TO SEE BEARS IN ALASKA YOU’LL need to go deep into the wilderness, right? That’s what I thought. I packed my rugged outdoor gear and headed north.
It was mid-September, one of the best viewing times. The bears would be fattening up ahead of winter hibernation by catching salmon in the rivers and feasting on wild berries.
I’d flown first to the state capital, Juneau, which sits in the panhandle of Southeast Alaska, a fractured coastline of spruce-covered islands and sheltered channels quite distinct from the main bulk of the state. I was here to kayak across the frigid lake at the foot of Mendenhall Glacier — a bucket-list experience in itself — before heading up to the national parks on my bear quest.
Tourists must feed, too. After dark, following an exhilarating day out on the water, I left my accommodation at the downtown Driftwood Hotel in search of somewhere to eat. I was relaxed; my guard was down. Turning into South Franklin Street, the main drag of bars and souvenir shops, a passerby called out to me: “Turn around, friend. There’s bears that way.”
Sure enough, a block down the street, a female black bear and her two cubs were rummaging through an overturned dumpster. People peered out of doorways and windows. Camera flashes lit up the scene. This wasn’t how I’d pictured my first bear encounter.
From locals I discovered it was nothing unusual for Juneau. The city backs onto forested mountains, prime black bear habitat. The bears living closest to the city have become habituated and are often seen on the streets or in backyards, scavenging through overturned trashcans.
Black bears are the smallest of Alaska’s three bear species and are the species most likely to be seen in and around the towns and cities. The most difficult species to see is also the largest, the polar bear. For the chance of a sighting you need to head to the extreme north of the state, well within the Arctic Circle.
The Northern Alaska Tour Co. runs regular guided expeditions, departing Fairbanks and flying by light aircraft to the tiny island settlement of Kaktovik within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Polar bears are notoriously dangerous and should never be approached on foot. Here, viewing is by boat, supervised by certified guides.
Unlike other bears, polar bears don’t hibernate. They usually congregate along the shore of the Beaufort Sea in August and September, waiting for the sea to ice over. Then they head out, usually alone, for long winter months stalking seals and other prey on the sea ice.
The viewing tours from Kaktovik, which aren’t cheap (expect to pay $1,800 for a day tour from Fairbanks), provide an exceptionally rare opportunity to see these fearsome predators up close.
The third bear species in Alaska, the brown (or grizzly) bear, is almost a match for the polar bear in size but is different in temperament. Unlike the carnivorous polar bears, grizzlies are omnivores; that is, they eat plants as well as meat. Unless food is exceptionally scarce, they are extremely unlikely to hunt humans.
I kept that knowledge foremost in my mind when, a few days after my Juneau encounter, I stood beside a lake in Katmai National Park with a large male grizzly walking directly toward me.
To arrive at my face-off with the giant bear, I had flown first to Kodiak Island and from there by floatplane across to Katmai on the mainland. (Kingfisher Aviation is one of the companies currently offering fly-in bear-watching tours.) We saw our first bears from the air; below us, a mother and cub strode nonchalantly across the mudflats of Hallo Bay. Then we set down on the lake and drifted to the sandy shore.
I leapt from the float to dry land, preparing for a short hike to a nearby salmon run where several bears congregated. Almost at once I sighted an approaching male. The pilot and my traveling companion were still on the plane.
“Stand your ground,” was the message I repeated to myself on a loop. It’s one of the fundamentals of safe grizzly viewing. Never, ever run. Always stand firm. Within 30 feet the bear slowed, sniffed the air and then detoured around me.
In common with many bucket-list experiences, the moment itself isn’t much fun. I was terrified. Somehow, amid it all, I managed to snap a few photos. As the bear ambled off the beach into the bush, relief surged through me, coupled with the knowledge I would have a treasured memory for life. That’s what bucket lists are all about.
INFO TO GO
You can fly from the Lower 48 to Juneau (JNU), Anchorage (ANC) or Fairbanks (FAI). Access to most of the state is by chartered bush plane or floatplane. Several local companies offer dedicated fly-in bear-watching tours in and around the main national parks.
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