One big bucket list item on our Alaska itinerary awaited us at our next big destination. We headed to Homer, Alaska, where we would board a flight that would take us to the remote Katmai National Park. Here, we would do the unthinkable and get up close with wild Alaska Peninsula brown bears – with no barrier or protection included!
Getting to Homer, Alaska
After our adventures in Valdez and McCarthy, we hopped on the Glenn Highway that would take us to the largest city in Alaska: Anchorage. As a large population center, the busyness was a shock to us after being so remote for so long. We resupplied here, taking advantage of cheap fuel and food before heading on down the Kenai Peninsula to its very southern tip in Homer.
Past anchorage traveling on the Seward highway we drove along the 45-mile long Turnagain Arm. Like other areas of Alaska this bay experiences, extreme tidal swings and much of it is frequently exposed mud and silt flats. Turning off the Seward Highway on to the Sterling, the road passes by the turquoise-colored Kenai Lake and follows its outlet the Kenai River.
This river is very popular in the summer for salmon fishing, and holds many fond memories from Tom’s childhood. The road eventually makes its way out of the mountains and follows the coast until cresting the bluff at the southern edge of the peninsula and revealing the town of Homer.
Homer has a population of 5000 and claims itself the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World. The geography of this town is unique as it has a natural spit of land that jets 4.5 miles out into the Katchimak Bay. This land has been developed into the marina, a shopping district and also a few campgrounds. Here we met back up with the tour group that we had spent time with in Dawson City and traveled into Alaska with and had an oceanfront site alongside our friends.
We walked around the spit exploring the shops, restaurants and marina which was designed for the extreme tides. We also spent a bit of time watching fishermen in a manmade inlet that gets stocked with salmon called the homer hole. This was right next to our campground and is an excellent place to catch salmon from the shore and as a kid this is where my sister and I caught some of our first Alaskan fish. (pictures) While the fishing here is incredible, our freezer space was already maxed out, so we opted for a different kind of Alaskan wildlife adventure.
Alaska Peninsula Brown Bear Viewing
So much of Alaska is only readily accessible by air, and this adventure would take us 100 miles across Cook Inlet to Katmai National Park, where there are no roads, but plenty of wildlife!
We were on a quest to see one of the most iconic sights Alaska has to offer: Alaska peninsula brown bears fishing for salmon, UP CLOSE!
Alaska Seaplane Flight
Our day started early and we arrived to the seaplane docks a little before 7 AM. There were 14 people on our Bald Mountain Air Tour that went through the orientation, got fitted for waders so we could walk through the rivers and potentially soggy brush, and boarded two planes.
We were flying in turbo-prop Otter seaplanes. These planes were extremely powerful and fast, and Tom was incredibly enamored with them!
Our morning flight was beautiful and en route we passed by Augustine Island which is an active volcano that still occasionally erupts.
We made landfall over Katmai National Park and were in awe of the beautiful landscape beneath us that was shaped by much volcanic activity similar to many of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
The planes landed in a small pothole lake high up on the tundra. After unloading, we all followed our guides on a mile-long hike to find some bears.
Finding the Alaska Peninsula Brown Bears
Up until this point, we had tried very hard not to actually think about what we were doing. We were intentionally seeking out some of the largest bears in North America, get up close to them – like, within 30 meters – and watch them eat. That pretty much goes against EVERYTHING you’re ever taught about bears!
In Denali National Park, we had gotten close to grizzly bears, but only from the confines of a sturdy metal bus! The rule of thumb there was to stay at least a football field length away from bears in the wild, and IF you saw one, you should try to get as far away as you could without running.
We were doing the exact opposite!
When we crested the hill we could see the river, and our first bears! They were still probably 50 meters away and down the bluff in the river, and we all whipped our cameras out to take pictures. Our guide softly chuckled and said “Don’t worry, we’re going to get closer.”
We could see down into the river and the bright red bodies of the humpback salmon smoothly undulating in the flowing water, holding themselves at their spawning sites unless some intruder or predator approached.
We rounded a bend and saw MORE bears, closer this time! We all got out the cameras, and our guide again told us, “Don’t worry, we will get closer.”
We entered some taller brush, and bear paths and dead fish bodies were strewn all around us. We descended down to the river’s end and were promptly told to sit down. (This is so we stop moving, get low, and communicate that we are not a threat to the bears.)
“Our” Alaska Brown Bear
Across the 10-15 meter river was a HUGE brown bear, and up and down from him were others staked out, watching for fish. Our guide told us that he was older, and probably weighed close to 1200lbs.
We could tell from the berth the other bears gave him that this was his spot, and we watched him fish in a lazy yet efficient manner, bringing each catch up to the bank to eat and take a break before the next round of fishing began.
We honestly completely forgot to be scared! As we watch the bears, it was clear that they had no interest in our still and silent observations. They were 100% interested in the salmon that would occasionally make a dash upstream over the more shallow and vulnerable sections.
At one point, “our” bear was taking a little midday snooze and all other bear activity was quiet in our section of the river. We all stood and walked a little downstream and into the river onto a grassy bar where we were able to sit more permanently, eat our lunches, and have a better view of another fork of the river.
Here, we had a 360 view of river and bears, and this was when we first saw the mama bear with two cubs!
