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Published: July 13th 2016
Tuesday July 12, 2016
Episode 6: Bears galore – and a near death experience.
Awesome. Incredible. A once in a lifetime experience, and a fitting highlight to the end of our Alaskan journey. This is how I describe the last three days of our Alaskan trip last week, watching massive brown bears feeding on salmon at Katmai national park. This remote place is on the Alaskan Peninsula, inaccessible except by air or sea. We first caught a commercial flight from Anchorage to the small town of King Salmon. From there, small float planes (seaplanes) ferry people back and forth to Brooks Falls, the entry point to Katmai (a short 20 minute flight). At Brooks, there was a visitor centre, national park office, a lodge/bar/eatery and a campground. The campground was encircled by an electrified fence, which we were told is a bear deterrent, but not bear proof! Due to its immense popularity in July (the salmon run), we only managed to get one night booked at the campground, and for the other two nights we stayed back in the town of King Salmon at a wonderful B’n’B and did two day trips into the park via the floatplanes. The
B’n’B was run by Jill and Dave Crowley, who proved to be fantastic and we had an awesome time with them (more about them later).
Upon arrival at Brooks Camp, everyone must sit through a bear etiquette video, and learn what to do if a brown bear is encountered along the trail to the water falls where they accumulate. (Don’t run, but step aside into the woods and let the bear walk past!). This place has the highest concentration of brown bears in the world, after all. Not long after this presentation, we saw a massive male brown bear chasing a female along the shoreline (see photo opposite). It was an amazing sight. Later that day, a big bear came through the lodge area and was shooed away by the rangers as if it were a naughty dog! Anyway, on our first day, we pitched the tent in the middle of the campground, under the assumption that any bears which breached the electric fence would find and consume campers at the periphery before they got to us! The main action was at Brooks Waterfalls viewing platform, where we saw up to nine or ten large brown bears accumulated in
the river catching and eating the jumping salmon. Now, to get to the viewing platform requires a 15 minute walk through the woods –with bears around everywhere. Initially, Ross and I deliberately hovered at the lodge until some other people were heading off to the falls, and tagged along (safety in numbers). Yet over the course of our three days we never actually encountered a bear on the trail and there was usually a steady stream of people and/or park rangers walking the trail anyway. In the end we did the walk alone a few times. After speaking to others in the lodge bar, however, many folks saw bears on or near the trail, but the bears just walked on by. So, anyway, the sights at the falls were brilliant. Dozens of salmon erupting from the river every few minutes, and shooting about 5 feet up through the cascading water in the quest to head upstream and spawn. The bears were everywhere. Some “snorkeled” for fish, others just leapt repeatedly at the salmon, and others waited at the top of the falls to grab leaping salmon – that classic picture you see of bears grabbing the fish. We saw lots
of different interactions - bears mating, bears arguing, bears grabbing and devouring fish, and females with impossibly cute cubs. Ross commented that with the cascading waterfalls, all the bears and fish, a backdrop of snow-caped mountains and the occasional eagle overhead, Walt Disney could not have designed a better wildlife vista.
As I mentioned, after camping for one night, we spent the other two nights flying in and out of the town of King Salmon via floatplane (seaplane). In King Salmon we again used Airbnb and had stayed with an amazing couple, Jill and Dave Crowley. Now, for those of you who know our New Zealand friends Brent and Shirl Hardy, well, Jill and Dave proved to be the Alaskan version of Brent and Shirl – amazing, generous and helpful hosts, living in a lovely place. (They lent us their tent, sleeping bags, etc for that one night of camping). Jill and Dave picked us up at airports, and had cooked us dinner (Dave caught and grilled a big king salmon – see pictures below). These are all things above and beyond the call of an Airbnb host. We learned a lot about typical Alaskan life from Jill and
Dave. Dave’s cousin, Keith and his wife, Annette were also staying on the property, and the six of us spent two consecutive nights drinking wine, talking and laughing till late (till 11: 30pm, when the sun was, as usual, still shining). Dave is a wildlife biologist and his cousin Keith a wildlife photographer, so, as you can imagine, my conversations with them went into overdrive! Keith in particular was a funny guy. After our first night of drinking and socializing, I said to Keith the next morning,
“Did you sleep well ?”
“Well, I would call it passing out, but, yes” he replied.
So, we had a wonderful time watching the bears and staying with Jill and Dave. We were never in any danger from the bears. The danger came from something completely different. At the end of our second day at the national park, we were scheduled to get the floatplane from Brooks camp back to King Salmon at 5pm. Due to some passenger mix up, they could only fit one person on the 5pm plane, so Ross elected to go on that one, and I elected to go on another one that left 10 minutes
later. By this time we had done three or four floatplane trips and the novelty of taking off and landing on water had worn off. They were small planes, carrying between 7 and 20 people.
