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  • Writer's pictureEmerald Air Service

What is Bear Viewing?

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

Bear viewing is an unforgettable adventure into the stunning wilderness of Katmai National Park and Preserve. While bears are certainly the pinnacle of our bear viewing adventures, bear viewing is about so much more.

Alaskan coastal brown bear — bear viewing in Katmai
Photo Credit: Ken Day

Perhaps you’ve never heard of bear viewing. Or maybe when you think of bears you just think of jaws and claws (the result of Hollywood’s own influence, no doubt). But we at Emerald Air Service want to give you a better idea about what bear viewing really is, why it’s not only safe but also an incredible experience, and why you should let us take you there.

What Can I Expect on a Bear Viewing Trip?

Naturally, bear viewing ventures into bear country. After a brief but effective safety briefing, you will join a group of others, led by our highly experienced naturalist guide, into Katmai National Park and Preserve, which offers some of the premiere coastal brown bear viewing locations in the world. We board one of our single-engine, turbine De Havilland Otter float planes to embark on a just-over-an-hour flight across Cook Inlet and into the wonders of Katmai’s bear country. Including a lunch break in the field, we spend a full five hours on the ground trekking through the subarctic tundra of some of the finest hinterlands Alaska has to offer. After a day with the bears, we head back to the plane to return to Homer.

Homer to Katmai National Park and Preserve—just over an hour of flight.
The flight from Homer to Katmai National Park and Preserve is just over an hour.

Bear viewing seeks out the Alaskan Coastal Brown Bear.

While grizzlies and brown bears are technically the same species—Ursos arctos—they’re differentiated from one another by where they live and what they eat. Brown bears are distinguished as such because they live on or near the coast and have access to richer food sources, allowing brown bears to congregate in larger, more closely lumped groups because of less competition over food. Inland brown bears—grizzlies—remain smaller than their coastal counterparts because of food scarcity—nature simply won’t support a larger-bodied bear. Lacking the innumerable salmon that support both the quantity and the size of coastal brown bears, grizzlies also remain more spread out from one another due to less abundant food sources. Taking advantage of this, Emerald Air Service ventures directly into the wilderness of Katmai, moving as the bears do from the lush coastal meadows to the salmon spawning streams.

Two Alaskan coastal brown bears wrestling in Katmai National Park and Preserve
Photo Credit: Ken Day

Bear viewing ventures into Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Bear viewing can certainly take place elsewhere. However, Emerald Air Service performs their guided bear viewing trips in Katmai National Park and Preserve, which stretches across 6,400 square miles of sprawling wilderness—shining lakes, lush coasts, and towering mountains. Considered one of the world’s most active volcanic areas, this massive park features 14 active volcanoes, including the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, Novarupta, located in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

Our most popular trip—the guided expedition—explores beyond the bounds of a ranger camp directly into Katmai’s bear country. After spotting bears from the air during our flight in, we land on the water somewhere within the park and decide our route based on the location of the bears on that particular day. We then trek on bear trails through creek, tundra, and brush to locate the bears, whom we commonly find foraging or napping. By allowing us five hours in the field, this means we get to find bears, sit and watch for a while, and then continue moving to potentially better spots. After our first morning jaunt, we stop for lunch to rest and refuel with some food. After lunch, we then begin the afternoon leg of our expedition, journeying out to discover more bears. After roughly five hours of hiking, watching, and a break for lunch, we board our float plane to embark on our journey back across the Cook Inlet. This guided expedition is the bread an d butter of what we love to do here at Emerald Air Service, and our guests’ experience reflects the same.

Our trip to Brooks Falls brings us to a station situated at the mouth of Brooks River maintained by the National Park Service, which allows for self-guided bear viewing, world-class fishing, ranger-led programs, and even bus tours to the nearby Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes (though, unfortunately, the timing of our trip does not allow for a bus tour on the same day). Brooks River also includes restrooms, shelter from inclement weather, offers a full-service lunch, and has raised platforms for safe, unimpeded bear viewing. We offer trips to Brooks Falls, which provides a more relaxed bear viewing experience that can be taken at your own pace. But don’t be fooled—Brooks Falls is no zoo. While there are raised platforms at the falls and elsewhere for bear viewing, many of the trails that run throughout the camp are unfenced, which means you’re just as likely run into bears there as you are out in the rest of Katmai. It’s undoubtedly an exciting trip.

Map of Katmai National State Park and Preserve

Bear viewing is led by a trained, experienced guide.

