Kodiak to Homer Itinerary
Welcome to Kodiak Island! At 3,670 square miles, Kodiak is the second-largest island in the United States. Defined by high mountains, lush forests and a crenellated coastline, much of the island's wild terrain lies within the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, home to 3,500 brown bears and a host of other wildlife. On your arrival at the airport, our local guide meets you and transfers you to our hotel in town. Depending on your timing, you may be able to explore some of Kodiak's Russian and Native heritage on your own this afternoon. Our photography expedition officially begins this evening with an informal welcome dinner and orientation hosted by our local guide.
Inhabited by Alutiiq natives for more than 7,000 years, Kodiak was colonized by Russian fur traders in 1792, whose harvest of sea otter pelts drove the species to near-extinction by the mid-19th century. As the first permanent Russian settlement in what would become Alaska, it served as the capital of Russian America until it was moved to Sitka in 1804. In 1794, the Russian Orthodox Church established its first North American mission in Kodiak. Reminders of this residency are on display at the Kodiak History Museum—formerly an 18th-century fur storehouse and one of Alaska’s oldest wooden structures—and Holy Resurrection Church, rebuilt in the 1940s after the original 1795 building was destroyed by a fire. Other options for free time include the Alutiiq Museum, the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, and several galleries featuring the work of resident artists. All are centrally located in the compact town of Kodiak surrounding picturesque St. Paul's Harbor. Kodiak is also home to Alaska’s largest fishing fleet, bringing in a great haul of salmon, halibut and herring each season.
Day 2: Private Kodiak Wildlife Photography Cruise
While bears will be our main focus elsewhere, Kodiak Island is an impressive wildlife photography destination in its own right, and today we explore a sampler of its coastal waters on an all-day private boat trip. Our cruise among Kodiak’s secluded bays and rockbound shorelines, past tidal pools and kittiwake rookeries, may reveal sea otters, puffins, bald eagles, sea lions and sometimes humpback and fin whales. Kodiak is remote, not often visited by travelers to Alaska, and our sense of an intimate encounter with wild nature is palpable. We'll also spend time photographing sites in historic Kodiak, with a mix of activities that may include a walk through the coastal rain forest at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park, a fisheries research center with aquarium and touch tank, and/or a drive up Pillar Mountain for panoramic photos over the town and sea, when weather permits.
Day 3: Kodiak Walking Tour / Chartered Floatplane to Katmai—Board Natural Habitat Ursus
This morning, a walking tour unveils more of Kodiak's rich history and culture, including its important fishing and crabbing industry. Wander the harbor with our guide, and photograph historic sites including the Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Cathedral, and the building housing the Kodiak History Museum, which is the oldest in Alaska and the oldest documented log structure on the west coast of North America. Built in 1808, it was originally a Russian-American Company storehouse in what was then known as Pavlovsk, the first permanent Russian settlement in North America.
Exciting aerial photo opportunities await on our floatplane transit from Kodiak to Katmai where we meet our privately chartered small ship, the Natural Habitat Ursus. Our plan is to have lunch in town, then board our plane, but our timing is flexible in the event of weather contingencies—in which case we'll explore more of Kodiak as we wait for clouds to lift. Once it's time to fly, we head west over Kodiak's steep green mountains and across Shelikof Strait to the Katmai Peninsula, where the ice-crowned peaks of the Aleutian Range rise in a serrated spine behind the shore. The pilot is in radio contact with the Ursus, and soon we're taxiing on the water to pull up alongside the ship. Exiting the plane, we embark the vessel that will be our floating home for the next several days. The 73-foot Ursus was built as a deep-sea fishing boat called Time Bandit, which navigated the stormy Bering Sea in pursuit of the lucrative king crab catch. Its successor, the second Time Bandit, gained fame in the Discovery Channel TV series "Deadliest Catch." The original boat was later transitioned for research use by the National Park Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Since retrofitted for custom tourism charters, this sturdy veteran of wild Alaskan waters now offers our guests comfortable accommodations in this remote marine wilderness.
