An expedition cruise through Katmai National Park proves one of the wildest rides in Alaska.
A brown bear the size of a smart car strides past me, 15 yards from my quivering knees, and I hold my breath as if I’m hiding from a burglar. The bear sees me – I’m sitting on a plastic bucket in a wide-open tidal flat in the wilds of Alaska
, where there’s about as much cover as in a Kansas wheat field – yet he saunters past. Then, when he’s about two parking-space lengths to my right, he rears up on his hind legs, and I very nearly lose control of my bladder. One of the planet’s fiercest predators towers a story over me.
“Don’t worry,” expedition leader and grizzly researcher Brad Josephs whispers in my ear. “Standing up is just a sign of curiosity.” I imagine that the bear is probably most curious about what flavor I am.
The encounter is a heady introduction to Natural Habitat Adventures
’ weeklong expedition
along the banks of Katmai National Park & Preserve, a wilderness reserve a little larger than Connecticut at the head of the Alaska Peninsula. With black-sand beaches, glacial bays, great swathes of spongy tundra and old-growth forest, and a barb of volcanoes, Katmai would be worth visiting simply for its feral landscape. But what brings most people here, what’s brought me here, is the chance for close encounters with one of the world’s keystone predators: the North American brown bear – or, in everyday parlance, the grizzly. (While the names are used virtually interchangeably, animals referred to as brown bears are actually bigger and coastal, while their smaller, grizzly counterparts are found farther inland.)
Traveling aboard the Ursus
, a 73-foot Bering Sea crabbing vessel converted into
a floating hotel, our group of eight will fill days tracking and observing these fearsome creatures, as well as the region’s other megafauna, including gray wolves, sea lions, harbor seals, and a spray of bird species, from bald and golden eagles to puffins. “This trip isn’t for everyone,” says Virtuoso travel advisor
Tammy Jones-Deem of Tyler, Texas. “But for the adventurous looking for a wilder, unboxed Alaska experience, it’s the trip of a lifetime, like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my 34 years in this industry.” Consider it North America’s version of the safari, but even more exclusive than the African variety, by virtue of the remote, often savage setting.
For Brad, who’s been studying Alaskan brown bears for two decades, the trip is about more than just wildlife voyeurism. Of the eight species of bears worldwide, six are listed as vulnerable or endangered, including brown bears. “My mission in life is to show the world how amazingly cool bears are,” he says. “Grizzlies are not the terrible, human-hating killers that everyone makes them out to be.”
Squatting a few yards from a thousand-pound opportunivore that could eviscerate me as easily as squeezing a pimento from an olive, I silently pray that Brad is right. As it turns out, the bear has stood for a better glimpse of another grizzly strutting into the area. He drops back to all fours and strides off across the creek behind us; after some stalking and posturing, the two boars (males), now several hundred yards away, face off in an explosion of swinging paws and claws, snapping canines, and gravelly roars. Our bear relents before a full-blown fight develops, and quiet again descends on the tidal flat. Brad read the situation right: We were in no danger. But, from my front-row perspective on this boxing match, I still feel like grizzlies are less “amazingly cool” than flat-out terrifying.
Though the idea of lounging in a field of grizzly bears might seem about as tempting as hosting a dinner party for Charles Manson and family, from the moment the blaze-orange, eight-passenger de Havilland Beaver floatplane lifts off from Chiniak Bay for the two-hour buzz over Kodiak Island to Kukak Bay, dead center on Katmai National Park’s 500-mile-long eastern coastline, I’m completely won over by the trip. Other than in Siberia, I’ve never seen so much roadless country: defiant summits swathed in blinding glaciers that tumble down to carpets of spruce and willow – and not a man-made structure on the horizon. This feels like God’s country, the American West as it was two centuries ago in the Lower 48. Its magnitude is humbling, and it’s sobering to think that the entire continent once looked like this. Then the Ursus appears, a speck on the vast wilderness below us.
“People look around and think, ‘This is the Alaska I’ve always dreamt of. Why are we the only boat here?’ ” Brad says on the skiff ride from plane to ship. “This place isn’t friendly to visitors. We get to be here because we have the right vessel, we’ve been doing it a long time, and we’re good at it.”
