Alaska's Grizzly Ship: Kodiak to Katmai

© Brad Josephs

Alaska's Grizzly Ship Photo Expedition

Itinerary Map
Photography departures are guided by Expedition Leaders who are expert bear naturalists and professional wildlife photographers, versed in helping guests attain memorable images of Katmai's mighty brown bears and striking landscapes. Photographers of all ability levels are welcome. Flexibility is inherent to adapt to changing light, weather and wildlife conditions in order to maximize photo opportunities. A small group assures a low-impact presence among the bears, plus personal attention and coaching from our Expedition Leader.

Day 1: Kodiak, Alaska

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 multitude 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 grizzly photo tour 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. Both are walking distance from our hotel. 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: Kodiak Wildlife Photography Cruise
While Katmai's grizzlies will be our main focus, 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. A 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 / Floatplane to Katmai—Board Natural Habitat Ursus
Exciting aerial photo opportunities await on our floatplane transit from Kodiak to Katmai where we meet our privately chartered ship, the Natural Habitat Ursus. Our plan is to fly out late morning, but timing is flexible in the event of weather delays—in which case we'll explore more of Kodiak as we wait for clouds to lift. Once we board the plane, we fly 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 shoreline. 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 this area we commonly find giant Alaskan brown bears—the world's biggest coastal grizzlies—foraging for food, and the opportunities to capture impressive close-ups is simply remarkable. Since we are mobile, we can cruise to wherever the bears are, following them from bay to bay. Bring double the memory capacity you think you'll need, as you won't believe the shots you'll get!

Days 4–6: 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, often just yards away. They are North America’s largest land predators, and an adult male can weigh 900 pounds. As we cruise just off the coast, bears often dot the shoreline. We go ashore by skiff for a closer view, traversing tidal flats and gravel bars on foot, possibly fording a few streams to find the best vantage point for bear watching. It’s not uncommon to find several massive grizzlies at once. And far from dozing lethargically, these bears may put on quite a show in their efforts to fill up on enough protein-rich food to prepare for a long winter in hibernation.

The bear activity we witness will vary according to the season, weather conditions, and timing of the salmon runs, but there's always something riveting to watch and photograph. We may see mothers with cubs gallivanting on the beach early in the season. Later on, bears fight to capture salmon in their jaws as the fish make their way up streams flowing over the intertidal area, swiping out at them with talons as long as man's fingers. As omnivores, the bears also dig for clams and mussels in the sand and browse on protein-rich sedge grass. Depending on the timing of our visit, we may see bears mating or males sparring over females. 

On other Alaska trips, we 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. Suffice it to say this trip offers wildlife photo opportunities that will thrill you beyond expectation! 

Day 7: Katmai Bear Photography / Return to Kodiak
One last morning is set aside for photography in the wild environs around us before our planned return by floatplane to Kodiak later today, although weather will always dictate our timing. Cruising toward the shoreline in an open skiff, we look for a glimpse of the glaciers that crown the tall mountains behind Katmai's lonely coastline. Typically these peaks are cloaked in clouds while evocative mists weave in and out of the bays, providing the moisture that keeps Katmai so lush and green. 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 thrive as well—keep an eye out for bald eagles in the treetops. Seabirds abound, too—look for kittiwakes, terns, mergansers, pigeon guillemots and black oystercatchers.

Inevitably, it's going to be hard to leave here. Most travelers never get such an immersion in genuine wilderness, let alone the chance for close-up photos of some of the world's most magnificent carnivores in their natural habitat. You're sure to come away awed by the way the bears allow us into their world, and inspired to protect their future from the very real threats of mining, oil and gas development, climate change and other forces that may impact the ecosystem that sustains them—especially the salmon runs on which they rely. Back in Kodiak, our local guide meets us once more as we transfer to our hotel. A farewell dinner is planned at a local restaurant, where fresh seafood is always on the menu, along with other varied choices.

Day 8: Kodiak / Depart
Our Alaska bear photography adventure comes to a close today as we depart from Kodiak. We recommend guests book an afternoon flight out in case inclement weather prevents us from flying back to Kodiak on Day 7 as planned. (Occasionally, weather delays may require a morning flight today from the Ursus back to Kodiak.) Several morning activity options are available as we wait for flight departures, however, and our Kodiak guide makes sure there's plenty to engage us. Options may include a drive to the top of Pillar Mountain for views over the harbor and neighboring islands (hardy travelers may choose to hike to the summit or back down); a stop at the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center with its large aquarium and touch tank displaying regional species; or a visit to Fort Abercrombie, where we can walk trails through dense rain forest to a wild beach, snack on salmon berries in season, and encounter relics from a World War II coastal defense installation.

Please note: Most floatplane flights will depart Kodiak for the Ursus in late morning and return to Kodiak mid-afternoon. The exact times will vary according to weather and other logistical factors.

Medical Form

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.


Click here to view the seasonal variations of grizzly viewing season.

Physical Rating: Moderate & Remote

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