(Sorry, but this one's a biggie. It just has to be big! Just a reminder that you can see the full size pictures by clicking on any of them.)
Today we were to fly to Katmai National Park to see the Brown Bears in the Brooks River feeding on salmon. Brown Bears are what we in the lower 48 call Grizzly Bears. I guess the correct name is Brown Bears as naturalists have been telling us. They are bigger in Alaska than in the west, and the biggest ones are the coastal Brown Bears that feed on the plentiful salmon. The inland bears grow to 600-700 lbs., but the coastal bears can go up to 1,200 lbs. The largest are the Kodiak Bears of Kodiak Island. They get as big as 1,500 lbs.! All Brown Bears are way larger than Black Bears, which we have in the upper midwest.
This excursion is something I considered doing on my last trip when I got to Anchorage, but chose not to because of the cost. At that time, it was about $600 for the whole day trip. Now it was around $800, but when we were planning the trip,
The airplane we would be flying in.
we all decided that we may never be back and it is
a once in a lifetime experience, so we booked it.
The flying service that was taking us there is Rust's; Rust's is one of the oldest flying services in Anchorage. We flew in a single engine turboprop airplane, the Dehavilland Otter floatplane. The Otter can carry the pilot and 10 passengers. Most of Alaska is unreachable by roads and that's why they have the most registered small airplanes and highest population pecentage of pilots in the world.
It was a very chilly, cloudy and rainy day. I was unsure if the weather would allow us to fly to Katmai today. When we arrived at Rust's, the pilot told us that they were getting all the weather reports to decide if it would be a go. The whole trip is a 2-1/2 hour flight to Katmai, 4-5 hours there and the flight back to Anchorage. After a half hour or so, he told us we were going to give it a try, but the chance of going through Lake Clark Pass through the Alaska Mountains was 50-50. I was lucky to be able to ride in
Heading Into The Pass
Kinda scary with all the clouds.
the right co-pilots seat on the way there. There were several layers of clouds that our pilot, Justin had to negotiate; a broken scud layer at about 3,000 ft, a thin layer about 5,000 ft and another thicker layer at about 9,000 ft. It was lightly raining for the first hour or so of the flight. I've got to tell you that I was a bit scared when we were manuevering through these clouds close to the mountains, but there were other planes flying the area and they were giving us reports the whole way.
Lake Clark Pass is about a 50 mile long pass with several glaciers in it. There were 2 particularly cool glaciers about in the middle of the pass one on either side of the pass that used to connect to each other. The pilot told us a cool story about Eskimos traversing this glacier with dogsleds many years ago. We also saw a moose in the river below us in the pass. After about a half hour, we came out of the pass and saw Lake Clark. The weather was improving slightly and when we landed at Brooks Lodge, the rain had stopped, so
we ended up having decent weather for viewing the bears. The Sockeye Salmon run was just beginning, with only a small amount trying to jump the falls where the bears usually flock to catch them. We knew when we booked the trip that it would not be the peak of the run at this time, but the timing was the best we could work out with everyone's schedules. Rust's had told me we would see bears, though. As a matter of fact, this would turn out to be the first Katmai excursion that they would do this year.
After a very smooth water landing and taxiing up to the shore, we all got out of the airplane and Justin brought the boxed lunch cooler to the ranger station at Brooks Lodge. He had to put the lunches in a food cache building. There is no food or drink allowed while walking through the park. Food can only be eaten at a couple designated places surrounded by an electric fence. The bears are plentiful in this area. We then went into the ranger station to get an orientation about how to behave in this, the bears' territory. We were instucted
to talk loudly and make plenty of noise while walking the trails to let the bears know where we were so they could avoid us. We were told that if we were confronted by a bear: 1. DON'T RUN! 2. Stand tall and talk to the bear with a firm voice. 3 Back up slowly and let the bear go on his way.
More about this later!
It was about a 1-1/2 mile walk to the viewing area at Brooks Falls on the Brooks River and Justin guided us on the way there through the trails. Near the falls, you enter the viewing platform area. It's basically a raised walkway with several bear-proof doors that you go through. Once in there, you are completely safe and about 20 feet above the ground and the bears. You then walk about a 1/4 mile to the falls where you have a perfect view. Jan spotted a bear while on the walkway and we managed to get a couple photos of it, but we were instructed that you had to keep walking on the walkway until you reach the viewing platform...no stopping.
