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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

Coastal Brown Bears

October 17th, 2013 · No Comments

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Enjoying nine weeks of an Alaskan summer without seeing the state’s coastal brown bears would have been unthinkable. I wanted to get up close to them and yet not too personal. I succeeded with the great help of Alaska Bear Adventures and their pilot-tour guide, Derick Broderman.

Only in Alaska can we expect to see bears with no bars or cars between us and them. This is as wild an experience as we can get, and my tour was a wonderful as they come.

I saw more than a dozen coastal brown bears, and some of them came quite close. These are the same species as the grizzly bears that live in inland Alaska. But coastal brown bears are bigger than grizzlies because they have a richer diet, especially salmon.

The most reliable places to find coastal brown bears are two of Alaska’s national parks, Katmai and Lake Clark. Both are across Cook Inlet from the Kenai Peninsula, where I stayed for five of my nine weeks in Alaska. Unlike the even larger Kodiak brown bear subspecies, we haven’t hunted them in Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks, which are the only places where we can with reasonable safety get out in the open with them. But bears have been scarce in Katmai recently. Alaska Bear Adventures flies to either of these parks depending on where more bears are hanging out.

So we went to Lake Clark National Park. No roads penetrate this wilderness, which people can reach only by plane or boat. I had never been to there before, so this trip boosted my total to 40 of our 58 national parks.

On my fifth trip to Homer I got there in a six-seater Cessna 206. I had the co-pilot’s seat, which gave me greater visibility and got this shot as we came in for a landing on the beach at Chinitna Bay of the Cook Inlet where Hook Creek and West Glacier Creek enter the bay.

One of Many Lakes in Lake Clark National Park

One of Many Lakes in Lake Clark National Park

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Not since I traveled to Somalia in November 1963 have I had the experience of landing and taking off from a beach. In neither case was I concerned, but both times we had to fly through clouds so thick that visibility was zero, which did concern me. While we were flying blind in Somalia, here in Alaska we were in radio contact with all the other planes in the area. But I didn’t know that until afterwards.

I photographed one of the brown bears when I waded out in the bay even farther than the bear did. It was hunting for salmon close to shore, while I was hunting for bear.

A Big Brown Bear Hunts, But Not for Me

A Big Brown Bear Hunts, But Not for Me

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Later, I was able to photograph another brown bears as it walked within 20 feet of me. What a wonderful feeling to see that the bear had no fear of me nor did I have any fear of it.

The Guide Congratulated Me for Not Running

The Guide Congratulated Me for Not Running

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Both prudence and regulations demand that we don’t get as close to bears as we did, especially to brown bears, which are much more aggressive than the smaller and more common black bears. But those limitations apply to people and not to the bears.

We were watching a bear sitting on the beach, apparently waiting for a salmon to come to it. When after a long wait no fish appeared, it got up and came toward us. At that time we were split into two groups, and the bear walked right between us, closer to the group that I was part of. It took a good look at me and apparently decided that it would prefer to eat a fish.

Aaron Willcox, a Professional Photographer on the Tour with Me, Watched a Brown Bear Approaching Three of Us (Used by Permission)

Aaron Willcox, a Professional Photographer on the Tour with Me, Watched a Brown Bear Approaching Three of Us (Used by Permission)

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You can visit Aaron Willcox’s website here.

We weren’t allowed to carry any firearms or even the bear spray that I have in my SUV. The tour leader carried only flares, which he fortunately didn’t have to use.

We were also fortunate in the weather. Almost all of Alaska was then under a low that brought steady rain, and it rained most of the way back. But while Lake Clark National Park was overcast, no rain fell on me or — more importantly — on my camera.

With a Smile of Success, I'm Ready to Fly Back to Civilization (Photo by Aaron Willcox Used by Permission)

With a Smile of Success, I'm Ready to Fly Back to Civilization (Photo by Aaron Willcox Used by Permission)

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Except for humans, brown bears are probably the most dangerous animal in Alaska. Since both species surrounded me, I was lucky indeed to have survived.

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