A pilot and a plane can get you out to Katmai, but the expertise of your guide can make or break a bear viewing experience. Emerald Air Service offers bear viewing trips led by experienced naturalists—guides who know and love the wilderness of Katmai, know the bears and their behavior, and know how to keep the group safely observing these majestic creatures. Not only do our guides understand the best practices in bear safety, but by better understanding bears and their habitats, our guides are more expertly able to locate the bears, providing you with hours of high-quality viewing time. Below is a list of some of the things you can know and trust Emerald Air Service guides to always have under their belt for your bear viewing adventure:

  • Katmai’s layout—the layout of routes and paths within Katmai National Park and Preserve, which enables us to provide you with the most high-quality bear viewing time.

  • Bear behavior—understanding of and insight into bear behavior, which allows our guides to locate bears on any given day (because some days it can simply be difficult to locate bears).

  • Bear safety—Our expert guides are able to keep groups safe when bears approach closer than 50 yards.

  • Alaskan ecology—While the bears themselves are certainly the capstone of our bear viewing excursions, our trips are about a well-rounded, educational experience concerning the whole of the physical environment around you. Our guides are equipped with an understanding of all things ecological—whether flora, climate, or other animals you may find in Katmai.

Bear viewing guide explores flora you can find in Katmai National Park and Preserve
Lance, our guide, stops the group for a moment to briefly explore flora you can find in Katmai.

Bear Viewing is Safe

Contrary to many of the frightening bear-related movies you may have seen, bear viewing in Katmai, where bears have been habituated to humans (not food conditioned), is safe when proper precautions are taken. Safety in bear country is more plausible than you might think, and a great deal of bear safety relies on simple common sense. For example:

  • Never surprise a bear—make sure to make enough noise while traveling through bear country to allow bears to hear you approaching. Surprising bears naturally makes them more defensive and aggressive. A frightened bear can be a dangerous bear.

  • Never feed a bear—bears become problematic when they associate humans with food, so keep food stored and don’t leave remains or crumbs on the ground after you finish your meal in the field.

  • Gives bears the right of way—bears often move up and down the banks of creeks and rivers in search of food. Staying a good distance from a creek bank when bear viewing allows the bear a clear line of travel, which makes them less likely to run into you. Bears also have paths through the tundra, and if you’re on one, step away from the path and allow the bear to pass.

  • Stay at a safe distance—don’t crowd the bears. Sometimes they will approach you closer than 50 yards, but it’s always safest to keep a healthy distance from bears when you’re able.

  • Don’t run from bears—bears will pursue out of curiosity just as a dog might. Running from a bear will likely induce a chase. If you suddenly stumble upon a bear, hold your ground and make yourself appear as large as possible.

Sitting on the bank of a creek in Katmai National Park and Preserve viewing the Alaskan Coastal Brown Bear.
Sitting down together in tightly packed groups helps to communicate to a bear that you are not a predator.

Bear viewing travels in groups.

Part of why bear viewing is safe is because we travel in groups. While bears may approach single individuals out of sheer curiosity, larger groups of people (though not too large) tightly packed together present a greater mass to the bear, and dissuade it from getting too close. You give bears their space, and, naturally, they give groups of people their own space also.

Bear viewing watches bears habituated to people.

Bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve are habituated to humans. Visitors are commonly hiking through trails, fishing in creeks, or photographing landscapes and animals. Park rangers are also present, monitoring the park or performing their own research. Researchers and biologists also show up to do their own independent research. Everyone who gives bears space and respect naturally habituates them to humans, and enables us to enjoy watching them even more safely.

Bear viewing watches costal brown bears with abundant food.

As we said above, brown bears are coastal creatures with an abundant supply of fish for food. This plentiful food enables the bears to congregate more closely, or have smaller “personal bubbles,” if you will, and also dissuades the bears from being aggressive over the superabundance of food. There’s no need to fight over the near-infinite supply of lush grasses or salmon that allows every bear to fatten up for winter. And, naturally, this abundance of food allows us to get closer to a coastal brown bear than it would to an inland grizzly bear.

Brown bears on a beach eating salmon in Katmai
Photo Credit: Ken Day

Come Bear Viewing with Emerald Air Service

Now that you have a better idea of what you can expect on a bear viewing trip, we invite you to come bear viewing with us. Join our pilots, our guides, and the others in your group on an extraordinary excursion through the lands of Katmai and behold the majestic sight of the legendary costal brown bear.

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