In the little town of Homer, Alaska, a booming bear viewing market has emerged.
Brian Saunders, who owns the Anchor River Fly Shop, sat tying flies for the upcoming trout season across Cook Inlet. Saunders specializes in fly-in fishing and other curated adventures. There were no customers in his shop on the bank of the Anchor River. Dollie, his cattle-dog, dozed on the porch. Salmon season was closed due to poor returns.
“I’ve definitely seen the numbers dwindle over the years, but I’m going to be really honest with you—I’ve never counted on the kings,” says Saunders. He describes the king run on the Anchor River as a vulnerable fishery, where the signs of decline were all around, documented even. But Alaskans are known for their ability to adapt.
“You can’t just be a fly shop. You must have something else going as a part of your service. So, I guide bear viewing. We can go over (to Katmai National Park) and not only subsidize our income, but equal our income just by bear viewing,” says Saunders. He lights up when he talks bears.
“Ironically, bear viewing—the whole concept of it–was born from fly-fishing, by people going out and fishing some of the most spectacular places on the planet with the bears.
A New Economy
Even to the uninitiated, the bear viewing industry has become a major player in the Homer economy. Beluga Lake, where the floatplanes take off in succession, stays busy all day with the comings and goings of brightly painted seaplanes. At the dock behind Emerald Air’s office and cabins, two de Havilland Otters wait while a group of six clients receive a safety briefing. They are heading to Hallo Bay, or Brooks Falls, for a day of bear viewing. These all-day excursions go for north of one thousand dollars per person, but the sticker shock seems to have little effect on the customers.
Brad Anderson, the Executive Director of the Homer Chamber, says that Homer has become, officially, the leading bear viewing destination in Alaska because of its proximity to Katmai. From Homer, clients can travel to the Park in boats, helicopters, and planes. He sees no end to the growing industry and thinks it will evolve into educational programs. “It’s starting to be a very big economic driver up here,” he says.
Tom Soderholm, the Director of Operations at Smokey Bay Air, explains it this way: “These days the world can be a stressful place to be. First off, you get a beautiful flight on the way over. If the weather is nice, the scenery is spectacular. And then you’re on the ground in this pristine environment, and there’s no problems, there’s no worries—there’s no anything, other than pure, pristine nature and the bears.” He says many of his clients, upon returning to Homer, describe an emotional experience.
An anxious flyer, I get my chance to see Katmai and the famous Coastal Brown Bears for myself. I grip the seat cushion as we bump over Cook Inlet. For just over an hour, we fly over roiled seas, tormented straights, and eerily blue hanging glaciers that define the west side of Cook Inlet. Once we land at Hallo Bay, we wade ashore with a naturalist employed by Emerald.
Lance Bassett has over 10 years experience with bears. After a career in the Navy, he did his apprenticeship at Katmai and became a trusted guide who can discuss the various plants bears eat—goose tongue, tundra peas, and arrow grass—and how bears socialize. Lance talks about the difference between these Coastal Brown Bears and their inland cousins. “These get a lot bigger than interior grizzlies, about twice the size. They have a lot of food out here. Right now, it’s grasses, sedges, and other plant material mixed in with some clams,” he says. And with the arrival of these fish in July, the bears gorge themselves and put on their winter weight. An adult brown bear can eat 100 pounds of fish per day.
Bassett is one of a dozen bear guides who make their living guiding for the Homer air service companies that carry visitors from Homer to Katmai. They are experts in bear behavior, the history of indigenous people in the area, Alaskan geology, migratory birds, and botany. At Hallo Bay, Bassett maneuvers our group among grazing bears. One of the gifts of bear viewing with an experienced guide is that it puts to rest the Western myth that grizzly bears are monsters, only intent on killing and eating people; guides at Katmai carry pop flares—no guns, no bear spray—they will tell you that they have never had to deploy a flare. We meander through a landscape pocked with saltwater ponds and storm wrack. The skeletal remains of a humpback whale lay strewn upon the coast. Bassett says his clients had to cover their noses when they we downwind of the carcass, but the bears fed mightily all summer. “That was a good summer—I always knew where the bears would be,” says Bassett.
