On a tour of Alaska’s Katmai National Park, intrepid travellers find themselves face-to-furry-face with some of the most awesome creatures on the planet. By Stephen Rodrick
By the time Big Bear and Slightly Smaller Big Bear fought, so much had already happened.
We had taken a dramatic floatplane ride from the small island town of Kodiak, Alaska, across Shelikof Strait to Katmai National Park & Preserve, on the Alaska Peninsula. Our pilot was Jerry Borshard, resplendent in a newsboy cap and scraggy red beard. He looked like the kindly proprietor of a bike shop. The seven courageous members of our tour group were in search of bears, on the Great Alaskan Grizzly Encounter, a five-day cruise around the park organised by Natural Habitat Adventures. The engine droned, and someone asked Jerry if he had seen anything spectacular on his flights into and out of Katmai.
“Not really,” said Jerry through his mic. He then proceeded to list things he’d seen out his window that sounded pretty spectacular: a breaching whale, bears swimming between islands, running moose. We landed a few minutes later on water as smooth as glass. “See you in a week,” Jerry shouted above the propeller.
We took a floatplane because it was the only way to get to our ship, the Natural Habitat Ursus. Almost immediately, our two guides, Brad Josephs and Teresa Whipple, began their daily routine of taking us out in a skiff to find some grizzlies, which are the primary reason their patrons travel thousands of miles to be here. The Ursus moved once or twice, but remained centrally located off the shore of the park.
Once we paused at high tide on the shores of Hallo Bay, we found the bears quickly. It was the kind of scene that many people watch on television shows narrated by David Attenborough, but few get to see with their own eyes. Wearing waders, Teresa jumped into the icy water and quietly moved the boat closer to shore. Two males grazed about a hundred metres apart as a female watched lazily in the background. She was a golden beauty out of a Disney film, while the guys looked like they had been on a bender. They were shedding last year’s coats for summertime, and their fur was bare and mottled in spots.
One of the dudes was larger—maybe 400 kilos to the other’s 250. Big Bear grew less amused that Slightly Smaller Big Bear was encroaching on his grass. Over 45 minutes, we watched Big Bear, scars of other battles lining his face, slowly advance on the little guy. Slightly Smaller Bear drew back, but Big Bear followed at a distance, doing a cowboy walk as he urinated into the tracks of his retreating colleague, which is something bears do.
Slightly Smaller Bear withdrew to a patch of grass on the river’s edge. But this didn’t placate Big Bear. They eyed each other warily for a few minutes. And then Big Bear roared and lunged. The two stood and exchanged paws and claws to the neck and face for what seemed like forever but was actually three minutes. After being released from his antagonist’s malevolent bear hug, Slightly Smaller Bear fell on his back—the position of submission—and Big Bear gave a final growl of superiority.
We were maybe 20 metres away.
Those 20 metres were the farthest we would ever be from the bears. Needless to say, don’t try this at your local state park.
The bears of Katmai are different from bears in other parts of the state, Brad explained, because hunting isn’t allowed in national parks. “They see us as friendly or neutral because they have no experience of someone creeping up on them and shooting their face off with a shotgun.”
Brad and his wife, Melissa, the onboard chef, have been running trips into Katmai for years now on the Ursus—which means ‘bear’ in Latin—a converted crab-fishing boat with spare, compact cabins. Melissa’s salmon made up for whatever creature comforts we had to go without.
We didn’t linger too much on the boat, anyway. One afternoon near Kamishak Bay—Brad was loath to give coordinates, lest other guides steal his best spots—we settled on a creek bed and sat on our buckets. Brad pointed out a regal mama with a golden coat and two cubs tailing her rump. “She’s the bravest, coolest bear I’ve ever seen, so I named her Melissa,” he whispered. He cracked that in the summer he spends more time with Bear Melissa than Wife Melissa.
We were perched in grass where Timothy Treadwell once walked among grizzlies. A would-be bear-whisperer with a narcissistic streak, Treadwell was mauled and eaten, a story recounted by Werner Herzog in the 2005 film Grizzly Man. Brad knew Treadwell from his early days and never cottoned to his style. “He thought he was one with the bears,” he told me as we watched Bear Melissa tend to her cubs. “He’d swim with them. He thought he was invincible, and you can’t do that with grizzlies.”
Brad flew over Alaska for the first time with his father when he was 16 and saw a field filled with 50 bears. He asked the pilot if they could land and the pilot said, “Are you crazy? They’d tear the plane apart.” (Brad has to dispel this Alaska myth even today.) A quarter-century later, Brad takes intrepid travellers to meet bears up close, so they can see that the creatures are among the most fascinating on the planet.
He pointed out a well-scarred fellow and told us that bears have remarkable healing capabilities. “A man cut that way would die of an infection.”
He paused. “I know all the healing herbs and plants, so I’d survive.”
We spent our days in quiet contemplation, watching bears nurse their cubs, sunbathe, and swim in the creeks. Maybe it was Brad and Teresa’s confidence, but I never felt a moment of fear. We saw other mammals as well. One day, we heard a distant smacking noise that disrupted our reverie. Eventually, we turned around and there was a whale slapping its tail on the surface of the bay.
Weirdness always lurked. It could be comical, like the female bear that tried to rouse her male partner for some sexy time.
Or it could be deadly. Brad told us about another trip to this spot, when the group had watched a mama bear fight off a potentially murderous male, only for another male to slip in behind her and devour one of her cubs. “No one said anything for the rest of the day,” said Brad matter-of-factly.
Another evening—in early summer, the sun doesn’t set in Katmai until around 11 pm—it seemed like we might see another heartbreaking example of death by natural selection. A mama and her two cubs were napping by a creek bed, occasionally getting up to sip water. An older male, with a flap of torn skin dangling from his jaw, lingered 50 metres away, seemingly content to eat grass. But he kept moving closer to the cubs, like a pickpocket on a crowded Manhattan street zeroing in slowly on a rich man’s wallet. Then he moved towards the mama, who turned and roared at him, delaying his charge just long enough to give her cubs time to vanish into the grass. The old carnivore gave up, out of breath. A few minutes later, we could hear the mama mewl for her cubs. The kids mewled back in a game of tag. They reunited back at the creek.
They disappeared into the sunset and we all breathed again.
Natural Habitat Adventures offers the eight-day Great Alaskan Grizzly Encounter from June through September. The tour costs INR 6,09,300 plus an additional INR 40,760 for the floatplane ride. Medical evacuation insurance is required.