They stand up to 10 feet tall and may weigh 1,400 pounds or more. With claws as long as Swiss Army Knife blades, they can shred flesh in a flash. They possess a sense of smell seven times keener than a bloodhound's, and they can sprint nearly twice as fast as the swiftest Olympian. These are North America's brown bears, the ursine species that includes the grizzly, the Kodiak and the Alaskan coastal brown.
I am about to share a wilderness beach with these omnivorous masses of muscle, and I feel more than a bit nervous.
As an outdoor veteran, there are few animals I fear. I've stepped on rattlesnakes, slumbered with scorpions, swum around sharks, slogged near cougars and slept next to campers who insisted on throwing rocks at a skunk only a squirt away from my sleeping bag. The thought of bumping into a bruin in the backcountry, on the other hand, scares me. But now I'm in Alaska, and it's time to face the fangs.
Our cruise ship, Spirit of Oceanus, has docked in Kodiak, an island 260 miles southwest of Anchorage, and as most lines do at popular ports, Cruise West markets an array of optional shore excursions. I choose a half-day, Sea Hawk Air tour to view bears in Katmai National Park. Not only will I have a chance to confront my nemesis, but I will also get to fly in a plane where water landings do not require me to use my seat cushion as a floatation device.
After being fitted with fisherman-style rubber boots, three of us passengers hop into a yellow Grumman Widgeon, a float plane sporting wheels for runways and a fat belly and wing pontoons for water. At the controls is bush pilot Steve Harvey, who has been flying commercially since 1966. Four others follow in another plane. Soon, we are all heading northwest to Hallo Bay, 75 miles away on the Alaska Peninsula.
From our 1000-foot perch above the ocean, I watch commercial fisherman string nets near shore. Beyond, orcas splash in the blue surface, and later I spot two humpbacks breaching the surface. Ahead lies a strip of beach backed by mountains dappled with snow and ice. As land approaches, we glide toward the sea.
"Close your window," Steve shouts.
The plane hits the water and starts to slow. When the nose drops, a wave of white blasts the windshield like jets from a car wash.
"I'm starting to drag bottom," Steve says, killing his engines 100 yards from the beach.
The pilot opens the door and we step into thigh-deep water. Wading in our waders, we pass the group that will be taking our places on Steve's return flight. I am relieved to see they appear unmolested.
Jo Murphy meets us on the beach. Short and thin, the red-haired guide would barely make a decent appetizer for a hungry brown. Living on Kodiak Island since 1968, she learned about bears through seat-of-the-pants experience. Jo immediately shares her ground rules.
"Don't show fear," she says. "They can sense that. Big groups are better than singles, so stick together."
She tells us that park regulations limit us from approaching bears less than 50 yards away. If one comes closer, however, we're not required to back up.
"If we do, we tell them we're afraid," explains Jo. "We don't want the bears getting that idea or they'll start chasing us around. So, when they approach, we'll hold our ground. Running is the last thing one should do if a bear charges."
We stand together on the flat beach. Beyond lies a shrub-covered berm followed by acres of grassy meadows. There is nary a tree to climb in case of a bear attack, but Jo tells us not to worry. She carries a can of pepper spray, which she claims she's only had to use four times.
I pray this is not going to be the fifth. Two burly brutes lurk to the right. Another patrols the beach on the left. All are Alaskan browns.
Of the world's eight major bear species, North America hosts three. Polar bears occupy the Arctic north with blacks and browns sharing lower latitudes.
Black bears, whose fur actually comes in nearly any shade made by Clairol, can be found in 42 American states and 11 Canadian provinces/territories. They are smaller, sport bigger ears and have claws curved for climbing. In general, they are considered more timid than their brawnier cousins.
Brown bears are larger, sport smaller ears and have noticeable shoulder humps. Their straight claws are made for digging, not climbing. Those who live inland are called grizzlies, and dining on a menu rich in plants and berries, they seldom exceed 800 pounds. Alaskan browns, which live closer to the coast, enjoy a fish-rich diet and grow heftier. Grandest of all are the Kodiaks, which follow an Atkins-like meal plan that is almost exclusively protein. While true Kodiaks are found only on the islands of the Kodiak archipelago, many use that term to identify any Alaskan coastal brown bear.
We watch the nearby bruins dig for clams. When they smell one in the sand, they scoop down with saucer-sized paws, pull the mollusk to the surface, pry the shell open with their long claws and delicately nibble the innards. They seem unfazed by us camera-clicking paparazzi photo-documenting their meal of clams on the half shell.
"When you approach a bear and get to a point where it's comfortable with the distance but doesn't want you to come any closer, it will turn around and show you its butt," Jo explains. "If you try and get closer, it'll bolt. If you sit on the ground and wait, pretty soon it will turn around and show you its side again. Then it's safe to go a little closer."
Jo leads us over the beach berm to a meadow crisscrossed with bruin boulevards. I scan the surroundings. We have bears behind, another parallels our tracks to the side and more sit in the meadow ahead. I'm surrounded by unbridled beasts in their unconstrained habitat, and surprisingly I realize I'm not the least bit apprehensive.
"The number one misconception people have is that if a bear sees you, it's going to eat you," says Jo. "Nothing is further from the truth. If you take the time to watch them and read their body language, they're actually telling you what they're going to do. If you act confident around them, they'll treat you with respect. There is a difference between doing things sensibly and stupidly."
We hike across the meadow toward a sow and her two-year-old cub. Mom lies in a stream, trying to cool off on this balmy summer day. The cub starts to wander. When mom huffs, the obedient offspring returns to its parent.
A short distance away, a young bear looks nervous as a bigger bruin approaches. When the aggressor breaks into a run, the pursued flees at top speed. I see why trying to outrun one of these 35-mph fur balls would be futile. Their race is short lived, and five minutes later the two share the meadow in peace.
Top of the wilderness food chain, brown bears can only exist in large, contiguous bodies of land. While once they roamed freely through North America, today's populations are largely limited to Alaska, Canada and a few parks and wilderness areas in the American West. Their decline is a direct result of habitat loss and confrontation with humans.
"A way to protect bears is to help them keep their weariness," insists wildlife expert Rupert Pilkington of Ursus International. "When we go away, the bear may find somebody else who won't have our tolerance, interest or knowledge."
Fortunately, Katmai National Park lies far from the perils of civilization. It provides a guilt-free habitat where guests can experience bears in the wild, not behind bars. Here, where hunting is banned, animals who have become accustomed to folks bearing Nikons should never blunder into someone toting a Winchester.
After a few hours, we hear the drone of a plane landing, and Jo leads us back to the beach. Steve has pulled his Widgeon onto the shore and got a wheel stuck in the sand. One of the brakes is broken. Not only will we have to push the plane free, but we also face an interesting landing back in Kodiak. If that were not bad enough, we also will be arriving well after the ship's scheduled departure time.
But I'm not worried. After today, I have nothing left to fear.