“I will see you in King Salmon then,” I said to Ross and I watched his floatplane glide along the water then lift up over the mountains into the distance. I got on a second floatplane along with an Israeli couple and three American teenagers. Our pilot was a rugged-looking guy in his forties, friendly and efficient. We took off as normal and were soon above the mountain range. I guess about seven minutes into the flight, the engine started to splutter. Then it sputtered some more and then it stalled. Then it came back to life, then spluttered and stalled again. We started to fall. I was horrified. The pilot looked gravely at the controls and then immediately banked sharply, attempting to return to where we had come from (Brooks camp). I believe I heard him mutter two chilling words: “Not good.”
We started heading down, closer to the mountain, then the engine would splutter back to life and we would go
along straight for a while, then it would stop again and down we went again. The mountainside got larger, closer. Being the legendary woos that I am, my legs went to jelly and my heart started pounding, harder and harder. They say that your life flashes before your eyes under these circumstances. This did not go through my mind. Instead, I kept thinking about how Ross and I got separated and how this couldn’t be happening.
This couldn’t be happening.
This could not be happening - .
After what seemed an eternity but was actually a few minutes I guess, we managed to clear the mountain - with the engine stopping and starting - and we were back over the lake from which we had just left, heading down but seemingly gliding back to the shore at Brooks camp. OK, we are over water, I thought, but having watched too many “Air Crash Investigations” episodes, I know hitting water can be like hitting concrete. Yet the pilot stayed calm and we skidded along the water and made it back to shore. He said:
“I’m very sorry about that folks, we had an engine malfunction. In my
20 years of flying, I have never had that sort of issue before. We will get you all off and on to another plane ASAP.”
In the kerfuffle that ensued and the haste with which we got transferred to another plane, we never did work out exactly how serious the danger was – they didn’t really say - but we were all very shaken (well, maybe not the teenagers, still with headphones on and chewing gum). Anyway, it was a very scary experience for me. I was very anxious boarding the second floatplane, but this anxiety gave way to my love of nature, as we became airborne once more and I marveled at the endless pristine landscape that unfolded before us in the afternoon sun. A rich tapestry of rivers, lakes, inlets and mountains covered in forest and not a human dwelling or road in sight.
Arriving safely back in King Salmon, I found Ross and our host, Dave, waiting for me at the floatplane dock and I explained what had happened. Dave seemed quite shocked and made sure I got a stiff drink when we arrived back at his house. Later, when we were alone, Ross gave
me a long hug that felt like it lasted minutes. Amazing how ours lives could have changed forever that day.
Over drinks with Dave, Jill and the others, we got talking about our fantastic experience with the brown bears. Dave – a wildlife biologist – said that brown bears are remarkably tolerant and that it is rare to be attacked or killed by one.
“You have more chance of being killed in a car accident,” he said.
Keith interjected: “….Or being killed in a floatplane accident.”
Very funny, Keith. Not!
Anyway, we flew uneventfully back to Anchorage the next day. (Our flight wasn’t till 4.30pm, but in their usual style, Jill and Dave allowed us to stay in the house/ watch TV /whatever till then, while they went fishing, and even allowed us to drive to the airport in their spare car! Legends!)
Some final thoughts on the trip to Alaska, as I know some of you have been inspired to come here. June-July-August is the peak summer tourist season in the Northern hemisphere, and Alaska slips quickly back into cool to cold weather thereafter, before shutting up shop for the long dark and
frigid Winter. This means that Alaska is pricey, as those in the tourist industry have but a brief three months to make their year’s money and recoup their costs – so it is an expensive destination. As for the weather, it is very fickle up here. In summer, one day can be rainy and chilly, but the next can be hot and sunny. Furthermore, it supposedly becomes more rainy as the summer progresses. So, when is the best time to come? I peg mid June to mid July for mostly clear skies and mild to warm temperatures. It worked for us.
Alaska was initially in Russian hands, and you can see vestiges of this around the place today, such as some Russian orthodox type churches. (There also seems to be a fair number of Russian and Eastern European people working here.) However, in 1867, Russia sold its colony of Alaska to the United States for around two cents an acre. Russian fools!
We had an excellent time here in Alaska, and I was able to observe all the wildlife that was on my Alaskan critter wish-list (and then some). Everything in Alaska is writ large – large open
spaces, huge mountains, massive glaciers, endless skies and large animals on land and in the sea. Physically separated from the rest of the USA, it is quite unlike any place I have previously visited.
From California to New York, Miami to Seattle, I have visited many of the United States. But in my opinion, Alaska is – hands down – the grandest of them all.
Craig (and Ross).
P.S. This is our last Alaska blog.
PPS. More photos below. Click to enlarge, scroll through.
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