Bush Planes and Brown Bears
These bear-viewing flights offer a rare opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with Alaskan grizzlies.
I’m already standing so close to this 400-pound brown bear that I can hear the smacking of her lips as she peacefully munches her way through a field of grass just outside the boundaries of Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park. Which is why I’m taken completely by surprise when my guide leans over and whispers “She seems pretty relaxed, so I think it’s safe to get a little closer.”
In my travels over the years I’ve seen a handful of grizzlies in the wild, but always from a distance that made them look like little more than balls of chocolate-colored fur to the naked eye. So the idea of being here, close enough to take in even the smallest details of this powerful creature—including those potentially-lethal three-inch claws—without binoculars is one of those wildlife encounters that comes around oh, say, once in a lifetime if you’re lucky. The fact that I lived to tell the tale, well, I guess that makes me luckier still.
Like many of my favorite adventures, this thoroughly remarkable experience began routinely enough at the offices of Anchorage-based Alaska Air Taxi. Along with more conventional flight-seeing tours, the company offers two different bear-viewing expeditions using its fleet of tundra tire-equipped bush planes.
As we approached our destination 90 minutes southwest of Anchorage on the shores of Cook Inlet, our pilot flew low for a closer look at the beach that would serve as our runway. Landing on that sloping strip of hard-packed sand was a unique thrill in itself, but it was just the beginning of our adventure.
Jim Isaak, our guide and owner of the Alaska Homestead Lodge, met us on the beach astride his four-wheel ATV with his specially-built passenger trailer that serves as the lodge’s version of an airport shuttle in tow. After a quick pit stop at the inn, it was time to head out for a closer look at the brown bears we could see grazing in the marshy meadow outside the dining room’s large windows.
Not surprisingly, those bears that were so plentiful only a short while earlier decided to make themselves scarce as we bounced down the beach in the trailer. But, just as we were beginning to believe we might not get the up-close grizzly encounter we’d come for, Jim hiked to the top of a dune and signaled us to follow.
As we crested the ridge we saw our bear, her silhouette reflected in a small pool like something out of a wildlife photographer’s fantasy. As our small group stopped to admire her from a distance of about 50 yards, I realized that we were already much closer to this magnificent creature than most folks would ever get outside the confines of their local zoo.
Having lived side-by-side with these bears for years, Isaak is keenly tuned in to their behavior. So when he told us the sow grizzly seemed to be comfortable enough with our presence for us to move closer, we didn’t hesitate—well, okay, maybe we hesitated a little—to step forward for a better look.
Things got really interesting a few minutes later however, when the bear, head down and munching the entire time, began to amble in our direction. It was at that moment I remembered the old joke where one hiker asks his companion why he’s putting on his running shoes after encountering an angry brown bear.
“You’re crazy, there’s no way you can outrun a full-grown grizzly,” he tells his friend. The second hiker replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.”
Brown bears (ursus arctos)—also known as grizzlies—can be found throughout the world. While their size can vary greatly, the brown bears of Alaska’s Admiralty and Kodiak Islands are among the largest carnivores on land.
Despite the fact that brown bears are technically considered carnivores, much of their diet consists of plant material including grasses, roots, and berries.
- Weather in Alaska can be unpredictable, so leave enough flexibility in your itinerary to allow you to reschedule if storms cause your original flight to be canceled.
- Alaska’s capricious climate also makes packing a warm fleece jacket and a waterproof shell a good idea year-round. Same goes for wearing sturdy shoes or light hiking boots suitable for crossing uneven terrain.
- Because these trips last between 6 and 10 hours and the nearest convenience store is hundreds of miles away, take a minute to throw a few snacks and a water bottle into your daypack.
- Though this borders on the obvious, be sure to bring your binoculars, camera or camcorder, and more film, memory cards, or tape than you think you’ll need. A spare camera battery can also come in handy.