We were the guests of bear-viewing guru John Rogers (Katmai Coastal Bear Tours). He runs a number of boats along the Katmai coast and he, and his guides, know the area and the bears like no one else. I had been with John on my two previous trips and once again, John and company came through with a truly amazing wildlife experience!
In my past two visits to Katmai, I did my bear-viewing in early to mid-August. This year, we arrived in the land of the great bear a little later in the season (from August 22 until August 31st). We hoped to see more corpulent bears (as a result of a few more weeks at the “salmon buffet,” which is available from July into September) as well as some different behaviors. It was highly likely there would be more fishing activity as at least three and possibly four species of salmon (chum, pink, sockeye, and possibly silver) could be “running” at that time. I also wanted to document bears feeding on moribund and/or dying salmon, as this food source is an important part of the diet of hyperphagic bears.
It turned out the fish were present in large numbers. In fact, in certain parts of the Alaskan Peninsula (e.g., Bristol Bay), there were reports of huge fish runs. I certainly observed bears catching more fish during this trip than I had seen on previous visits (in the past two years I had seen relatively small runs when I visited). We observed pink (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha), chum (O. keta) and sock-eye salmon (O. nerka) being plucked from Katmai’s rivulets. While there were definitely more fish, we saw fewer bears than we had on our past trips. Some locals speculated that the reduction in fishing bear numbers was a function of an abundant berry crop – many of the bears were in the ”bush” gorging on salmon berries. Even though Ursus arctos numbers were down, there were still more than enough bears to keep us in a constant state of awe.
First Stop Kodiak
We began our trip in Kodiak – the jumping off site to Katmai (i.e., you take a float plane from Kodiak to the Katmai coast to meet the “bear boat”). We arrived at Kodiak about five days before our Katmai trip was to commence. Katmai Coastal Bear Tours recommends that you show-up in Kodiak at least a couple days before your scheduled departure, just in case it is necessary to make an early trip to Katmai. If inclement weather is forecast for the day you are scheduled to travel to Katmai, John may have you fly out to the boat one or even two days earlier in an attempt to ensure you get to spend the time you paid for with the bears.
Spending some time on Kodiak is a treat in and of itself! It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, especially when viewed from the air. There are valleys, mountains, rocky coastlines replete with tide pools, clear streams and lakes and lush vegetation (the latter is a function of the high precipitation levels [average annual rainfall of 173 cm, average snowfall 198 cm]). And, of course, it also has a large population of brown bears (a.k.a. Kodiak bears). How many Comfort Inns in the world have a sign posted on the door suggesting that guests be very careful while moving about the parking lot after dark as a curious bear has been sighted lurking around the hotel! During our stay, there were a couple reports of Kodiak bear being sighted fishing in local streams. While we did not see any bears on Kodiak, we did visit a beached humpback whale carcass in hopes of seeing some scavenging brown bears. We also did lots of hiking, learned about spatterdock (Nuphar luteu) (thanks to Larry, our amateur botanist), enjoyed some amazing scenery and found some great intertidal, invertebrate life.
Fortunately, the weather was good while we were on the island (although we arrived on a blustery, rainy night) and we were able to get off to Katmai on schedule. In the next post, we will take a look at our first bear-viewing stop, Geographic Harbour.
* Larry and David are great dive buddies and accomplished photographers - Janine and I have spent many hours with them in the Western Pacific, both above and below the water! This was the first time we had traveled with Debbie - she was a delight to have on the trip and an accomplished photographer in her own right. Larry and Nancy are good friends from Lincoln, Nebraska (where we reside) that are passionate about wildlife. We want to thank these five great travel companions for sharing this wonderful ursid-rich experience with us!
© Scott W. Michael