Bear photography begins in earnest as the Ursus (which means "bear" in Latin) cruises slowly along the coastline in the Hallo Bay region. In this area we commonly find giant Alaskan brown bears—the coastal version of the interior grizzly bear, which is the same species, Ursus arctos—foraging for food, and the opportunities to capture impressive close-ups are simply remarkable. Since we are mobile, we can cruise to wherever the bears are, following them from bay to bay. Bring more memory capacity than you think you'll need, as you won't believe the shots you will get!
Days 4–6: Brown Bear Photography in Katmai National Park
While we’ve all seen footage in nature documentaries of Alaskan brown bears in the wild, nothing prepares us for the drama of an actual encounter with these magnificent beasts, sometimes just feet away. They are North America’s largest land predators, and an adult male can weigh well over 1,000 pounds. As we cruise just off the roadless coast of Katmai National Park, bears often dot the shoreline. We go ashore by skiff for an even closer view, exploring the beaches on foot. It’s not uncommon to find several massive bears at once. And far from dozing lethargically, they often put on quite a show for us, as they go about filling up on enough protein-rich food to prepare for a long winter in hibernation. The bear activity we witness varies according to seasonal patterns and weather conditions, but there's always something exciting to photograph. We may see mating activity, with males chasing females; mothers with newly born spring cubs gallivanting on the beach; or bears digging clams from the sand, swiping them out with talons as long as a man's fingers. As omnivores, bears also browse on protein-rich sedge grass.
On other Alaska trips, most visitors typically watch grizzlies from viewing platforms or vehicles. Not here! In coastal Katmai we are on foot, carefully wandering the area in our small group under the cautious guidance of our expert naturalist guide, who offers thorough coaching in safe bear etiquette. Sometimes we see wolves, too, observing their interesting interactions with the bears. While occasionally there may be another boat in the region, we're usually alone in the wilderness, moved by a profound sense of solitude, peace and raw beauty.
Day 7: Katmai Bear Photography / Private Flight to Lake Clark National Park—Nat Hab's Alaska Bear Camp
One last morning is set aside for bear photography in the Hallo Bay region, before we plan to fly to Lake Clark National Park Cruising in an open skiff, we head to shore once more, looking for a glimpse of the glaciers that crown the high mountain backdrop above Katmai's pristine coast. Typically these peaks are cloaked in clouds while mists weave in and out of the bays, providing the moisture that keeps this landscape so lush and verdant. Deep ash covered the region after the massive 1912 eruption of Mount Katmai and adjacent Novarupta, and revegetation in the century since has come mostly as a thick blanket of willow and alder bushes, though some stands of spruce also thrive—keep an eye out for bald eagles in the treetops. Seabirds abound, too—look for kittiwakes, terns, mergansers, pigeon guillemots and black oystercatchers. On shore, we walk across the tidal flats and gravel bars, possibly fording a few streams to find the best vantage point for a last chance to capture images of the bears in this location.
Depending on the weather, we plan to depart this afternoon for Nat Hab's Alaska Bear Camp, as our wheeled bush plane flies us directly to Chinitna Bay. The view along the coast from our chartered plane is staggering as we look down on glacial valleys and braided rivers, passing snow-clad volcanoes rising above icefields. Our destination, where the Aleutian and Alaska ranges meet, is Lake Clark National Park, comprising some of the world's most critical brown bear habitat. Look for bears along the shoreline as we come in for a landing, taxiing down the beach. Bear Camp is located on a historic homestead, a rare private inholding of coastal land surrounded by the roadless wilderness of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. These 4 million protected acres are the ancestral homelands of the Dena'ina people, preserving an intact ecosystem at the headwaters of the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world.
Accessible only by plane or boat, Bear Camp offers Nat Hab guests alone an unparalleled immersion in pristine brown bear habitat. Once we're settled in to our weatherproof tent cabins, we gather for an orientation followed by our first opportunity to photograph bears. Two viewing platforms are located behind the camp, surveying the vast meadow where bears feed. One is elevated for a territorial view, enabling us to see bears nearby and at a distance. The other offers an eye-level vantage for bears that may wander close to us. And we often watch them right from camp, which is surrounded by electrified wires, ensuring our safety on site.
