Nearly everyone going to Alaska dreams of spotting a bear in the wild. // © 2014 Byrdyak
The tourists seemed out of place on the wooden platform, surrounded by the dense green of the Alaska wilderness. Youngsters with Mickey Mouse binoculars and colorful windbreakers were huddled with photographers sporting thousand-dollar cameras. Others had outstretched arms holding smartphone cameras. The message was clear: The event happening 50 yards away was not to be missed.
The seven bears standing on top of the falls ignored the crowd and focused on the emerging fish that jettisoned like silvery Polaris missiles from the churning whitewater. A nine-foot, battle-scarred male opened its mouth about five inches — lips curled in snarling anticipation. Suddenly, like a sprung trap, its three-inch canines chomped on a fish in midair, eliciting a cacophony of snapping camera shutters and gasps from the onlookers.
It’s easy to understand this spellbinding effect. Alaska’s wildlife captivates visitors with its unpredictability and raw power: Orcas the length of small buses gorge on 20-pound king salmon, and brown bears can drag down a moose that stands 10 feet tall. And who doesn’t feel a strange chill at the sight of a wolf across the tundra — a wilderness symbol that lifts the spirit, even if the moment is fleeting.
Alaska offers many destinations that allow visitors to get up close and personal with wildlife. They come packaged in day-trips, week-long safaris, custom tours or add-ons to land-cruise packages. There are many choices, but the following are the best I’ve found in nearly 40 years of exploring Alaska.
Fortress of the Big Bears
Professional Alaska wildlife photographer Didier Lindsey says that each region of Alaska offers unique viewing and photography scenarios, with no two being the same.
“I personally like McNeil River for bears,” he said, “but such a specialized location is a completely do-it-yourself trip and requires a permit. For the non-professional photographer or tourist, Pack Creek and Brooks Camp are probably among the best choices.”
Pack Creek is located in Southeast Alaska on Admiralty Island, which is home to about 1,500 bears (or roughly one bear per square mile). Daily tours start with a 25-minute bush-plane flight from Juneau. Viewing takes place from brushy shoreline cover. Bears emerge from the dense rainforest canopy onto the intertidal saltwater flats and creeks, where they easily chase and catch migrating salmon.
With local outfitter Pack Creek Bear Tours, visitors can expect a guided tour of about five hours, lunch included. Some moderate walking is required. The tour is set at $689 per person and includes roundtrip, bush-plane transportation from Juneau.
Land of the Giants: Alaska Peninsula Bears
Located on the Alaska Peninsula, Katmai National Park is home to Brooks River, which offers nearly guaranteed bear-viewing during peak salmon arrivals in July and September. During these months, visitors might see up to 40 different bears along the 1½-mile-long Brooks River. Most viewers and photographers set up on the viewing platforms or other authorized locations designated by park rangers.
The Brooks Falls platform, however, isn’t a good choice for visitors looking to view bears in a remote setting — it’s crowded during the peak season. To escape the pack, head to alternative viewing locations away from the water, or visit during the off-season in early June or October.
Near the river, Brooks Camp offers meals and lodging. From Anchorage, a four-day, air and accommodation package runs $1,696 per person, based on double occupancy. The area also offers good scenic photography and sport-fishing for salmon and trout, as well as tours through the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.
Other lodges scattered across the Peninsula offer bear-viewing on remote streams and lakes or in intertidal areas. Rust’s Flying Service and Regal Air out of Anchorage offer great bear-viewing day-trips, as does Kodiak Lodge on Kodiak Island.
Kaktovik Polar Bears
It’s a sight not easily forgotten: Polar bears feeding on a beached whale carcass, or a female with cubs swimming over to a section of pack ice to hunt for seals. With the threat of global warming and receding pack ice, these sights might not be available in the near future. Advise your clients to plan an Alaska polar bear adventure now, before it’s too late.
One of the best introductory adventures is a one-day tour from Fairbanks to Barter Island, off the coast of Arctic Alaska.
Northern Alaska Tour Company representative Matt Atkinson said the day-tour format works best for people who are on land-cruise tours or who want to add a Far North experience to their Alaska itinerary.
From late August to late September, a charter flight leaves Fairbanks at 7 a.m. via a twin-engine Navaho plane for about a two-hour flight to Deadhorse, where passengers take a short rest before continuing to the village of Kaktovik. After a bear-safety briefing and lunch at Marsh Creek Inn, licensed skippers using Coast Guard-inspected boats whisk clients offshore to view the bears.
“Visitors will see polar bears in the Barter Island area, as the pack ice there tends to arrive earlier than in other areas,” Atkinson said. “The Barrier Islands also allow bears to concentrate near the shore, making for easier viewing. Most people see 30 or more bears near the runway when landing or departing Kaktovik, so bear sightings are a sure bet.”
