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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Coming into Bear Country

Excerpt from An Adventurous Nature: Tales from Natural Habitat Adventures to be published by Natural Habitat Adventures in 2010.

by Brad Josephs

Click for enlargementThis 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 being resourceful.”
“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 summer.
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 even started.
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 group.
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 observations.
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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Katmai Coastal Bear Tours
Homer, Alaska 99603
Phone 1-907-235-8337

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