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Bear Watching: Katmai National Park, Alaska, U.S.A.

Bear Watching: Katmai National Park, Alaska, U.S.A.

Are We Having Salmon Tonight?

The first time you see a Grizzly bear up close your heart moves roughly 10 inches north and lodges in your throat. These things are huge! A male can weigh well over 1,000 pounds. Get too close, and you could be dinner. But keep your distance, and in observing the bears roam and fish in their natural habitat, you’ll have an experience like no other.

One fabulous opportunity for viewing takes place in Katmai National Park and Preserve, on the Alaska Peninsula, just across from Kodiak Island. The bears are abundant here as are their readily available food sources, making finding and watching them a fairly easy challenge. Watching a group of bears go after salmon can be amusing and fascinating. Just as fishermen may disagree as to the best fly, lure, or bait to use, there is no universal bear fishing procedure, and their different methods often result in an entertaining array of antics. Some go deep, some splash around, and others sit and wait for the food to come to them. You’ll find the bears fishing, arguing and squabbling in many rivers in this area, including the Naknek River and the Brooks River, plus on many lakes.

There are three basic types of tours to Katmai. Because there are no roads that go there, all three options rely on a seaplane for transport. The first type of trip is a day trip beginning with a seaplane flight from a town such as Homer. The flight over glaciers, between mountain peaks, and over the shoreline is almost as awe-inspiring as the bears. The plane lands on a beach near the park and you walk in with your guide to view the bears.

A multi-day trip option starts with a seaplane trip to a small ship anchored offshore in a quiet bay. Skiffs then take passengers in for bear watching. The boat, which serves as a floating lodge for visitors, moves daily giving the passengers the opportunity to view different bears in a variety of areas. Meals are provided and you’ll have the opportunity to learn from a naturalist on board as well as share experiences with other passengers.

Finally, travelers can stay within the park at lodges and campgrounds (you get there by seaplane usually from King Salmon) including Katmai Wilderness Lodge and Brooks Camp Lodge. Many guests have had wonderful lodge stays, but keep in mind these are lodges and not the Ritz. Guest experience often depends on individual accommodations, so it’s recommended that you request a written confirmation of rates and specific rooms or cabins, and early arrival.

How safe is bear watching? Guides explain proper people behavior to their guests. (No, you don’t send your 6-year-old to stand next to a bear so you can take a photo.) Although the bears are wild animals, they are generally non-confrontational. They have plenty of food and are comfortable as long as they don’t perceive you as a threat. Some may think that invading a natural habitat is unethical behavior. But creation of the remote park and its bear watching programs has resulted in many of these magnificent bears winding up in photos on a wall rather than as a rug on a floor.

In addition to the magnificent bears, the park is home to a wide variety of birds, including eagles and puffins, and other animals including moose, red fox, beaver, and seals. Katmai is one of the best sports fishing grounds in the world and a great place for canoeing and kayaking as well. A trip to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, site of one of the most destructive volcanic blasts in modern times, is a good day trip. Homer is a great location for halibut fishing charters. Contact Homer Ocean Charters ( 800/426-6212; www.homerocean.com) or DeepStrike Sport Fishing ( 866-535-6094; www.deepstrikeak.com) for more information. You can even arrange for your fillets to be flash frozen and shipped to your home for scheduled arrival.

Katmai National Park (www.nps.gov/katm); Coastal Bears of Katmai National Park (www.katmaibears.com).
Tours: K Bay Bear Viewing (day trip from Homer; 877-522-9247; www.katmaialaskabearviewing.com). Katmai Costal Bear Tours (live aboard; 800-532-8338; www.katmaibears.com).
When to Go: June–Sept (Generally mating is mid- to late July, and you’ll see cubs in Aug when the large males leave.)
King Salmon and Homer with seaplane to the Park.
$$$ Lands End Resort, 4786 Homer Spit Rd., Homer ( 800/478-0400; www.lands-end-resort.com). $$$$ Katmai Wilderness Lodge ( 800/488-8767 or 907/486-8767; www.katmai-wilderness.com). $$$$ Brooks Camp Lodge ( 800/544-0551 or 907/243-0649; www.katmailand.com).

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