To be graced by a brown bear’s presence in the place that it lives is a humbling and life altering experience. Brown bears have been threatened in the past by fear and misunderstanding, and there is no better way to enhance our knowledge and the deep understanding that comes with it than to let these magnificent and surprisingly gentle animals be our teachers.
Visitors desiring to view Alaskan brown bears have several choices for location and tour details. Just like the bears themselves, every bear viewing trip and company is a little different, ranging from short photo safaris to extended educational natural history trips. Trips vary from the controlled platform viewing environment at Brooks Falls in Katmai, to more adventuresome trips by floatplane and extended boat cruises into remote coastal areas like permit-only McNeil River Game Sanctuary—the secret to finding the adventure that most closely meets your expectations and limitations is to clarify what a company offers its clients. When you have made your decision to go see the bears, ask lots of questions: Where do you go? What will the bears be doing? Will we be sitting or doing some hiking? How much time will we have on the ground with the bears? How long have you been in business and how much time have your guides spent with the bears?
Ursus Arctos is North America’s largest land predator; brown bears and grizzlies are now considered one species. Habitat and nutrition play a role in the outward variation in their appearance. Brown bear is the common name given to those bears that have access to fish in their diet; grizzlies on the other hand generally live more inland, away from salmon spawning streams. The highly nutritious diet of salmon allows the brown bear to grow larger, have more offspring and live longer than their inland cousins the grizzlies. An average male brown bear weighs upwards of 900 pounds, about twice the size of the typical grizzly. Brown bears have an average of 2.5 cubs per litter, 3 is common and 4 is not unheard of, while a grizzly has 1.5 cubs. Brown bears can live into their 30’s, while 20 would be an old grizzly. Put quite simply, it’s just easier to be a brown bear. The Kodiak brown bear, an island population isolated long enough to create some genetic variation, is basically a brown bear that lives on Kodiak Island; standing side by side you wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the two. Research suggests that brown bears living further east along the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska are genetically dissimilar from any others, remnants of a polar bear population stranded in the area following the last ice age!
Ever since the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, when bear viewing rather than bear hunting became a recognized tourism activity, to see a bear ranks high on nearly every visitor’s wish list. No place is more synonymous with brown bears than Katmai National Park and Preserve on the southwest Alaskan Peninsula. Just saying the word Katmai conjures up images of wild untouched places, volcanoes and bears. Declared a national monument in 1918 to protect the volcanic features, the boundaries of Katmai have been extended over the years largely to protect brown bears and their habitat. Designated a National Park and Preserve in 1980, it encompasses not only some of the most awe-inspiring scenery in Alaska, but also the largest population of brown bears in the world.
Departing from cities such as Soldotna and Homer on the Kenai Peninsula, or from Kodiak Island, visitors can view brown bears in Katmai by floatplane or on 5 to 7 day boat expeditions. Kodiak Island-based air charter companies can also arrange for bear viewing at the Island’s own popular Frazer Lake or Uyak Bay. Anchorage flights include trips to Brooks Camp in Katmai, adjacent McNeil River or Lake Clark National Park and Preserve further up the Peninsula.
Alaska Air Taxi www.alaskaairtaxi.com
Alaska Bear Adventures www.alaskabearviewing.com
Andrew Airways www.andrewairways.com
Bear Mountain Lodge www.akbearmountainlodge.com
Harvey Flying Service www.harveyflyingservice.com
Homer Air www.homerair.com
Island Air Service www.kodiakislandair.com
Misty Bay Lodge www.mistybaylodge.com
Rust’s Flying Service www.flyrusts.com
Sasquatch Alaska Adventure Co. www.sasquatchalaska.com
Talon Air Service www.talonair.com