Days 8–10: Brown Bear Photography in Lake Clark National Park
Nat Hab's private Bear Camp has some of the best, most consistent bear viewing anywhere in Alaska, due to the season-long availability of food. All summer, nature serves up a steady bounty to these omnivores, with protein-rich sedges and clams dug from the beach the “first course” before the late summer salmon run that will fatten them up to survive a long winter. Since the bears are sated by this abundance, they see us humans merely as part of the scenery, allowing us to move safely in their midst on guided outings, at times photographing them from just a few yards away.
Against a backdrop of sheer-sided peaks rising above the lush valley floor, the bears are sometimes near enough that we can hear them chewing their food and communicating with one another in woofs, purrs and growls. While bear activity varies according to the time of season and weather conditions, and we can never predict exactly what bear behavior we'll witness, there's always something riveting going on. We may get to photograph bears wandering the tide flats, mothers with playful cubs, or animated mating activity. And while bears are usually plentiful right in the vicinity of camp, we also go into adjacent Lake Clark National Park for added variety. At every turn, we explore the area in the careful company of our Expedition Leader, who offers thorough coaching in respectful "bear etiquette" to ensure your safety. Our low-impact presence ensures that we never disturb the bears, and they in turn grant us comfortable access to photograph them going about their daily routines. After each exhilarating outing, gather in the dining tent for fresh, chef-prepared meals—local fare is always on the menu, including Alaskan salmon.
Day 11: Bear Photography / Chartered Flight to Homer
We have one last chance this morning to photograph the bears of Lake Clark National Park, admiring their majesty and whimsy alike. Eventually, it's time to leave Bear Camp behind as we board our small bush plane and taxi down the beach, bound for Homer. Weather permitting, we may get to photograph the icy flanks of Mount Iliamna en route, an active volcano that stands sentinel over the Bear Coast. One thing is certain: no one leaves here unmoved by the bears' plight, intensely aware of the threats from mining, climate change and other potential impacts to the health of this vital ecosystem on which the bears rely. We depart as ambassadors for the bears, our time among them leaving an indelible mark on us, inspiring us to do all we can to protect them.
Our 45-minute flight across Cook Inlet brings us to Homer, a scenic fishing town of 5,500 on Kachemak Bay located near the bottom of the Kenai Peninsula. Known as “the end of the road,” Homer is the most southerly point on Alaska’s contiguous highway system. Surrounded by 280 acres of protected state land, this critical wildlife habitat sustains more than 100 bird species and a large local moose population. Homer’s key geographic feature is the Homer Spit, a 4.5-mile-long gravel bar that extends into the bay. Visitors to the town harbor frequently see fishing boats unloading their catch—Homer is heralded as the Halibut Capital of the World. Depending on our arrival time, we might tour a local family homestead and artist studio, and/or take a walk along the long, sandy strip of Bishop’s Beach and Beluga Slough. When the tide is out, we can investigate the tidepools in search of small sealife including jellyfish and crabs.
Day 12: Homer—Kachemak Bay Private Cruise
Today we explore Kachemak Bay on a private boat cruise, with opportunities to photograph the dramatic backdrop of the glaciated Kenai Mountains (weather permitting, of course) and abundant marine wildlife and seabirds. The bay is transformed daily by some of the largest tidal fluctuations in the world, and it's home not only to coveted sport fish but also sea otters, seals, porpoises, sea lions and whales, many of which we see frequently. A highlight is the Gull Island rookery, home to 10,000 nesting seabirds with a chance to get shots of puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, murres and more. Later this afternoon, enjoy some free time to wander along the spit, lined with local boutiques, galleries and eateries. This evening, we celebrate our photography adventures at a farewell dinner.
Day 13: Homer / Depart
Our Bear Quest photo expedition comes to a close today as our local guide transfers us to the Homer airport for individual homeward flights.
Due to the extremely remote nature of this adventure, we require that all travelers submit a medical form before departure. This form must be completed and signed by your primary care physician. Good health and overall fitness are a must, as we are far from medical facilities in this roadless region—it may take several hours or potentially a full day or more to evacuate to a medical facility should health problems arise.