Alaska Bear Tours: Our Katmai National Park adventure

Ok folks, buckle down because this is going to be a long one.  I have lots of pictures that I want to show you!  I was trying to root through them and just pick a couple to use for this post, but it was really agonizing.  I finally came to the conclusion that I can’t tell you the for real and for serious entire story of our Alaska bear tour without all of the pictures, so in reality I’m actually doing you a favor with this visual barrage… and here we go.

As the propellers on the float plane began to spin, I was considering attempting a quick escape.  Maybe it’s not too late to skip this, I thought as I secured the massive headphones over my ears.  The truth is, I hate to fly.  I fly often, but I absolutely hate it.  I hate it because I am terrified of being in a small tin death can propelled by explosives thousands of feet above the earth.  People always say “it’s just like riding in a car, there are more car accidents than plane crashes, you know.”

Yeah but if the car engine dies you pull off to the side of the road, you don’t pull off into the middle of the ocean.

I had been anticipating this anxiety for a while, ever since I started working for Bald Mountain Air Service, a super awesome company here in Homer that does fly out brown bear tours.  I love my job to pieces, and since I sell trips to people, I knew the time was coming that I would take a trip myself (and Justin got to come along too!) How irrational is it that I was more afraid of flying in a sea plane than being 50 feet away from a grizzly bear?  I can answer that question myself: very.

But, in my moment of despair, I put on my big girl panties and got over it.  And, truth is,  I now know that I would prefer to fly in a sea plane everywhere I go.  My anxiety vanished, and I found myself instead gazing through my small window at the beauty unfolding beneath me.  After an hour of beauty, (if you want to see some of THOSE pictures, check out this earlier post- Cape Douglas, Katmai National Park Alaska) we splashed ever-so-gently into Kukak Bay.  Craig and Eric, our pilots and guides for the day, had already espied multiple bears on the ground, but we had to be sneaky and go the long way to get to them.

I mean come on, they’re grizzly bears, you can’t just walk right up to them.

While we’re on the topic, did you know that Brown Bears, Grizzly Bears, and Kodiak Bears are all the same species?  Yep, that’s right, they’re all the exact same bear.  I didn’t know that… not until I started working at my new job at least.  I’ve found that most people think that all three are different.  So there you go, tuck that little bit of information away for later, maybe it will help you on Jeopardy someday.

Kukak Bay, and Katmai National Park in general, is obscenely gorgeous.  I won’t gush because there aren’t words to describe the beauty, so I hope you can kind of tell by the pictures I’ve been posting. We trekked around the perimeter of the river bed, occasionally being sucked into mucky mud up to our thighs.  We crossed a few creeks/rivers here and there, and thank God we were lucky enough to come early enough in the season that mosquitoes weren’t an issue.  I’ve heard that Alaskan mosquitoes can pluck you from the earth and carry you off into the sunset.  When we reached a safe distance from which to watch the bears (about 75 yards away from the bear that was closest to us I would say) we nestled up into the grass for picnic time!

Before you freak out about us eating around the bears, it’s totally fine.  They have plenty of food to eat over there, and to be honest really were not the least bit interested in us at all.  As I finished my sandwich, another bear came bounding through the reeds next to the river.  He came right up the first bear, who had been slowly inching his way towards us.  The two bears acknowledged each other, then went right on back to eating their grass.  We waited.  And took pictures.  And when a third bear made it’s way out onto the plain, we knew the real party had started.  It was so crazy to be so close to these supposedly vicious and horrific animals.  There was a little bit of adrenaline when I thought about what we were doing, but really it seemed pretty safe.  Out here in Katmai, Justin remarked how much they reminded him of dogs.  They seriously looked like oversized, cuddly dogs, just milling around and grazing in the field.

Until one bear talked trash to the other bear.

I did not know when I left home that morning that I would be witness to a real life bear fight.  I had hoped dearly for it, sure… but to have my dreams come true?  I was under-prepared with my camera, so the action shots aren’t as good as I wish they were. But you get the idea.

Shortly after the scuffle had worked itself out, it was time for us to go home.  But did we go back the way we came?  Heck no!  Eric boldly led our group right between two bears.  I think because it was the straightest and easiest way back to the plane, but I can’t be sure.  He may just have a death wish, at least that’s what I thought at first.  But, once again, the bears paid us absolutely no mind.

We waded back to the plane, hopped up onto the float, and climbed into the cabin.  I realized that my flight anxiety seemed to be at an all time low.  Mission accomplished.

Fly out bear viewing tours are one of the many unique experiences Alaska has to offer.  Now I can say I’ve been out in the wilderness with a pack of grizzly bears, and I can back it up with photographic evidence too. I hope you agree now with the necessity of my numerous visual aides, and if you stayed around for this whole long post, you are a champ… so you get an extra credit question:

Have you ever done something adventurous like this?  What is the most unique activity you’ve participated in while travelling?

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5 Comments

  1. Wow! I have done a few adventurous things (skydiving, zip lining, zorbing), but being so close to those bears would have scared the crap out of me! What a cool experience!

    • payjeb@gmail.com says:

      What in the heck is zorbing??? It SOUNDS adventurous! And in my book skydiving is the number one scariest thing in the world… but the bears thing comes in a pretty close second to it!

  2. What a great experience. But before anyone feels too safe. these bears can be dangerous. Years ago I interviewed a woman who lived in Kenai whose husband got scalped by a grizzly. It was the late 40s and it made a lot of newspapers around the US. Don’t remember why the bear attacked, but he did. These are not Teddys.
    Good thing you have to fly in here with an experienced guide who hopefully had good beardar!

    • payjeb@gmail.com says:

      You’re definitely right, I probably should have delved a little bit further into that side of it… The reason that we felt so safe around these bears was 1. because they are protected in the park and have been for a long time, they don’t see humans as much of a threat 2. They have PLENTY to eat over there already, and were far more concerned with munching on grass and filling their tummies with what was in front of them 3. We were together in a big group, sitting, not moving. When I check people in for their tours, I give them an orientation that includes things to remember about bears and bear behaviors, so everyone that goes on our trips has all the information they need. I’m really glad you made this comment, because I honestly didn’t think about it while writing the post, but now I think I’ll do a follow up or something. Thanks!

  3. […] a few weeks ago I told you a captivating and enchanting tale about when Justin and I flew to Katmai National Park to frolick around with the brown bears.  I got caught up in my happy story world, and neglected to provide you with the realistic side of […]

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