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Katmai Wilderness: Close encounters with grizzly bears provide thrills

During their trip, Marsh Muirhead's group of travelers saw as many as 11 bears at a time eating, sleeping and generally getting in shape for the summer.1 / 4
Marsh Muirhead, right, went on a trip with family to visit bears in Alaska's Katmai Wilderness last month. He and Steve Cook, left, are pictured with other travelers.2 / 4
The mountains between Homer, Alaska, and the Katmai Wilderness provided spectacular vistas.3 / 4
From left, Marsh Muirhead's sister Judy Sundvall and cousin Michele Fallon and her husband, Steve Cook, make close acquaintance with a grizzly bear.4 / 4

Few things have given me the sense of wonder and respect, along with the adrenaline rush, that came on an afternoon in 2004 when I was sitting in a meadow in the Katmai Wilderness, my lunch in my lap, as a 1,000-pound grizzly ambled by just 50 feet away, glanced toward me, then walked off to his own lunch -- which, that day, was not me.

This would seem to be a dangerous situation, although it was not; still, my response was biological, not logical - one of fear, of flight, of survival at the instinctual level, which made this experience so remarkable.

I vowed to return one day, and that day came again last month during a trip to Alaska with my mother, Jeanne, my sister Judy Sundvall of Bemidji, and my cousin Michele Fallon of Minneapolis and her husband, Steve Cook. Our trip included an aerial flight-seeing tour in Denali with a touchdown at one of the base camps for the climbers, a day of halibut fishing out of Homer and kayaking along the Kenai Peninsula. But it was the bears that filled our thoughts and conversation in the days preceding that adventure.

The Katmai Wilderness area is located in the southwest corner of the state, part of the peninsula that extends farther west as the Aleutian Islands. It is about 50 miles north of Kodiak and about 150 miles southwest of Homer, across the Cook Inlet. The preserve is accessible only by air or water. Commuter and charter flights, on big beach-worthy tundra tires or floats, leave Kodiak, Anchorage and Homer regularly, bringing the adventurous travelers here for the salmon and trout fishing, wilderness hiking, nature study and bear viewing.

The Katmai contains the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes - a 40-square-mile area of volcanic ash as deep as 700 feet created during the cataclysmic eruption of 1912. It's also the site of the October 2003 well-publicized maulings and deaths of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. Generally regarded as a crackpot, Treadwell, against the accepted advice and rules about bear country behavior, lived among the bears - playing with them, naming and "befriending" them until, one autumn morning, he was caught in the crossfire of two quarreling and cranky bears who suddenly decided the couple was lunch. The incident is portrayed in the book "Death in the Grizzly Maze" by Mike Lapinski and in Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man."

Bear country

Ninety-eight percent of all the grizzly bears in the United States, including the Alaskan brown and Kodiak bear - they are all the same bear, Ursus arcturus - live in Alaska, and of those 30,000 bears, 3,000 live in the Katmai Wilderness Area, which at 3.5 million acres is the most densely grizzly populated place in the world.

Bear viewing is most commonly a day trip, although serious visitors and naturalists might come for several days, staying in one of the rustic lodges or in tents. (Tenters are advised to make use of an electric periphery fence, light enough for backpacking.) Both of my trips were out of Homer, via Beaver floatplane. The pilot may or may not join the hike, and most groups consist of a guide and three to six clients. The group for my 2004 trip was made up of the pilot, guide, a couple from Russia, a photographer from National Geographic and me. The adventure from Homer includes some of the most unbelievable scenery in the world - steaming volcanoes, snow-capped peaks, a glimpse of the immense wildness of just one small corner of this state, and then, after an hour's flight, the low pass over the bays and inlets, when the pilot looks for the largest congregation of bears with which to spend the day.

All the bear-viewing outfits claim a perfect safety record - both in the air and on the ground. This is due to very specific rules of behavior, the skill and experience of the guides, and the fact that these are extremely happy bears - unhunted, operating in wide-open spaces with good visibility and a rich supply of food sources - roots, grasses, salmon. This is bear heaven, without the much more competitive environment of, for example, the Rockies of Montana where smaller grizzlies, trying to make a living in that rockier environment, are much more dangerous and territorial.

As we approached the coastline, it appeared we were circling over a field of fat cattle, but they were bears, maybe a dozen. Then the pilot cut the power and we circled for our landing.

Day of adventure

We beached the plane a quarter-mile from the bears. Then the pilot and guide issued us our waders, a requirement for exiting the plane just offshore and the walk of three or four miles through sometimes-wet meadow grass and across small creeks.

Dave, our guide, gave us a briefing for the day. In the manner of how we were to behave later, he lowered his voice, spoke slowly in a loud whisper, explained how we would move slowly, talk slowly, stay within arm's length of one another - bears rarely move in on groups numbering more than four. He said that if a bear appeared nervous or threatened - or threatening - we would stand together, spreading our arms out wide while he, Dave, shouted or clapped. He explained how a solo photographers would often drape a rain shell over a tripod to appear more like a group of people.

Then, peering over the bluff at the beach (bears, Dave reminded us, sometimes just appear), we hiked onto the meadow, toward the bears. During the careful walk, at angles to one or another bear, we approached, closer and closer. Sometimes the bears walked our way. Some, playfully chasing each other, passed quite close, seemingly oblivious to our camera clicks and hammering hearts. We sat, ate lunch, careful not to leave a single crumb, then walked again. By the end of the day, this seemed quite usual, and we later confessed to one another that, like others, we felt some affection for the giant beasts.

But a sense of complacency is to be avoided. Just when you think the bears have no interest in you and are no threat at all, you notice a new bear has appeared in the meadow, maybe 300 yards away, and is looking right at you, checking out the non-bear at this party. He begins walking your way - 200 yards, 100. He stops, sniffs, rises up. And because you do not run and do not appear to be a threat, and because your little group of hikers stays together, the hikers minding their own business, the bear minds his own, dropping down into his meal of grass.

Later, a bear leaves the meadow, climbs up a steep bluff to the right and disappears in the brush, off to a nap or another valley, one might suppose. But a few minutes later someone notices the same bear, now much closer, on the bluff just above us, his head resting on his giant paws, watching us.

Bear nostalgia

We finally returned to the beach and our plane. We shut the doors, the pilot cranked up the engine and we taxied out into the wind. The plane lifted off with its six travelers quite changed, missing the bears and all they represent.

The landscape below grew as the plane climbed into the sky - steaming volcanoes, glaciers, the many-fingered ocean, icy, whale-filled; and behind us, the vast meadows and green slopes, immense and wild, prehistoric, like a dream.

Marsh Muirhead is a Bemidji dentist and poet.