Caprice Stoner has managed Bear Camp, a remote fly-in wilderness camp in Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park, for 16 years, and she will be returning in May for another season. But this time, she’ll be doing it as a staff member with Natural Habitat Adventures.
In an opportune turn, Nat Hab has acquired the remote camp, set in one of the most coveted bear-viewing locations in Alaska, after the family owners who founded it in 1982 opted to sell it. Bear Camp’s 10 deluxe tent cabins are built on a pioneer homestead that’s now an inholding in southwest Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park, a roadless coastal wilderness in the shadow of the icebound Aleutian and Alaska ranges.
Alaska is home to 95% of America’s brown bear population, and the tidal flats, sedge grasses, plentiful berries and spawning salmon make this region one of the world’s best habitats to attract them. And they have been Caprice’s summer neighbors of choice since she found her way to Alaska in 2006.
In addition to overseeing Bear Camp’s operations, she has become a naturalist guide herself, introducing guests to the wonders of watching wild brown bears in their native habitat—and inspiring them with her deep passion for conservation. Yet a conversation with Caprice reveals she isn’t native to Alaska: you’ll hear a gentle drawl that reveals her Tennessee roots, a place she returns to each year when Bear Camp, open from late spring to the end of August, shuts down for the season.
Caprice grew up on 10 acres on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, where she spent most of her time outside with her four siblings, hiking, biking and riding horses in the woods. “I was about 11 years old when I realized I wasn’t a little boy, and I was sorely disappointed,” she says. “I was bent out of shape when there was something ‘only for boys.’ Dad sat me down and said, “You can do anything a man can do when you put your mind to it, but I expect you to be a lady while you do it.”
Yet Caprice’s unique career in the wild outdoors didn’t start until she was 40. She had studied business administration in college in the 1980s, had two kids, and later found herself working for Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta as a makeup artist for CNN and The Weather Channel when she decided she needed to get back to nature.
As a child, Caprice reveled in wild places all over the U.S., exploring with her family for a month each summer and two weeks in the wintertime. Her dad was an avid fisherman and hunter, and she credits him with instilling a conservation ethos in his kids, which has shaped her entire life, including her passion for working in conservation tourism today.
“He always taught us to leave things better than you found them, don’t take what you don’t need, use water carefully, don’t litter,” etc. She grew up assuming everyone inherently knew these things, but as she came to discover otherwise, she has dedicated time to teaching “leave no trace” principles to other trainers, including leaders in the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts organizations.
She has long held a deep love for wildlife, nurtured by her brother “who was like Grizzly Adams — he would capture animals and he loved them.” Later, she learned the greater benefit of leaving wildlife undisturbed, but the experiences in her youth laid the foundation for her enthusiasm for bears and protecting their wellbeing.
After her father died in 2005, the self-proclaimed “daddy’s girl” and “tomboy” knew it was time for a change. Her kids were in college, and she had the freedom to return to the outdoors. She moved west in the winter to teach skiing at Deer Valley in Utah. Wanting to continue her sojourn outside with a seasonal summer job, she spied an ad for a position that caught her imagination: a remote bear-viewing camp in Alaska needed a manager. She sent her resume via snail mail and had a telephone interview with the previous owner. Caprice held a private pilot’s license, and while she couldn’t fly travelers, her familiarity with navigating challenging weather gave her a leg up in communicating with the bush pilots who brought guests to and from the camp. She got the job.
Running a camp in this setting was no ordinary tourism endeavor. As she functioned as the “weather tower” for the incoming and outgoing planes, she also had to become familiar with how to conduct herself amid dozens of bears at home in her immediate environs. When Caprice first arrived, it was renowned bear guide Drew Hamilton—a longtime Nat Hab Expedition Leader and bear conservationist in Alaska—who trained her. And Drew continues to be involved with operations at Bear Camp today.
