Call Me Bear Bait: Searching for the Brown Bears of Katmai National Park and Preserve

On a far off beach in Katmai National Park and Preserve, hundreds of miles away from where the land ends and the sea begins, a group of brown bears are chasing salmon through stretches of tidal pools in the hopes of a hearty dinner. On that same far off beach, I became known as “Bear Bait’.

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Homer. Halibut Fishing Capital of the World and a long way from home.

When my friend Shona and I were planning our trip through Alaska, going to Homer was high on our bucket list. They call it “the end of the road” and it truly is. There is nothing but sea once you reach the end of the highway. That’s part of what drew me to it.

I figured, if I was going to drive all the way to Alaska, I better drive as far as I can in it!

Homer is a charming little town of 5000, most famous for its halibut (it’s the “Halibut Capital of the World”), its port, the Salty Dawg Saloon, The Salmon Sisters, as well as the quaint community of shops at the end of a 7.5 kilometre piece of land that stretches out into Katchemak Bay – The Spit.

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Alaska Bear Adventures in Homer. Highly recommend!

If you’re going to Alaska, chances are pretty high that you want to see bears. Homer is  the hub for those excursions and boy, did we want to see bears!

When the idea of traveling to Alaska became a reality for us, going on a trip with Alaska Bear Adventures turned into an absolute dream excursion for me.  If they noticed a jump in website views in November 2016, it’s probably because I was obsessed with the photo of a bear chasing a salmon on their landing page. I wanted to get a photo like that.

At almost $1000 CDN, their 7 hour trips are not an inexpensive excursion. I credit Shona’s determined voice on the phone one night, “We’re not going to Alaska and not seeing bears!” as the clincher that ultimately had me singing “YOLO” as I called in to book. I’d do it again in a second – happy dance included.

We’d driven to Homer straight from Seward, which made for a long day. It did however allow us just enough time to check-in and get weighed for flights, wander the Spit’s shops, watch some master filleters at Buttwhackers, and cap off the day with a beer at the Saloon! I hope to be back to this area as there is so much to see and do and we only scratched the surface on our visit.

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Salty Dawg Saloon – you have to do it!

We rested overnight at a local AirBNB and were up at the crack of dawn to make our way to the hangar. I’d been worried about the weather turning or high tides, that would force cancellation, but we were good to go with blue skies and the sun shining.

Getting ready meant putting on funny looking waders that make you look like a bear (at least from the waist down),  signing waivers, sitting through the cheesiest explainer-video ever created, and forcing multiple bathroom breaks (there was no toilet where we were going) before you squish yourself into a tiny little plane with five others.

Our leader would be a funny guy named Derick; the Chief Pilot/Leader and star of the aforementioned cheesiest explainer-video ever created. Leaving Homer, we had no idea the magnitude of what we were about to experience. We just knew we were ready!

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All set and ready to go!

The 90 minute flight over to Katmai is absolutely stunning. You go on one of these trips dreaming of seeing bears, but the flight over is almost as incredible.

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Away we go! Super cool to see Homer Spit from this vantage point.

We flew over mountain ranges and huge expanses of sea, glacial valleys and mountain-top lakes. I can’t believe these pilots get to experience this every day for a living!

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I’d been fighting a bad cold in the days prior, and had never flown in such a small plane. I had no idea how painful it would be to feel that kind of cabin pressure. As much as I loved the flight, I spent a good portion of it with my eyes closed and head down. I was relieved to have my body and congested head on solid ground.

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Hard not to appreciate the scale of Alaska (and this planet) when you experience views like this!

It’s hard to put into words what it felt like to see the beach where we landed and know that we’d made it.  I’d never been anywhere like Katmai National Park. It may sound cliché, but it really does take your breath away.

Check out my super non-professional video of flying in to the beach below.

Once we landed, Derick briefed us on appropriate behaviour, how we were to act as a group, importance of keeping close proximity and general knowledge about how the experience would roll out.

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Single file! Let’s go find some bears!

A lot of water was still left on the flats, so salmon availability was lower than ideal. Any expectations of seeing bears fighting over fish and running through the water quickly evaporated. Regardless, the bears would still attempt a shot at finding an afternoon meal.

We weren’t guaranteed to see any wildlife on this trip, but we happened to have luck on our side. The first bear came strolling along all by itself within 15 minutes of our arrival.

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Such an amazing moment!

It wasn’t huge by grizzly standards, but seeing any bear walking toward you puts you in your place! Get low. Stick together. Be quiet. No. Sudden. Movements.

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Love the grass hanging out of this bear’s mouth.

As we huddled together, snapping away and watching in awe, it became abundantly clear that this animal could care less that we were there. Rangers at the park are extremely careful not to introduce these bears to any kind of foreign food or products. This makes them uniquely unafraid of humans and generally disinterested in our presence. The bear wandered away to eat grass as we sat waiting for more activity to appear.

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What a view! Just can beat hanging out in a place like this.

If you have to twiddle your thumbs somewhere, doing it surrounded by the view on Katmai, with water and mountains as far as the eye can see, is a pretty ideal place to do it. Hamming it up for a camera is also a good way to pass time, just ask Derick.

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Goofing around while we wait for bears!

Fifteen minutes or so went by before the other leader radioed to Derick letting him know a group of bears were on their way in the distance. We all watched with anticipation to see what kind of bears they would be. To our amazement – a mama and her cubs!

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One by one the bears started to appear. This family was a treat!

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw one – two – three bears come out single file across the tundra! They casually passed right in front of the other group, heading straight to the shoreline fifty or so metres from where we were sitting. Ahhhh! Unreal!

