Hanging Out with the Brown Bears of Katmai

One of the most memorable experiences of my life took place in the great state of Alaska, USA. I had the opportunity to visit the 49th state many times over the past 20+ years on work trips, and Katmai National Park had long been on my bucket list. Katmai is best known for its iconic “bear grabbing the salmon in the waterfall” photos – – but I decided I wanted a more remote experience, where I wouldn’t have to jostle for space on a small deck packed with photographers.

My adventure took me from Kodiak Island to Geographic Harbor, a remote bay near the southern end of Katmai National Park, via M/V Single Star. This 58-foot adventure yacht was small enough to get us deep into the harbor where the rivers meet the sea, and the salmon are prolific. Brown Bear Heaven!

Side note, for those who are wondering: Some people believe a brown bear is a grizzly and a grizzly is a brown bear. What’s the difference? Grizzlies are actually considered to be a subspecies of brown bear. In North America, brown bears are generally considered to be those that have access to coastal food resources like salmon. Grizzly bears live further inland and typically do not have access to coastal food resources. 

Putting this experience into words is difficult to say the least. I was excited, slightly nervous and wasn’t completely sure what to expect. Just an hour after anchoring in the harbor, it was go-time! After pulling on my chest waders and prepping my camera gear, three of us hopped into the dingy for a short ride to shore, where we proceeded to wade through the cold sea water toward the mouth of the river. Three brown bears were scattered about in the river ahead of us, fishing for silver salmon; they didn’t even acknowledge our presence as they continued the hunt for those fat-rich fish. Our guide was leading us single file to a gravel island wedged between several river braids, with me bringing up the rear of our tiny train. As we crossed the final braid and reached the island, our guide indicated we should stop and stand still. A gigantic female brown bear (“sow”) was approaching us! She veered slightly to our left, passing within approximately 5 feet of me! She glanced over, giving me a little side-eye, but didn’t even pause as she made her way to the river braid we had crossed seconds earlier. I had just met “Sandy Sow” up close and personal – – the first of many encounters over the next four days! 

The brown bears of the Katmai region can be viewed anytime between May and September. Early in the season, they are leaner, having just emerged from a long winter’s hibernation. They are busy nursing their cubs, playing, mating, digging for clams, and foraging for other food sources. By September, when I visited, the bears are HUGE, heavy from full days of feasting from the influx of salmon running upstream in late July and August. Katmai’s brown bears are some of the largest bears in the world! They can stand up to 5 feet (1.5 m) at the shoulder and measure 7 to 10 feet (2.1 to 3 m) in length. Adult males (“boars”) weigh from 600 to 900 pounds (272 to 408 kg) by July. By the time the fall colors have arrived in October and November, the largest boars can weigh well over 1,200 pounds (544 kg)! Adult sows weigh about 1/3 less than their male counterparts but are still quite intimidating when you’re standing just feet from them!

If you’re interested in visiting this area of Katmai National Park, you can make it a one-day trip (taking a float plane from Kodiak or King Salmon, Alaska), or the longer boat trip where you’ll spend 4 to 5 days with the bears. You’ll definitely want to carry a travel tripod, long lens, chest waders, a rain jacket and hand warmers! Mornings can be quite chilly (40F/ 4.4C), and an occasional rain shower might rear its ugly head. But a little cold and a bit of rain can’t put a damper on this life-changing experience! I will be sharing more about my days with the bears in future posts – – starting next week with an introduction to Sandy Sow’s three adorable cubs! 

Have you ever visited Katmai National Park or any of Alaska’s other national parks?

To learn more about Katmai National Park, visit: https://www.nps.gov/katm/

To learn more about M/V Single Star, visit: https://www.adventurekodiak.com

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