Gazing at the grizzlies
After a winter of hibernation, coastal grizzly bears descend from Alaska’s vast white and blue glaciers, blinding in the spring sunshine, to feed in the sedge grass meadows. Among the fiercest omnivores on earth, they weigh as much as small automobiles, can run as fast as horses, and are equipped with bone-crushing jaws and flesh-slashing claws.
The female grizzlies typically come off the mountains with one or two cubs—sometimes even three, if food is plentiful. Some of the young bears are nearly adult size, born the year before and still sticking with Mom. Others are almost impossibly tiny, having been born just months earlier under the snow and ice in rocky dens.
Nowhere else is there as dense an assembly of wild bears as in Katmai National Park. It’s a summer spectacle. The four million acres of public land lie on the southern coast of Alaska, at the base of the Aleutian islands. Famously known for its volcanic Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, the preserve was founded 99 years ago by an executive order from President Woodrow Wilson. In 1980 Congress established Katmai as a full national park.
The coastal grizzlies—called brown bears by Alaskan tradition—are here to eat. There is plenty for them to choose from: flounder and giant clams on the rich tidal flats, tasty rodents in the wildflower meadows, seabird eggs on small islands. And then the largest seasonal bounty of protein imaginable: beginning in July, millions of silvery Pacific salmon surge out of the Gulf of Alaska and swim upstream into rushing freshwater rivers to spawn.
“Watching these huge bears go after salmon is watching nature’s best athletes,” says Brad Josephs, a wildlife biologist who has been guiding visitors to see the Katmai grizzlies for 18 years. He has been obsessed with bears since he could talk, fascinated with their pure power.
“Nothing symbolizes wilderness like grizzly tracks,” says Josephs. “I think humans are drawn to what scares us. And grizzly bears are one of the most intimidating species alive. They humble us.”
Grizzly bears, Josephs points out, have a supernatural sense of smell—1,000 to 2,000 times our ability to smell and 200 times better than a bloodhound’s.
Josephs owes his start to Larry Aumiller and Derek Stonorov, the two legendary Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists who mentored him. They were among the first to eschew non-lethal protection while doing their field research. Josephs carries no gun and has had to resort to firing a 12,000-candlepower marine flare only six times since 1999, though he has been extremely close to thousands of the coastal behemoths. He explains that, because these bears have not been hunted since the 1920s and humans don’t feed them, they are largely oblivious to people.
“We have learned a lot about how to coexist with bears,” says Josephs. “We show them respect.”
For more information about Katmai National Park, visit nps.gov/katm or call (907) 246-3305. For more on Habitat Natural Adventures, visit natab.com or call (800) 543-8917. You can fly your private jet to Kodiak Island, landing at Kodiak Benny Benson State Airport (ADQ). The airport has three paved runways, the longest of which measures 7,533 by 150 feet. You can contact the airport at (907) 487-4952.
Photo Safaris to the Bears of Katmai
Colorado-based luxury safari company Natural Habitat Adventures has teamed with the not-for-profit World Wildlife Fund to offer eight-day excursions by chartered live-aboard boat with all conveniences and fine dining. Trips are limited to eight individuals and start at $9,295 per person. Naturalists guide guests at all times—expertly and safely. Trips in 2017 depart Kodiak Island from June 17 to August 13. Trips depart Homer (about 170 miles north of the island) between August 13 and September 18.
June is the best time to go. The bears are out of hibernation then, and their thick, fluffy coats are the most luxurious. The females have their cubs and those without cubs are pursued by males—some enormous—eager to mate. The young bears and the mating displays in front of stunning glacier fields make for terrific photo opportunities.
From mid-July through August, the densest concentrations of bears gather at every river and creek that is teeming with migrating salmon. The explosive, watery scene is pure theatre. Then, in September, the foliage turns red and yellow and the bears engage in one last burst of nonstop gorging (hyperphagia) to fill their bellies and build fat reserves for the coming winter.