Web posted Wednesday, May 8, 2002

photo: activities

Brown bears converge on the Brooks River in Katmai National Park every summer to gorge on Bristol Bay sockeye and chum salmon and fatten up for winter.

Brown bear viewing

An increasingly popular attraction in Homer is brown bear viewing. Several air services provide regular flights across Cook Inlet to the heart of brown bear country -- the Alaska Peninsula. Flightseeing charters can take you to where the big bruins snatch salmon out of crystal streams, laze in fields of wildflowers and roam the beaches as they while away the summer months.

Most bear-viewing packages cost around $475 per person and are a full day's undertaking. Some services go to world-famous sites such as Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park or McNeil River in the state-managed McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. Other charter operators have "secret" sites where they land on a lake or beach and hike into the bears' lair. Visitors will learn about Alaska's flora and fauna along the way.

Many people initially are nervous about the idea of spending even a minute in close proximity to the largest land mammal in Alaska. But the experienced guides who lead the viewing tours have hundreds, if not thousands of hours of such experiences without a single close call. The key, they say, is not to surprise the bears or to approach them, but rather let the bears approach you. It is not uncommon to see upwards of two or three dozen bears in a day, but as with all wildlife viewing opportunities, there are no guarantees.

Other ways to see a bear


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Longer and shorter stays among the brown bears of the Alaska Peninsula are also available, and Homer is the transportation hub. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game offers four-day stays at McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, located across Cook Inlet from the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Small groups of visitors can see up to 40 bears at a time at the McNeil River falls from July to mid-August. The number of visitors allowed in is restricted, but the number of no-shows is high, and stand-bys often get in.

The first step is to request an application from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Anchorage (907-267-2182) and return it before the permit drawing March 1. If selected, you fly in one day, spend the next four days visiting the falls in highly monitored groups of 10, and fly out the sixth day. All visitors camp on the grounds, although cooking is done in a cook shack.

Homer air charters can also fly visitors to world-famous Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park, where there are both camping and lodge accomodations.

A relatively new addition to the brown bear tourism business is boat tours. Several offer cruises from Homer to the Alaska Peninsula coastline. Visitors spend the day with guides watching bears, then return to their floating lodge for meals and relaxation.

For those who are curious about bears but would rather not get quite so "up close and personal," the Pratt Museum has a high-tech solution. The museum has installed a video camera at McNeil River, and visitors to the museum on Bartlett Street can watch the bruins in action from afar, manipulating the camera to focus on the bears as they feed on returning salmon, raise their cubs and interact with each other at the falls. For more on the bear cameras, see the Pratt Museum section on Page 42.