Crashing a bear’s picnic in Alaska

Follow the rules for a rewarding wilderness adventure.

RODERICK EIME

5 min read

“Just make plenty of noise. Sing, talk loudly, whatever. Bears don’t like being surprised.”

So says the young ranger as we get ready to walk to the viewing platform several hundred metres away.

The meandering path leads up through the old growth forest, twisting and turning under low hanging branches, across small streams and along the banks of an angry rivulet bursting with salmon. We stop momentarily to admire a big brown bear sitting waist deep in a pool, lazily swatting at the passing fish.

Seemingly intoxicated by the abundance of spawning salmon, [the bear] occasionally flips one out of the torrent, bites the head off and nonchalantly tosses the carcass back into the flow.

Alaskan brown bears gorge themselves on spawning salmon before the long winter.

Seemingly intoxicated by the abundance of spawning salmon, he occasionally flips one out of the torrent, bites the head off and nonchalantly tosses the carcass back into the flow, where it is swooped on by several juvenile bald eagles.

As I turn to continue the stroll, I notice we’ve lost the rest of the group. There’s just a fellow guest, Glenn, and myself. “Oh, well,” I remark, “there’s only one way to go.”

Bear watching in Alaska is usually pretty safe, if you follow the rules along the trail.

Scent of a grizzly

Momentarily mesmerised, Glenn and I suddenly stop dead in our tracks. “What on Earth is that smell,” Glenn exclaims, his face contorted in revulsion. We see no clue in the grassy surroundings and continue on to the tiny shelter that serves as a viewing platform.

When we reach our destination, our guide Jim arrives on the scene with the rest of the group.

“Where did you two get to?” Jim is not pleased. “Didn’t you see that massive grizzly on the way up?”

Gulp! Glenn and I had broken two of the cardinal rules. One, stay with the group, and two, listen to your guide.

The smell that had stopped Glenn and me in our tracks was the scent – no, stench – of an adult male grizzly, so full of salmon that he had passed out in his own excrement behind a huge fallen log. By the time the following group caught up, the bear was fully awake, upright and craning his neck to see who had just walked by.

Bear watching is a most rewarding activity and generally without too much risk as long as you follow certain rules.

According to Jim Leslie from Alaska Waters, bears are much like big dogs with a big bark and no real intention to bite.

Be polite and keep your distance

Bear watching is a most rewarding activity and generally without too much risk as long as you follow certain rules. Jim Leslie and his family run Alaska Waters out of Wrangell and have been guiding visitors for more than 30 years. A former Green Beret soldier, Jim’s the sort of man you’d want to have at your side – or, better still, in front of you – if things get sketchy.

Jim carries a hefty hunting rifle and a can of bear spray, and at the time of writing he’s never had to use either. These days, Jim’s son James does the guiding and he's the one meeting Hurtigruten Expeditions’ guests when they arrive at the little outpost on the Inside Passage.

“Unlike polar bears, brown [grizzly] and black bears don’t want to harm you unless you are doing something to annoy them,” Jim reminds us, “like if you get between a mother and her cubs. That spells trouble.”

It also pays to keep a polite distance from bears generally. If you do accidentally get close, don’t stare at them or make any loud noises or sudden movements that could startle them and set them off.

“Bears are much like big dogs with a big bark but no real intention to bite,” says Jim. “They get to know the guides and if you can be calm and predictable, so will they.”

Brown and grizzly bears along the coast are sometimes 500 kilograms larger than their relatives inland.

Mother bear

Researchers have recently determined that brown and grizzly bears are actually the same species (Ursus arctos), with those living along the coast being generally larger than those in the forests inland, sometimes by as much as 500 kilograms.

While we sit and chat in the shelter of the little rotunda, a mother black bear leads two cute-as-anything cubs to the edge of the woods. She stares at them and with a gentle growl, orders them to stay hidden in the undergrowth. She darts across the open ground to the edge of the river, effortlessly snatches a fat salmon, then marches proudly back to the woods and disappears with the youngsters for a feed.

Being smaller, black bears are usually more circumspect. An encounter with a big brown does not typically end well for a black bear – or for its cubs.

A black bear and her cubs.

A black bear and her cubs.

A black bear in the Alaskan wilderness.

A black bear in the Alaskan wilderness.

An important part of the ecosystem

Bears play a critical role in Alaska’s ecosystem by spreading nutrients throughout the forest as they eat and forage. They’re an important part of Inuit culture too, in which these powerful and intelligent creatures are held with the highest respect and feature prominently in many ancient rituals and ceremonies.

While bears are endangered across most of the world, Alaska is a relative sanctuary with healthy populations and plenty of space to roam and stay away from humans – and vice versa.

Katmai National Park is just one location on the route. The reserve has the largest population of protected grizzly bears anywhere, numbering more than 2,000.

The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Katmai National Park, Alaska.

If you come here with Hurtigruten Expeditions, you’ll have opportunities to view bears in their natural environment. Our Alaska and British Columbia – Inside Passage, Bears and Aleutian Islands itinerary aboard the state-of-the-art MS Roald Amundsen is a rare opportunity even for seasoned expeditioners.

Katmai National Park is just one location on the route. The reserve has the largest population of protected grizzly bears anywhere, numbering more than 2,000.

The Kodiak bear is a unique subspecies of the grizzly that lives exclusively on the Kodiak Archipelago in Alaska.

Kodiak moment

The Kodiak bear is a unique subspecies of the grizzly that lives exclusively on the Kodiak Archipelago in Alaska. The bears here live completely isolated from other grizzlies and have done so for thousands of years. Food, habitat and sustenance is plentiful on the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago, meaning the population here is not just healthy and dense, the bears are also the largest in the world. A male bear on Kodiak can weigh up to 680 kilograms and stand three metres tall when on his hind legs.

Food, habitat and sustenance is plentiful on the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago.

All three species of North American bears flourish in Alaska.

All three species of North American bears flourish in Alaska.

An estimated 100,000 black bears inhabit the Alaskan wilderness.

An estimated 100,000 black bears inhabit the Alaskan wilderness.

Explore our collection of Alaskan expeditions