When we got to the platform, there was
not a bear in sight. We did see some salmon jumping up the falls, but not a lot. I was really starting to get bummed out about the possibilities of seeing any more bears and regretting all the cost for nothing. But, about a half hour of waiting there paid off when the female bear Jan spotted in the woods meandered right past us down to the river. The rangers knew her by her markings and told us she was a 4 yr old female with cubs somewhere. She proceeded to go into the river and started fishing. This gave us a great photo opportunity and Jan and I took a lot of shots. After a few minutes in the falls, the bear caught a nice size salmon with her paws. She then proceeded to carry the fish in her mouth into the woods where she stopped near the platform to eat it.
A short while later, we saw a male bear walking into the river downriver from us. There were fishermen in the water near the bear. The bear stood up on his hind legs a couple times in the river. He then came over to our side
of the river and went into the falls fishing for several minutes, but caught nothing. We saw a couple more bears walking along the shore and in the woods. All in all, we saw 6-7 different bears while we were there. Not spectacular like some times, but we were really excited about seeing them.
We had to be back to the airplane at 3:30 to depart for Anchorage and it was now 2:00 and none of us had eaten or drunk anything since coffee at our hotel at 8:00 AM, so we decided to walk the 1-1/2 miles back to the lodge area. By the way, you can stay at the Brooks River Lodge and many fishermen come here to fish for the salmon. It's a really spectacular place. Check it out here:
Just the 4 of us were heading back and after leaving the safety of the enclosed walkway we headed down the trail. We were walking along talking loudly as instructed with Marilyn and Jan leading the way. After about an 1/8th of a mile, I saw a bear in the trail ahead and walking right down the trail at us!! HE WAS HUGE! Marilyn
later said his head was as big as a coffee table. I loudly said,"There's a bear in the trail!," but Jan didn't hear me. Marilyn did though and did an about face, running back toward the walkway. When she got to Dan and me, I told her, "Don't run!" She stopped and waited with Dan and me for Jan. Jan never heard me or saw the bear until Marilyn took off running past her. I guess you could say that Marilyn's instincts for self-preservation are pretty strong. She later said that she just wanted to put some people between her and the bear. She said that if he were looking for something to eat that Jan would be an appetizer, Dan and I would be the entree and he would probably be satisfied after that and spare her. (I guess Marilyn could be a nice, sweet dessert, though.)
I will tell you that all of us were scared shitless and the very first thing all of us wanted to do was turn and run for our lives, but we backed up slowly and Jan finally got past me away from the bear. He was still walking toward us on
the trail, though. We slowly worked our way back to the walkway and doors with Dan and Marilyn first, Jan, then me. The first door was just a gate and the walkway was at ground level there. Another 75 feet on the walkway was a large, barred door that provided complete safety. The bear was still coming and getting closer. Dan and Marilyn got through the large door and when Jan and I got to it, Dan (safely inside) went into comedy mode. He held the door to keep us from opening it. I didn't laugh at this one and told him,"Open the door, open the door!" We were all safely in when the bear walked up to the gate and made a turn into the woods. We waited until he was pretty far away before trying to go down the trail again. I know the adrenaline was pumping in all of us and when we started back we made much more noise, all of us singing "Bear Down, Chicago Bears."
We were so amped up that we told everyone coming down the trail toward us about our close call and to watch out for the bear. By the
time we got back to the lodge, had a cup of coffee and did a bit of shopping, it was almost time to depart, so everyone just brought the box lunches onto the airplane and would eat them on the flight back.
We took a different route back through what is called the Valley of a Thousand Smokes because of the volcanic islands there near the Cook Inlet. Some of the volcanoes are quite active and we flew near Augustine Volcano and Jan got some great photos of it. There were puffs of steam coming out of the top. The rest of the flight back was pretty easy with the weather clearing and we all caught a bit of sleep before we landed at Lake Hood.
This day was one of the most memorable of all of our lives. Meeting that huge bear on the trail really made it so. I don't know if there are many things we could do that would be more exciting.
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