At one time, my group counts over 20 bears in view. The bears keep their faces plunged into the sedges, lifting their eyes from time to time to take in the groups of rain-jacketed photographers and tourists who walk in single-file like ducklings. We cross creeks, we eat our lunches over our open backpacks to catch any crumbs that might inadvertently fall, and we take photos, lots of photos. Bear guides are particularly adept at positioning people for perfect, once-in-a-lifetime images of bears.
Bassett catches movement in the distance: a sow grizzly running along the beach with a set of “spring cubs,” bears that were just recently born. There is mist billowing in off Hallo Bay, and the photographers among us struggled to find the right light. Bassett says it is the first set of spring cubs he has seen this season. The bears don ‘t come our way but bolt for the open beach. The witnessing of a new generation of bears means that this ritual—bears, people, float planes, the rarefied landscape—go on.
At Hallo Bay, one is keenly aware of the bear viewing business. Two live-aboard vessels squat in the distance. A zodiac ferries a load of bear viewers ashore. Floatplanes and wheeled planes that can land on the sandy beachfront frequently take off and land. The bears, though, don’t seem to mind. Sows nurse their cubs. Subadult males lightly chase the honey-hued sows through the sedges. Cameras click. But otherwise, we are merely sightseeing, sharing close quarters with wild animals.
Unlike the fur trade, the gold rush, whaling, salmon and halibut fishing, crabbing, the boom and bust of oil-based economies, bear viewing seems to have little impact on the resource, if you want to call a 600-pound bear a resource. All you leave with are pictures and memories. And hopefully, a new understanding of bears and the landscapes they need to exist. Before we wade back to the plane, I pick up a tuft of bear fur. It smells like the sea. I thrust the bear wool into my pocket for a keepsake.
In for the Long Run
Wes Head and his wife Angela run Beluga Air, a single-pilot operator air service that taxies people from Beluga Lake to Katmai and Lake Clark. Head, like so many others in the industry, is drawn to Alaska because he loves flying and seeks adventure. His office, a tidy log cabin-style building, sits on the shore of Beluga Lake.
Head flies a Haviland Beaver, the classic Alaskan bush plane, and about 70 percent of his income comes from bear viewing. He flies clients to Hallo Bay where they are handed over to a dedicated naturalist, Dave Bachrach, who camps in Katmai during the season. “ I stay with the plane, and let Dave do his thing. He gives a very well-rounded experience, that, to be frank, we charge a lot for,” says Head.
Head says that many people come to Homer unaware of bear viewing opportunities. He explains that Homer is well-known as the Halibut Capitol of the World. Today, the bear viewing industry is steadily gaining in popularity and might be the defining industry of the future for this sea-girt hamlet. Head says that amateur photographers make their reservations a year or more out. “They love the bears, but to them they’re going after the photo of the bear. They have in their mind an image that they want to go after,” he says.
At Brooks Camp—the most famous of all Katmai bear viewing locations—some days see over 600 visitors. The viewing platforms are clogged with shutterbugs and bear enthusiasts. Park staff and the infrastructure are admittedly stressed by the recent boom in bear viewing. Park Director Mark Sturm says that there are on-going visitation plans forthcoming. The goal is to mitigate overcrowding at Brooks Camp and protect the ecology.
It seems reasonable to ask if we are not already bear viewing too much. There must be a point where the current growth will become counterproductive. There was some discussion a few years ago about the bears of Hallo Bay being negatively impacted by too many visitors. Head says the bear numbers dropped for a season but have since rebounded and increased. “I don’t think we are affecting them yet. I think if we still have this explosive growth that we’re having now, it may be time for the Park Service to limit the number of operators,” he says.
Head points out that the revenue he makes off bear-viewing is how he makes his living, how he is raising his kids in Homer. “By working with the Parkand other companies,” he says, “the industry will not do anything that negatively affects the bears. The example of overfishing has shown us what not to do.”