As manager of Bear Camp, Caprice oversees a comprehensive daily schedule of activities, accommodations in 10 weatherproof tent cabins, procurement and preparation of impressive meals by the camp chef, and quality standards including meticulous safety training. Caprice is hunter-safety certified, as are all the guides at camp who carry guns for extra precaution, even though the bears are thoroughly disinterested in humans when there are abundant food sources from nature readily available, including the region’s famous salmon runs.
Guests arrive at Bear Camp via a bush plane flight across Cook Inlet from Homer on the end of the Kenai Peninsula. Skirting the snowy slopes of the Redoubt and Iliamna volcanoes, the plane lands on the beach in front of camp, where visitors often see their first bear on the approach. Caprice is there to greet the arrivals, welcoming them to this comfortable, low-impact base she has helped to create in the heart of the bears’ habitat.
In addition to managing the daily operations of Bear Camp, every year, Caprice seeks to improve her knowledge and training as a naturalist and adventure travel professional through getting new experience and additional guide certifications. She has also worked as a hiking, cycling and kayaking guide and has an extensive background in interpretation of natural and cultural history.
Caprice is most proud of the conservation achievements she has worked to raise the bar on. In recent years, as bear viewing in the Chinitna Bay region of Lake Clark National Park has become much more popular, she has worked with the park service to create consistent rules and practices for respectful, low-impact bear observation.
The bears are comfortable with humans when they know what to expect—and when humans act and treat the bears the same way, they find people predictable and thus not a threat. Standardized behavior among viewing groups, whether at Bear Camp or beyond, allows the bears to flourish. This makes a big difference in a context where bear tourism has evolved from one plane arriving every few days to a dozen flying into the national park daily in high summer, each with six travelers aboard. (Nat Hab’s private Bear Camp itself holds just 14 guests; the other arrivals go elsewhere in Lake Clark National Park.)
Caprice is also dedicated to making sure the camp and its guests leave as light an imprint on the land as possible. With few visitors and accommodations in sturdy vinyl tents, guests can hear the bears close by. “They’ll be 20 yards away, chuffing, the cubs mewing and crying…you lose that experience when you’re in hard-sided buildings,” says Caprice.
Bear Camp sits adjacent to designated Critical Wildlife Habitat, with no access for humans from May 1 to August 31. The zone is a protected buffer where bears can eat sedge, mate and nurse their babies without interference. The camp’s prime viewing sites are on the eastern edge of that habitat overlooking the entire vast meadow where bears roam freely. Bears are on view on the beach, too, and when the tide is out, “they go clamming like there’s no tomorrow,” says Caprice. The bears have come to feel comfortable sleeping directly behind the kitchen cabin, and guests see them going back and forth from the meadow to the beach.
The bears don’t pay camp guests much mind, however, as their only concern is feasting on the season-long buffet nature has spread before them. On guided walks, from elevated platforms, and from the camp deck itself, guests spend hours watching them. In June, mothers with playful cubs are prominent, while July and August bring the fish feast that prepares the bears for a long winter.
Summer days at Bear Camp are very busy for Caprice, but the rewards more than outweigh the workload. “It’s an exhausting job,” she says. “I get very tired, but I don’t get tired of it. I get energy by seeing the twinkle in somebody’s eye when they can hear a baby purring as he’s nursing, or a bear steps around us like they just don’t care. For them to realize and take home with them how important this place is, this spot on the map—it’s our mission. People leave with tears in their eyes.”
Caprice says she has earned respect over the years for the job she has done, including from her family. “My kids used to think I was kind of crazy,” she reveals, and they miss her when she’s away all summer – so do her five grandkids – but the camp has satellite internet now, and they love to FaceTime.
Managing a wilderness camp among wild brown bears in roadless Alaska is not a job that many southern grandmothers are drawn to…but Caprice Stoner pulls it off with joy and aplomb.
There’s still space available to visit Bear Camp in 2022! With private heated tent cabins, hot showers and chef-prepared meals, guests relish real comforts in this exceptionally remote area. Learn more about Nat Hab’s new 5-day Bear Camp adventure and call 800-543-8917 to reserve your space.