KATMAI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, Alaska — Kim Spanjol has seen gorillas in Congo and orangutans in Borneo. But for a honeymoon with her husband Jim O'Brien, she planned a trip to Katmai National Park and Preserve in remote Alaska, where they started seeing brown bears the minute their floatplane landed on the beach.
"There's a bear in the water, and there's a bear coming down the beach," said Spanjol, a psychologist from New York. "And then, we were coming in to eat and there was a bear running by, and there were three bears just over there by the river. So, that was amazing to have it so accessible."
About 10,000 people make the difficult trek here each summer to see the bears, some staying at a small lodge or the campground at Brooks Camp, others flying in from elsewhere in Alaska for the day. The 4-million-plus acre (1.6-million hectare) park, a little bigger than Connecticut, is located on the Alaska Peninsula, about 250 miles (about 400 kilometers) southwest of Anchorage. Brooks Camp is only accessible by air.
At peak bear-viewing season, the end of July, there will be up to 70 adult bears plus cubs within a one-mile area of Brooks Camp. It's not uncommon to see brown bears running around the camp, dodging humans as the bruins playfully chase each other.
That there have been only two minor mishaps in the last 63 years between the species is a testament to rules put in place by rangers to respect the bears' right of way. "I don't think there's any place quite like Brooks Camp in that we've got so many people and so many bears," said Roy Wood, chief of interpretation at Katmai.
What draws the bears here are salmon running in the Brooks River. The bears stand patrol at Brooks Falls, about a mile walk from Brooks Camp, and try to catch the jumping salmon. When they snag one, they usually polish it off on a sandbar or off the side of the river — unless an aggressive male brown bear tries to steal the fish.
Bear-viewing stands have been built at Brooks Falls, an area about 200 yards (about 185 meters) downstream, called the riffles, and at the lower river, which is prime viewing area in September. "The bears behave differently at that time of the year, they're really fat," said ranger Michael Fitz. "Instead of chasing fish actively, a lot of the times they are just cruising up and down the river like battleships. They're looking for anything that can't swim away from them."
The flight here from Anchorage is about a three-hour trip, and if you're lucky, you can see white beluga whales surfacing in Cook Inlet. The ride also can be bumpy, especially through the narrows of Lake Clark Pass. The pass offers stunning views of mountains and glaciers, but if the ride is rough, you might want to keep the barf bag handy. Air taxis from the Alaska hub city of King Salmon are the cheapest way in, about $200 a person, but you have to get to King Salmon first.
Other floatplane flights are available from places like Anchorage, Homer or Kodiak. These can range up to $795 per person from Anchorage for a round trip but if you can afford it, it's an ideal way to take a day trip to Brooks Camp to see the bears.
For longer stays, the hardest thing is arranging lodging. There are few places to sleep at Brooks Camp and you have to book months ahead. The private Brooks Lodge has 16 rooms, with four beds each. Mike Wheeler of Kansas City, Kan., said the lodge cost him $615 a night, not prohibitive if you split it four ways, but he said the amenities and wildlife make up for the costs.
"In other places, you can pay less for a cabin, but you have to hire a guide to find the wildlife," he said. "Here, I can walk out the front door and fairly quickly see bears."
Lodge owner Sonny Petersen said he'll begin taking reservations for the 2015 season on Jan. 1, 2014. He said reservations for July will be gone within a week, but it will take a little longer for the rest of the cabins to be filled.
Another option is camping at the park service's electric-fence enclosed campsite ($12 per person, per night). The campground can hold 60 people a night, but like the lodge, spaces are quickly gone after they go on sale Jan. 5, at least for the prime bear-viewing months of July and September. Jim Dockweiler of Portland, Ore., said he used the same trick to get tent space at Brooks Camp that he uses to get concert tickets: He kept refreshing the website until he got in.
Bear orientation for visitors to Katmai is mandatory. They're told they cannot give bears food, carry any liquid but water, or leave things like backpacks on the ground. They also learn how to act when they meet a bear and how much space to give them.
Rangers patrol Brooks Camp with walkie-talkies, and will stop human traffic — called bear jams — until bears leave the area. Rangers also are positioned on either side of a pedestrian bridge over the river, and will stop people to give bears time to move away at their own speed. The rangers also warn fisherman to back up if a bear gets too close.
"There are a few rules we try to impose on the bears, but mostly the rules are to keep the humans at that safe distance from the bears so they don't disturb the bears and the bears don't feel threatened and perhaps retaliate," Wood said.
Only twice have bears intentionally made contact with humans since Brooks Camp opened around 1950, Wood said, though they occasionally knock people over while running. A person was bitten in the 1960s, and three decades later, a ranger was scratched. As long as visitors follow the rules, the bears don't associate humans with food or with playthings. "They just wander through the forest along the river, doing what bears are supposed to do," Wood said.
Another cool attraction in Katmai involves a 23-mile (37-kilometer) ride on a bus ($96 a person, $88 if you don't take the sack lunch) over three small rivers. The payoff is a stunning view of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The valley was formed by a three-day volcanic explosion that started June 6, 1912. It spewed ash as high as 100,000 feet above the sparsely populated Katmai region, covering the area to depths up to 700 feet (213 meters). It was the most powerful eruption of the 20th century and one of the five largest in recorded history.
The valley was why the National Geographic Society petitioned for Katmai to be a national park, believing it would be the next Yellowstone because of its geothermal activity. Early visitors came to see the landscape, not the bears.
But the steam "dwindled away so there's just a few warm areas right now," Wood said, adding: "We started preserving it for this one thing, and weren't even considering bears because bears were pretty much everywhere around and there was nothing special about that. But as civilization has grown, even in Alaska, these wild areas to observe bears are becoming even harder to find."
By the 1970s, bear-viewing eclipsed fishing and the valley as Katmai's top attraction. Heide Linsmann, and her husband Franz, who live near Dusseldorf, Germany, enjoyed a trip here last year so much, they came back this summer.
"It was so wonderful, we are here again," she said.