Every spring, we await with great anticipation the magical sights in Katmai National Park. In its essence, we can’t wait to see a rather simple thing: bears being bears and doing bear things.
1. Tiny Cubs – Observe cute and playful bears as they explore their new environment and learn from mom how to survive this new world.
2. Clamming – Watch the bears in the tidal flats as they dig clams for their early summer sustenance. Check out their incredible sensory skills and how they use their claws to dig.
3. Shedding Bears – As spring and summer warm the air, bears will shed their winter coats. Look around the meadow, maybe you can collect some bear fur to take home with you. (Disclaimer: Please make sure the fur is not still attached to the bear.)
4. Social Hierarchy Displays – Witness and learn about how the bears establish the social hierarchy. From subadult age and through the mating process, there may be some aggressive wrestling, irritated grunting, and even some downright nerve-racking bear brawls as the bears learn their place in the power structure. It can be quite exciting in the meadow at times!
5. Mating – Blush and giggle as you watch science in action.
6. Hallo Bay – Experience the majestic beauty of this 5-mile-wide meadow nestled in between volcanoes and glaciers.
A little more about the bears in June
As the snow melts and the daylight increases, we are eager to return to the meadows on the coastline of such a magnificent park. We begin our bear viewing season the 1st of June ensuring the snow has melted and the bears have the opportunity to arrive at the meadow. Some may need to travel considerable distances and traverse difficult terrain depending on where they denned over winter. Male bears are first to leave their dens, while sows with cubs tend to be last. Imagine having to take your toddler down a mountain side; we all understand that would certainly take a bit longer.
June has some of the most intimate bear viewing, featuring cubs born just a few months ago and the peak of mating season around the summer solstice.
Spring Cubs arrive for their first meadow experience
For the size they will eventually grow into, it is incredible they are born weighing 1-2 pounds. Can you believe they could actually fit in the palm of your hand? We don’t recommend doing so, but you can use your imagination. Born in the end January/early February, they grow to about 10-15 lbs pounds by the time they emerge from the den. They are still so small when they get to the meadow. We may get to see them arriving for the very first time and exploring this new world. Bear viewing in June and specifically in Hallo Bay allows us to see these spring newborns at their tiniest size. By the end of the summer, they will double their weight. These tiny cubs are adorable, playful, observant, and pure chaos to their mothers. They follow mom to learn how to dig for clams and forage grasses, all while displaying their pure joy and curiosity. Until they have to fend for themselves, life is all fun and games. Sound a bit familiar?
Moms tend to be very cautious, especially when they are at this young age. Although somewhat debated as to the reason why, there have been instances of male bears killing cubs. The occasion is rare, however some hypothesized theories are that they are killed for food, to make the mother go into estrus faster (for mating), or to reduce the competition in the future. These are unproven theories and are at best just guesses.
Against all instincts and everything we have been taught, sows with cubs may at times approach bear viewing groups and nurse by them. She considers it a safe place to let her guard down and nurse knowing most bears will avoid these large mysterious groups. We often wonder what they think about us out there. It is an honor to feel the trust this mom must have with the group and it is such a special and unique moment to experience.
Get the blushing out of the way. This is science!
With the lengthening of daylight, bears have a very significant task to do in June. You might say it’s even the most important to their circle of life: to create more bears. So, when and how does all of this happen? It is comically explained best as a mix of an all you can eat buffet crossed with a dance club. Funny to say, but we couldn’t agree more with that description.
Sexual Maturity happens around 5-6 years of age, often happening first for females. When a female goes into estrus (a recurring period of sexual receptivity and fertility), she will produce hormones that male bears can smell to determine she is available to mate. Females with cubs will go into estrus once they separate from their cubs, typically after two or three summers.
Mating begins as courting and females have the say in when and which suiter they will mate with. Often, courting means that you see a boar following a sow as they both graze through the meadow hence the all you can eat buffet part. It’s the slowest chase you’ll ever watch, and we’re here for it. The female decides when she is ready to mate, making all of us blush while we sit afar and observe like we’re watching something we shouldn’t be.
The mating season can bring some excitement to the meadow. Bears follow social hierarchy and there may be, at times, some brawls. Often smaller bears who are courting females will give way once a bigger male shows up. If the boars are similar in size, there may be a question as to who gets to continue courting and they can decide by brawling it out. Saliva, claws, snarls, and hits are all fair in love and war for the bears in the meadow.
The actual mating is about as straightforward as the science books. The act requires a lot of energy. Some males may even fall asleep even while they are mounted. They will wake up and continue where they left off. The female may mate with several suiters resulting in the possibility that her cubs may each be from different males she mated with. She will experience delayed implantation and if she’s healthy at the end of fall, the embryos will implant and she will give birth in 8 to 12 weeks.
So often folks come to see the bears in July when they are fishing for salmon, but June is a little known gem for some of the best bear viewing. We must always remember that this is wildlife and nothing is ever guaranteed, but these are the things we can generally count on in early summer.
Come and experience the midnight sun with us in June.
We promise you won’t be disappointed.