Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Bear Viewing Trip Backstory

Picture of a yellow and blue Grumman Widgeon on the water

Grumman Widgeon on the water

Addie told you a little bit about the bears and included many pictures of some of the bears we saw. I will tell you a bit about the details of the bear viewing trip.

Harvey Flying Service of Kodiak was chosen partially based on a recommendation of friends of Joyce and mostly, I confess, because I wanted to fly in Steve Harvey’s beautiful 1943 Grumman Widgeon airplane.

Another major factor in choosing Harvey was that his bear guide, Jo Murphy, is reputed to be the best. Even though I had high expectations for Jo, her knowledge and competence exceeded them by any measure. That was appreciated when walking around in the bear’s environment, often quite close to bears, even mama grizzlies with cubs.

The flights to and from Katmai National Park and Preserve were a treat in themselves. Though I had flown in float planes a few times, flying in the old Widgeon was my first flight in an amphibian. The scenery was beautiful and Jo was able to provide a lot of interesting details about what we were viewing.

Once we arrived at Katmai, we got out of the plane in knee-deep water and waded ashore. We kept on hip boots for the duration of the excursion, as we waded across small rivers numerous times. After leaving the beach, we hiked into a meadow valley surrounded by mountains. The meadow, mountains and several visible glaciers were gorgeous.

On the return flight, we had a blond co-pilot that made me more nervous than the bears (see picture).

Kodiak Island and the bears were a BIG deal for me!

Addie enjoyed the grizzlies immensely, even found being in their environment with them a very emotionally moving experience. It was that to me and more. When I was five years old, fascinated with wild animals in general, and bears in particular, my father told me about Kodiak Island and the huge brown bears. At that time, I wanted to go to Kodiak to hunt the world’s largest grizzly bears. Even when I passed the hunting phase of my life, I remained fascinated with the Kodiak bears. Visiting Kodiak Island was on my bucket list for a half century before anyone ever heard of a bucket list! Now, I want to go back.

“If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly…”

Brown bear on Katmai

Brown bear on Katmai

“If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly…” is a phrase I have worn out over the past few years. However, never in my wildest imagination did I think I would get the chance to come as close to being a real grizzly as I did the other day. As soon as our plane landed on Kodiak Island, Dad and I hopped onto another plane (see Dad’s post about the Widgeon) and flew to Katmai National Park and Preserve to see the brown bears (Kodiak grizzlies).

Our guide, Jo, has been taking wide-eyed “mainlanders” to Katmai for the past 10 years, and she seemed to know all the bears personally. Have to admit, it made things a bit less frightening to have her there interpreting the bears’ every move and look. She completely understood their communication and used that to slowly get us close. As Jo put it, “the bears have extremely expressive body language.” For example, when they tense up, the hump on their back becomes more prominent. On the other end of the spectrum, they put their heads down and/or turn their hind end toward you when they want to show non-aggression.

To get close, we hiked across meadows and forded streams in hip boots. By completely immersing ourselves in their habitat, we were able to silently watch bears dig for clams, fish for salmon, snooze, and play. Besides all the “singles”, we also came across a mom with one spring cub, a mom with 2 spring cubs, and a mom with a 2nd year cub. These bears are seriously good moms..VERY protective and nurturing. We watched one mom chase a wolf she had been feuding with away from her cubs and another mom chase off two bears who were play fighting in a river near her cub. We also watched a mom stop, drop, and roll over so her whining cubs could nurse. Fun fact about brown bear cubs: they are born while their mom is hibernating and they nurse for several months while she “sleeps”. At birth they are naked, blind, and only weigh one pound. See videos. Love those bears!!

Video of big boar brown bear strolling down the beach at Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Video of two female brown bears play fighting at Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Video of mom brown bear nursing 2 spring cubs

Video of “mama” brown bear chasing off 2 bears playing near her cub (part 1).

Video of “mama” brown bear chasing off 2 bears playing close to her cub (part 2).

An interesting small airport

Floatplanes

Floatplanes

On the drive from Denali National Park to Anchorage, Addie and I saw an unusual arrangement for a small airport. On one side of the highway was the typical airport you might find outside of any small town with a runway and a couple of hangars. On the opposite side of the highway, on the edge of a lake, was a facility for float planes and amphibians that had docks for float planes and a hangar or two. It seemed unusual to us that there was a plane crossing across this busy highway so that planes could taxi back-and-fourth between the facilities. You would surely flummox your insurance agent if you reported a collision with a de Havilland Beaver!

Don’t blink

Drive from Denali to Anchorage (Mount McKinley hidden behind clouds)

Drive from Denali to Anchorage (Mount McKinley hidden behind clouds)

Even the rear-view mirror views while driving across Alaska are distracting! We somehow managed to turn a 3.5 hour drive (according to the GPS) into an all day drive. Too many spectacular sights to blow by. Tried to capture some in photos, but as always, they don’t even begin to do the scenery justice.

Fireweed

Fireweed

Fireweed

Prevalent along the roadside from British Columbia to Alaska is a wildflower called Fireweed. It is the territorial flower of the Yukon Territory. We were told that Fireweed got its’ name because it is the first plant to reappear after a forest fire. In Alaska, the initial blooming of Fireweed is considered a sign the middle of summer has been reached. The flower blooms from the bottom to the top and it is said when the fire reaches the top summer is over.

White water rodeo

White water rafting down Nenana River, Denali

White water rafting down Nenana River, Denali

After having seen Denali by land and air, we rafted down a 22.5 mile stretch of the Nenana (rhymes with banana..so fun to say) River which runs along the eastern border of the park. The Nenana is glacier-fed, meaning ~24 hours before it arrived at the stretch we were riding down, the water was ice. Nothing more refreshing than a face-full of glacier water first thing in the morning! Luckily, we were well-outfitted. I had on everything in my suitcase (anyone who knows me, knows this is not an exaggeration), plus they gave us full-body dry suits to pull on over everything else. I had a smile frozen to my face the whole time. Such an amazing experience. Made even better by the world’s best guide, Tim. He not only let me “ride the bull” (sat on very front of raft with feet dangling over water and rode rapids), but he also treated us to a very well-delivered, well-timed rendition of a song from Charlie and the Chocolate factory as we cruised down Train Wreck Rapid. Check out video clip!!