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.
As we lounged on the beach, binoculars and spotting scope in hand, a quartet of rambunctious cubs played with each other and their vigilant mother. We saw a trio of adult male bears doing the backstroke 200 yards from a group of fly fishermen. And most spectacular of all, as we stood on a platform overlooking the falls, we were transfixed by the sight of half a dozen grizzlies catching and devouring wriggling salmon fished from Brooks Falls.
Katmai, however, is no Disneyfied park. Part of the thrill is the frisson of fear that comes from knowing that one of North America's largest predators might be literally around the corner. In this park, bears always have the right of way; it's up to people to steer clear of them.
Rangers are ever-present, stopping people from crossing a bridge if a bear wanders or swims too close, or herding them a safe distance away to wait for a bear to depart. The day I was there, I spent 75 minutes in a bear jam waiting for three huge males playfully wrestling with a large stick to move away from a low-slung bridge so we could cross. Stranded with me was a bush pilot overdue for his flight back to King Salmon.
For those staying overnight at Brooks Lodge, or day-trippers like me who make up an increasing proportion of the park's 67,000 annual visitors, safety tips are imparted in a mandatory 25-minute course held immediately upon arrival.
Among the rules: Do not approach bears. Always maintain a distance of at least 50 yards, double for a mother with cubs or if you're fishing. Talk loudly on hiking trails to avoid surprising bears. Never carry any food, even flavored water -- bears have an extraordinary sense of smell.
Bears tend to ignore people, but they will attack in rare instances to defend cubs, food or if they feel threatened. During my visit, rangers told us no one had been killed by a bear in the park's 86-year history.
That changed three months later, in October, when a self-styled California bear expert named Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed and partially eaten by a 1,000-pound grizzly who attacked them in their back-country campsite. When I read about Treadwell, I flashed back to our arrival. The ranger who met our plane never turned his back on the bear we saw, and later told us the slumbering animal was undoubtedly aware of our presence. Grizzlies, he said, have been clocked at speeds of 35 miles per hour, as fast as a racehorse.
"Don't even think about outrunning a bear," he said, "because you can't."
Unlike many visitors, who see only a portion of Alaska from the deck of a cruise ship, I preferred traveling independently. Although I didn't plan it this way, we ended up spending time in all four regions of Alaska -- the southeast, south central, interior and the bush -- each a geographically and culturally distinct area.
Determined to see as much as possible without provoking a preteen revolt, and leaving enough time for a few serendipitous detours, we took full advantage of the long summer days Alaskans revel in. In most places the sun didn't set until around 11 p.m.; in Denali, it never got dark.
Figuring out the most expedient way to hopscotch around Alaska often meant flying, the way most residents get around because the state is so vast -- it has a land mass one-fifth the size of the Lower 48 -- and has so few roads. We didn't have enough time to use the extensive and much cheaper ferry system. And the Alaska Railroad, while relaxing, is expensive and slow.
We started in Anchorage, the state's cultural capital and largest city, which served as our base for day trips, including the one to Katmai. We also spent a few days each in Denali and Sitka, an unspoiled history-rich island that was a crucial 19th-century outpost of Russia, as well as an early and important Tlingit Indian settlement.
Anchorage was in the grip of a record heat wave when we arrived, with daytime temperatures hovering around 85. Coming from Washington in July, we considered this amusing, sort of like the story in the Anchorage paper about a rash of cars stolen outside of bars from owners who had left the motor running and the air conditioning on.
What we didn't know until we checked into the city's grand old hotel, the Captain Cook, is that it didn't have air conditioning. After a miserable sleepless night, I called around and snagged a room at the nearby, air-conditioned Anchorage Marriott Downtown. Our room was not only bigger and cheaper but it had a glass wall with a drop-dead view of gorgeous sunsets over Cook Inlet and the snowcapped Chugach Mountains that ring the city.
Anchorage is a compact and surprisingly unattractive city, compared with the natural beauty that surrounds it. After stops at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, which featured a fascinating exhibit on founding pioneer families, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center, a soaring building that highlights the history and culture of Native Alaskan tribes, we decided to head south for a day-long glacier cruise on Prince William Sound.
The morning of the cruise we awoke to pouring rain. "We go in almost any weather," the tour company operator said, reminding me that warm, waterproof layers of clothing were essential to ward off the cold, which can be penetrating near the glaciers.
Despite the chilly downpour, the six-hour cruise, which included a box lunch, was worth it. We saw huge icebergs, blue glaciers that were calving, a thriving salmon hatchery, swooping bald eagles and adorable sea otters cavorting for the cameras 50 feet off the bow.
Talkeetna (pop. 722) sprang up during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s. These days it is best known as the staging area for climbs of Mount McKinley, North America's tallest mountain. The town contains a busy airstrip where visitors can book flightseeing trips by charter plane or helicopter for the thrill of landing on a glacier or sweeping in close for extraordinary views of the mountain.
Everyone we met agreed that flightseeing was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Unfortunately the weather wasn't clear enough for us to do it. Like most visitors to Denali, we never saw the mountain, which rises 20,320 feet above sea level; it was perpetually obscured by clouds during the 21/2 days we spent in and around the park.
Because cars are banned in most of the 6 million-acre park, visitors see it through the windows of the aging school buses that ply the dusty gravel road that winds 90 miles across desolate, windswept tundra. We had booked the 6 a.m. Tundra Bus tour because the earliest trips offered the best wildlife viewing; we did see a few grizzlies, through binoculars, along with moose, elk and reindeer.
At the immaculate Alaska Ocean View Bed and Breakfast, our gregarious hostess, Carole Denkinger, provided a comprehensive orientation, complete with maps for a self-guided walking tour through the historic downtown. She also pointed out the spot where bald eagles had built a nest in a towering pine tree near the lone McDonald's, and highlighted a park at the edge of the island where a pair of grizzlies had recently been seen. Bears, she added, are not uncommon sights around Sitka.
"You're in luck," Denkinger added. "It's the weekend, so there aren't any cruise ships." During the week, she explained, mammoth boats disgorge thousands of tourists for much of the day, making it hard to get into Sitka's few restaurants and coffee shops.
By arriving on a Saturday we avoided the crowds. We took long, leisurely walks, enjoyed a private tour of the Russian Bishop's House, wandered through the Russian orthodox cathedral and encountered only a few people hiking in the rain forest in Sitka National Historical Park, near the extraordinary totem poles that commemorate the 1804 conflict between the Russians and the Tlingit Indians. For a half-hour, we stood nearly alone on a bridge in the middle of the forest, mesmerized by the sight of salmon hurtling downstream or flinging themselves out of the water.
On our last night, we drove the seven miles from one end of the island to the other, stopping at the park Denkinger mentioned where I hoped to spot bears. After a few minutes we gave up, mindful of the 4:30 a.m. check-in for the flight back to D.C.
Maybe, I thought, we'll see a bear on the way to the airport.
The Alaska Railroad runs trains from Anchorage to
In Anchorage, the
In Katmai, overnighters usually bunk in one of 16 clean but spartan cabins (with private baths) in
In Denali, the