A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Where to go, how to get there and what type of bears you'll see.
Tina in Louisiana wanted to know if the photographs were real. So did Martin, a pastor from Michigan, who wrote, "Are you able to verify for us that they are indeed genuine and true?"
It was a big bear -- its front legs spanning 11 feet from claw tip to claw tip, its skull the size of a beer keg, its paws as big as a man's chest.
In the blink of an eye, a defensive grizzly bear sow was rolling like a freight train through the willows along Peters Creek.
For years, conventional wisdom has advised people to make noise to avoid dangerous surprises while traveling in Alaska bear country. For those who choose not to talk, sing, clap or bang on a cook pot, that usually means wearing bear bells, a tried-and-true hiker's accessory.
Viewing trips reveal Alaska's dominant predator
Under most travel scenarios, seeing a bear in Alaska is equivalent to hitting the wildlife viewing lottery. Bears are elusive, solitary beasts that rarely venture into heavily populated human spaces.
Visitors set on seeing bruins in their natural Alaska habitat have two key directions for finding them: Go where the fish are, and go where the bear viewing experts are.
Tons of fish and dozens of guides congregate each summer 200-300 miles southwest of Anchorage at a pair of brown bear-viewing bounties: Katmai National Park and Preserve and McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge.
Katmai National Park spans nearly five million acres and is home to as many as 2,000 brown bears. Dozens of them spend the summer months eating salmon at Katmai's Brooks Camp, where tour and adventure companies bring tourists for bear-viewing action.
"Many people come to Brooks Camp because they've been unable to see bears in other environments," said Roy Wood, Katmai National Park and Preserve's Brooks Camp manager, who has worked in the area for seven years. "Here the bears are numerous; you see them repeatedly and up close for a long amount of time. I can't think of many places in the world where you have that opportunity.
"And I haven't gotten bored with it yet," Wood added. "As soon as I maybe forget how amazing and exciting it is, someone walks through the doors raving. It's pretty easy to stay energized when you see what it means for people to see a bear for the first time."
The options for getting to Katmai's Brooks Camp and staying there are numerous: fly-in trips and boat-based tours, day trips and extensive multi-day stays in the area's impressive lodges. Trips can start out of Anchorage, Homer or Kodiak. Most trips, though, involve flying in a little plane or riding in a little boat, and almost all involve shelling out big bucks -- bare-bones bear-viewing adventures start at about $2,000.
Wood and his Katmai employees educate arrivals on mandatory safety procedures in a 20-minute session, and then visitors are free to walk the area and bask in bears. Most go directly to Brooks Falls.
"It's the iconic image of bears looking for fish," Wood said. "And you are 20 yards away from bears fishing, or 12 feet above them on a platform. It's very good proximity."
Just north of Katmai is more classic Alaska bear viewing in the vast McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge. It houses McNeil River Falls, where each summer salmon on their way to upstream spawning grounds are stymied by rocks and falls. This means easy eats for hungry bears and easy photo opportunities for humans. But to protect the bears, humans and the natural environment, bear viewing at McNeil River between June and August is only accessible via permit program.
Of course, Southwest Alaska isn't the only place to have an Alaska bear encounter -- it just offers the best odds. Black bears can be found almost anywhere in the state. Brown (on the coast) and grizzly (Interior) bears also roam much of the state. Even an occasional polar bear can be found if a traveler goes far enough north.
But if you can't bear the thought of leaving Alaska without a bear sighting experience, it's best to shell out the cash and see the bears up close and in the fur at Katmai or McNeil River.
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For more information:
McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge
Katmai National Park & Preserve
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Here are a few of the vendors who will get you to Katmai, to the bears and even to comfortable accommodations. Remember to shop around and look for Web specials.:
Alaska Bear Tours
Katmai Coastal Bear Tours
Katmai Wilderness Lodge