Kodiak Island Bear Watching: An Amazing Boomer Travel Adventure

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Is a Kodiak Island bear watching trip on your bucket list? It’s been on mine for a long time.

Although I’ve visited the island of Kodiak on Alaska cruises, there’s never been enough time to schedule a trip to see the Kodiak bears (and none of my favorite cruise lines have ever offered one).

My Itchy Travel Feet featured writer, Debi Lander of ByLanderSea, recently had the opportunity to visit the Kodiak Island bears on a photography workshop. After reading about her trip, you’ll be booking your own bear watching adventure.

Spirit bears are rare white or cream-colored black bears found only in the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia in Canada. Legend says they lead people to magical places.

I’ve been transported to wondrous enchanted places in my search for bears. For instance, I discovered brown bears on my trip to Kodiak Island and Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. These spectacular locations gave me the most memorable photographic experience of my life.

Mother brown bear leads triplet coy bears next to a river
Bear viewing on Kodiak Island comes with scenes like this. Photo by Debi Lander.

Back in May of 2019, I signed up for a photo workshop scheduled more than a year in advance. I’d travel in late August and early September 2020 to Kodiak Island for bear watching. Since I had only visited Alaska’s Inner Passage previously, I planned to add a few days to explore Fairbanks and Anchorage. 

But, as we know, the pandemic locked us home in March 2020. Sad for a travel writer, as local road trips became my only outings.

However, by July 2020, the pandemic appeared to be on a downward trend, and I held on to positive thoughts. My mantra became, “The workshop will run as scheduled.”

Fortunately, Alaska is part of the United States, so I could fly to Fairbanks (start your flight search here) in late August and enter the state with a negative Covid test. I knew I would spend most of my days outdoors, so I honestly wasn’t too worried.

I discovered fun things to do in Fairbanks before my photo workshop, and Anchorage delivered even more scenic delights afterward. But, it was my days on Kodiak and the one day in Katmai National Park that became treasured highlights. 

Arriving on Kodiak Island, Alaska

grassy meadow surrounded by mountains on Kodiak Island in Alaska
You’ll find unexpected beauty on Kodiak Island. Photo by Debi Lander.

After a short flight, I arrived on Kodiak Island, home to the largest recognized subspecies of brown bears. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game: “They live exclusively on the islands in the Kodiak Archipelago and have been isolated from other bears for about 12,000 years.”

For clarification, all grizzly bears are brown bears, but not all brown bears are grizzlies. Katmai Ranger Michael Fitz explains, “In North America, brown bears are generally considered to be those of the species that have access to coastal food resources like salmon. Grizzly bears live further inland and typically do not have access to marine-derived food resources.”

When I got to the luggage area, I found it overwhelmed by thermal coolers packed with fish. Apparently, fishing charters from Kodiak greatly appeal to anglers. The island waters offer superb fishing for five species of salmon (king, red, silver, chum, and pink) trout (Dolly Varden, steelhead, and rainbow), halibut, rockfish, and lingcod.

The Kodiak Bear watching begins

salmon thrashing in the water of the Buskin River on Kodiak Island Alaska
The salmon are on the run at Buskin River. Photo by Debi Lander.

In Kodiak, I joined a small group of photographers for the workshop lasting a few days. Early the following morning, we drove to the Buskin River. I’ve never seen a river so alive with a salmon run. I swear you could drop a net and catch a dozen fish in one scoop.

The silver salmon were thrashing, flicking their tails, and struggling against the current. During the early fall season, the river attracts the brown bears of Kodiak Island who fish for salmon. The annual salmon runs provide the necessary food these hungry animals need to fatten up before hibernation.

Unfortunately, the chocolate-colored creatures remained elusive all morning. Like a birdwatcher waiting to spy on a particular species, I grew somewhat bored and disappointed.

Kodiak bear next to a river with water dripping off his chin.
A hungry Kodiak bear fishes for dinner. Photo by Debi Lander.

However, the afternoon produced a remarkable sighting of a large male brown bear strolling along the banks. He nonchalantly moved into the water and pounced, spraying water in all directions.

He then tore the salmon apart with his long claws. Yikes! He stood in the water as we watched from a distance and calmly ate his catch. I was overjoyed. 

Traveling to Katmai National Park and Preserve

Aerial photo from a plane of islands surrounding Katmai National Park in Alaska
Katmai National Park from the air. Photo by Debi Lander.

Little did I realize the next day would bring total immersion into the bear’s world at this off-the-beaten-path national park. I awoke early to join my group and meet our pilot at Island Air.

Fitted with thigh-high waders, my group listened as our guide gave us a safety briefing on bear behavior. We also received orders for our own behavior. He told us to stay together, no loud talking, no arm waving, and no running.

We climbed into a six-seater floatplane for the 45-minute ride to Katmai National Park and Preserve (official website here), landing in Geographic Harbor. We’d see just a small section of the park as Katmai encompasses 3.7 million acres, bigger than the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone combined.

Flying low over Kodiak gave me a new perspective of the volcanic landscape. I marveled at how similar the lush mountainous terrain resembled Hawaii. My pilot agreed, saying, “Kodiak is much like Hawaii except for one thing. Alaska has bears.”

Geographic Harbor bear watching

Float plane sitting on the water at Geographic Harbor in Katmai National Park with people walking to shore.
Wading ashore at Geographic Harbor. Photo by Debi Lander.

As we neared the harbor, I peered down with anticipation and could hardly believe my eyes. I saw bears—many bears!

