At this time I sleep in Seward where tomorrow we will take a boat trip through some of the most magical corners of Kenai Fjords. However, I didn't want to go to bed without writing these hot lines. Alaska has given me a dream that I had been waiting for a long time
The best places to see brown bears in Alaska: Katmai N.P, Lake Clark N.P and Kodiak
They will tell you that it is possible to see bears in Alaska without entering the habitat of Katmai, Lake Clark or Kodiak and it is true. It is possible to see bears in Denali N.P. relatively close with good luck, it is possible to have a fortuitous encounter in one of your walks and it is possible to see them in other National Parks of the world. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news but none of those sightings come NEITHER AWAY from what you may feel in THE COMPLETE EXPERIENCE that you enjoy in the National Parks where the largest brown bears in the world are located to those who it is flown in 1-day days mainly from Homer or Soldotna and in long days or at least 2 days (to enjoy it) from Anchorage (sometimes with scale in King Salmon to catch a seaplane).
The adventure (because it can be defined like that since you get on the plane) starts flying over a cove and making a scenic flight between mountains, glacial languages and isolated places to enter fully into a virgin habitat at the hand of man, unaltered, absent from "Jurasic Park" civilization. That's when, according to the time of the year, you will land on a deserted beach to observe them looking for clams and eating vegetation (May and June) or near the main estuaries, rivers or streams of salmon ski lift (July, August and September) and where do you feel that UNIQUE MAGIC that has nothing to do with the above ... Katmai, Lake Clark or Kodiak?
Katmai National Park & Preserve
Katmai is the area where the largest population of brown bears congregates in the world. Surely we all have that image of documentaries in the head in which dozens of bears (up to 50) strategically crowd and distribute the waterfalls along 1.5 miles to capture the abundant salmon that trace the river and the lake Naknek Most likely it is recorded between July and September in Brooks Falls in Katmai N.P. where three bear observation platforms have been set up for visitors although there are other options to see them fishing for salmon such as McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Geographic Harbor and Moraine Creek / Funnel Creek . The coast option when looking for clams and eating favorite vegetation in the months of May and June is Hallo Bay or Swikshak Lagoon. You can see a good calendar by zones and time on the official website
Lake Clark National Park & Preserve
This is the other great option of Alaska in high densities of brown bear population that seek to feed and, possibly, the best to see them on the coast. The Chitina Bay and Silver Salmon Creek between May and June They are the main observation sites during the feeding season based on vegetation and clams, being Cresent Lake and Silver Salmon Creek itself between July and September Ideal when salmon has arrived in the rivers. You can see a good calendar by zones and time on the official website
Kodiak and other alternative options
Kodiak is ... a dream! Why? The Kodiak archipelago houses one of the largest bears on the planet, next to the polar bear. This is a brown bear that is usually included in the family of grizzlies (there is a lot of discussion around the subject) that has genetically evolved since the last ice age. Traveling to the island and entering the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge is an adventure in itself. Can you imagine observing a specimen that will exceed 1500 pounds in weight?
Some companies fly alternately toAnan Creek in Wrangell, Wolverine Creek in Redoubt Bay and many other points that can be equally attractive.
Katmai or Lake Clark or Kodiak? Making the decision
If you go in May or June, the salmon have not reached the rivers and that just means that you will have a different experience. Choose Katmai or Lake Clark you will have an authentic image of a unique scene on the planet, approaching a few meters from the bears, without overcrowding and with freedom to walk.
If instead your dates are from July to September, except for Silver Salmon Creek in Lake Clark that allows all dates, you will have to make your decision more carefully. Brook Falls in Katmai is the most famous and photographed option but you will sacrifice the experience in "fighting to find space on the platforms" for the observation of bears catching salmon and going only on qualified trails. However, it is a privileged place, if you want something less adulterated you have all the options we mentioned above.
In Both National Parks have options to spend the night. There are not many alternatives, they are expensive and some require up to 3 years in advance! of reservation but surely if you can afford it is something unforgettable. You have the opinion of someone who has slept in both and which one seems best here
Our experience: preparations and the importance of the tide
6'00 and here we are like nails. Martin has made us early and we still have not understood the reason for such a hurry but we would know soon. The day has nothing to do with yesterday and it appears much more open and without rain.
