Last fall, I traveled to Alaska in search of the world’s largest coastal grizzly bears, which roam freely in the remote reaches of Katmai National Park. One morning, after our small group patiently meandered our way into position along a riverbank, walking as instructed in a single-file line to form the least-intimidating profile against the grassy meadow, we were rewarded with the incredible sight of a large mother bear resting to nurse her cubs just across the water.

Mother bear nursing her cubs in Alaska

In all the years of exploring the great outdoors, most travelers are taught to fear beyond fear itself the sight of a mother bear with cubs—sage advice the world over. However, in this rare case, we were in the capable hands of our highly knowledgeable Expedition Leader Brad Josephs, who has spent his entire career in Katmai studying these bears.

Veteran bear guides like Brad are adept at reading wild bears’ behavioral cues. While on foot in remote wilderness areas, they are constantly assessing the changing dynamics of their surrounding environment. In many cases, these guides are intimately familiar with the unique personality of each bear from years watching the seasons of their lives (and their mothers’ and grandmothers’ lives, as well) come and go. They use this wealth of hard-earned knowledge and information to decide on how exactly to approach these astonishing wild animals safely and with a serious amount of respect. Sitting next to a seasoned bear guide like Brad, watching this mother brown bear provide for her young without any concern about our presence, was the memory of a lifetime.

This one moment in a week full of incredible wildlife experiences (including a raft of over 200 sea otters and a visit from an inquisitive white wolf), drove home the most hopeful of conservation messages—if we can learn to respect and protect these wild places and creatures, then there is hope for a kind of harmony in this natural world that we all share.

Travelers with wild bears in Alaska

This guest post was written by Natural Habitat Senior Adventure Specialist Aly Jacobsen. All photos by Aly Jacobsen.