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Brown bear watching and wildlife tours on the wild coast of Katmai National Park in Alaska.
Brown bear watching & wildlife tours on the coast of Katmai National Park, Alaska
Katmai Coastal Bear Tours
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by Guest Photographer Don Hill
all photos on this page Donal Hill

Dear John,
I wanted to write to again say thanks for the incredible experience you and your crew treated Barb and me to onboard the Waters from August 18-22. I enjoy wildlife photography and do it as often as possible -- everything from hummingbirds around our house, to tigers at the San Diego Zoo, to bull moose in Grand Teton National Park. This past week's photo expedition in the Katmai fjords, however, was the most amazing, enjoyable and memorable I have ever experienced. In fact, the day after you dropped us off at Kodiak, I woke up at 4:45 a.m. in our Anchorage motel room with my head buzzing Katmai bears. I couldn't get back to sleep, reflecting on our four days on the Waters, and the bears you took us to.
Donal Hill Coronado, California

The huge brown bear strode smoothly through the chilly, rapidly moving stream, then deftly pounced on unseen prey. Grabbing a struggling salmon firmly in its jaws, it waded directly towards us, where once on shore a scant ten yards from us, it surrendered the unfortunate fish to a pair of cubs. The yearling bears rapidly shredded and devoured the large fish. The female of the species Ursus arctos returned to the stream and repeated its fishing activities while the cubs, having polished of their meal, chewed contentedly on seagull feathers.

In late summer, the coastal bears seemed to have but one objective -- to gorge on plentiful pink salmon, running upstream from the sea to spawn. At Geographic Harbor and near Kinak Bay, bears of all sizes and ages, preparing for the Alaskan winter, congregated at shallow tidal estuaries to catch and gorge on nutritious salmon. August is still a time of plenty for these extraordinary creatures, and they make the most of their opportunities, augmenting their protective fat reserves at every chance. Huge, solitary males, and females with one to three spring or yearling cubs, prowled the banks and braved chilly streams, always poised to pounce on unsuspecting fish. In the process, adult bears are mostly oblivious to the presence of humans, so intense is their interest in fishing.

We had traveled to Katmai to observe bears, but nothing could have prepared us for what we experienced during an all-too-brief, four-day visit. From the moment we set foot on M/V Waters, we were immersed in practically non-stop discussion of bears. Mark Newman, a part-time-ER physician from Anchorage, was our guide on this trip, and knows as much as anyone about the brown bears of Katmai. Mark stressed safety as the paramount concern, not just for humans, but equally so for bears. Because injury to a viewer from a bear can lead to destruction of the bear, rules are carefully and repeatedly explained. In the field, Mark uniformly corrected viewers whose recall of the rules had slipped, or who had become distracted in the excitement of the moment.

Our first bear-viewing excursion was nothing less than astounding. John Rogers ferried our group of seven up a stream off Kinak Bay in the skiff. After landing at a gravel bar, we strolled several hundred yards upstream, but saw no bears. But suddenly, a large sow appeared and began to amble in our direction. We stood together and silently watched as she passed us at a distance of about ten to fifteen yards. She proceeded upstream looking for fishing opportunities, taking little note of us.

John headed back to the skiff, but then called our attention to something downstream. Two spring cubs had appeared on the stream's gravelly bank, where we first saw the sow, their mother. I evaluated our current situation with some trepidation. Through no fault of our own, we were now positioned in the danger zone of legend and lore -- right between a sow and her cubs. As I was considering our predicament, the cubs' bleating caused the sow to turn towards us, to reunite with her cubs. Instead of viewing us as a threat to the cubs, however, she made a wide detour around us, shuffling through vegetation on the ten-foot-high bank thirty yards away from the stream. Upon rejoining her cubs, she coaxed them into following her on her original upstream quest, and again headed our way.

This sow apparently was accustomed to seeing people, but her young cubs had only limited experience, if any. They demonstrated both curiosity and uncertainty towards our group, as the sow again sauntered by us. One cub, in particular, seemed fixated on our presence and, despite its mother's nonchalance, would not take its eyes off us.

The brown bear family shuffled upstream past our tightly clustered, transfixed group, at a distance of 12 feet. We were stunned! None of us could ever have anticipated so close an encounter with such a large and potentially dangerous adult bear, not to mention a whole family of bears. While the sow and one cub continued upstream, the fixated cub turned back in our direction, apparently having given in to its curiosity. It took several steps in our direction when Mark, in a soft but firm voice told it, "go on." As he uttered the words, he gently flicked the back of his hand towards the youngster, which promptly and obediently turned and ran to catch up with its family.

No two brown bears fish for salmon in the same way. We observed almost as many different fishing techniques as we did bears. Bear salmon-fishing methodology ranged from exerting hardly any energy at all to full-tilt charges up or down stream in a mad scramble for fish. Experienced bears employed the former method, which was decidedly superior to the headlong dashes. The two most effective methods we observed were demonstrated by a large sow with triplets and a huge, solitary boar. On one occasion, the sow stood patiently on a grassy, slightly elevated stream bank at Geographic Harbor, watching for salmon. Suddenly she leaped, spread-eagled into the stream causing an enormous splash of water. Her head submerged momentarily. She lifted a large "humpie" from the water, returned to the bank and presented it to one of her cubs.

The huge boar demonstrated the other highly efficient method. He had been napping on the gravel bar adjacent to the stream and arose, shuffling into the water rather nonchalantly. He slowly waded about, then made a quick plunging motion with his front paws, pinning his quarry. Grabbing the salmon in his jaws, he ambled onto the high, vegetated bank and consumed his meal in leisure.

In contrast to these efficient bears, a younger, solitary adult was a virtual perpetual motion machine. A member of the head-long-dash school, he was among the most entertaining. When he spotted a fish from his mid-stream position, he galloped enthusiastically after it, ending his sprint with a dive and a huge splash. He repeated this technique until catching a fish. We observed his behavior for quite a while and, while noting his inefficiency, had to commend him for pure energy and entertainment value.

The bear with the most unusual fishing technique was the snorkeling sow, with cub at the trail position. As we stood by a curve in a stream where the water slowed and pooled, this sow waded downstream completely submerged, except for her ears and spine. Her eyes and snout remained below water for upwards of a minute, as she searched for her cub's next meal.

The concentration of brown bears along the Katmai coast was rather astonishing. One day at Geographic Harbor, we simultaneously observed 14 bears varying in age and size, within a quarter-mile radius of our position. Although bears are not social creatures, at Katmai they tolerated each other's proximity while salmon fishing. Occasionally a sow, believing her young at risk, charged and chased off a potentially threatening bear, often larger than she.

The Katmai coastal bear experience is simply unforgettable, and provides unique opportunities for photographers, naturalists and nature enthusiasts of all experience levels. By following a few simple rules and the instructions of experienced bear guides, viewers and bears can safely co-exist. This trip is a must for those wishing to see Alaska at its wildest.

To Don Hill's photos click HERE

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Katmai Coastal Bear Tours
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Katmai Coastal Bear Tours
Homer, Alaska 99603
Phone 1-907-235-8337

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