Thursday, July 22, 2010

We took a flight on K Bay Air/Alaska Bear Adventures today to see brown bears up close. The trip included two K Bay Cessna's, pilots Michael (owner operator) and Jack and nine eager tourists. Our destination was Lake Clark National Park and Preserve (the park encompasses approximately 4,050,000 acres) on the west side of Cook Inlet. The flight took about an hour; we flew past emerald colored islands with waterfalls snaking down to the sea. Below us white Gulls and Kittiwakes skimmed the water. We flew over small homesteads and an old cannery. Finally we arrive, Jack makes one pass over the beach, then sets the plane down gently. We have landed on the beach of Chinita Bay. The beach is scattered with clam shells dug up by the bears.

It’s drizzling so we pull on our rain gear, grab our packs and hike around a point to watch bears Michael saw before we landed. Michael gives us his bear safety pep talk. Walk single file when approaching bears to reduce our threat appearance; stay together, never further than an arm’s length apart; when we see bears we must group together and kneel; if a bear charges we MUST STAND OUR GROUND! Michael says he will step between us and the bear if it charges. He’s armed with a magnesium flare. He says the locals use the flares instead of guns or bear spray. We round the point and three bears are scattered in a meadow grazing on salt marsh grass. Our pilot, Jack calls them scary cows. Michael talks about what bears eat, grass, berries, clams, and fish. We all kneel in the high grass and watch the bears. Michael says the bears eat a little, play a little, nap a little and sure enough two of the bears lay down side by side for a nap. But they are not sleeping; every now and then the two napping bears sit up and scan the area. A bear slowly walks our way, grazing and working her way towards us. She is shedding her winter coat so she looks shaggy; the rain makes her look disheveled. It’s funny watching her eat, munching like a cow and chewing, chewing, chewing. She is amazing, unless you get close, you can’t appreciate her size, really long legs, front paws the size of catcher’s mitts, a huge wide head, she is massive. As she walked towards us I had to wonder if she was doing Eeny, meeny, miny, moe which tourist should I eat? Then she lays down for a nap. Time for us to move on.

One of the women in the group asks about a pee break. Jack leads four of us to a spot where we can drop our drawers in private. Seems like a nice spot, at least that’s what the sow with two cubs thought, all nestled snug and dry under the trees we were headed for! Jack spots the bears, stops us in our tracks, reminds us to stand our ground and we wait for mom to move on. The youngest member of our little group is Stephanie who says she doesn’t need to pee anymore, she’s thinks she peed her pants!

Once the coast is clear we start peeling clothes. We have on thigh high rubber wadding boots, wet rain pants, jeans, etc. so preparing to pee is a slow process. Stephanie tells us she has never peed in the woods before and doesn’t know how to. We explain it to her, but she has trouble with the peeling off wet clothes, squatting & balancing, avoiding her pants and boots while peeing. Stephanie finally opts for the outhouse we will pass later in the trip.

Back to the beach, past our planes, up a path that is scattered with fresh bear poop. Because their diet right now is grass, the poop looks like huge horse road apples. Did I mention there is A LOT of fresh bear poop?

We reach the outhouse, it is a very basic wooden structure, no door, no lid and a coffee can sits on top of the toilet paper roll to protect it from the elements. Stephanie and several others avail themselves of the facilities.

We pass several trees that have bear fur embedded in the bark and huge scratch marks that reach high up on the trunks. Michael says there is a viewing area at the end of the path, but sometimes the bears use it. They roll the logs around, messing with the place. Sure enough, there is a bear there, we kneel down and wait for Jack and Michael to give us the all clear. The bear wanders into the woods so we head for the viewing area. In front of us is a huge meadow with a stream bisecting it. The meadow is called the nursery, sows come here with their cubs to graze. We see cubs and bears scattered across the meadow. The viewing area bear is back, he’s emerged from the woods close to us (notice the rain in the photo.) He is big and his fur is much darker than any bear we’ve seen. He is aware of us, but not concerned. His presence disturbs the other bears, they’re all standing, trying to get a better look. A young bear across the creek quickly retreats to a safe distance. Our bear wades the creek causing all the other bears to stand and then shift away from him. Finally, we head back to the beach for lunch, a little shell collecting and then we load up for home.

The weather has closed in on us, it’s a cloudy ride back to Homer. The clouds break as we pass the largest ice field in Alaska. The Harding Ice field covers almost 700 square miles on the tops of the Southern Kenai Mountains between Homer and Seward. There are more than 40 glaciers descending from it in all directions. Ahead of us is the Spit, a thin line stretching into Cook Inlet. Minutes later we are safely on the ground. (Hooray for our pilot Jack!)

Loved this trip, what an incredible day with Alaska Bear Adventures.

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