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Searching for salmon. Unfortunately the tides didn’t recede far enough that day.

While the cubs hung out on the shore, you could see that Mom was scanning the water for fish; her head moving left to right. She splashed the water with her paw to create a disturbance and scare fish. No luck for her and the babies, but a golden opportunity for us. We couldn’t have been positioned more perfectly!

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Mama Bear and cubs make their way towards us in search of food.

The family made their way down the shoreline beelining straight for us. My heart was racing watching them inch closer and closer, and then they cut back to the water in front to seek out salmon.

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No luck but blew my mind to be so close to these incredible animals.

Realizing there was no prize to catch, they continued on within 20 feet of where we were standing, up the bank and back into the field behind us. I’ll never be that close to a bear again! With them gone about their business, we pressed on to a new location Derick had in mind.

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Off to the next location. Photo credit: Shona Thompson

The waders certainly come in handy out there. We sloshed through mud, puddles and water so deep it almost poured over the top of my waders. You realize how tippy your tiptoes are when you’re trying your darndest not to topple over in a river. Short person problems!

Shona was a the truest champ however. Soon after we landed, she realized her waders had a hole in one boot. I felt for her every time we walked through water. Definitely not for the faint of heart, but such a blast if you like an adventure! Maybe bring an extra pair of socks, if you go.

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A favourite photo from my entire trip.

Enroute to the next group of bears, we came across a couple sleeping along the water’s edge. Again, having no care in the world and paying no attention to our group walking by.  It was here that I was able to capture, what is probably, my favourite photo from Alaska. I just love the peace and calm this bear exuded. We stopped for a few minutes and then continued on our way.

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Bear prints in the mud every where we went. So big!

It was after this point that Erin-the-photographer kicked in; much to Derick’s dismay.

We were half way through our visit and I had an anxious feeling that I hadn’t taken nearly enough photos. I decided, in order to get a few more landscape shots here and there, I need to hang out towards the back of the line. The problem with this was I have little legs and everyone else was walking far faster than I was.

You know that kid that gets stuck at the front of the bus so the driver can keep their eye on them? Yeah, that became me.

On multiple occasions I was pulled from the back to the front, so that Derick could keep me close.  I would’ve kept asking everyone to stop so I could grab photos, but I didn’t want to hold up the group. Derick eventually nicknamed me “Bear Bait” and it stuck for the rest of the day. We all had a chuckle at it.

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Bald eagles were a special sight to see.

It was such a joy to hike around the park for the next hour. The majority of visitors to Katmai National Park go to Brooks Camp, famous for the Brooks Falls viewing platform. That would no doubt be amazing to see, but for me this experience was perfect.

Untouched, rugged, quiet, and foreign. Nothing but a couple of groups of hikers, brown bears, bald eagles and wilderness. That’s what I think of now, when I think of Alaska.

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Eagle perched perfectly while a solo bear eats its lunch.

Derick tracked down a fourth group of bears towards the end of our visit. They were much older and headed in the wrong direction, but it was still exciting to catch sight of a more mature set.

As we came up behind them, they must have heard us in the distance as one got up on its hind legs to get a better view. I wish I’d have gotten the shot, but wasn’t I wasn’t quick enough. Super cool to see though!

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Found them! Another group of bears make their way across the flats.

The day pressed on, tides starting to come back in and the wind picked up so we made our way back to the planes to head home. The time went by far too quickly, but it was hard to complain considering the amazing luck we’d had.

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Single file, heading back to the plane. Our time went too fast!

Hanging back from the group, once again, I took the time to look out at the ocean and take in everything around me. Who knows if I’d ever return to this magical place, I wanted to absorb as much of it as I could. Photos just can’t capture how truly blue and green the water is; how it reflected the rays and contrasted against the dark sand beaches.

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Pictures just don’t do the scenery – or the colour of the water – justice.

Walking down the beach towards the plane, we were all caught off guard when the other leader radioed Derick to alert him of single bear coming up behind us. A happy encore for all of us!

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Surprise! Another bear appeared out of nowhere behind our group.

This bear was very interested in what we were all doing. More so than any of the other bears we had seen over the course of the day. It stuck around for a while, allowed us to take some glamour shots and said goodbye.

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Glamour shots! Wind blowing its hair and all!

We couldn’t let the day end without grabbing group photos outside the plane. Such an amazing experience and one I hope I’ll be able to experience again some day.

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So special to share the experience with a lifelong friend.

If you’re reading this, thinking about whether or not to do this trip, I urge you to go for it.

Big thanks to Alaska Bear Adventures for the fantastic experience. It was a rare gift to be able to share space with such incredible animals. Here’s a little video recap. 🙂

YO-LO!!!!!

Wild and Found (aka. Bear Bait)

9 thoughts on “Call Me Bear Bait: Searching for the Brown Bears of Katmai National Park and Preserve

  1. I absolutely love this! I would be giddy, out of my mind to experience this, is on my bucket list. You do ahmaaaazing work. How fun and educational.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just love this! My husband and I went on this same trip June 2017. It was absolutely the most amazing trip. We were surrounded by bears!!!! Will do it again our next trip.. next year!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank Wendy! We were there at the beginning on August! Lucky you get to go twice! It really is such a special place. I hope I’m fortunate enough to go again. Appreciate your kind message! Have a wonderful time!

      Like

  3. MY husband and I did this exact same trip June 2017. WIth Derick and 2 other pilots.Absolute
    blast as we have no bears in Australia.We are returning 2018 and hope to do it again.Thankyou for your commentary it was fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

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