Monday, February 7, 2022

Searching for bears in Katmai National Park

Brown bears are one of the biggest attractions for visitors to Alaska. There are several places to  see them, some easier to get to than others. One of the most adventurous destinations is Katmai National Park, which we chose to visit during our stay in Homer, Alaska.

Spectacular arial view of mountains in Alaska.

Katmai is the definition of raw nature. It was declared a national monument in 1918 to preserve its cataclysmic 1912 volcanic eruption. Since then most surface geothermal features have cooled, but protecting brown bears has become an equally compelling charge. In 1980 the area was designated a national park and preserve. It is so vast that most of it eludes all but a few persistent visitors.

Chilly weather, waders, and boots
It was into this remote Katmai that we chose to venture. As such we hoped our chances to see bears in the wild would be more authentic than visiting a crowded tourist attraction like Brooks Falls. In summer (our visit was in July) bears gather at streams to feast on salmon and other fish as they fatten up for the coming winter, so we would hike in search of this elusive species.

But first we had to get there. We left from Sasquatch, a small town near Homer, on a light plane after getting outfitted with rubber boots and mid-thigh waders—indicators of the kind of terrain we would be hiking through. The flight to Katmai was simply spectacular as the pilot flew over ice-covered mountains and alpine lakes. The scenery alone was worth the time and effort for this journey.

Landing at Katmai National Park is another challenge.

There’s no landing strip, so the pilot set the plane down on a barren stretch of rocky beach. From there we began a jaunt through muddy waters. The tide had receded, so we mucked along the shoreline for more than three hours in our search for bears. Coastal browns who feed on abundant fish are bigger even than grizzlies that live 100 miles or more inland. It is estimated that 2,200 brown bears live in the national park.

Mother bear beckons to cubs to follow.

Before long we came to a bear trail, and a mother bear appeared through the thick brush. She tried to entice her cubs to follow as she wandered away from their den, but the little ones soon went back into the safety of surrounding trees. Brown bears dig a new den each year, enter it in November, and emerge in April. The cubs were not yet comfortable in the outside world.

We spotted more brown bears.

After walking further, we observed a couple of brown bears across a marshy area. They were searching for food in the water, and we watched their antics for a good while. Unfortunately, our guides insisted that we stay a long distance away so as not to disturb the bears, so we never got as close as I had hoped. It was quite amazing but not what we had expected as far as really getting to observe the bears up-close. Still, some excursions in Katmai do not ever find bears even if they meander up to five miles around the national park, so we were grateful for that.

Alpine lake as seen from the air

On the return hike to the plane, I slipped in the mud, and when a guide grabbed my hand, he inadvertently pulled me down. Yuck. It was an interesting day but exhausting from the challenging conditions we encountered. But we did see bears!

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

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