at an appropriate distance from the salmon stream to
ensure we do not interfere with their feeding, and we will sit in a small,
tight group. If done correctly, the bears should ignore us.
Our group disembarks from the skiff to begin our short hike upriver. We find
an ancient bear trail, worn six inches deep into the rocky ground by
generations of traffic, and follow it into the five-foot-tall, wet grass.
Piles of fresh bear scat litter the path; each packed with a mixture of fish
bones, parsnip seeds, and high-bush cranberries, illustrating the diverse
omnivorous diet of these adaptable animals.
As we round a corner, we come to a rushing cascade of water pouring from a
boulder-strewn gully into a deep, crystal-clear pool of water. A dozen
anxious salmon dart through the depths against the green, rocky bottom.
There are no bears visible yet, but we know they are sleeping in the brush
all around us. We find a comfortable spot to settle in and wait.
As the tide rises against the river’s outflow, gradually deepening the pool,
schools of fish appear from downstream by the dozens. All is quiet now, but
at any minute some of the fish will begin their daring ascent up the river
to spawn in the headwaters. We use these quiet moments to set up our
equipment and to enjoy the peace and freshness of a late summer morning on
the Katmai coast. This is the time that is perfect for appreciating some of
the meeker, less dramatic creatures of the river before things become too
hectic and focused on the greatest icons of the North American wilderness.
The success of the bears represents the health of this very rich ecosystem,
which supports a great diversity of birds, plants, and mammals.
A drab, steel-gray bird, an American dipper, sits perched on a rock and soon
plunges into the water, staying submerged for a few minutes at a time. Also
known as the “water ouzel,” the dipper walks along the bottom of the creek
locating aquatic insects. A female common merganser confidently motors
through the pool, followed by her nine fledglings. We notice the serrations
in her bill, used to grab juvenile salmon as she rockets through the water,
propelled by powerful flipper-like feet. She probably abandoned her nest
somewhere up in the headwaters of the creek and led her babies down here,
into the intertidal zone, where they will feed, grow quickly, and learn to
swim underwater and fly. A quick movement in the shadows of an alder thicket
on the opposite bank materializes into a river otter that
slips away into the current. Like the merganser, the otter also benefits
from the salmon runs every fall.
A set of fresh wolf tracks leads along the sandbar across the river. “We
would have to be lucky, but we always stand a chance of seeing wolves in
these valleys,” I tell the group. “they supplement their diet with salmon. I
have often seen them fishing right along with the bears,”.
This river valley, like countless others on the Alaskan coastline, supports
prolific thickets of willow, birch, and cottonwood. These lush riparian
forests, which shade and protect the salmon streams, are fertilized when
bears, otters, wolves, eagles, and other wildlife bring salmon onto the
shore to feed. This influx of marine nitrogen to the soil is a crucial step
in the ecosystem’s cycle.
“What do the bears eat other than salmon?” The list is long. I point out
some shrubs that are important supplements to the bear’s diet. A hillside
above us is covered with salmonberries, which are ripe and orange and a
favorite with the local ursine residents. Clusters of bright-red berries
perch atop the thorny stems of devil’s club plants. Bears also feed heavily
on the dried seeds of wild celery and cow parsnip plants, which we see
scattered throughout the undergrowth.
“These bears also eat a wide variety of vegetation, including intertidal
sedges, plantains, many flowering plants, and a number of roots,” I explain.
At low tides, they often travel along the exposed shorelines where they find
small eel-like fish, mussels, clams, crabs, and anything dead — such as
seals, whales, sea lions, and otters. They will take moose calves, steal
moose carcasses from wolves, raid bird nests, and unearth arctic ground
squirrels from their burrows, “A bear’s strategy for survival is based upon
“Bear!” is the abrupt interruption, whispered by someone in the group with
such intensity that I instinctively whisper back “It’s cool, don’t worry”
before I can spot the bear myself. Sure enough, directly across the river
from us, the giant head and shoulders of a large female have appeared in the
grass. She watches us closely for a moment, tasting the air with her nose
before deciding that we can be safely ignored. She emerges from the grass
and walks down the bank focusing her stare into the water, looking for fish.
I hear gasps from the group as a pair of tiny, black, six-month-old cubs
scramble down the bank behind her. One cub watches us with a look of utter
amazement, while the other, larger cub imitates the serious, unconcerned
demeanor of mom and shoots us only sideways glances.
Everyone in our group, all on their first trip to see brown bears, is frozen
with excitement. This is the miracle of Katmai’s bears. These bears do not
view people as a threat or a food source. Part of this is attributed to
decisions humans have made and continue to make regarding the bears of this
region. They are not hunted and have not been since the creation of Katmai
National Monument in 1919 (now known as Katmai National Park); and due to
the remoteness of the area, human visitation is limited. As for the bears’
attitudes, they are very easy to get along with. They are highly
intelligent, risk-oriented animals that avoid confrontation and adapt
quickly to a nonthreatening presence that is not deemed a food source.
Moments pass as the mother’s eyes are locked with catlike focus onto a
large, slow-swimming chum salmon. Suddenly, the sow explodes into the water
with almost supernatural power and quickness. Water flies in all directions
for a few seconds before she freezes, her head buried between her two paws
under the water. With a triumphant rise of her neck, she brings up a
struggling fifteen- pound fish and walks to the shore. Each cub quickly
latches onto a half of the salmon and pulls. The meal is divided into equal
thirds, and the bears devour their portions as if they hadn’t eaten all
The members of group begin frantically shooting film and video. If every
single person flew home at this point in time, they all would avow that the
trip had been worth it; but we have three more days, and the action hasn’t
The sky above us fills with swarming gulls and eagles whose raucous calls
serve as an alarm to the sleeping bears surrounding us. Three more adult
bears simultaneously appear, with all eyes on the river. The fish have
started running up the river and one young, dark male sees a shadow in the
water and dashes over to catch his first fish of the day.
