This blog is the first of two parts, wherein I share the tale of camping with brown bears in Katmai National Park. The second installment of this blog will see us continuing out the Aleutian Island chain to Dutch Harbor, then to Kodiak.
Leaving Haines, I am always curious about leaving one of the best places on Earth to go on vacation, but we like to visit places we have not been before, or possibly just see them in a different season or a different light and it is always a welcome break to “get out of Dodge” for a spell. We have been guiding all season and looking forward to seeing someone else’s tour for a bit.
It will be 20 hours of driving to where we are going, so the plan is to break the trip into a three-day journey.
Our first day out is a short shot up the road to Haines Junction in the Yukon, where we will connect up with the Alaskan Highway. It is raining to beat the band, (flood warnings in Haines, and it turns out that several people died in a landslide in Sitka around this time) and we are hoping the weather will rain itself out. Enjoyed a dinner at the Raven, which is still a 5-Star restaurant out in the middle of rural Yukon.
Our first evening out is spent at a friend’s cabin in Haines Junction, then up and out and seeing the first “termination dust” (first snowfall on peaks) on the Kluane range. We are praying the rain will rain itself out but the blessing is beautiful rainbows along the way. The Yukon has a strange definition of road repair and seemingly an attention deficit disorder. I can only wish good luck, slow speeds, and attentive driving between Beaver Creek and Burwash Landing.
We spend a wonderful evening at the Gakona Lodge, Alaska’s oldest continually operating roadhouse. It has all the atmosphere of history, and floors that have long since forsaken the hope of being level, but the accommodation is an absolute treat (and we ended up booking a cabin for our return trip). Presumably, one of the rooms is somewhat haunted, but as the door was closed to that room, and being unsure as to its occupancy by either live guests or relic spirits, I did not have a first hand experience. Upon our arrival, it is apparent they have been enjoying their own sketchy weather, as the ground is still covered in accumulations of hail stones. A very adequate restaurant on the premises, and all the locals gather at the bar in the evening.
We arise to a beautiful, picture perfect day with splendid views of glaciers, mountains, and flora as we continue along the Glenn Highway.
It is somewhat difficult making progress when there are so many must-stop and see opportunities along the way. Photographers have a propensity to enjoy “peak experiences” as they row row row their boat down the stream. Life is but a dream, and some days are dreamier than others.
Persevering through photographic opportunities, Anchorage (love the price of fuel at Costco!) and road construction delays, we find ourselves in Homer where we look forward to some world class bear viewing at Hallo Bay in Katmai National Park the next day. The weather appears to be with us and I am cautiously optimistic as we repack and gear up for the next few days.
The weather is still with us as we gather at the Hallo Bay Bear Camp office to weigh in and pay up and head for the airport. It is an hour long flight across the Cook Inlet from Homer to our “camp” at Hallo Bay. On the flight, there are five souls including the pilot, a wonderful German fellow who made our flight quite memorable. We circled humpback whales far below, their white wings quite visible, beheld beautiful glaciers and tarn lakes along the way. We saw a big dark brown bear as we landed. Jerry met us as he dropped off his “day” people and walked us up to camp, where we received the safety talk before leading us up into the field. We walked about 3/4 mile up the beach and across streams to our “hunting ground.”
It is a bit odd to spend $1000/person/night to go bear viewing at Hallo Bay. The wife and I are wildlife and wildlife photography guides in Haines, Alaska, so why would we want to go somewheere else and spend $4000 to do what we do at home?
1. Larger brown bears.
2. More brown bears … we will have a greater variety than we usually get at home.
3. A new setting … way out in the wilderness of Katmai National Park.
4. Fewer people around. In fact there are only seven guests and two guides and a cook.
As we arrive to our station, there are three serious photographers present who are busy “watchfully dozing” and waiting for some bear action along the creek. All seem interested in what I will pull out of a large Lowepro pack I have shouldered in … a 500 mm f/4 Nikon lens on a D800 Nikon body, and a 1.4 teleconverter in reserve, mounted on a Gitzo tripod and Wimberley gimbal mount. Mine is NOT the largest array on the beach, but it will do and gives me some credibility in good company. It had been such a sunny and warm day in camp, I decided not to bring my rain coat. Within thirty minutes it is raining pretty good. All I can do is take off my shirt and stash it under the protection gear (large trash bag), deciding there is nothing to do but get wet. (The camera gear is better protected than I am as the first order of business was to put the rain cowl over lens and camera). It is not long before one guide and four guests decide to leave for camp. Within ten minutes of their departure, out come three brown bears: mom and cubs who played and cavorted to our delight and profit.
As an added bonus we are treated to a rainbow and a pot of gold. Don’t like the weather?, wait five minutes. I dry out nicely, and the afternoon continues to treat us well. Then we are back to camp for a scrumptious meal of Mountain House freeze dried vittles, then back into the field for more action along the creek.
