When Eddie Bauer adventure travel guide Julia Dimon told us she was flying north to Alaska, we had no idea what to expect. She mentioned floatplanes and fly-fishing, but not until the pictures and story emerged did we understand the character of the wilderness experience she stepped into at Brooks Lodge. She landed deep in the wilderness, in proximity to Alaska’s famously big bears, with a long list of instructions on avoiding a terrifying encounter. Her tale of a big brown griz sniffing her out streamside—while they were both fishing—puts it in perspective. This is Julia Dimon’s bear report from the last frontier. —LYA Editor
Words and Images by Julia Dimon
A lumbering grizzly bear wades through the river, submerging his snout beneath murky marsh water. Snorkeling for sockeye salmon, the bear (affectionately named Ted) grunts, blowing bubbles through his nostrils like a playful four-year-old. Tossing his head back, he plucks out a glistening silver trout and feasts. Further upstream, mama bear and her two gangly cubs nap along a riverbank, curled up in a protective embrace. Mindful of the wild animals nearby, a lone fly fisherman stands in thigh-high water, casting his line against an orange setting sun. It’s a peaceful setting of serenity and cohabitation a picture-perfect postcard of the rugged nature and untamed wildlife that is Alaska.
Twice the size of Texas, the 49th state provides a sprawling landscape for outdoor enthusiasts. From the iconic hikes around Mount McKinley (the highest peak in North America) to kayaking through icebergs off the coast of Kenai National Park, from whale watching in Juneau to flightseeing tours around Talkeetna, there is no shortage of adventure activities.
Travelers like myself, who are interested in freshwater fly-fishing and grizzly bear viewing, may find themselves at Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park. Located on the Alaska Peninsula, some 290 miles southwest of Anchorage, Katmai promises epic landscapes, active volcanoes, glacier-clad mountains and up-close encounters with bears.
In the summer months, grizzly bears (aka brown bears) gather at streams to feast on salmon runs, building up their body fat to prepare for winter hibernation. June and July are typically the best months to see them standing opportunistically atop waterfalls, waiting to devour leaping salmon.
After a short flight from Anchorage, I arrived via floatplane at Brooks Lodge. The first step before check-in was a trip to the visitor center for a brief “bear etiquette” training course. The ranger ran through the “bear essentials”: Do not carry food or beverages around Brooks Camp. Don’t leave gear unattended. Be alert at all times, and make noise where visibility is limited. If you encounter a bear, stop making noise once the bear is aware of you. Maintain a distance of 50 yards from any bear. If it charges, never run. Speak to the bear in a soft voice, wave your arms, and back away slowly.
Lucky for me, the relationship between man and brown bear is often a harmonious one, especially for those who follow the rules when visiting the region. With the bear etiquette covered, the ranger went on to explain that brown bears in the Katmai region can weigh upwards of 1,000 pounds and are the continent’s largest land predator. The term “grizzly” is defined as a bear that lives 100 miles from the ocean, but the two terms (grizzly and brown) are often used interchangeably. Beyond bears, moose, caribou, red fox, wolf, wolverine, bald eagles, hawks and owls can also be spotted in the region.
Once settled into one of Brooks Lodge’s sixteen guest units (spotless and comfy accommodations, with two sets of bunk beds, electricity, running hot water, minus the Wi-Fi), I set out to spot my very first wild grizzly bear. Strolling along the gravel path (shuffling my feet and clapping loudly to make noise and alert potential bears to my whereabouts), I came to a clearing with a large wooden bridge. The viewing platforms are heavily patrolled by national park rangers, who use their walkie-talkies like traffic cops to monitor bear activity and divert tourists accordingly. With the coast clear, I crossed the bridge over the lake to the first viewing platform.
A surge of excitement flooded through my body as I spotted my very first grizzly wading in the water, snacking on salmon. Strange how a sight like that can be both awe-inspiring and completely terrifying at the same time. Beyond a trail of pink slime and the stench of fish guts, the bear left behind a set of massive paw prints with claws so sharp Freddy Krueger would have been jealous. The gruesome lunch snack scene was a gentle reminder to pay attention to the rangers’ rules.
While a large majority of visitors are drawn to Brooks Lodge for the once-in-a-lifetime bear viewing, the area is also known for its incredible fly-fishing. Depending on the season, Katmai offers anglers a chance to catch everything from rainbow trout to grayling, lake trout to char, sockeye salmon to silver salmon. Whether you’re an expert angler or a newbie like me, Brooks Lodge offers guided or independent fishing packages for every level. I signed up for a half day of guided fly-fishing along the Brooks River.
Dressed in oversized waders, submerged knee-high in a rushing river filled with flopping salmon, I plopped my line in the water and waited for Moby Dick to nibble. I’m not particularly gifted in the art of fly-fishing, but I sure do love it! There is something quite cerebral about fly-fishing — combining hand-eye coordination, entomology education and a Brad Pitt A River Runs Through It sex appeal.
Focused on making the cast, achieving a natural drift (while trying not to hook myself in the process) and setting the hook, I almost didn’t notice the massive brown beast slowly making its way downriver towards me. Heart pumping, I reeled in my line, tucked the fly carefully in the rod, and began to move slowly and deliberately out of the bear’s direct path.
While seeing a grizzly bear from the safety of a viewing platform is a remarkable experience, standing ground level, just a stone’s throw away without protection, will really get your adrenaline pumping! There may be no better way to truly appreciate the size, power and ultimate domination of a grizzly bear until you are eye-to-eye, fishing for the same food resources.
My guide assured me that with such a plentiful food source of salmon, the bear would ignore us anglers. We backed up slowly, gave him distance and he passed us problem-free. Absolutely mind-blowing: another picture-perfect postcard of amazing Alaska.
For more information about Brooks Lodge and its sport fishing packages, check out www.katmailand.com/bear-viewing/index.htm
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