Hallo Bay Bears
Close encounters with brown bears in Katmai National Park
A large brown bear lumbered in our direction as we rounded the corner along the shore of a salmon stream flowing into Shelikof Strait.
Our guide, Simyra Hlebechuk, motioned for us to back up and get as close as possible to the bluff on our left. There were only 10 feet between the tips of our rubber boots and the shoreline, and it was clear the bear intended to use that space to pass by the group.
As the bear came closer, my initial thought was, “Holy #$&%! That’s a freaking bear, 10 feet in front of me!”
But horror was overshadowed with awe as I watched the large, powerful mammal sauntered by. His intense, hazel eyes shot us a sideways glance but he didn’t stray from his course. Nobody said a word, nobody moved until the bear was out of sight.
“OK, let’s keep going,” Simyra casually instructed.
But, instead of keeping our cool like our guide, we chattered excitedly about our sighting as we made our way back to camp.
Usually, I would disapprove of such a close bear encounter, and would have avoided it at al costs. But this situation was different. I was in Katmai National Park, known for world-class bear viewing and beautiful scenery, staying at Hallo Bay Bear Camp with professional bear guides.
Hallo Bay Bear Camp is different from many bear-viewing opportunities in Alaska because it takes an eco-friendly, low-impact approach: there are no boardwalks, viewing platforms or barriers between bears and people.
“We have no electric fences, don’t believe in them,” said owner Clint Hlebechuk. “If you don’t keep a clean camp, (you) shouldn’t be out there.”
And when Hlebechuk says clean, he really means it: All food and beverages, except for water, must be consumed and stored in the mess hall. No one can even drink so much as a cup of coffee on the deck of the mess hall. It’s an approach that, so far, has worked to keep the bears and people safe there.
“In some areas we see bad things happen where bears become acclimated to people, or see people as a food source,” said Clint. “Careless campers are tremendously dangerous. They don’t realize that, if they let a bear get into their food, they just created a very dangerous situation for someone with that same bear, because that bear has now learned that humans are a food source.”
The camp rules on food might seem extreme, but after a few successful bear sightings, guests realize they’re well worth the trouble. And keeping the camp small—just a bathhouse, a mess hall and a small row of wall tents for 10 to 12 guests—has helped improve the experience, as well.
“If we overdid it, we could put 20 people there, and we would destroy everything we have,” said Clint. “The wildlife would move and go away, and we would be fortunate to see one bear.”
Hlebechuk started Hallo Bay Bear Camp in 1987. Before that he was a charter boat skipper, working out of Kodiak, and people started asking him to take them out to see bears.
“I could make a buck that way,” said Hlebechuk. “So, we started flying over and back-packing it, and then I was fortunate enough to find some property there, put the camp in, and people thought we would never make a living at it, because, ‘Who’s going to pay money to see a bear?’”
Hallo Bay was the first bear viewing business based in Kodiak and, in the years since Clint started the business, many people have paid money to see and photograph brown bears in their natural habitat, with Clint and other guides. Hallo Bay operates—and stays busy—from the beginning of May through the middle of October.
A visit to Hallo Bay Bear Camp begins like most Alaska adventures; with a breath-taking trip in a small plane over mountains, valleys, rivers and bays. Visitors fly from Homer, Kenai or Kodiak by float plane or wheel plane, which lands on the beach.
After settling into camp, guests get a safety briefing, pull on their hip waders, and throw backpacks over their shoulders to walk to see the bears in a single-file line, following their guide closely.
My group followed Simyra down the sunny beach, a tall bluff with equally tall Sedge grass to our right, and the twinkling water of Shelikof Strait to our left. Translucent jellyfish littered the shore. After crossing a salmon stream where many of the Hallo Bay bears feed, we spotted a large sow sitting on a sand bar.
She motioned for us to get low and sit on a nearby log. While bear viewing, it is very important to listen to the guide closely, because they know how to behave appropriately around bears. Appropriate bear-viewing behavior involves a lot of standing up and sitting down. If a bear stands up, the people sit down to let the bear know that they are not a threat. If the bear ignores the people, it’s OK to move, as long as the people do not get too close to the bears.
“The way we do things, the way that we sit in the same place all of the time, and do the same habits, (makes the bears) they treat us much like they would a seagull,” said Clint. “(They see us as) something that doesn’t threaten them, that doesn’t compete with them for their food, and that’s not aggressive towards them.”
Bear viewing is surprisingly relaxing after the initial shock of being so close to a stereotypically dangerous animal wears off. It involves a lot of reclining, playing with beach rocks, grinning at the playful antics of bear cubs, taking photos, and generally staring in wonder.
I saw single bears walking the beach and napping, a sow nursing and sharing salmon with her two cubs, and a pack of wolves slinking through the forest. Watching the bears fish, charging through deep water to catch their prey, was the most exciting and unnerving bear behavior I witnessed. But, as long as the rules are followed and the camp is operated properly, Clint doesn’t believe the bears are a danger to guests.
“They’re quite tolerant of people, for the most part,” he said. “We’ve never had anybody hurt by a bear. We’ve never had to kill or injure a bear. We’ve never had our camp damaged.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s safe to go into the woods and act that way around any bear you find. The guides at Hallo Bay stress the fact that these bears are different from most bears people encounter. They’ve never eaten food with human scent, so they don’t associate humans with food. They have never felt threatened by humans, either, so it is safe to watch them from a reasonable distance.
“There’s a lot of responsibility that goes with this job, if we’re going to hand it on and leave a legacy to the younger generations,” said Clint. “I think we’ve just found our place we haven’t disturbed it.”
—Serine Halverson is associate editor of Alaska magazine.
Hallo Bay Bears