Seeing and being able to photograph bears and cubs in their wild habitat was on my bucket list. I wanted a place where bears were plentiful and I could observe them and their interactions to each other. I’ve seen grizzlies and black bear in both Glacier National Park and Yellowstone, but only at a distance and in a very fleeting way. So I researched several different places in Alaska and found many places were simply not feasible for my budget. I finally settled on Alaska Homestead Lodge in Lake Clark National Park. I was a bit disappointed that due to my late scheduling (I had procrastinated about whether I could afford it or not and finally went for it in early March) there was not room for me to stay overnight, but I arranged for a day trip, which means you are flown over from Soldotna, Alaska in the morning and are picked up about 5pm that day. I also wanted to see Denali, but found I had waited too long as all reasonable places to stay had sold out, so I decided to explore Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula instead.
Alaska is quite expensive, but seeing as their tourist time is probably limited to two months or so of good weather, I guess this is to be expected. I was only there four days, but each day was so full of beauty and wildlife, I consider the outlay for my trip to be money well spent.
My first full day, I went for a 5 mile walk/hike in Kincaid Park. The park is right in Anchorage but has wildlife, including moose and bear. I was so excited to see a bull moose within the first 30 minutes of my walk, and then later I came across a moose and her calf. Later I also visited Potter Marsh Wildlife Viewing Area and then drove down Turnagain Arm to Portage Lake. This was in early July, so it never gets dark. Luckily the hotel had blackout drapes and after a long day, I fell asleep easily.
The second day I headed out on the Seward Highway. The drive is known for its beauty. I had a taste of it the day before, but as I got further on the Kenai Peninsula, I found myself breaking into songs from the Sound of Music. The scenic beauty literally made me want to sing. I was filled with a renewed sense of awe at how beautiful our world is. I was surrounded by snow capped mountain peaks and lush green valleys. One especially beautiful place was Tern Lake, right at the junction of the Seward and Sterling Highways. The lake had a lot of wild birds, including a swan family with a cygnet.
Though I was trying to watch my budget, a few days before I left, I arranged for a half day boat tour of Resurrection Bay in Seward. Next time, I will take a full day trip in order to see more of the fjords. The tour was through Major Marine Tours and was informative and wonderful. I didn’t really listen to the information as I was out on the boat’s deck taking pictures and trying to keep warm! Sadly, clouds had started to blow in, so the light and contrast were not as good for the scenery or photography, but I saw lots of wildlife, including mountain goats, sea lions, two different types of puffin and humpback whales. After the tour ended, I headed over to Soldotna, where I was scheduled to fly out the next day for my bear viewing adventure.
The forecast for this day had changed to rain, but thankfully it turned out to be a day where the gods took take pity and granted a reprieve! The flight over to Silver Salmon Creek at Lake Clark National Park, was short (about an half hour) and filled with amazing scenery of the Cook Inlet and Redoubt Volcano among the other beautiful snow capped peaks. There is a beach where the plane lands, and brown bears could be seen in the distance clamming. These brown bears are genetically the same as the grizzlies in Yellowstone and other places, but because the food sources are plentiful, they tend to be less aggressive and the dynamics between the bears are different. I was excited and just wanted to get going, but we had to get in the ATV trailer to go to the lodge to get on our Wellington boots first. There is a line of fir trees off the beach and beyond that a very large meadow with a dirt trail around it for the ATVs. Across the meadow are a few structures, a few belonging to Alaska Homestead Lodge and next to it the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge. There is also a ranger in residence during the summer. The creek is off to the south, and that area becomes the focal point later in the summer as the salmon begin to run and the bears congregate there. In the meantime, the bears graze in meadow sedge grass and go clamming. Behind the lodge and meadow lie wilderness and forest and mountains and the terrain becomes difficult to navigate through. Very close to the lodge, there were two cubs playing with each other while their mother grazed. By the time we got our boots and got back to the beach, the bears had started to come in from the beach, but we followed a mother and her cubs and watched as the triplets nursed. The day was filled with lots of bears and cubs. The cubs stay with the mothers up until they are three years, so most of the cubs were yearlings or two year olds, and I was beginning to despair that I would not see any of that season’s cubs, when we viewed a mother and two dark brown cubs way across the meadow. We finally made it there to watch the two young cubs. (It can take quite a while to make it around the meadow loop. Looking at my picture times, it took about 45 minutes from the north end of the meadow to go clockwise around the loop out to the beach and then to the area where the young cubs were.) They were adorable as they climbed over mom, but they were ready for a nap shortly after we arrived. The day went quickly but was rich with experiences. We also had a tasty salmon lunch (caught fresh the day before). The guide was knowledgable about the brown bears and I always felt secure and never frightened. We retained a respectable distance from the bears, and the distance was even greater for the very young cubs. I really didn’t want to go back on the plane, I loved being with the bears so much and this is a trip I want to repeat and not cross off my bucket list.
The rains did let loose on my final day, but even then I had a morning of just clouds and light rain when I went looking for the caribou herd that was supposed to be in the area around Sterling. Unfortunately I did not find them, although I did come across three moose. In the afternoon, it started to pour so I started back to Anchorage, stopping at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center on the way. I felt sad to see some of the animals in captivity, but many of these are rescues – black bears cubs that were orphaned, or bears, moose, foxes, or owls that were injured or had to be picked up. If they are able to release them they will, but some will never be released as they cannot fend for themselves or have become too used to urban areas. The center was responsible for reintroducing a herd of wood bison back into the wild, so it does good work. There were also caribou, a new animal for the center, but they were in a back area going through an observation period. They are trying to get the caribou population back up in Alaska. The central Arctic herd that was 70,000 in 2010, fell to 50,000 in 2013 and is now estimated at only 22,000. The rain continued to pelt down as I continued my drive towards Anchorage. Suddenly through the heavy rain, I was surprised to see a Dall sheep ewe and its calf lower on the mountainside above Turnagain Arm. I quickly drove into a turnout on the other side of the highway where a man was watching the low tide and hadn’t noticed the pair. I had seen Dall sheep a couple of days before, but they had been specks high up above me. Not even the bad weather could diminish the joy I felt at seeing just another instance of natural, wild, and untamed beauty before I headed towards the airport to return home.