By Kelley Ashford, Sr. Video Specialist, Development, WWF-US & Mónica Echeverría-Cota, Deputy Director, Media and Strategic Communications, WWF-US
We both have long anticipated traveling to Alaska. It is one of those places on every nature-lover’s bucket list. But while many dreams of encountering the broad mountains of the North, we never imagined it would be on a trip as special as this Alaska Grizzly Encounter.
Joining Natural Habitat Adventures in Katmai National Park brought us into a world we did not realize existed – a world virtually untouched by humans. At least untouched, in the sense that we had to take a float plane just to get to the remote location where a ship – the Natural Habitat Ursus – was anchored for us to sleep on board and travel by skiff to shore in order to witness the wonders of the land. We have been lucky to travel the world and experience a myriad of unique places in nature, but this trip is by far at the top of the list for the most remote locations either of us has been.
Kelley is a video producer by trade and wanted to capture the sights and sounds of Katmai and its resident brown bears. In this footage, you’ll see these massive bears who were often just yards away. They are North America’s largest land predators, and an adult male can weigh 900 pounds – some even more. While impressive, we found that these giants – at least observed from afar in a very regulated, cautious manner – spend a mostly quiet life. Our trip was held in June when the big bears graze on seg, a high-protein grass that holds them over until the salmon runs begin later in summer. When not grazing, many were snoozing.
Despite the proximity of one of the most feared mammals in North America, we were surprised to feel calm and safe. This is a huge thanks to our Expedition Leader, Shawn, and the staff of Ursus. In coastal Katmai, we walked the land on foot, carefully wandering the area in our small group under cautious guidance from Shawn, who has spent several years walking amongst and studying the behavior of Katmai’s coastal grizzlies. He knows those bears and he knows how to coach visitors in safe bear etiquette.
The only thing Shawn could not protect us from was the frigid wind, blowing down from surrounding glaciers, and the unpredictable Alaskan weather. That is where the rest of the Ursus crew came in for the rescue. Despite the ship being a refurbished crabbing vessel, the crew managed to create a cozy, welcoming home for us to retreat to after long walks along the coast. From gourmet dishes in all three meals prepared by our energetic and always cheerful chef, Melissa.
To our ship captain, John, who made sure we navigated the cold and glacier-like waters under the safest conditions you could ever expect.
And to the deckhand and second captain, Angus, who took us to and from shore during cold, windy, and sometimes rainy days. He was always joking and smiling but keeping an eye on each one of us with gentle reminders about safety being his main goal. Mónica is a sailor at home and can tell Angus knows more about tides than anyone she’s ever met.
If you ask either of us, what is it that makes this trip so unique? We would both say it was a combination of all of this – being able to watch brown bears in their natural state, experiencing a few close encounters, watching the energy of playful youngsters, and enjoying it all amongst wonderful company.
For both of us, our respective first trips to Alaska were memorable, not just for the bears that captured our hearts, but for the people that made the journey possible. We are grateful to each and every member of that crew and to our Expedition Leader for allowing us and the rest of our fellow travelers to spend a week of time in their world.