Fly In Bear Viewing

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Here we are landing at Hallo Bay. We are landing directly on the beach and  and I put in an arrow pointing at one plane that has already landed. In the green areas to the right of the beach are at least a dozen bears, you just can't see them  yet.

Here we are landing at Hallo Bay. We are landing directly on the beach and and I put in an arrow pointing at one plane that has already landed. In the green areas to the right of the beach are at least a dozen bears, you just can’t see them yet. Most of today’s shots were taken through the plexi-glass of the plane and you will see bugs and parts of the plane; in this shot the propeller is the blur to the bottom left. 

Finally, we’ve come to my bear-viewing trip! I took the trip on June 24th but wanted to wait to write about it until I got caught up on all my other blog posts so it came in order. It’s been tormenting me to wait because I loved it so much! This trip is the single best thing I’ve ever done in my life! I wish I was a better writer to be able to tell you how wonderful it was, but I’m not. I could write out a list of a dozen adjectives singing its praises, but that wouldn’t be enough. I only have one regret about this trip and that’s that I may have taken it too soon. From now on, everything else will pale by comparison! I have lots to say and lots of photos, so this is going to be multiple posts. In today’s post I’ll tell you all about the flight I took but I’ll only cover the flight portion of the trip.
Here we are at the hanger getting our boots.

Here we are at the hanger getting our boots. The blonde walking toward us on the left is the co-owner of the company. This is a family-owned business and I can’t recommend them highly enough!!!! This was the single best experience of my life!

I had several “bucket list” items (things I MUST do before I die) that were the motivation for this trip and bear-viewing was right at the top; I’ve always dreamed of flying in somewhere and getting very close to bears and coming away with some remarkable pictures. This was finally my chance because for the first time I had the time and the money to do it. Alaska has a very high population of bears and in the summer they concentrate in small areas along Salmon streams. Bears are NOT social creatures, they fight often and don’t like being around other bears. For example, male bears are so dominance oriented they take every chance they can to kill every cub they can, even their own! That way they can’t grow up to be competitors. Of course the female bears will protect their cubs to the death so that often means fights between the male and females.
Here we are taking off from Homer. I got the co-pilots seat. I always ask for it and almost always get it because it's easier with a single.

Here we are taking off from Homer. I got the co-pilots seat. I always ask for it and almost always get it because it’s easier with a single. It was partly cloudy in Homer but across the bay it was gorgeous. If you look down the runway at the far horizon, that’s where we’re going, across Cook Inlet to the Alaska Peninsula and Katmai National Park.

But with extremely easy access to very high quality food like Salmon, they somehow overcome their anti-social nature and learn to live with each other for a few months every summer. That most famous place where bears gather is Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park (http://www.nps.gov/katm/planyourvisit/brookscamp.htm.) You probably have heard of it and you certainly have seen pictures that were taken there. Most pictures of bears eating salmon, especially with the Salmon flying into the bear’s mouth, were taken at Brooks Camp But it’s quite remote and so popular that it’s difficult for most people to be able to afford to go there. But there is another place in Katmai National Park that has just as good bear viewing and yet is very easy to get and to and less expensive and that’s Hallo Bay (http://www.hallobay.com/) just across from Homer. There are lots of bears there for these unique reasons:

  1. Clams: In the spring, before the salmon run, there is an extremely large population of clams on the beach that the bears can easily catch. The timing is perfect for the bears because they have just come out of hibernation and need as many easy calories as they can get quickly.
  2. Sedge Grass: Then in June there is a certain kind of grass that the bears love to eat and it grows everywhere in Hallo Bay. All the bears I saw spent their whole time grazing on grass. My guide said a bear can easily eat 20 pounds of it a day and actually gain weight on it. To show us it tasted pretty good he picked some and let us sample it and I have to admit it had a pleasant flavor.
  3. Salmon: Then in July the salmon run comes in and they switch from eating grass to eating salmon which is an excellent source of fat and calories. Between the three foods they really fatten up and go into winter hibernation fat and happy!
The mountains directly across the bay from Homer. You can take a water taxi over to them and hike and explore.

The mountains directly across the Kachemak Bay from Homer. You can take a water taxi over to them and hike and explore.

