10 August 2023, Crosswinds Lake, Katmai NP
I emerged from the tent around 6:30, the first member of the group to stir. Clouds still hung in the sky, but thankfully held their rain - for now, at least. I slowly circled our complex, moving a few steps, scanning my field of vision for anything of interest, then repeating. I breathed deep of the fresh Alaskan air, invigorating me.
Three-quarters of the way through my circuit, as I looked over the greenery hiding our porta-privy location, a bear poked its head out of the bushes. Maybe 30 yards (and a smelly electric fence) separated me from me from Mama. When she dropped out of sight, I moved to a higher vantage, waiting for her reappearance.
There's Mama! Oh, my, baby's there too. I quietly announced their appearance to the nearest tent, and Mike and Karen quickly emerged to check out our visitors.
Soon the ursines moved along and crossed another ridge - and on the slope behind it, we noticed two other bears chasing each other. Too far away for photos, but a good sign to start our day.
The day's first float plane arrived by 7:00, bringing more people to this remote parkland. The rest of our crew soon arose, and Ashley and Colleen fired up the stoves for our coffee and tea. As we greeted the day, I wandered to our porta-privy in the bushes, where our loo with a view looked out on a tundra ridge nearby. Where else can you attend to nature's call while watching a mother bear and her three cubs top a ridge and move your direction down the slope?
As they disappeared behind a closer ridge, I returned to the compound and again posted myself next to Mike and Karen's tent. As expected, here came Mama and cubs! I called the crew to see them as they passed within 20 or so yards of the fence, eventually following the path our earlier visitor had taken.
Eight bears before breakfast. Must be a good way for a day to start.
May as well get used to Alaska time, where a clock is of little use. With no schedule and seemingly endless hours of daylight, we felt no pressure to rush through breakfast or preparations for the day's outing.
Slowly we geared up, put on layers to ward off the morning chill, grabbed and extended trekking poles. Clouds still ruled the sky, but no rain looked imminent.
As we readied for departure, Ashley reiterated the prime directive: "If the bears get too close, I'll say, 'Group up!' At that point, we all need to be together, so the bear sees us as one mean critter the bear better leave alone." And we're off!
Walking across the tundra - what an experience! Between hard, pebbly surfaces lay spaces filled with ground cover only a few inches high - like walking on sponges. Then our path would take us through several yards of knee- or waist-high brush and over a rivulet or stream before returning to the ground cover.
In other areas, the land looked flat, and indeed it gained no elevation. However, small hummocks of land filled the environs, with trenches surrounding each mound. Moving across the region required constant attention to where to plant your feet to avoid a twisted ankle.
Somehow, we all survived, avoiding the bears we saw along the way. Then we reached the edge of the bluff, where the land suddenly plummeted to Moraine Creek below. Behold: the opening salvo of our bear bacchanalia.
(I have no idea what kind of fools thought it a good idea to cross the river to the island with so many bears there.)
The river bent here, split by an island in the center. Arrayed on the river and on the shore, I counted a dozen bears (and a squadron of seagulls, hanging around to pick over any salmon remains). We found a good viewing spot, took off our packs, took out our camp chairs, and settled in for a spell.
The rest of the day passed in a slow-motion blur. It felt as if we had front-row seats to a filming of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. We spent hours at this and other overlooks, watching bears be bears. At times the angle of our sightlines allowed us to see the salmon as they swam upstream.
Just under the surface they lurked, their red forms moving against the current - the prizes sought by the hungry grizzlies.
We watched as the massive creatures eyed the stream, looking for their chance.
They then would erupt in a frenzy of activity, hurtling through the water, diving under the surface, with their snouts - and if lucky, emerging with a fish flapping helplessly.
Some lucky hunters would then rush to shore and head into the woods, hotly pursued by other hoping to steal a meal. Others would simply sit on the sand bar, tearing off and swallowing chunks of salmon while gulls circled them, squawking.
We applauded the winners and heckled those whose fishing skills lagged.
I took particular notice of one case of cat and mouse - err, bear and fish. I could see the single salmon fighting the current, and noticed the bear watching. Soon he jumped in, just as the salmon veered. The bear pivoted, but the salmon moved faster, zigging when the bear zagged. Eventually the bear gave up that finny food as not worth the cost, hoping for some not-so-fast food to come along.
Perhaps it was a mama bear, catching a meal for her babies. One trio of cubs, happy that their mother did so well on the river, erupted in growls and grunts the like of which I've never heard, arguing with each other over the fish fillets.
Our first venue hosted a dozen bears. We later moved to one that featured eighteen. Further platforms gave us fewer ursines, but got us closer to the action.