Mama Bear & Her Cubs
We could have stayed and watched these bears for hours more, but alas, our tour had to come to an end. We careful extricated ourselves from the river bar and made our way back to the seaplanes.
Wine, Thai Food, Paddleboarding, and Homer Halibut
The next day was Cait’s birthday, and we kicked it off with a visit to the Bear Creek Winery. We were surprised to find wine in Alaska at all due to the climate, but here they make fruit wines or use imported grapes fortified with wild or local fruits and berries for an Alaskan flair.
We ate out at a fabulous Thai Restaurant (we noticed that Alaska practically had a Thai restaurant in every town), and returned to the Spit so Cait could go stand up paddleboarding out in the bay.
In the evening we met up with the group for an incredible halibut fish fry that was put together by the group leaders and Cait was treated to a little birthday celebration! Surrounded by the sea, Homer turned out to be a pretty cool place to have a birthday.
Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge
On our way out of town we explored the islands and oceans visitors center. This facility gives visitors a window into the largest seabird refuge in the world, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
This refuge encompasses over 2400 islands and headlands of Alaska’s Aleutian Island Chain, providing safe nesting habitat for over 40 million seabirds, representing over 80 percent of all North American seabirds. The visitor’s center has excellent exhibits that took us on a detailed journey of the refuges rough past and present and surrounded us with the sights and sounds of the remote islands.
The islands had been used as a nuclear blast test site, as well as a trapping farm for foxes that nearly decimated the bird populations. It was a sobering and extremely moving story.
Swan Lake Wild Fire
From here we traveled from Homer back up the peninsula to Seward, Alaska. Along the way we passed the Swan Lake Fire that was burning near the edge of the road and putting lots of smoke in the air. Our weather in Alaska so far been excellent, but that meant this normally cool and wet area was hot and dry, and as we had seen in Fairbanks, much of Alaska was on fire.
For Alaska and the people living in the north, climate change isn’t a political debate, it is a reality. Record high temperatures, raging wildfires, melting permafrost and glaciers, and more have been happening for years now, and is more readily seen due to Arctic amplification. (Source: Smithsonianmag.com)
Seward is a town of around 3000 and is a popular destination for cruise ships. The town is the southern terminus of the Alaska railroad that runs all the way up to Fairbanks as well as the original start of the famous Iditarod trail into Alaska’s interior, that is most commonly known for the famous dog sled race that is run along it each winter. It is also home to the Alaska Sea Life Center!
Alaska Sealife Center
This centers mission is marine animal rehabilitation, research and public education. And we had a unique opportunity to join the group for a special talk and demonstration all about Puffins! We learned that there are three species of these adorable birds and that they swim better than they fly and can dive to depths around 200 feet in search of fish and zooplankton. These birds are native to the rocky shorelines around this area and the Sealife Center had an aviary where we could watch these cute guys up close swimming, flying and diving.
In addition to the puffins, the center houses a wide variety of fish, birds and mammals.
We loved watching these animals up close, and our next adventure in Seward would take us to see these animals in the wild!
Resurrection Bay Cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park
Unfortunately, the smoke from the swan lake fire had rolled down the valley and was inundating Seward and Resurrection Bay, significantly reducing our visibility. Regardless of this, it was nice to get out on the water. This tour first took us out to Fox Island for lunch and educational talks by rangers because much of the land around us is the Kenai Fjords National Park. We also were treated to a talk and demonstration about great grey owls that are common through this region.
The tour continued around the perimeter of Resurrection Bay where we saw many of the bird species that we had learned about at the Alaska Sealife Center, along with sea lions and seals. Resurrection Bay is a very deep fjord with many glacier’s descending into it, but the smoke was obscuring much of our view. Regardless of the smoke, getting out on the water and experiencing the beauty of this rugged coastline was so much fun.
Waterfront Camping in Seward
We moved downtown Seward to one of the many waterfront RV sites that are managed by the city. It was surprising to see a city that dedicated prime waterfront real estate to RV’s, but it makes sense as it provides lots of accommodation for visitors in a small town, and many Alaskans travel locally by RV. While these RV accommodations have been improved and formalized over the years, it is still much the same as how Tom’s family spent time here in their little RV when they lived in Anchorage.
Fishing is great right from the shore and Tom caught multiple pink salmon right in front of our campsite. Staying here was a neat way for him to reminisce of his childhood, but there was one thing that always captured his interest as a kid that he never got an opportunity to experience until now.
Alaska is known for intense wilderness races, and this is one of the most well-known. One of the oldest foot races in America this race was first documented in 1915 and has been run each year since. It is so challenging that it is not recommended even as a hike and during the race, people frequently come away with serious injuries. Not racing, we slowly picked our way up through the dense vegetation at lower elevations to this exceedingly steep mountain face.
Luckily, the view from the top was incredible, and rewarded us handsomely for our hard work!
The smoke drove us onward
Heavy smoke settled into Seward that was burning our eyes and making it hard to breathe we decided to find some clear air. We utilized the University of Alaska’s smoke prediction site to look at the smoke forecast and determined our best bet for clear air was heading back south, through the fire.
This drive was some of the thickest smoke we have ever driven through and open flames were visible on both sides of the road. Luckily, the predictions were correct and we came out the south side into clear air! We headed for a place we heard had free beach camping just south of the town of Kenai and settled in for a few days of clear air. Here we would stay until the forecast predicted reversal of the smoke that would force us back north once again.
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