Katmai National Park

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Dr. P spent one week in Alaska Brown bear viewing in August of 2005. It was near the location depicted in the movie “Grizzly”. You can call them Grizzlies or Kodiak bears also, since in this part of Alaska they are one in the same.

You can sometimes get this close to the bears. This bear was 10 feet away.

This is Alaska, and everything is huge, so the smaller size of these photographs for easier downloading on a web page don’t begin to do justice to the area and bears. At the end of this page you can link to some photographs of the scenery and bears in a larger size if you like.

Dr. P went with Dr. Art Giebel, a humanoid doctor that has helped us with animal eye surgery on several occasions. He is a great travel companion with his ongoing sense of humor and never ending optimism.

This is Dr. Art wearing the latest in Alaskan fashions. He borrowed Dr. P’s photography equipment and took the great photos of Dr. P you will see on this page. Thankfully Dr. P charged the batteries in Dr. Art’s camera, because Dr. Art took photos of everything! He took over 1,500 pictures, and two or three of them even came out good enough to put on this page.

This is one of those good pictures Dr. Art took. He just couldn’t pass up that rainbow.

Dr. P went to watch the coastal Brown bears fatten up on salmon as they swam from the ocean to the freshwater stream where they were born. The salmon came to lay and fertilize eggs, thus completing their life cycles. These salmon are fat and protein rich, leading to the largest Brown bears in the world.

This is a picture of a mature male (called a boar) the guides nicknamed Ted. He weighs well over 1,200 pounds, and will put on up to 400 more pounds before he hibernates (bears don’t do a true hibernation) in late October. We saw Ted several times on our 5 day stay. He moves as quick as a cat when salmon are present, and even though he doesn’t catch them every time, his speed and power are formidable. Thankfully his mind was on eating salmon and he pretty much ignored us.

Katmai is located southwest of Anchorage, just across the Chelikoff strait from Kodiak Island. To get to Katmai you fly through Anchorage, then on to a fishing town called Homer, known for its monster halibut. After an overnight at a quaint bed and breakfast we flew a single engine Cessna over the Chelikoff strait and landed on the beach at our camp.

Weather is a major consideration in the flight across the strait. Before leaving Homer the pilot radios the camp to learn about weather conditions. This being Alaska the weather can change dramatically in a short time (sounds like Michigan to me). For these pilots the weather becomes one of the most critical factors on whether or not they fly to and from the camp. As a matter of fact, when Dr. P arrived at camp, the plane returned to Homer with some guests that had been stranded for 5 extra days because of inclement weather.

Some of the views of the coast along the strait are magnificent.

Flying across the Chelikoff strait has its own inherent dangers though. The primary one is the temperature of the water, which is usually in the 40’s. If the plane were to go down in this water, and assuming you survived the crash, you would only be able to survive in this water for about 15 minutes maximum. The U.S. Coast Guard has a station at Kodiak Island with planes and helicopters available at short notice for this reason.

Even though the trip was booked through a great tour company called Hallo Bay, technically we stayed just north of Hallo Bay. The red arrow shows the location of our permanent camp just north of Hallo Bay. Our camp takes visitors that stay for 3-7 days, while Hallo Bay takes visitors out of Homer that only stay for a few hours.

This satellite view gives you a better feel for the area. The red arrow points to the camp location. The small white island just below the arrow has no name. We coined it Eagle Rock because there is an abandoned eagle nest on the top. Just below and left of eagle rock there are sandbars and a water inlet off the beach. This is the route the salmon navigate as they swim upstream, and where we spent most of our time bear viewing.

At the top of the satellite picture you can see the mud flats of Swikshak bay as low tide is partially in effect. Its easy to be trapped by the incoming tide if you are in the middle of the flats. This is because the tide comes in on the edges first, and if you are standing in the middle your route back to the beach is rapidly cut off. We spent a day hiking there to watch the bears come out to the mud flats and eat clams and salmon that are passing to the river in the top left of the picture.

The next few pictures are taken from the plane as we circled the camp. It depicts this area at the level of the red arrow on the map above as we come in for a landing from the south and land on the beach. The pilot often circles this area once or twice to check out the landing site.

From above our permanent camp is easily seen. North is on the left and south is on the right. The pilot had already made a pass along the beach from north to south and flew slightly more inland as he made a circle so we could see the camp from above.

Here is the original southward pass as we go past Eagle rock near high tide. At low tide you can actually walk to the rock. Notice the edge of the camp just appearing at the left, and the sandbars appearing at the lower right in the picture.

These are those same sand bars from a different angle as the pilot continues to pass over the area. The main inlet of water that can be seen is the highway the salmon use to move upstream. This is where most of the fishing action occurred, and is the source of many of the pictures that follow.

We got to see our first bears from the air as the pilot completed his turn and headed back to land on the beach. This is a female with her two young. From this point on we will call them by their appropriate names, a sow with her cubs.

Our pilot flew past the camp one last time, banked right to head south one last time, and made his landing in a southward direction.

A quick exchange of guests and off he went, stranding us for 5 days with strange guides and even stranger guests. Actually, everyone on the trip was a joy to be with, even though it was quite an eclectic group (apparently this is par for the course in Alaska). There were guests from both coasts, a honeymoon couple, a colorful mother/daughter couple, and a couple from Germany. There were even a very cool veterinarian and even cooler medical doctor as part of this eclectic group. Lets take a quick tour of camp before we get to those big Brownie’s.

