After my brutally long drive the day before, I sleep like a newborn child in Soldotna, the Kenai river by my side. I awake refreshed and ready for a new day, my first official tour of this trip.
In my last minute scramble to find something to do, I see a tour to Lake Clark for some bear viewing. I didn’t have many options, as most tour operators were either closed due to Covid, or already booked up. I hoped for the best as I drive over in the morning.
The float planes on the still water give me chills, and not from the morning temperatures. After a short tutorial video about the area we will be in for the day, we get fitted with the appropriate gear and head on down to the dock to meet our pilot and guide, then board the plane.
As we take off, I get my first glimpse of Soldotna from the air, which really is the only way to truly appreciate the wonder and wild nature of Alaska. The Kenai river carves and moves its glacial waters through town, connecting eventually to the sea.
We have about 45 minutes of flying time. Over the ocean we go, then we re-connect with the land. The river below is what we follow to Lake Clark.
Landing smoothly on Lake Clark, we exit the plane and I take in my first views of the landscape, trying to remember to breathe. There is no one else around that we can see, and the silence is golden.
I do think to myself that this seems to be somewhat of a strange place to view bears, as I think of them being along rivers fishing for salmon, not hanging out at a lake.
We get into a small skiff, only five of us plus our guide, then we head out onto the water.
No more time than it took for me to get out my camera and start adjusting my settings before we see our first bear. A giant lone grizzly comes rumbling out of the bush and is going along the shoreline, looking for a meal.
The salmon have been fighting the upstream current of the glacial river to return to this lake where they were born, ready to lay eggs for the next generation of salmon before dying. The bears are looking to put on as much weight and fat to help them through the long winter hibernation. It’s a fascinating story of the symbiotic relationship in Nature.
The bright pink color of the salmon make it relatively easy for the bears to spot from the shore. In a flash, the bear will charge into the water, hoping to catch a mighty salmon. The claws grasp the huge fish, the jaws rip off its head, blood spray flying about as the fish frantically thrashes around helplessly.
The adult bears will eat the head first, as it contains the most fat. Young cubs then enter the scene, eating what remains of the salmon’s body. The sounds the animals make while feeding are something that I hope to never forget.
Amazingly, more bears start to appear from the bush, and we are lucky enough to witness this event again and again.
I feel like I am in a dream, one that I never want to wake up from. I truly feel for the first time that my return to Alaska is starting to become all that I wanted it to be.
We have been out here all morning spotting bears. We decide to head to a small beach to have some smoked salmon that our guide caught himself.
We rest easy, talking about our day so far, wondering if it could get any better.
That’s when I spot a rustling in the bushes no more than twenty feet from us. I see the head first.
“BEAR!” (part two is next……)