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Sunday, Dec 21, 2014
Things To Do

Fly-in excursion in Alaska’s wilderness will give you chills

BY DOUG KELLY
Tribune correspondent

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What do you do when an 1,100-pound brown bear ambles straight toward you, stops a mere 30 feet away, rears up on its hind legs and menacingly pops its teeth?

Do you race off? No way. A bear can run 40 mph.

Climb a tree? Wrong. With a bear that close, you won’t reach the first branch.

Swim? Forget it. Not even Michael Phelps would get away.

That precise dilemma confronted a handful of tourists, including my wife and me, during a fly-in bear-viewing excursion 120 miles deep into the Alaskan wilderness. Our tour guides’ advice about what to do in the likelihood of a bear confrontation came to mind: Hold your ground and stay together.

As the snarling giant glared ominously for several more seconds, my knees and chin trembled in sync. I knew all too well that just one swipe of that massive paw would instantly decapitate me.

Then, just as its curious brown eyes locked with mine, the beast rightly concluded that this group of frail humans wasn’t a threat. It dropped to all fours, threw back its head (disdainfully, it seemed to me, a final mockery of our presence) and slowly moseyed away to continue munching on sedge grass.

Gasping as much from relief as excitement, our group remained crouched atop a small mound a few feet above the level of the surrounding meadow.

To our guides, Zack Tappan and Tim Hendricks, it was just another day at the office. “We don’t approach them, but sometimes bears literally walk to within a few feet of us,” Tappan whispered with an assured smile. “These bears are actually quite intelligent and seem to perceive who is friend or foe.”

Tappan, who with his wife, Nancy, owns Sasquatch Alaska Adventure, offers day tours and overnight camping trips in secluded locations in Katmai, Kenai Fjords and Lake Clark national parks. Similar tour operators provide fly-in trips throughout Alaska as bear-viewing excursions have exploded in popularity.

“We have several locations that can be visited based on scouting reports and our recent trips,” said Tappan, who selects the more secluded areas so the bears act more naturally. His tours, and others in Homer, fly daily into the midst of the largest concentration of brown bears in the world.

Our travel group of eight assembled at 8 a.m. at Sasquatch’s office/hangar, with staffers providing rubber wading boots and Tappan going over the safety orientation. “We’ll find an observation position in an open area where bears usually show up,” Tappan said. “In that way we’ll see them and they’ll eventually see or smell us. You don’t want to stalk bears or surprise them, because that can be mistaken as threatening behaviors. Even so, we need to stay close together when a bear appears, because it’s more likely to be aggressive toward a lone person than a group”

We soon took off in two five-seat turbo-charged Cessna 206 airplanes, with Tappan piloting one and Hendricks the other. We flew at 140 mph for more than an hour amid blue, sunny skies, traversing robust green forests, glimmering white glaciers and snow-crested volcanoes. Finally, we swooped down on a hard-packed beach and hiked about a mile along the shoreline. After crossing a narrow, muddy stream, our group reached the sedge grass meadow and nestled down on the mound. Here we sat nervously anticipating that first nerve-shattering encounter.

The bear suddenly quit eating grass and decided to lie down a scant 100 feet away. About 20 minutes later, another massive male bear appeared on the scene, his mind not on grazing but romance. To our amusement, for the next several hours he remained hot on the heels of a female brown bear. Reminiscent of a Cary Grant movie, the mating dalliance sometimes drew him close to her, then he’d pretend to be indifferent and scamper out of sight for a spell. After one such absence, she stretched out in a shallow portion of the stream for a refreshing respite. Tappan decided to relocate near the stream as well, and we rested on large rocks about a wedge shot away from her.

Just as we opened water bottles and peeled back energy bars, the wayward male bear dramatically reappeared on a steep embankment leading down to the stream. Noting our presence, he growled threateningly, making it clear he didn’t like the distraction. Fortunately, he maintained his focus on the object of his desire. With a grunt, she arose from the stream when he came into view, exiting stage right with the love-struck male huffing behind her.

Another bear bonus occurred when we began our walk back to the airplanes. We spotted a female with three cubs across the stream — and she saw us. Knowing it can be bad news to mess with a mother with cubs, we kept our distance and watched intently through binoculars as they tumbled and romped next to her.

Neither of our guides carried a firearm or bear spray. Instead they hitched a special flare gun to their belts. Tappan explained that he’s learned to quickly assess whether the animal is simply curious or ill-humored. A firearm may only injure and further anger a charging bear; bear spray can be a problem if the animal is upwind or if humans are also in the spray funnel. The bright flashing of a flare gun, on the other hand, totally freaks out a bear and sends it scurrying away.

