Which would you call a person who travels to the remote Alaskan wilderness to observe free-roaming bears — an admirer of wildlife who seeks an exhilarating adventure or a careless daredevil with a death wish?
For most of my life I’d have viewed that person as the latter. While intrigued by wild bears, I felt petrified at the prospect of an actual encounter. However, I’ve recently discovered that it’s possible to safely observe the animals in their habitat.
It wasn’t a quick transition. Decades of viewing the huge animals in ferocious attack mode on magazine covers and reading accounts by mauled hikers scared me plenty. But that bad-bear perception is changing. The reason: One of the most popular tours in Alaska involves bear-viewing trips — and not just for thrill seekers. In the right setting, even families can move among free-ranging bears right where they feed.
Wildlife agencies as well as private tour companies provide drive-to and fly-in visits to sites offering elevated platforms, boardwalks and supervised vantage points of spots that bears frequent. The visitor becomes an integral part of the natural habitat rather than a detached spectator at a zoo.
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As persistent reports of exciting bear-viewing experiences in Alaska heightened my curiosity and sense of adventure, I felt compelled to check it out myself. Doing so transformed my perspective of bears and rendered a wiser understanding of their valuable place in nature.
In addition to personal visits to bear-viewing sites, I’ve heavily researched the quality of dozens of locations. Based on my own rating system, which takes into account accessibility, amenities, security and of course the likelihood of encountering wild bears, these are the bear-viewing sites in Alaska most likely to produce memorable experiences.
▪ Hallo Bay. The ultimate excitement involves up-close viewing with no barriers separating humans from bears. If that’s your cup of tea, try the Pacific coast of Katmai National Park and Preserve. With sedge grass fields, mud flats filled with clams and salmon-choked streams, Hallo Bay brown bears get as fat as they want.
After a 120-mile flight from the city of Homer on the Kenai Peninsula organized by Hallo Bay Camp, our plane landed on a hard-packed beach. We took a short hike to an oxbow stream, knelt above it on a sandy bank and for hours watched five brown bears catching salmon.
They kept at least 30 feet from us until a female dragged a salmon onto the bank only 15 feet away. A male in the 800-pound range dashed over and tried to steal it. She walked toward us with the fish. As she got uncomfortably close, our guide stood up and firmly said, “No!” while pointing at the stream. The female bear stopped, stared at him a moment, then meekly walked down the bank. The male followed.
Whew, what a relief. But it was an electrifying and unforgettable moment.
Simyra Hlebechuck, a world-renowned bear naturalist, owns the Hallo Bay Camp operation with her husband. “When you spend a lot of time in the field, you begin to understand bear behaviors and recognize how to safely observe them,” she said.
More info: Hallo Bay Camp (888-535-2237, www.HalloBay.com).
▪ Fish Creek. Located seven miles up the Salmon River Road from the small town of Hyder in southeast Alaska, “It’s the best brown bear viewing area accessible by car in Alaska,” said Boyd Porter, an Alaska Department of Fish & Game biologist based in nearby Ketchikan.
It’s a beautiful and safe view area from a wooden boardwalk stretching alongside the river. Best time is from mid-July to mid-September during the heavy salmon spawning runs. Black bears occasionally appear and less frequently, wolves. The daily fee is only $5.
More info: 907-225-2148, www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r10/specialplaces/?cid=fsbdev2_038787.
▪ Brooks Falls. Still a popular site but too crowded with tourists for my liking, the Brooks Falls Wildlife Viewing Platform at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park and Preserve features bears catching leaping salmon in their mouths. I counted 16 bears present at the same time on my last visit.
July is best with fly-in access most commonly from the cities of Homer or Anchorage. You can view six live webcams along Brooks River at www.explore.org.
More info: 907-246-3305, www.nps.gov/katm/photosmultimedia/brown-bear-salmon-cam-brooks-falls.htm.
▪ Anan Wildlife Observatory. Watch from an enclosed observatory deck as black and brown bears hunt salmon in the falls of Anan Creek on the south end of Wrangell Island in Southeast Alaska. A reservation and a permit from the U.S. Forest Service are required. It’s a half-mile trail to reach the deck, so going with a guide is recommended.
More info: 907-874-2323, www.fs.usda.gov/detail/tongass/home/?cid=stelprd3805685.
▪ Pack Creek. I flew into Windfall Harbor on a float plane from Juneau to Admiralty Island where rangers from the Forest Service and Alaska Department of Fish & Game met our group of six. We walked about a quarter-mile to a clearing above Pack Creek where two large logs had been placed for seating. Brown bears clawed for clams on the mud flats and hunted salmon in a shallow stream from about 100 to 200 feet away. Another vantage point is a 30-foot platform about a mile into the forested area on a non-supervised trail.
