By Breanna Giovanniello (WWF Online Marketing Senior Specialist) and Katy Lai (WWF Director, Private Finance Sector Strategy and Engagement)
Our trip began in Homer, Alaska, also known as the “Halibut Capital of the World.” Homer is a small but vibrant fishing town perched on Kachemak Bay, near the bottom of the Kenai Peninsula. The town is surrounded by a large area of protected state land where the local community and its critical wildlife population of more than 100 bird species and a large local moose population coexist.
Hanging Out in Homer
They say that the weather in Alaska is predictably unpredictable, which we found to be very much true. On the day we were scheduled to fly in a bush plane over to Nat Hab’s Alaska Bear Camp, we were greeted with an unfortunate amount of fog and no way to land on the beach near camp. Although we were eager to spend as much time as we could with the bears, our delay allowed us to experience the wildlife and nature around Homer.
We saw sea otters from our hotel balcony, bald eagles nesting with their chicks on a pole outside our hotel lobby, and sandhill cranes on our brief drive into town. During a short hike, we saw wildflowers, salt marshes and glaciers just across Kachemak Bay, and we heard stories about the wild neighbors that frequent these areas: moose and black bears. Such an abundance of nature before even setting foot at Bear Camp!
When we finally got the go-ahead to fly, we were elated. The diversity and grandeur of the landscape could only be truly appreciated from an aerial view: snow-covered volcanoes, massive glaciers, rivers running through meadows, lush forests and more. A surreal 45 minutes later, we touched down on a pristine beach right in front of Nat Hab’s Alaska Bear Camp. After a quick tour and a chance to drop our bags off in our tents, we set off for our first bear-viewing expedition.
Alaska Bear Camp at Last!
Bear Camp sits on private land, the site of a historic homestead on the ancestral land of the Dena’ina Athabascan people, surrounded by Lake Clark National Park, one of the world’s most renowned bear-viewing destinations. Johnny, one of our expedition leaders, toured us around the original homestead on the property. We learned more about the intrepid homesteader Wayne Byers, as well as how homesteading came to be an important part of Alaskan history.
The Bear Camp Expedition Leaders are professional naturalists and bear experts. Johnny and Mike taught us so much about bear behavior and coached us in proper etiquette for respectful viewing, including how to navigate close (and exciting) bear encounters. It was extraordinary to be guests in the homes of these magnificent creatures and observe their daily lives without being perceived as a threat (or prey!).
The abundance of food in this area allows brown bears to gather in high densities without conflict. We saw bears digging for razor clams, grazing in sedge meadows, fishing for salmon and nursing their cubs. We were also able to witness the playful nature of mothers and their cubs wrestling on tidal flats, running through the woods, swimming in the rivers and snoozing in the sun—a truly remarkable experience.
Conservation Concerns and Victories
While bear-viewing, we’re reminded that our presence should not impact the bear’s behavior and that the animals should always be able to pursue their activities undisturbed. How does that translate to development in southwest Alaska?
Nat Hab’s Bear Camp sits just 70 miles away from the Pebble Mine project, a proposed open-pit gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska. For more than a decade, the Pebble Mine project has threatened the rich wildlife, fish-fueled economy and bustling local communities of this southwest region of Alaska.
Last year, the Pedro Bay Corporation, which includes over 200 shareholders of Aleut, Yupik and Athabascan descent, protected their land by allowing the environmental nonprofit The Conservation Fund to purchase development rights on more than 44,000 acres of land as conservation easements that will restrict the development of the land in perpetuity. In early 2023, the EPA took another major step toward protecting this area by banning the disposal of mine waste in part of the Bristol Bay watershed.
As we celebrate this momentous conservation win, WWF continues to work with the communities in Bristol Bay to ensure the economic and environmental sustainability of the region. Much like bear-viewing, WWF’s mission is for people to live in harmony with wildlife and nature, striving to ensure that human presence doesn’t negatively impact the behavior of these bears, sea otters, eagles, moose, caribou and many more incredible species.