Ode to Katmai Bears

Make no mistake, the brown bears own Katmai. At best you're a guest on this part of the Alaska Peninsula, at worst you're dinner. Warnings aside, if you're one of those adventurous souls who can't imagine heading to Alaska without seeing one of its most famous residents, Katmai guarantees you won't leave disappointed—as long as you go during the summer salmon run.

I've got a thing for bears, which means I've been to Katmai. I dropped in by floatplane for one day, eight hours, of exploring the area. I went because it was my 40th birthday, and I wanted the iconic photo of a bear catching a salmon leaping into his gaping mouth atop Brooks Falls. The salmon run was slow that day though; it was brutally windy. Still, I saw thirty bears, some sows with cubs, during my time on the ground with them. I had no pepper spray or ranger or guide. No one escorted me across the 1.5 miles of trails leading to the viewing platforms. Heading to Brooks Lodge for lunch, I walked the single track lined with trees, hefting my camera equipment, afraid to miss the action just to grab a bite, but also curious about what I might see along the way. Around a blind corner, a broad face appeared, not 20 yards away, and loping toward me. A cloud of dust flew off the bear's paws. He wasn't attacking. His affable expression told me he was on his way from point A to point B and I was simply in the way. I had a split second to step off the path and turn my back to him. The air moved as he passed. His paws slapped the ground. Dirt swirled at my feet.

I waited a 10-count before turning to make sure he'd gone and it was safe for me to get moving again. He stood 40-yards down the path now, facing me, looking me in the eye. I glanced down. He was thinking. Considering me. Thinking on his part seemed dangerous. Under my breath I said, "Go bear. Nothing to see here." And just like that, he walked away.

I hadn't wanted to get that close to a bear, but deemed it an unexpected gift. Plus, I knew that only two people had ever been killed by a bear in the National Park's history: Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend. For better or worse, Treadwell's story of thirteen summers living among the bears (and naming them) is immortalized in the movie Grizzly Man. So, you'd be more apt to fall in the shower than be mauled by a bear, even surrounded by them in places like Katmai, Kodiak, and McNeil River. My only regret is that I haven't gone back again. For now, I'll settle for pouring through the wildlife encounter stories and Katmai photos in this issue, dreaming about my return.
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