Our tours leave Homer’s Beluga Lake in downtown Homer every day around 9 a.m. for a spectacular hour-long flight across Cook Inlet. We pass Cape Douglas, a group of volcanic mountains which protrude into the mouth of Cook Inlet. This is the start of Shelikof Strait, the body of water that separates Kodiak Island from the mainland. These mountains have glaciers that come all the way to the beach and beautiful blue-green lakes filled with giant icebergs that have calved from the ice fields. There are dozens of short streams and estuaries behind the beach line.
We land at the mouth of a river that flows out of a large tidal area. In the early summer, the bears migrate to the coast for the mating season and feed on fresh, juicy sea grasses that sprout in the spring. It is not unusual to see 35 to 40 bears at one time and they can be as close as 50 yards. The Katmai coast is a very scenic place with great opportunities to take photos with 7,000 ft. snow covered mountain peaks as a backdrop.
Mating season is especially interesting because it encourages bears to interact with each other — a lot. The older mating boars will be checking on sows to see if they are receptive. Spring is also when the sows chase away their two-year-old cubs. If cubs are around when sows come into estrus, it may be fatal. Dominant boars might go as far as to kill the offspring.
We wear hip boots for this trip. They are necessary to get from the airplane through shallow water to the beach. We will eat lunch at the plane and then store everything back into the plane so bears do not tear up our gear. They are very intelligent, curious creatures and inspect anything new to their territory.
From the airplane, it is an easy walk of about 15 or 20 minutes where we will sit for the day taking pictures (that is if we are not held up along the way by bears). This area often has tundra swans and all kinds of nesting ducks. Last year, we had a den of red fox right behind where we set up. It was great! The baby foxes (kits) had no fear of us at all.
We sit in the same place every trip because it helps bears and other animals to get used to us more easily than if we were moving around or advancing towards them.
As the season progresses, they do not seem to notice us at all. We always stay together as a group so we do not disturb the animals.
Around the first week of July, depending on the timing of the red salmon run coming up from Bristol Bay, we go to Brooks River Falls in the middle of Katmai. The flight takes about an hour and a half to get across Cook Inlet and past McNeil River (another famous place to watch bears).
We then fly through the mountains, past all the huge interior lakes where we often see moose and caribou along the way. It gives you the feeling of how big the country really is. Sometimes we have to wait in the floatplane for a few minutes to let bears clear the beach. Then, it’s off to the visitors center for a 15 minute briefing from the National Park Service.
We suggest you eat lunch here before going to the river. Next to the visitor center are picnic tables and a cache to store your food and belongings. National Park Rangers are positioned at various points on the trail allowing visitors to hike independently without a guide.
Brooks is the most famous place in Katmai to see bears. It is the place you have probably seen on the Discovery Channel with bears lined up to catch fish as they are jumping up the falls. From where we land, the walk to the falls is about a mile and a half. The trail is easy walking and you won’t need to rush . Most of the time, there are bears on trails and this can cause a delay. Bears have the right-of-way and our trip may be a little longer if one of them decides to nap on the beach next to our plane!
When bears leave Brooks River at the end of July, we will access Moraine Creek. This area is farther from the ocean so it takes longer for the salmon to get there. By late July, the fish will start to arrive. This trip has some of the world’s best bear viewing, but you have got to do a little walking. We have two options for access: one is a short mountain lake that takes the right wind to get into. If the wind is not favorable, we go to Crosswind Lake.
Quite often, we can land at Crosswind. From there, the premier viewing spots are about a mile and a half away, down a steep cut-bank and across the river. Bears can be spotted anywhere. We move slowly and stop along the way to take pictures.
The walk requires some physical exertion, but is not uncomfortable for people in fair condition. With all the excitement and the beauty around us, the walk does not seem so long. You will be rewarded with lots of bears!
The creek bottoms are filled with alder brush, but there are plenty of locations close to the water where we can sit and have great views of the bears. Be prepared to bring warm, weatherproof clothes and insect repellent. You will be wearing hip boots and do not forget to bring rain pants.
Once in a while, we may go to Geographic Harbor in August. It is located right across from Kodiak Island. Geographic is a gorgeous bear viewing location on the Katmai coast. Both destinations are the trip of a lifetime.
With the feeling of urgency, the bears are back on the Brooks River, power feeding in preparation for winter. Salmon are starting to die after the spawning ordeal. A noticeable decrease of sunlight triggers the fall colors.
The fragrance of fall is in the air. It is a very exciting time with moose gathering their harems and caribou starting with their migration. This is the time to see the bears in all their splendor!
If you’d like to know what we recommend you bring on your Alaskan brown bear adventure, head this way.