In Alaska, there is an incredibly remote and breathtakingly beautiful place where the brown bears gather in mass, the salmon fill the pristine rivers and streams, bald eagles soar high above, the sedges grow high, and the “land of the midnight sun” shines on what I would come to know as Bear Camp.
It all started with a brief 45-minute flight to Homer from Anchorage, which is located in the traditional homelands of the Dena’ina Athabascan people, where I live and have the privilege of working alongside an amazing team in the US Arctic Program for WWF.
Before I start, I want to share that growing up in Alaska, in a community that is accessible only by airplane, I have spent countless hours exploring the vast tundra, climbing mountains with no specific destination in mind, camping in torrential rain, and have seen wildlife of all shapes and sizes; some up close and others, like the brown bear – from as far away as possible. This would all change once I landed at Bear Camp: I was about to be up close and personal with the largest terrestrial mammal in North America – the brown bear.
Once I landed in Homer, it was time to hop on a small, single propeller plane to fly high over the Iliamna volcano; we were so close you could smell the sulfur and see the steam billowing, to Chinitna Bay, which is tucked away in Lake Clark National Park, against the backdrop of the Aleutian Range and I could best describe it as akin to stepping back in time.
Landing at low tide, on a narrow gravel beach, I quickly realized that this was going to be unlike anything I had experienced in all my years in Alaska. First, we were met on the beach by the Bear Camp staff, who greeted us with a warm welcome and they loaded our gear onto a 4-wheeler, as we call them here, otherwise known as an all-terrain vehicle or ATV for short, and it was a quick walk up the beach to the most comfortable and memorable “camping” trip of my life.
There it was. Bear Camp. Except this was unlike any camp I had ever seen. Directly in front of me, in one of the most scenic places that I had been to date, sat completely weatherproof tent-cabins that were heated and furnished, with actual beds! To my surprise, there was more: hot showers! Ecological composting toilets! A covered gazebo with comfortable chairs and a built-in firepit! Private viewing platforms with high-end spotting scopes for brown bear viewing! This was just the start.
Upon getting settled into the tent-cabin, that I shared with Jim Sano (World Wildlife Fund’s Vice President for Travel, Tourism and Conservation), who I hadn’t met in person before this trip, and yet after felt like I had known for years, we headed to the group orientation which was led by the staff. There they provided a full overview of the camp, the history of the area, and perhaps more importantly, they shared who they were and connected with us in a way that made me feel at ease in the middle of a place that was surrounded by massive brown bears. I would come to trust these highly trained expedition leaders and professional naturalists – which says a lot coming from a person who had avoided bears at all costs.
Next – it was time to go find the bears…and it didn’t take long. We made our way through the trees, on a narrow trail, which was a migratory one used by brown bears over many generations, to an elevated viewing platform where we were first introduced to the bears that we would spend the next 3 days with. From the platform, across a vast area of sedges, and near a crystal-clear creek – there they were: Ursus arctos.
I was in awe. As we watched them, roaming and grazing on the sedges, which is a critical food source for them after emerging from their winter dens due to the high protein content and the lack of salmon in the early spring, I realized something: while they can be dangerous in certain circumstances, there is also a very gentle side to them and with trained professionals – you can enter the bears’ habitat and have a shared experience.
That evening, we returned to the comforts of camp, where we were met with a wonderful dinner, prepared by a top chef with locally sourced food. How am I going to go back to dehydrated meals and cold sleeping bags after this I thought to myself. The dinner was delicious and the company memorable; stories were shared, laughs had, and we quickly bonded as a group. This was the tone for Bear Camp.
The following day, we set out in search of more brown bears, and little did I know, that as a group, we would soon be in close proximity…and I mean close. As we rounded a bend in the trail, our guide leading the way, they suddenly motioned for us to stop and get into a group, maintaining a low profile and keeping quiet. There it was – 25 feet or less, slightly off the trail and laying in a “day bed”, which is a hole dug into the ground that the bears use to nap and cool off from the daytime heat, was the biggest bear I had ever seen.
I could see directly into its eyes, and it could see me. Except, I didn’t feel fear, but rather a sense of calm and curiosity. This was something special and we were a part of it. It was in this moment that something “clicked” within me, call it a paradigm shift or change of heart, I suddenly realized that brown bears aren’t always to be avoided or inherently feared – they are a part of the natural world, inseparable from us, and we have a responsibility to tell the story of this special place, unchanged by time, that they have always called home.
The next morning, as we loaded our gear back into the plane, said our good-byes to the staff who took such good care of us, and took off – there below, running along the shoreline was a female brown bear with two cubs: the cycle continues and we are apart of protecting and preserving this beautiful place.
By Kyle Newman, Community Partnership Leader, World Wildlife Fund – US Arctic Program