Exploring Katmai’s wild coast
[by Emily Mount]
Our floatplane skimmed low over a grassy headland. I pressed my nose against the window to see a family of brown bears ambling along a game trail below. Thirty minutes ago, we’d left Kodiak and crossed Shelikof Strait. Ahead of us rose 7,000-foot peaks split by a crevassed glacier and a green meadow sandwiched between ice and sea. My fellow travelers and I had just arrived at Hallo Bay to witness one of the world’s most amazing wildlife extravaganzas: brown bears on the coast of Katmai National Park and Preserve.
Hallo Bay is a half-moon bite out of the rugged Alaska Peninsula. Made famous in part by Timothy Treadwell’s life and death among the bears, the Katmai coast may offer the best brown bear viewing in the world. From our floatplane, we boarded a 64-foot luxury boat chartered by our tour company, Natural Habitat Adventures. Elegant in a rustic Alaskan way, the boat provided a lounge, galley, wheelhouse, and three small staterooms, all cared for by a friendly two-man crew.
Our party included an airline pilot, a retired couple from California, a travel industry professional, and our guide, Brad Josephs. It didn’t take long to figure out Brad had a thing for bears—in a big way. After lunch, we hopped into a skiff and puttered to shore. Brad scanned the shoreline and meadows with binoculars. “Looks like a few dozen, at least,” he said.
A few dozen bears? We started with a long trudge across meadows laced with streams and dotted by pink beach peas. We each wore a pair of waders and lugged a bucket—the waders for stream crossings, the buckets for chairs while bear-watching. “Let’s see, mating bears, sparring bears, bear cubs…”
Brad muttered to himself, as he selected our best option. We headed for the cubs. “I’ve known these bears for almost two decades,” Brad said, as we settled onto our buckets, cameras in hand. Everyone was a bit nervous. A sow grazed on sedges 100 yards away while her cubs, round and furry, tussled in the grass nearby.
“As more bears wandered by and camera shutters clicked in unison, I couldn’t stop smiling… “
“Sitting down like this shows them we’re not looking for a fight, we’re just hanging out minding our business,” Brad explained, kneeling with binoculars glued to his face. The sow eyed us a few times before completely ignoring our presence. I noted Brad’s bear spray and fistful of marine flares tucked into the front pocket of his shirt. Just in case.
A big male ambled toward the family and they shied away, jogging in our direction. “Don’t worry,” Brad told us. “They’re just getting out of his way.” Some male bears have learned that cubs make nutritious snacks, especially early in the season when a bear’s diet is mainly vegetarian. If threatened, a mother bear is a ferocious adversary, taking on a hungry male twice her size to protect her young.
The trio picked up speed, heading straight for us. Brad held an unlit flare in his hand. When activated, a flare emits blinding light and forces advancing bears away. He talked softy to the mother, and she and her cubs skirted past us with a 20-foot berth. As they retreated into the grass, we exchanged wide-eyed grins.
Our group went to shore two or three times a day to watch courting bears, nursing bears, bears digging for clams in the mudflats, and sleeping bears. Between bear encounters, we saw bald eagles feed their chicks, watched a wolf trot through the meadow, and photographed fields of wildflowers.
Two days later, hard winds struck Hallo Bay, and our ship sailed 10 miles south to the safety of Kukak Bay. We skiffed to shore and sat on overturned buckets in a light drizzle, waiting for something to happen. Brad was sure the bears would come. Hunched under my rain jacket, I scanned the edges of the meadow.
First one bear appeared, a big male with an open wound on his side. This was the mating season, when males fight—sometimes brutally—for females. He started grazing, placidly munching mouthfuls of greenery. Another bear appeared. He was bigger. Soon the two were in a stand-off.
Brad interpreted their body language in a whisper: “See how that one’s strutting with its legs wide apart? We call that the ‘cowboy walk.’” John Wayne couldn’t have done it better. The opponent showed his flank, trying to appear imposing. They circled in a tightening spiral but broke off before making contact.
As more bears wandered by and camera shutters clicked in unison, I couldn’t stop smiling. This beat any day in the office! Tomorrow our floatplane would whisk us back to civilization, but in this moment, we were entirely present with the bears on the trip of a lifetime.
Emily Mount is an Alaska naturalist, writer, and photographer and a frequent contributor to Alaska magazine.