Alaskan Coastal Brown Bears…UNBELIEVABLE!!!

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The best part of my two week Alaska trip was visiting the bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve.  I signed up for the Classic Day Trip with Alaska Bear Adventures months in advance. The Classic Day Trip takes about 7 hours of the day for 3 hours with the bears. It is very pricey but worth EVERY penny on a SUNNY day.  After spending the last ten days in the rain, I felt lucky to have sunny skies for the outing.

Checkin for the Bear Trip

Checkin for the Classic Day Trip takes place the prior day. All clients must visit the office to weigh in and to go over all the rules. Clients must weigh within 10 pounds of their booking weights, otherwise they risk losing their spot. No lying!

The rules for seeing the bears are extensive, but some of the main ones include:

  1. No aerosol bug sprays
  2. No bear spray
  3. No plastic bags
  4. No glass bottles

Safety Briefing and Gear

The trip to see the bears is dependent on the tides. As a result, our start time was 6am at the hangar (not the office). Upon arrival, each tourist received a life vest and a pair of patched waders which fit over our shoes. Seated with our gear we listened to the safety briefing. The briefing spent more time the Cessna airplanes in which we would be flying than the Alaskan Coastal Brown Bear.  After discussing all the rules, we followed the pilots to the tarmac.

The Flight

Each of the four planes carried five passengers and the pilot.  We would be landing on the beaches at either Katmai National Park and Preserve or Lake Clark National Park & Preserve.  The destination isn’t determined until the morning of the trip. Today, we flew to Katmai which was slightly farther away. 

I ended up with Joe and a group of four tourists from Poland, two of whom didn’t speak English.  We put our packs, that couldn’t weigh more than ten pounds, in the back of the plane, and then Joe distributed us based on our weight.  I got the front seat!  The crystal clear skies provided superb views of the snow covered mountains, volcanoes and bay below.

Landing on the Beach

Three of the planes flew closer to land where they spotted a few bears and landed on the beach.  Joe, however, continued further for a glance at the another beach. He counted five bears immediately, so he landed. What a fantastic decision it was to fly slightly further!  In the three hours we spent with the bears, we saw about 15 different ones! 

Additionally, we never had to leave the coast. We walked ten minutes from the plane, sat on the sand in front of Hallo Glacier, and quietly watched the bear activity. What a way to maximize our time with these giant beauties! Some groups have to hike up to five miles to see the bears.

Approaching the Bears

Prior to leaving the plane, Joe briefed us on the approach. We walked in a single file as to appear small and less threatening to the bears. With both the moon and sun overhead, we followed the bear tracks to shallow tide pools where the bears frolicked and rested. Once we were within 25 yards of the bears, we quietly knelt down in a close group.  At such point, we kept from making noise or quick movements. For the next three hours, we sat by the bears, only moving once to put the sun behind us for photos.

Mama and Her Cub

No sooner did we kneel down than a mama bear dug a day bed in the sand, rested on her back, and began nursing her large cub!  We were all amazed we could be so close to a mama and her cub and not be in danger.  Not only were we not in danger, the mama used us as protection. With us nearby, she could nurse her cub without worrying about other bears that could attack.

It’s hard to believe that we peons could offer protection to such a majestic animal. Believe it or not, the Alaskan Coastal Brown Bear is larger than the Denali grizzly. Additionally, since it has never been hunted, it doesn’t associate humans with food. As a result, we peacefully watched all sorts of bear activity around us.

Lefty Watching a Female Fishing in the Distance

While the mama was nursing to our right, another female, off in the distance, was fishing in the low tide pools.  Lefty, a large male missing most of his left ear, noticed the female’s success and trotted across the water to steal her fish as the birds swarmed.  A few other cubs, also enticed by the commotion, headed that way.  Fortunately for the female, none of the bears took her fish, and she promptly caught another one.

The Alaska Trifecta

Back to our right, the mama and cub took a nap as a bald eagle landed in between them and Hallo Glacier…the Alaska trifecta! 

Alaska Trifecta

My gosh, the excitement never stopped. We saw cubs frolic and tumble in the sand and in their bed as their mothers kept a close eye on them.

In fact, when more bears appeared from the brush to the beach, the mama who was resting with her cub, switched to an alert position.

Scanning the area, we counted thirteen bears! Fortunately, it wasn’t an unlucky thirteen!  We didn’t know which way to look next as our camera shutters didn’t stop…click, click, click.

Should we enjoy the cubs wrestling and sitting on each others heads or admire the bears galloping through the water, timing their plunge onto the swimming salmon. 

Fishing

Or perhaps we should give our attention to the curious fellow who decided to circle us so closely that we held our breath. I got a 5 second video of that.  Watch it HERE.

If that were not enough, the bears treated us to much more. Cubs snuggled on the sand bar and bathed in the tide pools. Other bears went for a drink on the water’s edge or simply basked in the sun.

We couldn’t miss them peeing. That happened quite often. In fact, the only way to tell the difference between a female and male cub is by the way they pee.  Females squirt their pee behind them while males sort of pee downward and all over themselves!

It’s a girl!

Of course, my collection of photos would not be complete without at least one snapshot of me with the bears in the background. Look how many are just in this frame.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the scenery. While I didn’t want to look away from the bears, every now and then I had to take in the stunning view of a cyan sky over the snow capped glacier.

After what I thought was an hour, I turned to Joe, who was practically my private guide given the Polish folks spoke limited English and the other groups landed on a different beach, and said,

“I should probably put on some sunblock.  It would be ironic to come home sunburned after spending 11 out of 14 days in Alaska in the rain!” 

Joe replied, “Well, we only have ten more minutes.” 

Seriously!?!  I was in complete dismay as I’m usually good at telling time. No wonder I was hungry! I snapped a few more photos of the cubs before I reluctantly slung on my pack and slowly got to my feet as we prepared to leave.

Upon returning to the plane, one of the mamas and her three cubs, who were all part of the show, crossed our path as they wandered away. Others sauntered behind us until we reached the final tide pool crossing.  While disappointed to leave the bears, at the plane, we were rewarded with a bald eagle and eaglet!

Additionally, our flight back to Homer was simply spectacular. The sunny sky produced magnificent reflections in crystal clear lakes. Volcanic peaks and colorful glaciers towered over the bay. It was truly breath taking! I couldn’t be more thankful for such amazing weather as it definitely made a difference in my experience. I absolutely LOVED this trip, and I highly recommend it! Having said that, I heard there are trips that have a camp in the area and visitors can spend four nights with the bears.  I may have to come back!!! ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

9 thoughts on “Alaskan Coastal Brown Bears…UNBELIEVABLE!!!

  1. OMG! BRILLIANT!!! I’m so happy for you, Beth. The images are the best thing I have seen for a long time. Soooo many and not one too much of those fabulous creatures. <3 Wonderful work, I thoroughly enjoyed it. x

  2. That’s awesome, I bet that was a blast. Great pics. Look forward to viewing them tonight on computer instead of this postage stamp iphone

  3. Can you tell me what equipment you took on the plane along with the camera and lens used. Thank you!

    1. I just brought a small pack with rain gear and some snacks. It can’t weigh more than ten pounds. They supply waders. I had a mirrorless Olympus em10 with a Tamron lens equivalent of 18-270 for dslr. That’s the only lens I own. You get within 25 feet of bears. Some walk closer to you and many were across the water so farther away

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