By Lee Foster
I had already seen a couple of grizzly bears at Denali National Park and Preserve on earlier trips to Alaska, but the bears were mere specks in the distance.
On this trip I wanted to see lots of grizzlies, preferably closer up, although safely.
So I made some inquiries and the advice kept popping up, “Go to Alaska Bear Viewing Camp in Lake Clark National Park.” Here large numbers of bears congregate at an especially rich salt-marsh meadow to graze on the salt grass at the base of volcanic Mount Iliamna.
I flew to Anchorage and caught a commuter flight with ERA Aviation to the small town of Kenai and an entity known as Kenai River Lodge, at the confluence of the Kenai and Moose rivers. Alaska Bear Viewing Camp is one of several outdoor activities that they offer (the others include fishing, hiking, and canoeing.)
Alaska Bear Viewing Camp
The next morning I flew in a Cessna 207, a five-passenger workhorse of Alaska bush flying, to their bear camp across the Cook Inlet at Lake Clark National Park. The bush plane landed in a patch of small rocks and shells on a slanted beach, which is exposed at low tide. This was the most adventuresome landing strip of my small-plane experience so far, putting down on irregular ground without an air strip, but the skills of Alaska bush pilots are legendary.
Alaska Bear Viewing Camp proved to be a rustic but comfortable setting, consisting of five canvas-and-aluminum-frame Quonset huts that were rain and wind proof. The windows were screened for mosquitoes, of which there were a healthy number. There was an outdoor privy. In my Quonset hut I slept in a sleeping bag with fresh linen. The camp provided my meals and arranged a guide to locate the bears.
Bear camp is located on Chinitna Bay at the homestead of an old fisherman, Wayne Beyers, a crusty character who lived here all alone, year round, enjoying the companionship of his dog, named D for Dog, a few chickens, and two goats. Beyers formerly made a modest cash living fishing for sockeye (red) salmon. Beyond that he lived off the land. When the national park was founded, his property was grandfathered into the arrangement as a subsistence homestead.
What is special about bear camp is its location adjacent to three square miles of marshland that are periodically flooded with salt water at high tide. The mixture of salt and fresh water produces an abundant amount of salt grasses, such as sedge, that are prime bear food. In fact, feasting on salt grass is one of the higher possible caloric intakes per effort expended for an Alaska bear.
Bears gather here in June for their mating and cub rearing, making the meadow a major nursery. The huge boars roam through the meadow, choosing the sows for mating. This is a dangerous time for a bear cub because the cantankerous boars have been known to kill cubs. In July all the bears gorge on the grasses to gain weight. In August they eat the salmon that migrate upstream through the meadows. August is also the prime berry season in the meadows, before the chill of winter announces itself in September.
From an elevated platform appended to the historic fishing shack of homesteader Beyers I watched for bears, and I was not disappointed. It is advisable to spend at least one overnight at bear camp to get the full evening and morning bear viewing.
Already I had seen four bears on the flight over to bear camp as we approached the meadow. At 4 p.m. we went out to the platform and spotted six bears scattered over the meadows, gorging on grass, ranging in distance from 100 yards to a half mile from us. At 6 p.m. we walked up the beach and perched on a berm, viewing another dozen or so bears cavorting in the meadows, from 250 yards to a mile. Finally, after dinner, at 10 p.m., taking advantage of the long daylight, we returned to the observation platform. Using a spotting scope, I counted 21 bears scattered through the meadow. A couple of bears were only a hundred yards away, but others were two miles distant. Most of them gathered where the stream entered the ocean and a new run of salmon was schooling, resting before the upstream push. We watched one large bear race up and down the stream directly in front of the platform, hoping to scatter salmon onto the bank, where they could easily be caught and consumed.
Bears in the Wild
Observing these magnificent bears in a totally wild environment was a joyous experience. They rank regally at the apex of the food chain, with no natural predator. The vulnerable one-pound cub born in January may become a fearless 900-pound boar 10 years later. They were masters of their domain. They were also curious, standing on their hind legs to get a better look at me as an intruder. Sometimes the cubs and mother played combat games in the meadow, part of the nurturing of the young bear, which may last for three years. At other times I watched the mother teach the cubs how to catch salmon. The bears usually moved slowly and deliberately, but could gallop with huge bursts of energy for short distances. Sometimes they did gallop, as if on command from the dominant bear.
Bear camp is run with a healthy respect for bears and careful emphasis on human safety. An orientation from the Alaska Bear Viewing Camp leader started the visit. Human activity was designed to have a minimum impact on normal bear behavior. Human noise was kept to a minimum. I learned to avoid direct eye contact with the bears, to move slowly rather than in an abrupt and threatening manner, and to retreat slowly rather than run off if approached by a bear. We bear viewers proceeded in single file through a forest between bear camp and the observation platform, always careful to avoid a chance encounter with a bear. Fresh bear scat in the forest reminded me that I was not alone. Guides carried shotguns at all times, should an unfortunate encounter occur. The first round in the shotgun was a firecracker that explodes into fireworks at 100 yards. The backup rounds were buckshot and steel slugs. Fortunately, my guide said he had never needed to use the backup rounds in the years that bear camp has been in operation.
One of the major rules of bear camp is that you never leave your Quonset hut after night falls, which was around midnight during my early August visit. Each Quonset had a porta-potty so that no one would have any need to venture out at night to the privy. The reason for staying indoors is that bears are extremely active at night and roam freely through the area. In fact, I was told that the camp shower was full of bear hair a few days before my arrival because a bear had scratched itself against the shower head.
About 12:30 a.m. I was awakened to the noise of a caretaker’s dog barking and a large bear racing through camp. The bear retreated into the forest and then charged back out, causing the dog to back off, which was wise. Then out came the caretaker, who fired off one firecracker round. The rest of the night was relatively silent.
The next morning I enjoyed a bears-and-wildflowers walk with one of the dozen park rangers that patrol the four million acres of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. The ranger keyed out plants with a botany book in hand and a shotgun slung over her shoulder. She estimated that about 40 bears live in the immediate river valleys associated with the meadow. For her, this was an exciting time to be at Lake Clark because the park is relatively new, established only in 1980. Botany was one of her specialties, and only 650 of the estimated 950 plants in the park had even been identified.
The grizzly bear, as mentioned, has been reclassified by zoologists. Formerly its own species, ursus horribilis, the grizzly is now believed to be a variant of the brown bear, ursus arctos. So all the bears I saw are now properly called brown bears. When the brown bear lives inland, such as at Denali National Park, it is now called a grizzly. Further complicating matters is the fact that I have seen “brown” bears in many color variants, from blond to black. The word “grizzly” originated from the white fur on some bears, which gave a “grizzled” appearance. Even the huge bears of Alaska’s Kodiak Island are now known simply as brown bears rather than grizzlies. The brown bears have a characteristic hump on their upper back. The grizzlies or browns of Alaska are noteworthy, of course, for their size, gorging on grass, salmon, berries, carrion, whatever these opportunistic feeders can locate and capture, which may include moose calves in spring.
Call them brown bears or grizzlies, as you wish. The simple truth is that an encounter with these huge Alaskan bears is one of the most memorable experiences the state can offer. Alaska is the best place to see wild bears. There are an estimated 31,000 brown/grizzly bears in Alaska, but only 1,000 in the lower 48.
Bear camp satisfied me because it delivered the concentration of bears, at relatively close range, that I desired to see.
Alaska: If You Go To Seek Out The Bears
Alaska Bear Viewing Camp information is at http://www.greatalaska.com.
For tourism information on Alaska, see http://www.travelalaska.com.