 
This big male was courting this female the whole time we were there. I'm sure he eventually scored!

This big male was courting this female the whole time we were there. He was a BIG male! You don’t have to be an animal psychologist to know what he’s thinking!

Having those three great sources of food in one place makes Hallo Bay very popular with bears but there is one more reason why they gather there and that is for the mating season. Bears mate in June and for that period of time they become much more tolerant of other bears. In fact while I was there we saw several males and females courting each other and coming very close to actually mating. My guide said that they have seen them doing the deed. I just missed out on bear porn! For more info on bear seasonal activity, see this site: http://www.hallobay.com/about-hallo-bay/seasonal-bear-activity/
This is Mount Douglas an extinct volcano. It is very clearly visible on the far horizon from Homer. We flew across the Cook Inlet directly at it then buzzed it several times.

This is Mount Douglas an extinct volcano. It is very clearly visible on the far horizon from Homer. We flew across the Cook Inlet directly at it then buzzed it several times.

This is Mount Augustine a very active volcano; in fact it's venting in this shot. You can see it in the map below.

This is Mount Augustine a very active volcano; in fact it’s venting in this shot. You can see it in the map below.

Hallo Bay has become so famous for its bears that the Walt Disney movie (called, appropriately) “Bears” and released this last spring of 2014, was shot mostly in Hallo Bay. Find more info on the shooting of the film here: http://homernews.com/homer-features/arts/2013-04-10/hallo-bay-camp-featured-in-disney-production
This is the mother bear and one of her cubs from the Disney movie "Bears," that was just released. I got a LOT closed than this to them!!!!!

This is the mother bear and one of her cubs from the Disney movie “Bears,” that was just released. I got a LOT closed to them!!!!! They shot the movie last summer, now the cub is a one year old. In the movie there were three cubs, but two of them have since died.

Some of it was shot at Brooks Falls and other places in the Katmai NP but mostly it was shot here. The star of the movie is a female and her three cubs. She was back again this year so I have many shots of her. Two of her cubs died their first year but one is still left and I have shots of it with his mom. A mortality rate of 50% for cubs is typical; mainly they are killed by the male bears.
The glacier on the flank of Mt. Douglass.

The glacier on the flank of Mt. Douglass.

So I signed up for a flight with Alaska Bear Adventures (http://www.alaskabearviewing.com/) for one of their 7 hour trips into Hallo Bay. Four hours of that time were flying to and from the Bay and then we were on the ground observing bears for three hours in Katmai NP. It cost $700 which is a lot of money but I thought it was a bargain! First, the flight over was just beautiful and worth quite a bit of money by itself. But then when we landed on the beach and headed out to find the bears something great became something truly astonishing.
This is the caldera on the peak of Mt. Douglass. While that looks like water, in fact is sulfuric acid.

This is the caldera on the peak of Mt. Douglass. While that looks like water, in fact is sulfuric acid.

We met at their hanger and got fitted for hip waders which are commonly called “Alaskan Sneakers” because they are so universally used. The bears live in a very wet marshy area and we were constantly trudging back and forth across little streams and muddy shores so being able to walk through them was essential. After that we signed some release forms, got safety instructions and went to our airplanes.
One of the other planes landing.

One of the other planes landing.

There were three groups in three planes flying over and landing together. We were flying in Cessna 206’s which is a common workhorse airplane in Alaska. It’s high-wing so you get a good view of the ground and can carry 7 passengers and a fair amount of cargo. While it isn’t a true STOL airplane (Short Take-Off and Landing) it does reasonably well. We were going to be landing on the beach of Hallo bay which is fairly long so it was the perfect plane for this job. We were a little late leaving because they were waiting for the tide to get all the way out. Because the beach was our “airstrip” if the tide had been all the way in it would have been pretty narrow! We stayed over land for as long as we could and then flew across the bay at 10,000 feet. That way if one of the engines had failed they could glide safely to either shore and land safely. The good news was they said they would take an extra-long scenic flight to give the tide more time to get out. And it was truly scenic!! I loved the whole flight and our pilots were having a great time flying as close as safety allowed to the mountain tops and turning tight in the valleys. It was a great flight! More pictures of the flight at the bottom of the post.
We landed second and this is the third plane to land. This is a typical Alaska landing strip.

