In Alaska, Make Way for Grizzlies

By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 29, 2004

As the World War II-era floatplane banked sharply to the left in preparation for a flawless landing, our bush pilot -- a barefoot Jimmy Buffett look-alike munching a midmorning sandwich -- seemed oblivious to the excitement that rippled through the cabin. A dozen of us peered out the small windows of the DeHavilland Otter, craning our necks to get a better look at the brown creature clearly visible on the strip of beach below.

A few minutes later, as I hopped onto the sand under the watchful gaze of a National Park Service ranger, I stared, awestruck. About 75 yards away, an 800-pound animal beached like a furry whale basked in the rare warmth of a spectacular, cloudless day in southwestern Alaska.

Excitement did not begin to describe what I felt. Thrilled and vindicated were more like it. Even before landing at the rugged, remote Katmai National Park and Preserve, I had gotten a really good look at the thing I most wanted to see on this trip: a grizzly in the wild.

For several years, seeing a bear had been my primary focus on summer trips to Wyoming and Montana. My husband and daughter had humored me, getting up at dawn to drive to places in Yellowstone National Park that bears were known to frequent, and hiking with bells around their necks to avoid surprising the beasts in Glacier National Park.

But whether it was bad timing or bad luck, I never saw a grizzly, unless you count the ones behind bars at a preserve in western Montana, which I didn't.

My quest had become a family joke: "We're going all the way to Alaska just so my mom can see a bear," my exasperated 11-year-old daughter, who much prefers beach vacations, told her friends.

Last July I was determined to leave little to chance, which is how we ended up at Katmai, a 4.7 million-acre park 300 miles southwest of Anchorage. One of the least-visited national parks, Katmai is accessible only by chartered floatplane or boat. It is so remote it has neither roads nor phone service.

What it does have is the world's largest concentration of grizzlies, known in Alaska as brown bears because of their color, which ranges from butterscotch to mahogany. More than 2,000 bears roam the park, but most are never seen by humans.

The exception occurs in July and September, when 40 to 60 bears migrate to waterfalls on the Brooks River to gorge on sockeye salmon that swim upstream to spawn. The bears spend hours perching precariously on slippery boulders, snagging fish with a snap of their powerful jaws or the swipe of a massive paw. I was dying to witness the scene I'd viewed on countless nature shows.

A day trip to Katmai was an expensive gamble: It cost $1,500 for three, and there were no refunds for weather, such as the thick, flight-grounding fog that frequently envelops King Salmon, the flyspeck-size airstrip that is the transfer point for the 20-minute floatplane trip to the park. Even if the weather cooperated, there was still no guarantee I would see a bear.

To cover a cancellation, I bought travel insurance. To cover the possibility that we would actually make it to Katmai and not see a bear, I made reservations at Denali National Park, home to a smaller number of grizzlies.

Bear Jam

Luck was with us when we landed at Brooks Lodge inside Katmai, following a 45-minute fog delay at King Salmon. It turned out to be a rare, clear 80-degree day, and during the seven hours we spent in the park, we saw 20 bears -- one so close we could smell him as he walked under our observation deck.

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