An extraordinary day. By day’s end we have enjoyed the company of six bears in a 24-hour period, as well as a cross fox and a wolf. We had a bear to the left, and a bear to the right, with a wolf coming at us right down the middle. This is why we have chosen to take the bus man’s holiday!
Bear viewing protocol is somewhat different in Hallo Bay than the protocol we practice in Haines. A good illustration was an incident that I will well remember as my closest significant encounter with brown bears. Our guide suggested we move up creek and situate ourselves on a gravel bar in the middle of the creek. This would allow for some nice action shots like the one above, where would could watch bears actively fishing with a good vantage to some great shots. As we positioned ourselves and waited, sure enough down the creek comes a happy bear. We watched Fozzy frolick for a bit before her behavior suggested she had gone on alert. Further upstream, a head appeared from behind the bushes on the right bank. The face had a fresh wound on the left cheek. As this newcomer became more visible, I could see it was missing the right ear, and the left appeared to be the worse for wear, though neither of these ear abnormalities appeared to be the result of anything as recent as the wound on his face. Fozzy moved down river, which meant approaching us rather directly where we remained on the gravel bar. Jerry’s instructions followed the appropriate protocol. Everyone grouped together, and knelt low, and remained quiet, as she walked past us within about fifteen feet to our right. The bear appeared to pay no attention to us as she moved downstream away from Scary Bear. It was not long before Scary Bear walked past us on the left, about a similar distance. He paid a bit more attention to us, but passed by without issue. Glad to see him go, and a number of us swallowed hard while the rest did their best to unpucker. The usual protocol is to make yourself appear large. Here on the bay, the idea is to make ourselves look small, and no threat to the bears. Focused on their fish, they have “better fish to fry!”
Two subsequent days of high winds prevent our leaving as scheduled. After the second morning of no-flying weather, I am beginning to get nervous about making our scheduled rendezvous with the Alaska Marine Highway System for our trip to Dutch Harbor.
The good news is that we end up with two extra days on the beach, amortizing our rather expensive investment. I think my camera batteries will see me through, but I am forced to start shooting jpeg images rather than the usual RAW format in an attempt to make the memory cards last.
After one extra night and two days of windy weather and watchful and anxious waiting, we get the good news that the plane is on its way, and we are lifted off the beach and returned to Homer in time to give us a full day of refueling, repacking, and washing before leaving for our Aleutian leg of the journey.
For a full collection of photos of the brown bears, critters and landscapes from the Hallo Bay chapter, visit my Katmai Gallery at: https://timenspace.smugmug.com/Collections/Katmai-2015/
And now the ugly truth …. here is a rather scathing review I gave this company on TripAdvisor:
The only reason I am giving this excursion two stars is in appreciation of the absolutely fantastic job done by the camp crew who did their very best to see to the care, comfort, and enjoyment of their guests. Otherwise, given management’s utter disregard to the relationship between cost and quality, I would have been hard pressed to award a single star.
Honestly, I am quite glad to have signed up for this excursion. It was a lifetime experience (and I am a photography and wildlife guide in Alaska, so I say that with some credential to my evaluation) and I am glad to have enjoyed the opportunity, as I doubt this operation will be in business much longer.
At $1000/person/night, I expected a certain level of comfort, even given the understanding that having lost their land lease, the camp’s infrastructure was in the process of being dismantled. I understood we would be housed in tents. I was surprised that the tents were so small. Turns out the photo of the camp on the company website was doctored to stretch out the photo’s aspect ratio making the tents look about fifty percent larger than their actual size. In the photo the camp looked well manicured. Turns out the tents are pitched on matted sedge grass and wild flora and the biting bugs were voracious. No chairs to sit on with the exception of four chairs and two benches for seven guests inside a very small and cramped galley tent. I did understand the kitchen had been dismantled and we would be fed Mountain House meals. What I did not expect was a complete lack of any sanitary facility or accommodation for washing, beyond a bottle of hand sanitizer in the galley tent. For our safety there was an electric fence around the camp, but if we needed to use a privy we were told to grab one of two shovels, head into the woods and dig a hole, and to make sure we buried out waste deep enough so that a wolf would not dig it up. REALLY?
Remember I said that the cost of this excursion is $1000/person/night. The current offering is a complete rip-off, though I would like to reiterate that our two guides (Lance and Jerry) and cook Daisy were top notch professionals who did the best they could with what the company owners were currently willing to provide. I do understand many of their previous guides were unwilling to return given the current state of affairs and the many regular customers will not return either. I predict by next year this review may be a moot.
If you would like to make some adventures of your own, be treated well, and not asked to dig a hole in the woods, , consider joining me for a personalized workshop!