Alaska Excursions

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World-famous Brooks Falls a popular viewing destination

When it comes to must-see Alaska animals, it's a little bit like the food chain.

Bears are at the top of the list.

Nearly every visitor wants to see a grizzly (or brown bear). And Alaska is probably the best place to see them in their natural environment. Alaska contains more than 98 percent of the U.S. population of brown bears.

The state also hosts large populations of black bears and polar bears, although most visitors won't see polar bears.

"When people come to Alaska, they often have a list of things they want to see, a lot of wildlife. One of those things is a bear," said Jo Murphy, a bear viewing guide with Kodiak's Sea Hawk Air (, 486-8282). "For some people, it's being face to face with a big scary animal. That attracts people.

"When it's done properly, seeing them in their natural environment takes away the fear for a lot of people. It's safe, and it's a trip people won't forget. Sometimes we have people go one day and then they want to sign up to go right back the next day."

In addition to lots of bears, Alaska also has plenty of bear-viewing companies. Most trips require a Bush plane flight, often across Cook Inlet to Katmai National Park and Preserve, where the world-famous Brooks Falls are an annual gathering place for dozens of brown bears. (Brown and grizzly bears are essentially the same; brown bear is the term generally associated with coastal bears, which get larger thanks to a more calorie-dense diet. Grizzly bears live in the Interior.) Grizzly bears also are frequently spotted by visitors to Denali National Park while on one of the bus tours. Private vehicles are not allowed beyond Mile 15 of the Park Road.

Alaska being Alaska, occasionally a bear-viewing opportunity will present itself at an unexpected time and place. Last summer, a pair of juvenile sibling brown bears spent a good portion of salmon season hanging out on the Kenai River splashing and fishing just yards from anglers. Lucky visitors caught sight of the bears while driving on the Sterling Highway, which parallels the mighty Kenai River. The bears set up shop just downriver from the confluence of the Kenai and Russian rivers.

Juvenile bears also frequently visited the Bird Creek fishery just south of Anchorage along the Seward Highway.

There is no way to know if any of those bears will be back in 2007. And while bear sightings are impossible to guarantee, there are some nearly sure bets. One of those is Brooks River Falls in Katmai National Park. The most recent survey indicated there are about 2,000 brown bears in the park.

Jim Albert, manager of Brooks Lodge near the falls, said there are about 80 resident bears in the area. At times, there can be up to 20 standing in the falls looking for sockeye salmon trying to make their way upriver.

"Brooks is world famous because of the falls," said Sonny Petersen, owner of Katmailand Inc.'s Brooks Lodge. "In fact, the falls are almost a cliche. If you see pictures or video of bears lunging at fish, it's almost certainly to be from Brooks Falls.

"You see it in a Geico commercial. It pops up on national television. Almost everyone has file footage of Brooks Falls.

"What a lot of people don't realize is that what they see on TV is what they'll really see in person. There is only one Brooks Falls. You're not going to see that particular scenario unless you go to Brooks. It's the only place with that classic look."

And despite being in a remote, roadless part of Alaska, it's fairly easy to get to. Provided you have at least a day to spend and plenty of cash. A trip to Katmai isn't cheap.

Katmailand offers a day trip from Anchorage for $559 per person. It includes a flight to King Salmon and a 20-minute floatplane flight from King Salmon to Brooks Lodge. Several other operators also offer trips to Katmai and Brooks River Falls.

Depending on flight times, Petersen said, visitors will typically spend from five to seven hours in Katmai.

"You can spend almost 100 percent of that time looking at bears if you want," he said. "A lot of times, you see bears right when you get off the plane. When we fly people out there, I always kid people, 'You're not allowed to look at any bears until you get your official orientation.' "

National Park Service rangers provide the orientation, which lasts 20 to 30 minutes and explains some simple rules visitors should follow around the bears. Once out of the orientation, visitors are free to roam about looking for bears.

There are three main viewing platforms - falls, riffles and lower platforms - to watch the bears. Peter- sen said Park Service officials may limit the amount of time on the falls platform due to the number of visitors. But that shouldn't be a concern.

"You don't need to be on a platform to watch bears," he said. "There are bears all over. Spend some time at the falls, then walk around a bit and see them elsewhere. Then go back to the falls."

In addition to its day trips, Katmai- land (, 1-800-544-0551) offers one-night to four-night packages with accommodations at the lodge. While bears are the main attraction at Katmai, if visitors have more than a day in the national park, they shouldn't miss a tour of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. A 1912 eruption at Novarupta Volcano covered more than 40 square miles of land with volcanic deposits. The eruption was 10 times more forceful than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Bear-viewing opportunities are not limited to Brooks River Falls. Kodiak-based Sea Hawk Air plans trips to remote parts of Kodiak Island or to Katmai depending on the season. Knowledge of bears and bear habits is important. "We do a lot of viewing in Katmai," said Murphy, who has been with Sea Hawk Air for nine years. "What makes us decide where to go is what food is available. Pretty much to find bears you follow the food source. "Early on, you'll see bears grazing on grass or digging clams. Once the fish show up, we follow the fish runs. Conditions change from year to year, so it's important to know where the bears are." Alaska is bear country, and finding a guide to take you to visit them isn't hard. Just remember you are a guest in the bear's house. Give them the proper respect, and you'll get the experience of a lifetime.

Special sections editor Steve Edwards can be reached at or 257-4316. Visit his Alaska travel blog at

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