I took GoPro video from our first seats, but could not figure out how to zoon in. I then tried with my cell phone, but the digital zoom (as compared to analog) gave lower quality photos. Finally, I switched to my Canon, using the video function for the first time. With zooming now available, I had to learn to use Movie mode. After a few miscues, I finally managed to film a successful bear hunt. (Sorry for the shaky camera work, hand-holding the camera and long lens.)
On several occasions a bear would cross the land behind us, heading to or from the tundra. Often they would pass only 20-30 yards from us, at which point we'd heed Ashley's "Group up" command.
One particular bear with blonde coloring was reluctant to move on. She regarded us with a curious eye and took a tentative step in our direction. On cue, we started waving our arms and talking more emphatically, until the bear thought better of it and moved on.
There were mamas with cubs regularly moving about. One Mama we watched moved across the stream, while her offspring tentatively stepped in the water only to retreat to the shore. Mama came back, led them further downstream, and found another spot to cross. Again the cubs crowded together on the shore, agonizing over why Mom was leaving. Finally, one cub took the initiative and plunged in, quickly followed by the others. See, that wasn't so bad, was it?
At our second posting, we noticed a spot of color entering the scene. A raft carried tourists down the creek, heading toward the river bend. They floated slowly, making sure to keep clear of the massive residents.
At our last seating for Wild Kingdom, we sat just off the river, close to the action. We stayed focused on the grizzlies in the river, watching the drama of feeding time. Twice, Colleen looked back and discovered a bear had flanked us, again coming with ten or so yards from us and inspiring Group Ups.
The second time it happened, the ursine looked bored by our hubbub and settled down for a quick catnap. We had to keep glancing back for ten minutes, until it finally roused itself and moved on.
We'd planned to stop by and see the upside-down plane in our wanderings. As we neared it, though, we heard the distinctive drone of a helicopter approaching. "Probably the insurance company," I joked. Turns out I pegged it.
We watched as the chopper landed next to the plane and the crew walked over. our path took a short dip, and by the time we got back to level, the chopper had attached a cable, taken off, and flipped the plane back over (mostly). Fifteen minutes later, with another cable secured, they hauled the plane away
Not something I'd ever expected to witness, especially not in a remote wilderness like this.
We passed by again on our return to camp. This time we stopped and looked at the gouge the propellor had left in the tundra while flipping. Several pieces of plastic of paint shavings littered the ground. Like good citizens, we spent a few minutes cleaning up the site, trying to return it to pristine.
There I go, litter-picking again.
While focusing on one of nature's largest creatures, it's easy to ignore the smaller pieces of the biome that help to make the whole. Wildflowers still bloomed in this barren land, adding a touch of color to the land.
Even on our way back to camp, carefully stepping across the tundra, we ran across bears. This is truly their land, and we are but visitors here in.
So maybe this place doesn't have the eye-popping beauty of a Mount Rainier of Cascade Pass. It lacks the history of Dry Tortugas or the thermal features of Yellowstone. It does have top-of-the-line wildlife, though, and a savage, remote beauty in this stark, serene landscape that grows on you.
Time for meet the crew, part 2: Mike and Karen.
Q: Time to nominate someone for that free Katmai package. Who is your choice?
Karen: My friend Renee. We often drive to the beach, finding new back roads to get there. En route, we always look for bears!
Mike: I second Tim's choice. Our backpacker friend Ed would be perfect for this trip.
Q: What would you be doing right now if you weren't here?
Mike: I'd probably be at my mom's house, helping her out. She's not been doing well.
Karen: If I wasn't here, I'd be enjoying some other trip. I have to keep go-go-going!
Q: What elevates this park above others?
Mike: The bears! Because they're in their natural element, doing what they've done forever.
Q: What was the first National Park you ever visited?
Karen: Yellowstone. My parents met there, so they keep going back to celebrate that. I've been there at least ten times.
Q: If you could live in a National Park, which one would you choose?
Mike: Glacier! It has such variety. I could see and experience the diversity of nature.
Q: Describe you dream job.
Karen: It would have to be tied to travel. A photo-journalist, maybe.
Q: Karen, what would you tell your first-grade class about Katmai?
Karen: Just showing them the pictures would get them excited. Even better, I would come up with study plans for a week, tieing the bears in with science, English, and math topics. They would be blown away.
Me: I remember talking to first-graders. They're very stream-of-conciousness. Ask if anyone's ever visited a farm, and responses may go, "My uncle owns a farm," to "My uncle owns a car," to My brother rides a motorcycle."
Karen: Ha! And they always end up with, "I have a dog."