Getting up at 6 am is usually not a part of my dream day unless it is already light outside because we are in Alaska and we are about to take a float plane to Lake Clark National Park and preserve, home to coastal brown bears fishing along the shores of park lakes and rivers. Float planes are tiny and only fit 4 people with everyone getting a window seat and amazing views of volcanoes, rivers, and forests below, or clouds depending on the weather. Due to Alaska limited road system, hundreds of communities in the state are only accessible by floatplanes, helicopters or ski planes when lakes freeze over in winter. Helicopter would be our other option, but they are generally more expensive and I find them a lot less gracious if you remember an old joke “Helicopters don’t fly. They beat the air into submission.” Unsurprisingly Alaska has the highest number of pilots per capita among U.S. states; in fact, many Alaskans would learn to fly when they are very young and get their license at 17, as our pilot’s 7 year old son assured us he could fly the entire way to Lake Clark by himself.
Now, Alaska has the highest concentration of brown bears and black bears and polar bears than any other state or country except Russia where 120,000 brown bears roam in the wilderness. Alaska only has 30,000 but for its size compared to Russia it is a very healthy population and hunting is allowed though limited and poaching is rare. Despite travelling through prime bear habitat throughout our trip, I was uncertain whether we would actually see bears considering they are shy animals and tend to avoid humans and if you do surprise a bear and he becomes aware of your presence only when you get too close, the bear might act aggressively. The safe distance from a bear is considered 300 meters as opposed to 25 meters for any other wildlife in Alaska, including moose, caribou and dall sheep. Just to make sure we get a good look at Alaskan grizzlies, we decided to take a bear viewing tour where you get to see brown coastal bears from the boat. As an added bonus, we would enjoy a floatplane ride over the Kachemak bay and pristine views of the Park.
We leave the dock at 7 am before the weather shifts for the worse and 45 minutes after land on Crescent Lake and taxi to the shore. Flying in a small floatplane feels in a way similar to flying on a commercial aircraft except you get to skip the security lines, safety procedures, and always get a window seat with amazing views the whole time. To be fair, our pilot Jimmy does point out two survival kits in the back, a satellite phone, and a raft under the seat – items that could come in handy if you ever have to land on a remote lake with no one around. Pilots usually look up weather reports before the flight but they are inherently unreliable and they mostly rely on radio communications with fellow pilots reporting weather conditions at their locations. There is a light rain this morning, but with little wind and the rain dissipating we have a smooth trip all the way to the National Park.
Right after arrival, we are greeted by a biologist and a wildlife guide – Colleen. University of Montana graduate she studied bear populations and worked at Redoubt Mountain Lodge in Lake Clark for the summer. Redoubt is the only lodging in the park, apart from ranger cabins and hosts up to 12 guests at a time, all of whom are flown in. Original settlers acquired the land under homestead laws and then their property interest grandfathered once the area became Lake Clark National Park. The lodge is mostly a fishing destination due to salmon runs on nearby Crescent lake but also attracts photographers and naturalists as well as local bear population hunting for the same sockeye and coho salmon. Lodge is guarded against sometimes too curious bears by an electric fence and two huskies.
Colleen right away takes us on a boat ride on Crescent Lake and within minutes we see a small brown bear wondering on the shore with porcupine quills in its nose – apparently it is a younger female bear who is not a skilled fisher and relies on her sister for food. Just a short ride away we notice her mother, a large sow with a perfect diving technique. She keeps diving into the lake and surfacing, progressing along the shore; she finally catches her salmon lunch after numerous dives and disappears in the tall grass. Bears are usually strong swimmers especially polar ones that can swim up to 100 miles a day but a few dive that long and deep as she did.
Continuing around the lake we come across another bear who mastered a wait-and-catch tactic, hiding in the coastal vegetation she waits until the salmon jumps out of the water and goes for it in one fast sweep. Salmon has better luck this time around, however. Just before returning to the lodge for lunch we catch a glimpse of a male subadult bear, a boar, also in pursuit of salmon. Generally young females and sows with cubs occupy the lake area while large male boars fish at prime spots on the river, but subadults and yearling bears can hardly compete with adult boars and are occasionally seen on the lake shores.
Many bears come back to the Crescent lake area every year and are familiar faces to the lodge employees who are aware of their distinctive personalities and fishing styles. Most sows in the area normally have 1 or 2 cubs depending on their fat reserves though some saws with three cubs were seen in the Park indicating favorable conditions for the bear population growth. Besides Alaska there are four other considerably smaller bear populations in the lower 48, including Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington and they are also doing quite well according to a recent proposal to delist brown bears in Yellowstone.
Back at the lodge we are treated to a delicious freshly caught silver parmesan crusted salmon lunch with rice, salad and chocolate chip cookies and hot cider for desert. Indeed, what could be better after a cold and windy boat ride than to have a salmon that you just saw jumping in the water waiting for you on the table next to the fireplace. Quickly devouring lunch we load the floatplane and are on our way back to Homer. Just a few miles out we notice a large boar running after salmon along the narrow river stream zigzagging below us. We land in Homer by 2 pm and started a long drive back to Anchorage.