July 9, 2014 at 11:12 AM ET
“Bears” on the big screen may look cute and cuddly, but for a more personal and visceral experience, nothing beats seeing them in the wild.
“There’s just something about them that gets a hold of you and doesn’t let go,” said Roy Wood, chief of interpretation at Katmai National Park and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula. “It’s just so primal in all of us that we have this desire to see bears.”
And Alaska is definitely the place to do so, thanks to ample populations of both black and brown (or grizzly) bears and its array of dedicated viewing areas. Most sites require advance planning in terms of travel and available space (fees may apply) but the following five offer experiences that are anything but Disney-fied:
A 30-minute floatplane ride from Juneau, the Pack Creek viewing area is located on Admiralty Island, whose native Tlingit name, "Kootznoowoo," is said to mean “Fortress of the Bears.” It’s no myth: The island boasts one of the highest densities of brown bears in North America.
They come to the creek to dine on sedges, shellfish and especially salmon, which come to spawn in late June or early July. “We can’t guarantee that you’ll see them every time,” said Harry Tullis, program manager for the site. “But within two or three days of the salmon showing up, there are bears everywhere.”
Thirty miles southeast of Wrangell, Anan Creek supports one of the largest pink salmon runs in the state, some of the most easily accessed bear-viewing opportunities — mostly black bears but also the occasional brown — and, as a result, the occasional crowd. (Up to 60 permits a day are allowed during peak season.)
For a more intimate experience, consider renting the nearby Anan Bay cabin for a night or two. It’s primitive (no bedding or running water) and reservations go quickly, but when the crowds leave, it’s just you, the trees, the water and the solitude. Oh yeah, and the bears, who have been known to wander the mile-long boardwalk between the cabin and the creek.
Pressed for time and/or money? Then head to Steep Creek, which is right next to the highly popular and easily accessed Mendenhall Glacier, just a 10-minute drive from downtown Juneau. The site, which is free, was originally opened as a salmon-viewing area, but in Alaska, where the sockeyes and silvers go, bears are bound to follow.
Such proximity, however, can be a double-edged sword. With residential neighborhoods nearby, the bears are well-conditioned to humans and may wander so close that photographers with telephoto lenses may find themselves wishing they’d brought a wide-angle.
As the crow flies, Fish Creek is the closest managed bear-viewing spot to the Lower 48 but it’s also one of the most remote. That’s because it’s located outside Hyder (pop. 87), an isolated town that’s only accessible via road from British Columbia.
Both black and brown bears frequent the site from mid-July to early September, and it’s not uncommon to see beavers, bald eagles and the occasional wolf. Visitors are advised to bring rain gear — it rains a lot here — and government-issued photo ID, preferably a passport, since crossing the border is a given.
Katmai National Park & Preserve
Home to approximately 2,200 brown bears, Katmai is the big kahuna of Alaskan bear-viewing, and Brooks Camp — where a low waterfall creates a veritable salmon buffet — draws bears (and people) like bees to honey. “It’s spectacular, it’s iconic,” said Wood. “It’s the chance to get that photo that everybody wants of the fish in midair and the bear with its jaws open just ready to snag it.”
In the meantime, the site’s web cam provides a good sneak peek. During one recent viewing, it showed not one, not two, but nine brown bears enjoying some salmon sashimi on the fly.