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Bear Time: Hallo Bay, Katmai National Park

August 10, 2011

 

One of the things that we had always wanted to do in Alaska was spend some time bear viewing. The best place to do this is in Katmai National Park. There are two different areas where Grizzly bears can be seen reliably, on the coast and Brooks Falls in the interior. We decided that the coastal area was where we wanted to go. Most of the trips out to the coast are day trips but one place is a permanent camp where you can stay overnight. This is called Hallo Bay and was the location used by the BBC to film the bear footage for the TV series ‘Life’.

To get out to Hallo Bay you have to take a Bush plane flight which takes around 1 hour. We left Homer just after lunch in a small 6 seater plane (1 pilot and 5 passengers)  and flew up over the Spit and across the bay before entering the clouds. The day was raining and overcast so for the majority of the flight all you could see was a complete whiteout.

However about 10 minutes before landing we dropped down under the clouds and within a couple of minutes we had seen our first bear – slowly walking down a gravel spit. Sarah was on the other side of the plane and saw three bears and a whale before we landed.

The plane lands on the beach right next to the Hallo Bay Camp and we were greeted by Brad who is the camp manager. He took us the 100 yards from the plane, over a sand dune to the camp. The camp consists of one big tent which is the dining hall and kitchen – with a wood burning stove, a permanent toilet and shower block and a number of smaller sleeping tents. The capacity of the camp is only 12 guests at any time. Over the winter the whole camp is packed up and stored before being re-erected in the spring. The season is only June to Mid-Sept – so pretty short.

After giving us a safety talk and showing us to our tents we were ready to hopefully see some bears as of course there is no guarantee. We learnt that the bears in Katmai are known as Brown bears, they are the same as Grizzlies but are called Brown bears to differentiate them because they grow much bigger than the inland Grizzlies as a result of the abundance of food at the coast.

It didn’t take long to see our first bear which was down the beach walking away from us. We only really got a glimpse of its butt though.

About 500m from the camp is an inlet to a creek which is where in August the bears fish for salmon. We walked a couple of hundred metres down the creek to a fallen tree where we sat down and waited. There were no bears in sight but Payne (our guide) told us that this was the best place to see bears at this time and patience would be rewarded. This was a bit uncomfortable because it was raining and pretty cold.

After waiting around 30 minutes a bear walked around the corner and walked past and sat down. The bear didn’t start fishing but waited watching the water – waiting for the Salmon to appear. He moved around a bit but nothing really happened.

So our first Bear viewing session was pretty disappointing and we walked back through the meadow behind the beach to the camp, soaked and a bit disheartened. Dinner was good and filling though so this perked us up a bit. After dinner we chatted to the other guests in camp, they were a good crowd and one of them sat out on the porch playing his guitar so we had some entertainment thrown in for free as well.

The dining hall was closed at 10pm and Sarah and I checked out the beach before heading off to bed. Amazingly as soon as we got to the beach we saw a bear right in front of the camp and 2 seals popping their heads out of the water.

Our nights sleep was pretty poor, the tent was cold even with the small gas heater they provided and the canvas was rattling to and fro in the wind. I think it takes a couple of nights to get used to this type of accommodation! We did get up in the night reluctantly for a toilet visit but the plus side to this was a beautiful clear sky filled with stars. A first for us in Alaska.

The next morning we were up early – it was warmer outside the tent than in – so we didn’t hang about. We were heading out for a bear viewing by 8am.

This day couldn’t have been more different. The sky was blue, the sun was out and so were the bears. Within 100m of the camp we came across a bear sitting on the beach have a cat nap (or should that be bear nap?) We sat and waited for him to move off down to the creek and we followed some distance behind, moving to the same log as the previous day.

After our disappointment the previous day, this bear viewing was a different story. Over a four hour period we were lucky enough to see three bears (Audrey, Murphy and Ted) fishing, challenging each other and moving around very actively. At times we could see all three bears at once. Ted,  the Alpha male of the area, was massive – he was also a brilliant fisher-man/bear and we saw him catch 7 salmon. He would body slam the water left to right to stun the fish until he caught one, which has landed him the nickname ‘ Tsunami Ted’.

Murphy was a slightly younger and smaller male who wasn’t quite ready to challenge Ted but he would stand his ground in the stand offs that they had, until the last minute when he would give way. He was also a good fisher and we saw him catch 3 fish, 2 of them at the same time!  He was also watching Ted fish and we saw him copy Ted’s technique which was very interesting.

Audrey was a smaller female who was submissive to both the males and moved away when approached by any of them. She spent less time fishing than the others and spent a lot of time resting.

The bears where completely oblivious to our presence and at times came within 2 metres of us. We kept quiet when they were close and spent as much time as possible sitting to ensure that we did not appear a threat. It is certainly an amazing experience to be so close to such a massive predator.

All too soon our time was up and we had to go back to camp. The flight back was much better than the one out in clear skies for the most part and we had magnificent views of mountains and glaciers as we flew back to Homer.

This was, all in all, an amazing experience and I wish we had had longer. We will definitely come back at some future point in our lives for a longer visit with the Bears of Katmai National Park.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    August 12, 2011 4:36 am

    Any plans on coming through Utah?

    • August 15, 2011 2:23 am

      Hi – we’re definitely coming to Utah. We’re planning to go through the Southern parks in October.

      Mark

  2. paul bulos permalink
    August 19, 2011 9:02 am

    Those bears look malnourished!!! Sounds liek all is going very well, and you are in the swing of it all now.
    P

    • August 20, 2011 1:30 am

      Hey Paul,

      Life is tough out there. But they will put on 100’s of pounds between August and end of September as they gorge on Salmon. All to get ready for winter. One of the bears caught 7 salmon in the couple of hours we watched. I bet you couldn’t even eat 1.

      Mark

  3. August 26, 2011 7:09 pm

    We just got back from the Katmai and had a great time and got great photos of numerous bears. We were more inland – would like to try the coast in the future….

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