In Alaska, there are more airplanes than there are cars, but not all of them seem to be in the best condition. I was quite nervous when our small airplane took off from Homer to fly over Cook Inlet and I saw that there was an abundance of duct tape that appeared to be holding the plane together. It was a noisy and bumpy ride, and I was very uneasy over the water and was quite relieved when land came into view.
We did not see a runway and asked our pilot where we were landing. “On the beach” he replied. As we got closer, we saw a few brown dots on the beach that were moving. Closer still to our landing beach, we saw that the dots were grizzly bears. When the plane landed, Jim asked. “What do we do now?” The pilot replied with a smile, “Get out”. “But there are bears out there”, Jim protested. The pilot told us not to worry, that our tour guide would be along shortly to fetch us. Sure enough, a young woman named Ginny appeared in an ATV with a cart on the back. “Get in” she smiled, and pointed to the cart on the back. As we climbed into the cart I asked Ginny if this thing could go faster than the bears. “Yes, if I lose the cart”.
Thus began our adventure with the grizzlies, or brown bears as they are called in remote Lake Clark, Alaska. The ATV with the four of us in the cart on the back took off through tall grasses to a cabin, where we stopped for tea before going out to search for bears. It wasn’t long before we spotted some bears in the distance. Ginny had us get out of the cart and instructed us to stay together as a clump of people so we would look big to the bears. And no matter what, stay behind her.
We moved on towards a stream and saw a mother grizzly with three cubs and we watched them for a long time. The cubs became curious when they came upon a small boat at the edge of the stream. One climbed in while another investigated the outside of the boat. Ginny was quite excited by this as she had never seen them approach the boat before.
We saw lots of bears, and at one time while we were in the tall grass watching a grizzly, we realized that another entered the field from behind us and another on from the side. We suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a grizzly bear “triangle” which was a bit un-nerving. Ginny had a canister of pepper spray and told us that she had never used it so wasn’t sure how effective it would be. Anyway, the bears seemed more interested in eating grass or berries, and didn’t pay much attention to us.
We watched another female bear cool off by laying down on her belly in the stream. Her lone cub was nuzzling her, wanting to be fed. The mother bear finally acquiesced and climbed up the stream bank to the grass above and fed her cub. We sat on the bank on the other side and enjoyed watching her and soaking up the beautiful Alaska country. A heavy mist rolled in and would obscure the view of the mountains, then it would roll out again.
Back at the cabin we enjoyed a delicious lunch of salmon salad sandwiches, and watched bears from the deck of the cabin. We headed back out for more bear watching while Ginny was on the walkie-talkie about our flight back. She told us that due to the fog, they were concerned about visibility and that our flight back was delayed. If it couldn’t come back by 8pm, we would all have to stay overnight on the cabin. I was curious why 8pm was the last time it could come back since it stayed light out until after midnight. Jim explained that after 8pm the tide will be in and the beach will be underwater, this no landing strip for our plane.
We rode out to the cabin where Ginny and her husband were staying for the summer, and we came upon two juvenile bears, and we were quite close to them. Although just a few years old, they were full-grown, and huge. Like all teenagers, they enjoyed horseplay and taunted each other and wrestled.
The fog lifted, and our plane came back at 7:45, so we just made it. The pilot was a petite young woman who wasn’t five feet tall. She sat on a few telephone books so she could see out the windshield of the duct-taped plane. We waved good-bye to Ginny and the grizzlies, and the plane took off from the narrow beach. Up, up, the plane circled over the mountains of Lake Clark NP. The pilot continued this upward spiral over the land and we asked her why we weren’t flying back over Cook Inlet to Homer. She said that she needed to get to a high enough altitude so that if there was engine failure, we would be able to glide back to Homer – how comforting.
Betsy was publisher of Montgomery Media when we took this trip. Her editor, Mike Morsch was so amused by the concept of vacationing with grizzly bears that he wrote a humorous column about it which you can read by clicking here.