The basin usually attracts a couple dozen browns. We landed in the water and waded ashore, following our charismatic guide, Scott Stone, “a bear whisperer.” He knew every bear in the area and its habits. He could even predict their hourly schedule.

Scott led us up the tributary to within 10-feet of several bears. Oh my; they were big. (Large male brown bears in Katmai routinely weigh over 1,000 pounds in the fall.)

Heart racing, I could barely (pun intended) contain my thrill at this once-in-a-lifetime close encounter. I wasn’t scared; I was in awe. The close interaction is only possible during late July to early September when the giant creatures follow their instincts, and the salmon runs. 

Baby bear watches a mother brown bear catching a fish in a river
Mamma teaches junior how to fish for salmon. Photo by Debi Lander.

Sure, the coastal brown bears noticed our small group, but they didn’t seem to care. On occasion, Scott would talk calmly to them, and they continued to fish and feast.

As he knowledgeably predicted, one sow (female) enjoyed passing by and showing off her ‘coy’ or cubs of the year. We knelt and sat along the riverbank, mesmerized. The only sound was the click of shutters and flowing water as she and her three little bears slowly paraded by.

The scene played out like a National Geographic documentary, except it was live, and I was there. I couldn’t take my eyes off those mischievous cubs and their mom. 

A bear walks up a river hunting for salmon at beautiful Geographic Harbor with mountains visible in the distance
Majestic Katmai National Park. Photo by Debi Lander.

In my book, Geographic Harbor ranks as one of nature’s finest settings providing a serenely gorgeous view. Volcanic peaks drop down to sea level and create a wide-open space with a rocky sand beach.

The water in the tributaries runs clear but somewhat milky, from a few inches to about two to two and a half feet deep in most places. Salmon are easy to spot and plentiful, but they don’t thrash around like those in the Buskin River.

Many seagulls fly about, and in the afternoon, flies became pesky but then disappeared. I know I could have sat there for hours watching the bears.

Photographing brown bears

A bear at Katmai National Park fishes for salmon while three photographers watch
A thrilling bear watching session at Katmai. Photo by Debi Lander.

Perfect weather prevailed all day while Scott led us to prime viewing spots. I managed to capture incredible images of bears forcefully pouncing on fish and ripping them apart.

I witnessed tender scenes of motherly care, childlike sibling rivalry, and bears napping after their lunch. I saw a few bears stand on their hind legs. My mind became lost in the beauty of my surroundings and the joy of seeing wildlife who were living free.

Three baby brown bears huddled together at Katmai National Park in Alaska
These triplet Kodiak bear cubs stick together. Photo by Debi Lander.

Scott summed up his thoughts, “My connection with bears is soul-deep, and guiding is what I’m meant to do. I want my clients to take away a wealth of beer knowledge by day’s end, but primarily to see how, in the right place, they can be seen as ingenious animals. When viewed properly, they give you a peace far greater than anything.” I wholeheartedly agree.

We did not visit Katmai’s famed Brooks Falls, which attracts more Kodiak bear watchers. Brooks Falls is challenging to reach and very expensive.

For Kodiak bear watching, I highly recommend the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly into Geographic Harbor at Katmai. Use Kodiak as your base and make reservations way in advance to go to Geographic Harbor.

More things to do in Kodiak Island, Alaska

I was surprised to learn that Kodiak Island is the second-largest island in the United States; only the big island of Hawaii is larger. But the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge covers two-thirds of the land, leaving it sparsely populated.

In addition to looking for bears, the island offers a few more places of interest to hikers, anglers, bird watchers, and photographers. I explored the following locations.

Watch a Pillar Mountain sunrise

Woman sitting on the ground photographing the view at Pillar Mountain on Kodiak Island, Alaska
A sunrise view is the reward for hiking Pillar Mountain trail. Photo by Debi Lander.

The Pillar Mountain trail runs three miles in length and leads up to a 1,270-foot summit. Here you will find a few wind turbines, producing much of the energy for the island, and terrific views over the town. It is also possible to drive nearly to the top. My group went to watch the sunrise.

Visit Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park for nature and history

trees in a forest covered in green moss
The green, green hiking experience at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park. Photo by Debi Lander.

As you approach the Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park, the spruce trees lining the road become draped in moss, a look I find mysterious and beautiful. You’ll see historic ruins of a World War II coastal defense installation.

At one spot, a concrete overlook provides breathtaking views of the steep surf pounding the cliffs. I walked into the deep spruce forests, reminding me of a redwood forest, and enjoyed the park’s peaceful beauty.

Boomer Travel Tip

The few cruise ships that call on Kodiak Island usually offer a hiking excursion at Fort Abercrombie.

Explore Monashka Bay

Leaving Fort Abercrombie, we took Monashka Bay Road northwest for about 12 miles. We saw panoramic views of the coast, hiking trails, tide pools, a white-sand beach, and a museum building. The museum was closed during my visit. Some folks were fishing, and others were picnicking.

Stroll the downtown Kodiak

white fishing boat with blue trim sitting at a pier
Be sure to stroll by the main marina in Kodiak. Photo by Debi Lander.

The main marina is worth a stroll back in town. You’ll  find a mural nearby for some fun photo ops. Seafood is fantastic (find Kodiak restaurants here), I ate some stunning sushi while in Alaska. Without a doubt, I would happily return and encourage others to heed the call of the wild and visit our 49th state.

Scratch those itchy travel feet!

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