Day Three: The Katmai Peninsula and Emerald Air

June 29, 2008

We were both up bright and early this morning before 5:30 a.m.  We arrived at Emerald Air by the appointed time of 8:15 a.m. and were given hip boots that would be absolute requirements for the day ahead.  Our guides, Ken and Chris Day, have over 30 years of combined time in the field with bears.  The goal of their bear viewing experience is to educate people so that they can become advocates for bear preservation as well as so that they will know how to behave safely in bear country.  We would be two of only 9 allowed costumers per trip.  Our traveling companions included couples from Belgium and The Netherlands, as well as three other folks from the lower-48 who were returning guests.

As we boarded the classic deHavilland Otter float-plane Ken asked if anyone wanted to sit in the co-pilots seat.  I swear I saw a little kid’s hand shoot up immediately as if to say, “Pick me!  Pick me!”  Only there were no little kids in our group; it was my big-kid Bill.  Bill loves airplanes and is quite knowledgeable about them.  He climbed up into the co-pilot’s seat and I knew right then and there, that if we did not see a single bear Bill would still consider this day to be glorious.  Aerial View of Homer Spit.jpgWe took off from Beluga Lake at around 9:30 and headed southwest toward Hallo Bay on the Katmai Peninsula.

Everyone in the plane was equipped with head phones in part due to the great (Bill would say “beautiful”) noise the Otter created.  Along the route both Ken and Chris pointed out areas of interest.  There are many active volcanoes in Alaska and we flew by several.  We clearly saw Mt. Augustine, an island volcano, actively steaming and building up its dome.  Mt. Augustine is a major concern to folks in Homer as the danger of a tsunami is quite high should a large amount of the mountain “blow” into the bay.  There are tsunami warning towers all along the Homer Spit as well as a bicycle lane that was actually built as a third escape path.View of Katmai.jpg

The plane trip took about an hour and the views were really stunning.  The snows had melted off to some extent exposing the red rock of the bluffs.  Glaciers and Mount Douglas were also right out our windows.  As we neared our destination, Ken pointed out a large black smear on the beach below.  He explained it was an oil spot from a whale that had washed up on shore the previous year.  From my window I could see 4 bears feeding on the spot as well as bleached whale bones still on the beach.  While it’s hard to see how there could be any sustenance in what was left of that whale, Ken explained that the oil left in the sand is still attractive to the bears.

We touched down in Hallo Bay after circling the sedge flat to gain an idea of where bears were already hanging out.  Bill disembarks float plane.jpgWe disembarked with our hip boots pulled as high as legs would allow and waded our way to shore.  Because of the seasonal low tides, Ken would not be spending the day with us but rather had to take the plane to a location where it would remain in deep enough water to lift off later.  It was rather dismal, damp, and windy morning but the sense of anticipation quickly eroded any desire to whine.  After a fast pee-break; men on one side of a rise, women on the other; we began our trek.

 Immediately we happened across a red fox who did not seem very concerned about our presence.  He gave us a little show and trotted off down the bay.  red fox on Katmai.jpgWithin minutes we were watching our first bear.  This was the end of the breeding season and the males had finally begun to eat.  Chris had taught us to stay in a tight group in order to appear “big” to the bears and yet not intimidating.  And right about here in this story words become very inadequate.  A picture is worth a thousand words and we took many throughout the day.  We slowly moved around during the morning then sat to eat our lunch in the company of a young female bear to one side and two feeding males to the other.  The female would lie on her belly and pull the grass with such a snap we could hear her as we quietly ate.  Lunchtime bear.jpgA short time later we watched as two young males romped and wrestled with each other.  This was not fighting for dominance.  This was play.  By now, the weather had cleared and although we were bundled up we were also quite comfortable.  After lunch we continued our travels across several small creeks, through the sedge grasses, and around the bay.  grizzly on Katmai.jpgWe were scheduled for pick up at 4:00 p.m.  By the end of this incredible day we had watched a total of 19 grizzly bears and several more from a distance.  We had one young female come within 15 feet of our group.  We also saw other groups of people who did not employ the same consideration, safety habits, and respect towards the bears as did Chris Day.Prints.jpg

As we walked the beach to our pick up point we were joined by two park rangers.  They were obviously familiar with Chris.  They rangers told her that they had attempted to get a photo that had both our group and another guides group in the same shot so that they could use it to demonstrate the good and the bad way to move about in bear country.  Other groups we saw were spread out and straggling.  This is more intimidating to the bears and also places the observers at greater risk.

Because of the low tide we had quite a wade through the water to get to the float plane.  Seriously.  I am not a great judge of distance but I would estimate it to have been at least the length of a football field.  There were plenty of folks with water in their hip boots by the time we climbed aboard the floats and up into the cabin.  During the trip home Ken flew the plane up into the Fourpeaked Glacier bowl.  small glacier and lake Katmai.jpgWhile I trusted him completely, I can now attest that when you are in a plane flying right around in between a few mountains it seems very hard to judge distance.  As we flew around in the bowl I was aware that those mountains looked a lot closer than what they apparently were.  The view from this vantage point was incredible.

After Ken landed the plane in Beluga Lake, taxied to our dock, and cut the motor there was nothing but complete silence.  The whole day had been an unbelievable and nearly indescribable adventure.  I think myself and everyone else in that cabin did not want the magic to end.  Bill and I returned to our little home-on-wheels and we both recognized that this had been one of the greatest days in our lives.


Pictures

View of Katmai.jpg
Aerial View of Homer Spit.jpg
Bill disembarks float plane.jpg
female grizzly.jpg
 
 

4 Comments

Zina:
June 30, 2008
I mean "amazing", sorry
June 30, 2008
You are so very blessed to have this experience of a lifetime!! I have such great anticipation upon getting your e-mail of what the "day" will bring for you and Bill. This one took my breath away a couple of times because you are such an awesome storyteller, you feel as though you are experiencing your adventure! I cannot wait until you return and we can see photos first-hand! Have fun!
Renae Crawford:
July 1, 2008
Your writing is so good, I'd love to print this and read it as a book. You have been able to make us feel as though we are right there with you. I appreciate being able to share this through your eyes and stories. Looking forward to the rest!
Deb in Indy:
May 16, 2009
Thanks so much for effort you put into this site. I'm heading back to AK in August and can't wait! Unfortunately, I won't be able to go out with the Days. Did you know that Chris Day is featured in the IMAX movie BEARS? Just fyi.
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