We landed second and this is the third plane to land. This is a typical Alaska landing strip.

Katmai NP is known as the “Valley of 10,000 Smokes” because of its many active volcanoes. As we flew across the inlet we aimed directly at Mt. Douglass an inactive but beautiful volcano with glaciers hanging on it and when we got there they flew several circles around it going both directions so people on the both the right and left side of the plane could see it. I’ve done several scenic flights before and I’ve learned that as a single if I ask for the co-pilots seat I can usually get it because family groups want to stay together. In this case I got it both on the way to and from the Bay although I was quick to offer it to someone else on the way back, nobody else wanted it.
Once we were all landed we got organized and received our marching orders for our time with the bears. Because we are uninvited guests in their home (and because one bear could easily kill all of us in a few minutes if he wanted to) we were given very clear and specific orders and instructions on how we were to behave in order to stay safe. More about that in the next post.

Once we were all landed we got organized and received our marching orders for our time with the bears. Because we are uninvited guests in their home (and because one bear could easily kill all of us in a few minutes if he wanted to) we were given very clear and specific orders and instructions on how we were to behave in order to stay safe. More about that in the next post.

We had a thrilling flight through the mountains and valleys on the way over and then we had an uneventful beach landing. You would think that landing on the beach would be bumpy and scary but it really seemed no different than any other landing than I’ve ever done. After all three planes had landed and turned off their engines (we couldn’t be outside with spinning props) it was time to let us use the restroom. The men’s room was the ocean and the women’s room was the driftwood at the top of the hill. But, the ladies had to let the guides go first to make sure there wasn’t a bear waiting for them there! After that, we were ready to go see some bears, and we saw a LOT of them!! I’ll tell you all about that in my next post. The flight back was directly across the bay and to home and was somewhat anti-climatic but pleasant. Stay tuned, the best is yet to come!
This is a map of our flight. It's basically right except that from Mt. Douglass to Halo Bat was not direct at all, it was  a serious of circles and curves while we were fight-seeing.

This is a map of our flight. It’s basically right except that from Mt. Douglass to Halo Bay was not direct at all, it was a serious of circles and curves while we were fight-seeing. The return flight was this exactly. 

flight-returning

After viewng the bears for three hours we returned to the planes and we are dragging! ! It was so intense and we moved a lot from beat to bear it ended up being hard work! I was exhausted!! But a good, satisfied kind of exhausted.

After visiting the bears we are returning to the planes and we are dragging! ! It was so intense and we moved a lot from beat to bear it ended up being hard work! I was exhausted!! But a good, satisfied kind of exhausted.

Here we’ve just lifted off the ground on take-off.

This is a shot of the bay after we took off.

This is a shot of the Bay as we took off.

flight-mnts-good
Thi is an extinct volcano that has collapsed and the crater filled in to become a lake. In any other state this would be a Crown Jewel and people would come from all over to see it. In Alaska it's meaningless, and only people who take these flights will ever see it. Alaska is so huge and vast, unless you fly you simply can't see it.

This is an extinct volcano that has collapsed and the crater filled in to become a lake–does it look familiar? In any other state this would be a Crown Jewel and people would come from all over to see it. In Alaska it’s meaningless, and only people who take these flights will ever know it even exists. Alaska is so huge and vast, unless you fly you simply can’t see it.

flight-caldera-lake-001
This is going to be three shots in a series to show our flight. We aimed straight toward this ridge and barely cleared it. As we went over it you can see another saddle in the distance, I put an arrow there to show it. We dropped down the other side of the ridge then climbed up t barely clear the saddle.

Shot 1 This is going to be 4 shots in a series to show our flight. We aimed straight toward this ridge and barely cleared it. As we went over it you can see another saddle in the distance, I put an arrow there to show it. We dropped down the other side of the ridge then climbed up to barely clear it.

Shot 2: We're approaching the saddle.

Shot 2: We’re approaching the saddle.

flight-clearing-saddle

Shot 3: Here are in that saddle and looking down at a valley.

fliht-saddle-valley

Shot 4: Here we are in that valley. You can’t really see it but there is another saddle coming up to the left we are going through and starting the process all over again.

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