(Bird and wildlife photos by Nancy Bell, text and scenic photos by Chuck Bell)
Where to begin in talking about this day? As wildlife experiences go, this day came as close as anything to the day Chuck spent with a team darting and capturing a 2,000-pound male Black Rhino in the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe.
We met up at 8:15 am at the seaplane dock of Emerald Air on Beluga Lake just below the town of Homer, and right parallel to Homer's little airport. Chris Day gave us a very good briefing on the Brown (Grizzly) Bear and how to behave around it and in various situations. She explained that she has been studying and taking people to see the bears for more than 20 years. She was extremely knowledgeable about their biology, habits and behaviors. We then donned hip boots and boarded the plane, maintained with loving care and piloted by Ken Day. The plane was a 1961 model DeHavilland Otter, configured as a seaplane. It held 9 passengers in the back plus pilot and a co-pilot's seat, at which the controls had been removed to allow a ninth client to sit there. It is an extremely powerful airplane that can actually take off from water at a speed of only 48 mph. This allows it to go into and out of very small bodies of water. We flew across Cook Inlet at a height of about 1400 feet.
Chuck had the co-pilot's seat going over. After about 50 minutes of flying we approached the Alaska Peninsula and flew down the coast of Katmai National Park until we reached an area which they knew had bears at this particular time of year. As we descended, we could look down and see bears out on the flat grassy coastal plane. Ken put the plane gently down on a nearly calm sea in a bay and taxied close to the shore. We all climbed carefully down the ladder to the pontoon and dropped into the knee-deep water. Chuck's left boot immediately began to fill with water from two leaks in it. But no matter, we were off to see the bears! When we got up on the beach, Chuck noticed that each time he put his left foot down, water shot out of the lower hole on the side of his boot in a small stream. We all had a good laugh out of it.
Walking closely together in a tight group to minimize the size of our presence to the bears, we soon came upon a young female bear digging clams. Chris explained that only the bears in this 30 mile stretch of park seem to dig clams. This technique is not apparently known to other bears.
The bears here were spending their time grazing on grass and tender plants and eating clams. In a couple of weeks, they would head about 40 miles over the mountains to an area with salmon streams to be there in time for the salmon spawning runs. We approached very slowly and got extremely close to the bear digging clams. Nancy got very close photos. When the bear finally moved off (not because of our presence -- she was quite comfortable with us being there), we counted 20 holes she had dug in the sand. The head of a Grizzly is a huge round massive thing with a shorter and broader nose and face than a Black Bear.
We then moved back further away from the beach out onto the grassy coastal plain, where we could see several bears around. We observed them chasing one another, as males vied for dominance and females fled from males interested in breeding. The females were just coming into estrus. We eventually did see a pair of bears mating, and Chris explained that they usually remained together for about 45 minutes. But this time, the female broke it off and ambled away, with the male in hot pursuit.
After a time, he mounted her again. We approached a few other bears quite closely, allowing for some excellent photos and giving us all a good chance to observe how they graze. Along the way Chris showed us specific plants and grasses that the bears eat, explaining how each one is useful and necessary for bear nutrition. We even sampled some and decided they would make a nice salad. Add the clams and you have a feast!
At one point, Chuck - using his binoculars - was able to see 12 bears out there on the plain. At the end of the day, Chris said she figured we saw a total of about 25 different bears during the day, and she recognized many of the individual bears by their markings, facial patterns, etc. She said we were lucky that it was a cool and overcast day. If it had been sunny and hot, the bears probably would have stayed up the slopes in the trees to keep cool, but today they were out on the coastal plain in force. It was truly extraordinary to move among them like that and never feel even the least bit threatened by them.
After nearly 3 hours of walking among the bears, we sat down on some driftwood and ate our lunch. Chris explained that these bears do not connect humans with food, and she made it very clear that no one was to leave even the tiniest crumb behind. As we finished lunch, a female bear, being followed by a male, walked very close by us in an obvious attempt to ditch the trailing male. She assumed, rightly, that he would not want to come so near to us, and she could leave him behind. But after a short while, his lust overcame his fear, and he resumed his pursuit, though he dropped down a stream bank to go around us, rather than staying on the bear path that the female had taken. After about 10 minutes he was back on her tail again.
We began to work our way back toward the estuary of a river flowing into the bay, where Ken was going to bring the plane to pick us up. On the way, we came across some fresh wolf tracks, which were nearly 5 inches across. Too bad we didn't see this animal too. When Ken tried to put the plane down in the estuary, he saw that because of the extremely low tide, there was not enough water for take-off so he chose to put the plane down back in the bay. We reversed direction and headed back down the beach. We had done a lot of walking that day through tall grasses over uneven ground in awkward hip boots and we were all tired. We all put forth one last effort as we waded out to the plane in choppy water. Chuck's boot again filled with water (he was able to empty it out when he crossed streams up on land). It was much harder to scramble up onto the float pontoon than slide off it and most of us ended up with cold sea water slopping into our boots. On the way back Ken circled around Hallo Glacier to give us all a good look and to take pictures. Most of us dozed in the plane, exhausted after the cold air (the temperature never got above 45 degrees) and excitement.
On returning to Homer, we were too tired to cook the good fish we had bought, so we went over to a little café, where Nancy enjoyed pulled pork and Chuck had a buffalo burger. We then went down to the next boardwalk and got an ice cream before returning to our apartment and falling into bed, again not bothered by the “midnight sun”.