Bear Watching at Chinitna Bay in Alaska

Few other places in the world offer such an extraordinary opportunity to view bears up close in the wild, in a pastoral field, lush and green

“Is there a photo you have to have from this trip?” our guide Doug asked in Anchorage at the introductory dinner to our photo tour. 

“Whatever the wilderness offers” was the gist of the response from our group: Magellan, three other retired guys and me. A response everyone amended with, “but a bear….” In my case, “a bear with a salmon in his mouth like the one on the Backcountry Journeys website would be great.”

“We’re not going to Brooks Camp where you see that,” Doug said.

I registered a slight disappointment. Brooks Camp at Katmai National Park is renowned for viewing grizzly bears catching salmon in their natural habitat. What place could be better?

“We have to be at Alaska Bear Adventures at five o’clock tonight for a weigh-in,” Doug advised us the day before our bear trip. “Bring your cameras and packs. And wear light pants. They’ll fit us with waders tomorrow morning and they can be hot.” 

Weighing-in was when we were told we’d be viewing bears at the southern end of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.

Early the next morning at the hangar, our group, along with a dozen or so tourists from the Czech Republic, repeated the process to ensure the weight was evenly distributed among the three planes being flown to Chinitna Bay. No landing airstrips there. Only a gravel beach, not easy to land on or take off from—dangerous when a plane is overloaded.

“You went, too?” someone emailed, thinking only Magellan had gone bear viewing.

“Weren’t you scared?” a friend asked.

“Too close for comfort,” wrote one of my sisters.

Danger is something Alaska Bear Adventures seeks to control. Operating since 2010 and focusing solely on bear adventures, they have a flawless safety record, in the sky and on land—because the three pilots are trained to be bear-viewing guides.

Thirty-one-year-old Holly took control of the Cessna 206 and our group. Flying from Homer to Chinitna Bay, we had thirty minutes of aerial views of the blue-mottled clouds, of Chigmit Mountains and two active volcanoes, Mt. Redoubt and the cone-shaped Mt. Iliamna with its steaming vents. 

A vast and wild park of four million acres (1.6 million hectares) without roads, towns, campgrounds or large populations of people, Lake Clark is a challenge to get to. As a result, there are far fewer annual visitors (about 20,000) than in other Alaskan parks like Kenai Fjords with 350,000. Which makes Lake Clark the ultimate grizzly bear habitat.

Grizzly bears and brown bears are the same species, Ursus arctos horribilis, the main differences are region and diet. In coastal Alaska where salmon makes up more than 40% of their diet, they are called brown bears.

Brown bears congregate in large numbers in the estuaries of mountain rivers where the salt marshes are rich in high-protein sedge grass and the tidal flats pop with clams. Like Chinitna Bay. Later in the summer the rivers here gleam with silver-scaled salmon and the hillsides brighten with berries. With this ever-present natural buffet, park biologists have counted as many as 219 brown bears within a 54-square-mile (140 square-kilometre) area. 

With such an abundance of food, coastal bears are more tolerant of each other. And us. They have no history of acquiring food from humans and to keep it that way, we were asked not to bring in any fish, no tuna sandwiches or smoked salmon on bagels.

Most adult males here typically weigh 600-900 pounds by mid-summer, while females average a third less in weight. The adult bears are three-to-five feet tall at the shoulder and seven-to -ten feet in length. Alaska brown bears live for about twenty years.

Few people stay near Chinitna Bay. A big bear-watching vehicle from the lodge nearby lumbered down the beach. On the plane, Holly pointed out a collection of yurts at a bear camp on Cook Inlet. That’s it on the five-mile stretch of grassland beachfront.

Hunting grizzlies in national parks isn’t allowed, another reason why the bears in Lake Clark don’t fear humans. As Holly explained, they have become habituated to human bear watchers and just go about their natural lives when we’re around. To them, we’re boring. Inconsequential as a spruce tree. 

Holly gave us clear directions. Stay in a group, stand our ground and make some noise (Hey bear!) if, in the unlikely case, a bear approached us. She’s been in Alaska for ten years and knew of only two cases where flares had been used here: one by a researcher who felt a bear was too close, and another similar situation. When we left the area three hours later, she reminded us to forget these area-specific instructions and revert to what we know about dealing with unhabituated grizzlies in the wild elsewhere: talk calmly, wave your arms to appear larger, back up slowly and move out of the area.

What a morning. 

No crowds. Two other small planes landed so there were about thirty of us spread out in small groups along the coastline. (Researching for this story, I found that Chinitna Bay had 4,600 visitors in 2019. By contrast, Brooks Camp had 16,000!)

No rushing from place to place. The bears stayed right in front of us. The most exercise we got was trying to hold our camera lenses steady. (Why didn’t we bring our monopod?)