The reason for the early bird is that thedeparture time depends on the tides and, as we saw yesterday in our stay in Homer and the bay of Kachemak, here are the second largest in the world. Why the tides? The west coast beaches of Cook's Cove in Lake Clark (or in Katmai) become true airstrips at low tide
Martin Boland, as we commented these past days, he is the owner ofScenic Bear Viewing, the company that we have chosen for the best experience that can be done in Alaska (and also one of the most expensive excursions since they are around USD 700 depending on the payment method). Martin is not only a pilot who accumulates 30 years and 12,700 flight hours but also guide and naturalist and he patiently explains to us that he has decided today for Lake Clark because he considers that a large congregation of bears is accumulating these days in the Silver Salmon Creek area. In addition, today we are pleased to have your daughter Sam, future heiress of the business at age 22.
All these days, since we hired your excursion, especially for the familiarity it conveys, you have insisted a lot on a series of basic rules of essential compliance: the departure time depends on the tides and the weather, confirmation of this will always be done the day before (although it must be called 2 days in advance to confirm everything), our weight can never be more than 115 pounds with 10 pounds plus each backpack, we can not bring anything that contains fish for the picnic or clothes that smell like it (if we have been fishing in the previous days, for example), or spray of pepper or pepper against bears or firearms.
In addition, we will bring some sandwiches, water and fruit, he will provide us with fishing boots (boots are not needed) and we will always be together on the excursion although in the field this rule is more relaxed. The tripod, camera with a good telephoto lens (I wear a 70-300), jerseys and raincoats and that kind of thing to suit the consumer. We take off?
They are exactly the 7'39 when, after the appropriate explanations, the plane that takes us to Martin, Sam, Sele and me and already flies over Homer to the other side of Cook's Cove. We are lucky, almost alone.
Much more than bear watching: one of the best scenic flights
But this was not observation of brown bears in their habitat? I thought so and I promise you never imagine what the next 30-40 minutes were going to bring us. Martin had talked to us before taking off on him Lake Clark National Park as a land of stunning beauty where volcanoes, still active, emanate steam under perpetual ice while the waters of the lakes turn turquoise.
Among all, two active volcanoes (of the 52 historically active volcanoes of Alaska and the Aleutians) emerge over 900 square miles of glaciers forming part of the world chain called "ring of fire" to which Mt. Fuji belongs, among others. Japan. The first, the volcano Redoubt that we see in the distance
The second one stands majestically before our little plane. We are facing the imposing Iliamna volcano of more than 3053 meters Tall
Martin spins and spins again. It almost touches the walls with the wings of our little flying artifact, some of them taken from the Northern Wall that protect the Night's Watch and separates the Seven Kingdoms from the White Walkers in Game of Thrones.
I could do the "chulito" but I have to admit that, for the first time, I passed a certain "cushion" when I only saw the plane move against such a mountain and saw no possible way out. It is seen that Martin had it much clearer and even laughed with Sam quietly before, having Sele and behind me as little lambs, decidingbegin the descent between glacial tongues, lush vegetation and large water flows to some nearby location
Behind we left the landscapes of infinite white to begin to see green and, above all, darker browns of some beach.
The surprising thing is that, although you can imagine it, the study of the tide they do on these excursions is such that when we land almost not even see in the distance the water and the beach is a huge landing strip. Here will be our plane
Sele and I look at each other and we hardly articulate a word but we both know it ... It has been one of the best scenic flights we enjoy in our life! And this had only just begun.
The brown shore bear, the second largest grizzly in the world
Still with the adrenaline in the body, we see its silhouette far from the marsh. No doubt we will be lucky, they are, there is no doubt.
Martin secures the wheels of the plane, confirms that we carry everything necessary and starts the march in an Indian line. He says that these they are the first bears of the season, have gone down just 5 days ago.