Soon there are a half dozen bears, all young males, jumping and weaving
among the boulders. One bear catches a fish and dashes down the bank to find
a safe place to eat beside the pool as another, larger bear follows close
behind. When the follower catches up, the two bears face each other and
assume a stiff-legged, aggressive stance. Low, guttural growling erupts into
deafening roars as the bears exchange forceful slaps. The smaller bear
reluctantly backs away from his fish, crosses the river.
The sow and cubs stay on the bank across the river from us, The mother
continues to watch the shallows for stray fish until something, either a
sound or a scent, catches her attention. She stands up on her back legs,
looks into the tall grass, and sniffs the air. The cubs know something is
not right and stand behind her, staying tightly together. When the mother’s
suspicions become a reality, she makes a popping sound with her jaws as she
drops to all fours and runs down the bank. As she flees, she emits a series
of quick huffs to let the cubs know to follow her closely. Something
dangerous — a large male, I’m thinking — is approaching. Although rare, some
bears have a tendency to prey on cubs if given the chance, and females with
cubs react with extreme caution.
A patch of grass on the other side of the river begins to shake and a bear
slowly and deliberately emerges. It is immediately obvious that this is a
huge male bear by the massive, broad skull and hulking chest and shoulders.
Our group gets excited, but also nervous. I mention that large bears are
usually the most aloof around people and are very unlikely to approach our
Because of the confident, calm demeanor and numerous scars on his shoulders,
back, and face, I estimate this giant to be in the latter stages of his
physical prime, which would place him at about twenty years old. A rough 5
estimate of his weight would be somewhere between a thousand and fifteen
hundred pounds. Having battled extensively with other males for the rights
to mate and feed in the prime spots, these war-torn males demand respect
from younger bears. As the giant swaggers towards the river, the other bears
disappear into the surrounding willows one by one.
Whispered conversations develop among the group as they all take a needed
break from filming, shooting, and watching. One observer notes the marked
individuality of each bear. Not only do bears possess dramatic differences
based on age and sex, but each bear portrays a unique and varied
personality. As with humans, every bear is an individual, and a bear’s life
is filled with social interactions and communication with other bears.
“When you watch these guys fishing and coming into contact with one another
and you look into their eyes,” you can see the wheels turning. You can tell
they are intelligent animals.
The old male takes a position and stands perfectly still, ignoring the
swarming school of salmon in the deep pool. After a few minutes, a fish
torpedoes himself into the shallows toward the rushing water. The giant bear
makes one deliberate, explosive lunge and grabs the salmon by the head.
“Older bears have more patience, learned through experience,” I state. “They
know exactly when to expend energy. The younger bears are much less
efficient and waste a great deal of energy plunging through deep water and
catching few fish.”
Every bear has a certain fishing style and technique. Some snorkel, with
only their ears above the water, looking for scraps of fish on the bottom;
some dive into the deep water from high banks; and some try to herd fish
into the shallows with powerful splashes. The old male just waits for a fish
to come to him.
Bear viewing is an Alaskan industry that is steaming ahead with great
momentum. People love watching bears. Fifteen years ago, the only economic
value associated with brown bears was revenue brought in through trophy
hunting. Now, thankfully, bears are worth more alive than dead. Serious
adventurers realize that observing bears from close distances is perhaps the
most exciting, catch-in-your-throat- engrossing wilderness experience to be
found anywhere. Countless hunters have turned in their rifles for digital
cameras. Heart-stopping portfolios of action images have replaced mounted
bear rugs. It is good to know that the huge,
once-thought-of-only-as-trophies males are still up there in the foggy
mountains, getting bigger and stronger.
The hours pass, but we don’t notice. We are all lost in this world of
nature, a different world from the one we usually inhabit. The only clock
that matters here is the tide.
The bears continue fishing the pool and the falls as long as the fish
remain; but as the tide recedes, the fish that haven’t taken the leap into
the falls drift back to the ocean. They will be back when the tide rises
again to work up their tolerance to the fresh water and their courage. We
head back to the boat for a meal, showers, and to discuss our day’s
The boat’s main engines fire up and the anchor is pulled. Any of us on board
would be happy to spend a week in this bay, but it is one of many bays. We
disappear into the fading twilight en route for another inlet and salmon
river where maybe even more bears prowl the banks.
There is a feeling that creeps into your soul after a few days in Katmai
that is very difficult to describe. It is a mixture of awe, love, and
humility. This is one of the very rare corners of the earth where humans do
not seem significant. The land and the sea are raw and frighteningly
powerful, and the wildlife thrives as it did ten thousand years ago. Brown
bears are the dominant species here, not humans, but, amazingly, they allow
us to sit on the periphery of their activities as unnoticed observers.
That becomes clear to all who venture to this remote, distant coast — this
country of bears.
Tour Information Articles:
[ Values of Bear-Watching along the Katmai Coast ] [ Observing Grizzlies ] [ Bear Watching ] [ Living on the Boat ] [ Coming into Bear Country ]
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