The Ursus is a low, squat fortress of a home base that’s built to withstand Armageddon, yet its four staterooms, each with two bunks, are warm and cozy, if simple. It takes only four crew members to run the ship: the captain, a Natural Habitat naturalist, a boatman to drive the skiff, and a cook. Other than the bears, the food is the expedition’s highlight, with unlikely delicacies such as house-cured salmon, fresh fried chicken one evening, and leafy salads topped with seared scallops. When we aren’t sitting in a field watching wildlife, which is the majority of our waking hours, we’re gorging ourselves around the galley’s collective dining table, which gives the trip a familial, homey feeling.
Though the clouds sit like an iron girder over the ocean and this first day is murky with cold rain, after a quick lunch we’re out in the wilderness. Walking – and surviving – in the Alaskan bush is about rules. Our group must always move single file, with no loud noises and no loitering. Brad goes first, then the group, then our assistant guide, Teresa Whipple, who’s new to this trip but has a decade of experience studying brown bears in British Columbia.
Brad talks continuously as we move – “Hey, bear! Coming through, bear!” – to preempt startling animals in the head-high grass through which we push. Neither he nor Teresa wears firearms. Instead, they rely on flares, which, according to Brad, have turned back the few animals that have ever charged him. We carry five-gallon buckets that serve as chairs once we find an open spot. Taking a seat is one of the cardinal rules of watching bears, because the animals perceive sitting as a sign of deference. Once we’re situated in a row, Brad crouches behind us and whispers his interpretation of the bears’ interactions. He tells wild stories about close encounters with the animals – like the time he was out alone at some waterfalls during the salmon run and had to convey a relaxed demeanor in the face of a charging sow to preserve his life – that belie a shocking familiarity and ease with grizzlies.
If rubbing shoulders with predators six times your size for fun sounds a little Wyoming cowboy, it’s worth noting that Brad comes from a solid background of grizzly research and knowledge. After earning a wildlife biology degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he trained under Larry Aumiller, who, in the 1980s, pioneered the idea of getting up close and personal with grizzlies at McNeil River Game Sanctuary, on Katmai’s northern brink. Aumiller advanced the idea that bears are wiser creatures than we give them credit for, and that they’ll treat you with respect if you gain theirs. He brought tourists up close to the creatures for three decades and never had a bad encounter. Brad has followed suit. “What I want to show you guys,” he says, “is this is how bears act when you respect them.”
Being here, this near to grizzlies, it’s impossible to disregard the 2003 story of Timothy Treadwell, the so-called Grizzly Man, who was devoured by a brown bear just up the coast in Katmai National Park, after spending 13 years studying the animals. “I really admired him, but he took it too far,” Brad says of Treadwell. “He started believing he was friends with the bears. It’s about mutual respect, but at the end of the day, they’re bears. You never completely trust them.”
Day after day unfolds in the slow, slightly nervous pattern of spending hours among the grizzlies. On our final shore expedition, we land at Hallo Bay, ringed on one side by a fence of black volcanoes. We crest a ridge of waist-high grasses, and a massive valley, lush and threaded with creeks, drops away. I pick out at least 15 brown bears.
It would be easy to think of this as a high-adrenaline adventure, and there are definitely pulse-quickening moments: one ghastly, scarred bear stalks a mother and her cubs; two curious cubs nose too close to our group, forcing Brad to talk in a stern voice to defuse their mother’s aggression. But the majority of the trip is spent peacefully among the grizzlies, almost like sitting in a meadow of cattle. While these animals would tear into a side of beef like a Texan on a two-pound rib eye, mostly they just graze around eating grasslike sedges and barnacles from the underside of rocks. Meanwhile, we watch and fade into the landscape.
“There’s a certain feeling when you walk into grizzly country,” Brad says. “It’s electric, true wilderness.” Grizzlies symbolize a world that’s unknown, still magic and alive.
When we landed at Hallo Bay that morning, the sky was slate gray with an ice-white sun trying to burn through, the water mirror flat. Now, the captain radios from the ship to say that the swell is rising. By the time we climb back over the knoll, the bay has turned to a curdle of seething whitecaps, and the skiff is tossing on the wind like a plastic bag. With the tide falling, we must wade through waist-deep ocean to reach it, a spray of rain and salt water pelting us. Once everyone is aboard, the landing craft pivots to motor to the Ursus, giving us one last look at the land, obscured by cloud and rain. Amid bleached-white driftwood scattered on the charcoal sand like bones, a lone brown bear, dark and brooding, ambles down the beach, where, moments ago, we stood.