Hours later, while were were waiting for the float plane at the harbor, three of us moseyed over to the forest trailhead about 150 feet away. After we left the trailhead, a brown bear ambled out of the woods directly between us and the rest of the group. We huddled together to form a larger visual mass and stopped to hold ground. Then a second bear followed behind the first. They passed within a chip shot of us and entered the trailhead where we’d stood just a minute before — another heart-stopping bear-viewing moment.
▪ Kaktovik. Unlike coastal brown and black bears, polar bears cannot be trusted without a separating barrier. That factor is taken into account by the Northern Alaska Tour Co. in Fairbanks.
This 12-hour saga begins with an 8 a.m. flight that crosses the beautiful Brooks Range and refuels in Deadhorse on the Beaufort Sea. Then we’re back in the air to Kaktovik, a native Inupiat village on the northern shore of Barter Island in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. From late August to late September each year, 20 to 60 polar bears congregate to feed on seals and whale carcasses. You can snap pictures safely from close range from a boat. The tour ends at 8 p.m. back in Fairbanks.
More info: 907-474-3520, www.polarbearsalaska.com.
▪ McNeil River Falls. McNeil River Falls is 100 miles west of the city of Homer on the lower shores of Cook Inlet. A state-run wildlife sanctuary lottery randomly selects those applying by March 1 for a four-day permit to see brown bears at McNeil River Falls or Mikfik Creek. The round-trip hike to the falls is four miles across mud flats to a 10-by-10-foot gravel viewing pad. This is a no-frills experience with small, guided groups. Dozens of salmon-feeding bears are often within 30 feet. It’s a bold trip to choose, but it’s a total adrenaline rush.
More info: 907-267-2189, www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=mcneilriver.main.
▪ Denali National Park. I include Denali only because it’s probably the best option for seeing non-coastal, interior black or brown bears. The rub here is that the experience involves a round-trip bus tour on the restricted 92-mile Denali Park Road that terminates at Kantishna. It’s a white-knuckle affair as the buses negotiate narrow and twisting turns, but bears are commonly spotted during this arduous full-day tour. At one point I saw a large blonde-colored brown bear only 50 feet from the bus while most other sightings were in distant meadows.
The most convenient fly-drive porthole to Denali is 120 miles north in Fairbanks.
More info: 907-683-9583, www.nps.gov/dena.
▪ Redoubt Bay. A safe bear-viewing option is from a covered pontoon boat. A 50-minute flight southwest of Anchorage via tour operators such as Rust’s Flying Service accesses Redoubt Bay and Big River Lake near the entrance to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve on the western edge of the Kenai Peninsula.
Both the morning and afternoon tours include a hot lunch at Redoubt Bay Lodge. A consistent concentration of sockeye and silver salmon usually holds a plentiful presence of brown and black bears.
More info: 800-544-2299, www.flyrusts.com.
▪ Herring Cove. I drove eight miles from Ketchikan in southeast Alaska to the Alaskan Rainforest Sanctuary. On the dirt turn-off road I braked as a mama black bear and two cubs crossed in front of the car. Thrilled and excited, I raced into the sanctuary office and gushed at my good fortune, but Pat Breese, the trail manager, scoffed. “Follow me,” she said.
A short stroll onto a wooded boardwalk revealed the presence of seven black bears — one scampered away right under our feet. A hatchery directly across the boardwalk from Herring Cove is the chief attractant. Lots of bald eagles often perch on the wooden rails of the boardwalk.
More info: 907-225-5503, www.alaskacanopy.com.
Other Alaska sites that often produce good bear-viewing opportunities but didn’t make the Top 10 list: Dog Salmon Fish Pass on Prince of Wales Island (black bears), Simpson Bay near Cordova (brown bears), Margaret Creek near Ketchikan (black bears); Barrow (polar bears); and Kodiak Island (brown bears).
While safety cannot be guaranteed when dealing with wild bears, the odds of a violent encounter are extremely unlikely when you’re with an experienced tour company or watching from a platform or boardwalk. Just in case, guides generally bring along flares or bear spray, and federal and state rangers often keep high-powered rifles handy.
As a general rule, coastal bears enjoy greater varieties and amounts of forage food — particularly salmon and clams — than inland bears. For that reason, viewing coastal bears without barriers is considered safer because they’re generally satiated and less interested in human presence.
Fly-in wilderness trips typically last six hours and run $650-$700 per person; the 12-hour Kaktovik trip for polar bears is $1,499. Considering the short season for bear viewing, it’s not too early to book for this summer.
There you have it. Set aside those preconceived fears, take the plunge and go on one or more of these spectacular trips. I promise it will be a thrilling experience.