No crowded viewing platforms. Content we were on driftwood logs. Lounging, we counted fifteen bears in the sedge grass and a clammer returning to pasture.

Although they’re called brown bears, we did see one that varied in colouration, a light-blonde male that Holly’s range finder indicated was 191 yards away. “I am really happy with the Olympus 100-400mm lens we bought for this trip. When combined with the 2x teleconverter, it gives us an incredible reach equivalent to 1,600 mm in a full frame camera,” said Magellan, “plus it is about half the weight so mach easier to carry.” 

A sow and her cub munched nearby, probably within 50 yards. They lingered for such a long time that we became as disinterested in them as they were in us.

Naturally solitary, bears establish a fluid hierarchy when together using vocalization and body posturing as we saw with the light-coloured male.

I guessed the cub was born in January, but Holly told us it was seventeen months old. That became obvious when we saw a sow with five-month-old cubs that looked naked compared to the furry, plump yearling.

Our closest bear encounter came as a surprise. 

With Holly in the lead, our group was walking single file through tall beach grass to a different viewing spot. Suddenly a lone bear appeared, coming toward us—we guessed it was within 25 yards. Following directions and standing still, we had time to lift our cameras and click a few photos before the bear hastily turned around and walked away from us. But not enough time to think about composition! 

Back at the hanger, I couldn’t take my eyes off a burly bear-of-a man from the Czech Republic who I’d noticed that morning. This time I wasn’t gauging his weight. It was the joy in his crinkly eyes, his happy stance—he couldn’t stop smiling.

Exactly my feelings every time I look at our photos of Alaskan bears. Magellan? He’s already talking about getting that salmon-in-the-mouth shot on his bingo card of adventures…

Navigation

UPDATE: July 29, 2023

“Bear Season,” by Jill Lepore in the July 17, 2023 issue of The New Yorker, is an interesting read on bearish the US national parks.

Alaska Bear Adventures, a family-owned company run by a woman, Dee Perkins, that focuses solely on bear-viewing trips.

Backcountry Journeys. Our trip to Alaska was our third venture with Russ and his tribe.

“Brown Bears.” Lake Clark National Park and Reserve Alaska.

Pope, Kristen. “Getting Up Close to the Bears of Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park.” Smithsonian Travel. November 14, 2022.

 “Visitor Use: Katmai National Park & Preserve, Lake Clark National Park & Preserve.National Park Service.

Stabinska, Agnes. Lake Clark Bear Viewing Tour Review.” The Van Escape. June 4, 2023.

12 Responses

  1. Great bear pics ! Thank you !I used to hunt black bears ( camera only ) with my archery buddies. My best day was watching a sow with 3 cubs playing right below my tree stand. They are so cute!! Had to be really quiet and luckily the wind was blowing the right direction or she might have come up after me. I have a SpyPoint pic of a sow with 4 cubs.
    Those Northern pilots are amazing. I once did an early winter Arctic tour on a Twin Otter on skis – some landings were gut wrenching .

    1. The trees in Saskatchewan are so small, you couldn’t have been much more than 10 feet above the bears, almost the reach of a standing momma-bear. I think I would have had a fight-or-flight adrenaline overdose, and would probably have chosen flight! I’d love to see your pictures.

  2. Awesome photos and video, thanks! So fun to see the cubs interact with the moms. The landscape is amazing too.
    The 900lb bear would be the weight of a small Quarter horse. How tall are the adult bears at the shoulder? Small to medium sized horses are about 14hands or about 56in.
    Must have been exciting landing and taking off without a landing strip, or even a road. Great pilots.

    1. They’re three-to-five feet tall at the shoulder, apparently quite a bit smaller than the bears at Brooks Camp that have more fish in their diet and can weigh up to 1500 pounds.

  3. Wow – fantastic pictures and great video! A long lens telephoto does make it a bit more “comfortable” I’m guessing. The planes (the Cessna 206 for example) reminds me of the Thursday night fish fries I have attended in Alaska on my business trips up there. These guys flew in to a river – landed on the shore and brought back fresh fish on Thursdays for the regular party. Amazing how they can flip around in those aircraft…..What an experience you guys had.

    1. Holly and the other pilots are very skilled. The beach tilts to the ocean and curves gradually around the bay, so the landing strip is neither horizontal nor straight. The surface has fist-sized rocks, and is rutted from other planes and the bus for the lodge on Chinitna Bay. The sand is also soft in spots, a challenge when trying to take-off. We were very happy that Alaska Bear Adventures were hyper-cautious on knowing the weight of each passenger, fully loaded with camera gear.

  4. Awesome pictures of the bears and also shots from the plane. Looks like a great way to view the bears in their natural surroundings.
    Cheers,

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