What a beautiful thing! The first scene we see could not be prettier. A mother bear and her three cubs taking advantage of the low tide to dig up clams from the beach. They can get to eat 50 to 100 every day
Not long ago (possibly throughout May) these and many others have abandoned their winter shelters and They have started a varied diet based on these clams and other invertebrates from the sea, combined with high amounts of vegetation and berries as an energy supply, while waiting for the arrival of salmon to estuaries and rivers (surely in just a few days because we are almost in July) ... The little ones take advantage of these times to run around and play
It should be clarified thatbrown bears of the Alaskan Peninsula or brown shore bears are a subspecies of the VERY large brown bear (It is said that they have come to see up to 680 kg), also known as grizzlies (ursus arctos horribilis) as well as other families of American brown bears. It didn't take long to see another lonely, near the previous family that begins their return to the nearby forest.
Is the second largest grizzly in the world and inhabits both here in Lake Clark and Katmai. Which one is the biggest? The one on Kodiak Island also here in Alaska that deserves a separate chapter because they have evolved genetically and physically isolated. A "mini-Galapagos in Alaska"
Martin encourages us to take some pictures. Although we will talk about the precautions to be taken with bears in another chapter, we must make it very clear that this It is NOT a Yellowstone where there are strict rules to approach them before the millions of people who visit each year. This experience is a unique encounter with an animal species and requires a professional guide who knows their behavior and directs you at all times.
It smells us (although it can reach 2 and 3 miles), it looks at us, it intimidates us but… it ignores us! We are just less than 5 meters from him or less but he follows his private hunt.
The grizzlies of Lake Clark and Katmai they are not as aggressive as other brown bears for two fundamental reasons. The first is that they are more accustomed that people do not represent danger to them. The second (and fundamental) that they have excess food all summer long to worry about anything else
Seagulls and other birds take advantage of the removal of the bear and the leftovers that it leaves for its own food. Yes, also those of the digestion itself, haha
In just a few days, nearby estuaries will be filled with an average of 372,000 red salmon They return to the river where they were born. This makes us in one of the few places in the world where so many bears can coexist tolerantly among themselves, other wildlife and man, without any recorded attack.
Silver Salmon Creek before the arrival of salmon
Lake Clark's brown bears see people almost every day since they left hibernation. Martin tells us that in addition, humans are very predictable in this area for them since we barely land, walk, fish and leave without hunting or hurting them, which makes the experience safe and unique. If anyone has been to Yellowstone or parks that receive mass tourism every day, they will know that the rules speak of minimum distances of 300 meters. We insist again, they are different concepts. Let no one think that we are committing recklessness.
In fact the experience continues. The bears in Chinitna Bay and Silver Salmon Creek, where we are, complement their diet with berries and the grass itself until the arrival of salmon. Martin asks us again to go in an Indian line, we are crossing an area with less visibility.
The grass is tall but that does not prevent seeing them. There they are, peacefully resting or feeding on the abundant vegetation, wild flowers and sweet berries
They can get to eat 16 kilos of vegetation per day. Of course, there is no better lawnmower ...
Silver Salmon Creek is a very different concept to Brooks Falls in Katmai. Nearby there is a small lodge that requires reservations well in advance and allows a privileged few to enjoy this transfer of brown bears from the tide to the stream, kayaking or isolating themselves between mountains with freedom of movement. The lodge has become one of the best places in Alaska to see brown bears in their natural environment.
We read yesterday before coming about the death of 2 people in a few days by black bear. It is really something unusual since grizzlies tend to be, with 15 deaths in 35 years, the most aggressive. They are certainly not coast bears and we realize that at the moment that Martin tells us it's time for a picnic. Picnic? Here in the middle of "nosecuantos" bears?
The mother bear and her 3 cubs, 2 more on the beach, 1 running, the lonely, 2 initials in the forest, 2 in the background, 1 fence ... we have seen in total more than 10 bears and now, here sitting on a log, They are almost all around us with hardly any flinch. Such is the case that we can attend another one of those beautiful scenes that nature gives you, the mama bear breastfeeding her cubs. It's time to eat for them too
A beautiful farewell to an unforgettable day ... but the tide is rising while we have finished eating and Martin is sure it is time to return. The landscape has changed, even the beach now seems more inhospitable
With all the parsimony of the world (and last photos) the preparations to take off but the sea does not stop eating the beach. I am convinced that if we spent 20 more minutes there we would run out of track.