The permanent solar, wind, and gas powered camp is very comfortable. They have comfortable huts that have plenty of room to store all the things you brought along and never even unpack. This is the kitchen first thing in the AM as we leave breakfast and get ready for our first hike to see bears. Dr. P woke up 15 minutes early that day and chopped the camp’s wood for the remainder of the year.

Every morning we were updated on massage times, casino hours, and happy hour events. As you can see from our first day’s activities, the low tide of minus 4.2 feet below sea level turns into a high tide of almost 20 feet above sea level 6 hours later. That is a very rapid change in a short time, and if you are out at Eagle rock or the Swikshak bay mud flats at low tide you can become trapped if you aren’t vigilant. Sunset was not until after 10 PM, giving us plenty of daylight to observe bears. By the way, that so-called drawing of a bear by one of our guides looks more like a lovelorn moose!

Finally, after 2 days of airplane flights we are off to see the wildlife. We soon saw our first bear as we walked out to the beach and headed south. This is the inlet from the Chelikoff strait in the pictures from the airplane shown previously.

We went to our viewing point we mentioned earlier and got comfortable on the logs. In this view we are looking north along the inlet from the strait. You can see Eagle Rock in the distance.

Luck was with us this first day because we saw two males fight over prime salmon fishing territory. This is the initial square-off as the bear on the left challenged Ted, the bear on the right. The bear on the left is an older bear that has been displaced by Ted. He decided to challenge Ted for the salmon Ted had just caught and partially eaten. When neither backed down it escalated into a real rumble. Dr. Art asked our guide if we could get closer when this action broke out so he could get better picture. Now you see why he only works on humanoids.

This sequence shows a few of their moves. When they met they both reared up, and Ted (on the right) pushed the old bear down into the water and pinned him. The old bear got back up and got in Ted’s face, and then walked away with the remains of the salmon (the older bear is on the right now in the last slide lower right). We could see bite wounds on Ted’s neck the next day, so we knew it was more than a ritual fight.

As soon as it started things returned to normal and the bears rested in anticipation of the next salmon run. You can see how large their claws grow. These claws make it hard for them to climb a tree. If you get charged by a Grizzly it might be advisable to find a tree and make a fast shimmy to the top. Now if only there were any trees on the coastline……

As the days went on we spent plenty of time at this location. When the salmon were running so were the bears.

The sun cooperated one day and we had our golden opportunity to get some good close ups.

When we would leave our viewing spot the bears would check out our scent.

When the action would slow down at this spot we would wake up our napping guide and head downstream. This is Gary, one our guides (his nickname is coach because he coached college football), keeping an eye out for us. FYI this is a National Park, so no firearms are allowed.

This is a juvenile male learning how to fish using the submarine technique. He wasn’t very good at it, but since he was an awful lot bigger than us we decided discretion is the better part of valor and minded our own business.

We hit the jackpot this day because we also saw a female with her cubs as we continued to head downstream.

Occasionally a bear would come close to us and we would huddle and get low. This was to let them know we are not challenging them. It seemed to work because we never had a problem. If the bear ever did make menacing gestures to us we were instructed to stand up close together and make noise and look intimidating. If the bear came at us then in an aggressive manner our guide would light his flare and hopefully the flame and hissing sound would intimidate the bear to back off. This is a National Park so no guns are allowed except for the park rangers.

When low tide came we walked out to Eagle Rock and saw things from a different perspective. The area was filled with marine life just biding their time until the high tide returned and they were submerged again. Anemones were in abundance, along with sea otter skulls and numerous fish skeletons. You can see the vast difference from low tide to high tide.

We climbed the rock and sat in an abandoned eagle nest. This island is approximately a half a mile offshore to give you some perspective how far the tide goes out at low tide.

This is Kevin (the person that drew that moose/bear on the daily activity board) our other primary guide at Eagle Rock at low tide. His nickname is Griz for obvious reasons.

One of our days we hiked in the opposite direction of the inlet and ended up at the mudflats at Swikshak bay. It is a large expanse of mud at low tide.

It doesn’t look like a spot bears would frequent, but bears there were.

In addition to eating the salmon that move past these mudflats to get upstream the bears also eat clams buried in the sand. Their claws are made for digging, and with their sense of smell they find them often.

This is the mudflats as high tide starts rolling in.

It was a great spot to watch bald eagles that came down for scraps.

A forest fire occurred 100 miles away from us. For almost two days it was overcast from the smoke. It made a nice effect on the late afternoon sun. I hate to admit, but Dr. Art took this photo. Now he is up to 2 good ones out of his 1,500.

Alaska is a marvelous place to visit. The people are friendly, as long as you don’t ask too many pointed questions about their past. Sometimes in conversation you get the impression they don’t want you to know their past, which is why they came and got lost in Alaska in the first place.

They need to learn how to spell California though. Apparently that Russian heritage persists.

And with a little help they love their veterinarians!

Now that you have met the cast of characters in this saga you can link to a page that has several of the best pictures of the bears and scenery in a size that gives you a better idea of the grand scale involved.