The viewing time runs from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., after which guests depart for the return flight to Fairbanks. The cost is $1,399 per person.
Rainforest Bear Sanctuary of Anan Creek
Thirty miles outside of Wrangell, Anan Bear Observatory offers viewing of both brown and black bears as they forage for salmon along Anan Creek, which hosts one of the largest pink salmon runs in Southeast Alaska. A small waterfall forces the fish to jump the falls, and bears wait to catch them in midair. At other times, visitors will see bears chasing the fish through the shallows.
The best viewing months are July and August, and reservations are being accepted now as viewing is by permit only. Guides will obtain permits for clients who book in advance. Those planning an independent trip can obtain a permit online through the U.S. Forest Service.
Several Wrangell charter operators offer guided or drop-off, unguided trips. Marjie Ripley at Tyee Travel has a history of helping other travel agents customize these tours and she offers co-commision opportunities.
The Big Five
Denali National Park (also known as Mt. McKinley) is perhaps the most easily accessible park where road-based tourists have the best chance of seeing the Alaskan “big five”: moose, caribou, sheep, grizzly bear and wolf. The daily bus tours into the park offered by concessionaire Aramark are great for people short on time. If possible, visit the Denali Visitor’s Center prior to taking the tour. Park Service shuttle buses travel the same route and are less expensive, but they don’t include driver narration.
If your clients have three to seven days at Denali, they will have better opportunities for wildlife sightings by lodging near Kantishna. There, two lodges, Camp Denali and North Face Lodge, specialize in exploring the wilderness of the park. Guests can often see moose and caribou from camp, but taking close-up photos may require some extra effort.
“Denali isn’t the Serengeti,” said Camp Denali’s Jenna Hamm. “Expectations are often overblown. There are not moose and bears around every rock. What we do offer is wildlife at a distance, often in a landscape context, which can be just as meaningful and powerful — especially if it is North America’s highest peak that you see towering above a moose in a beaver pond.”
Camp Denali’s guests choose from different types of outings each day, including traveling the road system to look for wildlife or taking short, off-road hikes to wildlife-viewing destinations favored by guides.
The 100,000-plus Porcupine caribou herd, one of the state’s largest, is best viewed during its spring migration through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The late-June migration consists of thousands of caribou swimming rivers and snaking in long ribbons over hills and across treeless tundra. It’s also a good time to see wolves and bears as they will be pursuing newborn caribou calves. Wildflowers are in full bloom, creating for a colorful backdrop of Arctic tundra.
The caribou often pass through, or near, established tent camps, and trekkers partake in various day hikes to obtain maximum viewing and photo opportunities. Bonus species include Dall sheep, Arctic grizzly bears, moose and occasionally muskox.
Arctic Wild co-owner and guide Michael Wald is excited about a new addition to his offerings this year: a mid-week, bush-plane flight that travels ahead of the migration.
“This doubles our chances of getting into big herds of caribou,” he said. “One moment the land is empty, and then the place is swarming with caribou, as well as eagles chasing the calves. Then, the animals disappear until the next herd. Guests should expect the possibility that caribou move on, but there are lots of other things to see and do until they show up again.”
The cost for a week-long camping trip is $5,000 per person, and the trip begins and ends in Fairbanks.
Marine Mammal Extravaganza
Alaska’s Southcentral and Southeast coastlines offer some of the best photography for marine mammals in North America. Migrations of humpback and Orca whales, sea lions, seals and an abundance of smaller marine life are common, yet thrilling, sites.
Alaska Sea Adventures offers a unique wildlife experience called “Spring Herring Extravaganzas” onboard its 84-foot expedition yacht.
“Food attracts marine life, and nothing is more attractive to many species than herring,” said captain Dennis Rogers. “The largest runs of herring along the North American west coast are here. Herring run in schools containing millions of fish that attract numerous wildlife species. Bald and Golden eagles gather by the thousands in trees that border the migration. Seals and sea lions rush through schools of herring, emerging with mouthfuls of fish, and humpback whales ‘bubble-net’ feed, engulfing hundreds of pounds of fish at once.”
A variety of seabirds, including murres, cormorants, diving ducks and puffins, gorge on the fish as well, offering great bird photography opportunities.
Four herring cruises are scheduled in 2014 — the first is March 27-April 4 and the last is April 27-May 4. Cost depends on the stateroom and package selected.
For those short on time, I recommend booking day cruises. Phillips Cruises out of Whittier, Glacier Bay Lodge out of Gustavus, Stan Stephens Charters out of Valdez and Kenai Fjords Charters out of Seward are top day-trip operators.