Close encounters with the grizzlies of Alaska

Charlene

One of our Travel Specialists, Charlene, visited Alaska where she got up close and personal with one of the world's largest animals - the grizzly bears of Katmai National Park. Here she recounts her experience.

I haven't stopped talking about my very first encounter with grizzlies ever since I got back from Alaska!

We departed at 8am from Homer airport for our bear and wildlife viewing flight safari. Shortly after our safety briefing, we prepared for take off in our 5 seater Cessna 206 aircraft which was equipped with oversize rubber tyres for landing on the beach. The 1 hour and 15 min flight across the Cook Inlet, to the rugged coastline of Katmai National Park, was the most incredible flight I have ever experienced. We saw some of the most dramatic scenery in Alaska, including seven active volcanoes, giant glaciers and even whales in the water below!

Grizzly in Katmai, Alaska
Shortly before landing, we circled the area from above taking in the magnificent views of the vast meadow against the backdrop of the many mountains surrounding it. And there it was: I spotted my first ever GRIZZLY BEAR! Wandering through the meadow towards the beach was this mighty male bear, stopping every now and then to graze on the sedge grass. I know this sounds super cliché, but it really was one of the best moments of my travel career – and it gets even better...

After we landed, we all climbed out of the aircraft beaming from ear to ear; we just couldn't believe what we had just seen. Donning our rubber wellies, which are provided, we wandered along the beach in search of the bears. Within minutes we spotted two males bears, each competing for attention from the 'blonde' female bear who was just basking in the warm sunshine.

Brown bear in Katmai
One of the males was playing and rolling around in the grass. He took a nearby log to use as a scratching post and, without a care in the world, rolled over onto his back, with his feet in the air and wriggled from side to side. I could sense his feeling of satisfaction as he slowly sat up (if bears can be said to grin, this one definitely was), and then fell back to the floor again to do it all over again.

Grizzly lying down in Katmai, Alaska
As this is a wilderness tour, we walked along the same trails as the bears did, sat on the same river banks as they did and observed them as they went about their day to day life. There were no barriers, fences or platforms separating us from the bears and other wildlife. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and safety is their number one priority, so although we did get fairly close (sometimes maybe 30ft away) we were always kept at a safe distance from the bears.

There is a base camp set up in the park with a tent containing emergency supplies and food, protected by an electric fence. This made me feel completely at ease knowing that they were prepared for any eventuality. You're only allowed to take water into the park with you, and if you need to snack ideally you need to do this in the aircraft to avoid leaving any crumbs.

We spent approximately 3 hours hiking in the park and observing the bears and other wildlife. As well as a water bottle, I would definitely recommend taking binoculars – you're not always that close to the wildlife, and there's always things to spot from the plane...

The tours are flexible and can be tailored to the group; for instance if there are experienced hikers then they will allow extra time for longer hikes. Personally, I could have spent the entire day here just observing the bears in their natural habitat.

Bear paw prints in Alaska
As we made our way back to the beach towards the aircraft, there was one more encounter in store. We spotted another grizzly and her two cubs being followed by a lone wolf. We all sat in silence, watching in dismay but the mother bear simply stopped, her cubs sat by her side and the family watched as the wolf walked straight passed them. WOW... what a gripping moment!

For the flight back to Homer and this time the pilot took a slightly different route so that we could experience other scenery that we had not seen on the way over. On arrival back to Homer, I was speechless. This was an utterly incredible excursion that I quite honestly can't recommend highly enough.


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