Located 245 nautical miles southwest of Anchorage, Katmai National Park and Preserve offers an unparalleled glimpse of an average day in the life of a bear. After all, the salmon aren’t going to catch themselves.
My journey to Katmai National Park’s bear preserve begins in Anchorage. The sun is just starting to peak out of the massive expanse of open sky. While this is the capital of Alaska, it feels like a stretch to call it a city. The buildings in downtown are decidedly low-rise and the vibe lacks the manic energy of an urban center. You can also see snow-capped mountains in the distance and moose have been known to make impromptu trots down the streets. For where I’m heading though, this is as cosmopolitan as it’s going to get.
Rust’s Flying Service sits on a tiny stretch of Lake Hood just east of Ted Stevens International Airport. My Flight contains a couple of orthodontists and a pilot with a quirky sense of humor. As we lift off the water, he launches his playlist, which begins with Tom Petty’s “Free Falling.” I’m sitting next to him, and its clear he’s done this so many times that the joke is lost on him. What isn’t is the endless expanse of glaciers and the majestic blue sea that cuts between them. Our altitude is well below the clouds providing extreme aerial glimpses of the frontier state, the kind that usually precede Bear Grylls parachuting into his next adventure. When we land on the beach at Katmai, I’m surprised how short the three-hour journey feels.
The park features over 2000 brown bears roaming freely on the remote peninsula. The best place to see them is from viewing platforms at Brooks Falls where they gather to catch salmon. This is when the bear drama can break out. As I approach, one feisty beast refuses to give up his spot near the falls after catching several salmon, so the dejected one trots off only to appear seconds later on top of the falls about 8 feet above his rival, staring him down intently. They exchange growls as tensions grow until a salmon leaps right into the mouth of the dejected beast. Perched above but excitingly close to the action, I can’t imagine being more fully immersed in the scene without taking the place of the salmon as prey of choice.
The bears roam freely throughout the island, so the key is not surprising them. A quick talk with the rangers precedes all of the self-guided tours through the park. It mainly boils down to “make noise when you walk and don’t bring food with you.”
Roaming as self-guided as the bears is exhilarating and slightly terrifying. Around each bend, I wonder what I’ll encounter. There’s a long stretch of open plains with a footbridge stepping over a babbling stream. There are oddly no bears in sight, but I can’t shake the thought that one will appear. They tell you not to run away because that signals you are prey, but I’m not sure I could roar at a bear with a straight face. Luckily, I never have to test this out as they are much more interested in each other and the unlimited salmon bounty, allowing me to be a voyeur in this slice of the wild.
I’m not alone but the lush mountains of greenery and transparently clear streams put me in a trance. I spend what feels like an hour staring at one cub munching on a fresh salmon, his mane soaked and slowly dripping back into the pool of water where he stands. He looks so at ease and content with his place in life. If he sees us, he doesn’t let on, and if he does, what does he see? He doesn’t know of the world beyond this isolated paradise where he’s at the top of the food chain. Not too far away, a larger bear, perhaps older, stands up with what appears to be a big grin. Is she playing to her audience or just naturally whimsical? The thundering rush of the waterfall blankets most sound, and its repetition serves as a mantra. As I wander back to the plane, I’m a little less aware of the world that waits for me and feel a little freer.
There are routes to the park that involve daylong ferries or stays in Homer. The fastest, most scenic, and most expensive is a charter flight like Rusts. The three-hour flight from Anchorage features some of the most breathtaking glacial views and, there’s something magical about landing on water.