Brown bear watching & wildlife tours on the coast of Katmai National Park, Alaska
The coastal grizzlies of Alaska owe their size, population densities, and world famous reputation with wildlife photographers to the salmon runs of the middle and late summer. But it is during the month of June before the salmon arrive, however, when the most unique aspects of bear life history are revealed. June on the Katmai Coast, one of Alaska’s best kept secrets, is when the bears concentrate in some of the most spectacular settings on the planet to socialize, mate and utilize other food sources supplied by the ocean.
Tidal ranges on the Katmai coast are among the second most extreme on the continent. These massive fluctuations of seawater create estuarine habitats where marine nutrients are infused into the terrestrial ecosystem. During high tides, seawater floods into the glacial river valleys creating extensive intertidal meadows. During the month of June, bears, which still carry their thick, shaggy, often blond winter coats, congregate in these verdant green meadows to feed on protein rich sedges and plantains.
During low tides, the bears wander into the tidal flats to search using sight and smell for the tiny breathing holes of razor clams. When detected by a bear, the razor clam descends from its original depth of twelve inches below the surface down into the wet sand at an inch per second. The claws and shoulder muscles of the grizzly, designed specifically for digging, make for excellent success rates. The high levels of essential fatty acids and cholesterols in razor clams are particularly beneficial to lactating sows with cubs. A behavioral phenomenon unique to the Alaska Peninsula, clam digging exemplifies the ingenuity, and intelligence level of the coastal grizzly.
Since the bears are not engrossed in fishing until later in the summer, dramas unfold in the lives of the bears that are unknown and unseen by all but a handful of bear enthusiasts and photographers. Play behavior among sows, cubs, and sub adults is at its highest in the early summer. Mating season peaks out in mid-late June, and the Katmai Coast contains several of the most active mating grounds in the world. Incredible interactions between mating bears as well as violent fights among competing males can occur in these areas. It would be reasonable to witness and photograph sparring teenage males, a female nursing her cubs, two giant males engaged in a brutal fight over a female, and the intimate interactions of a mating pair in one late afternoon/evening excursion in the sedge meadows, all set amongst the jagged, glacier studded Aleutian Mountain Range.
The month of June is a miraculous period on the coast
of Katmai National Park. Long awaited sunlight and warmth supercharge the
rich marine habitat resulting in an explosion of growth at every trophic
level of the ecosystem, from algae to brown bears. Breeding bird songs,
heavy snow on nearby mountaintops, twenty four hours of daylight, and
amazing blooms of a variety of wildflowers (lupine, coastal paintbrush,
iris, cow parsnip etc…) make this one of my
favorite times on the coast. This period is becoming popular with
photographers desiring images of brown bears engaged in unique behaviors, in
unique, spectacular settings..
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