“A gun will kill a bear, but not before it gets you; a flare will deter a bear before it gets close to you. A gun offers revenge; a flare offers safety,” Tappan said.

After getting airborne, we veered over the meadow and saw still more bears going about their business. And therein lies the simple magnificence of a wilderness fly-in trip, where your footprints are side by side with bears in their habitat, with no fences or barriers or platforms separating you. It’s the added rush that comes from knowing you’ve cast your fate to the wind, with no hospital close by in case of an emergency. Your nerves are on high alert, your body radiates with excitement and you return home with an indelible appreciation for experiencing something special and adventurous.

Bear sightings mainly occur in one of four ways. You can intentionally seek them out in the wild, as we did on our fly-in trip; you can watch from a safe vantage point such as an elevated boardwalk or fenced area; you can move about in a car, bus or train; or you might see one incidentally, while hiking, fishing, camping and the like. The latter occurred on the last day of our trip.

We were staying at Katchemak Bay Wilderness Lodge, which lies southeast of Homer. Soon after checking in, we embarked on a short hike on a trail that winds into the interior and along the bay’s steep coastal drop-offs. As we negotiated a sharp turn, I saw a dark blur out of the corner of my eye — it was a black bear. Despite being much smaller than brown or polar bears, black bears can be quite aggressive toward humans. It gazed back at us, a mere 40 feet away and standing on a jagged point of land near the drop-off.

Unintentionally or not, the last thing you want to do is corner a bear.

Straining to remain calm, I admired its shimmering black fur and healthy appearance, and then exhaled with relief as it dashed away along the ridge toward the path we’d just traversed. Like humans, bears prefer easy passage rather than barreling through thickets and branches. Temporarily cut off from the lodge, we took heart that the fleeing bear seemed to be more afraid of us than we were of him. After 10 minutes of getaway time, we cautiously returned on the trail while clapping hands and singing a shrill rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” — a dreadful reverberation that would likely repel Godzilla.

Back at the lodge for the rest of the day and the next, we absorbed the grandeur of Alaska. While others in our party kayaked or hiked, my wife and I opted for a motorized boat tour of the surrounding bay with Morgan McBride, a guide and a member of the family that owns the lodge. We marveled at the countless sightings of bald eagles, the eerie calls from distant loons, discovering wolf tracks along the shore, taking pictures of playful otters backstroking at the surface and seals crouching atop rocky outcroppings.

With wild bear viewing in Alaska no longer the proclivity of daredevils and with any “shooting” more commonly performed with cameras instead of rifles, visitors venturing far from civilization must take great care not to disturb the habitat or take unnecessary risks.

Bill Pyle, supervisory wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Kodiak, said he isn’t aware of any attacks that have occurred on fly-in bear-viewing trips. “The professional fly-in companies have to operate under strict air-taxi regulations in addition to complying with a long list of stipulations established by state and federal parks,” he said. “The bears become habituated to human visitors at the same time of year and the same time of day, and people being present who aren’t feeding or disturbing them become normal and routine. The only difficulties that usually arise are by non-guided viewers unfamiliar with a particular site and proper bear-viewing practices.”

Bob Stearns, a Miamian who has visited Alaska for decades on fishing trips, adheres to what he calls the “25 to 1” rule: 25 bears you encounter will pay you no mind — it’s that 26th rascal looking to prove its dominance that you need to worry about. In other words, no wild animal is totally predictable. Even Alaskans must remain vigilant because oftentimes the hoped-for boundaries between bears and humans don’t exist. Ani Thomas, a tour guide in Kodiak, said that she knows of 14 brown bears that live within the city limits. And in Juneau, the state capital, a huge population of black bears surrounds the city.

Many other states also boast populations of bears, but for those seeking a certain bear-viewing experience, Alaska is heads and shoulders above the rest.

Doug Kelly, a Clearwater resident, is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers.

If you go …

Numerous fly-in companies guarantee bear viewing, such as Sasquatch Alaska Adventure Company, www.SasquatchAlaska .com, (888) 662-0999. The price is $595 per person for a six-hour day.

A spectacular way to kick back and enjoy the Alaskan experience is a stay at Kamechuck Bay Wilderness Lodge, www .AlaskaWildernessLodge.com, (907) 235-8910. With only 12 guests attended by 10 staff members, the all-inclusive lodge features beautiful log cabins overlooking the bay with a gourmet chef, guided kayaking, hiking, fishing, boat tours and even a sauna and hot tub.

The best times for Alaska bear viewing occur from late May to mid-September. Before planning your trip into the wilderness, check out all that’s offered on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game site, www.adfg.alaska .gov, and that of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Alaska.FWS.gov.

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