KATMAI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, Alaska (AP) — Kim Spanjol has seen gorillas in Congo and orangutans in Borneo. But for a honeymoon with her husband Jim O'Brien, she planned a trip to Katmai National Park and Preserve in remote Alaska, where they started seeing brown bears the minute their floatplane landed on the beach.
"There's a bear in the water, and there's a bear coming down the beach," said Spanjol, a psychologist from New York. "And then, we were coming in to eat and there was a bear running by, and there were three bears just over there by the river. So, that was amazing to have it so accessible."
About 10,000 people make the difficult trek here each summer to see the bears, some staying at a small lodge or the campground at Brooks Camp, others flying in from elsewhere in Alaska for the day. The 4-million-plus acre (1.6-million hectare) park, a little bigger than Connecticut, is located on the Alaska Peninsula, about 250 miles (about 400 kilometers) southwest of Anchorage. Brooks Camp is only accessible by air.
At peak bear-viewing season, the end of July, there will be up to 70 adult bears plus cubs within a one-mile area of Brooks Camp. It's not uncommon to see brown bears running around the camp, dodging humans as the bruins playfully chase each other.
That there have been only two minor mishaps in the last 63 years between the species is a testament to rules put in place by rangers to respect the bears' right of way. "I don't think there's any place quite like Brooks Camp in that we've got so many people and so many bears," said Roy Wood, chief of interpretation at Katmai.
What draws the bears here are salmon running in the Brooks River. The bears stand patrol at Brooks Falls, about a mile walk from Brooks Camp, and try to catch the jumping salmon. When they snag one, they usually polish it off on a sandbar or off the side of the river — unless an aggressive male brown bear tries to steal the fish.
Bear-viewing stands have been built at Brooks Falls, an area about 200 yards (about 185 meters) downstream, called the riffles, and at the lower river, which is prime viewing area in September. "The bears behave differently at that time of the year, they're really fat," said ranger Michael Fitz. "Instead of chasing fish actively, a lot of the times they are just cruising up and down the river like battleships. They're looking for anything that can't swim away from them."
The flight here from Anchorage is about a three-hour trip, and if you're lucky, you can see white beluga whales surfacing in Cook Inlet. The ride also can be bumpy, especially through the narrows of Lake Clark Pass. The pass offers stunning views of mountains and glaciers, but if the ride is rough, you might want to keep the barf bag handy. Air taxis from the Alaska hub city of King Salmon are the cheapest way in, about $200 a person, but you have to get to King Salmon first.
Other floatplane flights are available from places like Anchorage, Homer or Kodiak. These can range up to $795 per person from Anchorage for a round trip but if you can afford it, it's an ideal way to take a day trip to Brooks Camp to see the bears.
For longer stays, the hardest thing is arranging lodging. There are few places to sleep at Brooks Camp and you have to book months ahead. The private Brooks Lodge has 16 rooms, with four beds each. Mike Wheeler of Kansas City, Kan., said the lodge cost him $615 a night, not prohibitive if you split it four ways, but he said the amenities and wildlife make up for the costs.
"In other places, you can pay less for a cabin, but you have to hire a guide to find the wildlife," he said. "Here, I can walk out the front door and fairly quickly see bears."
Lodge owner Sonny Petersen said he'll begin taking reservations for the 2015 season on Jan. 1, 2014. He said reservations for July will be gone within a week, but it will take a little longer for the rest of the cabins to be filled.