The gigantic bear ambles closer and closer. Weighing between 800 and 1,000 pounds, it’s the largest predator I’ve ever come across—and I’ve certainly never been this close. Now, just yards away from me and the eight other bear-watchers in my tour group, just off the eastern coast of Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, it looks up across the flat, tiny patch of meadow between us and meets my gaze. I’ve wanted to see a bear in the wild for years, but in these first few seconds, I’m second-guessing that desire. Although I have faith in our guides’ ability to keep us safe, we’re hundreds of miles away from the nearest hospital, and my mind races back to the $250,000 air-evacuation provision tucked into my travel insurance. Watching The Revenant a few weeks ago might have been a mistake.
Yet any curiosity the bear may have about me and my fellow two-legged interlopers quickly dissipates; it goes back to lazily munching on sedge grass. Meanwhile, every hair on my body is standing at attention. My fear has disappeared, replaced by excitement, reverence, and awe.
“Bears can be cute, scary, funny, fearsome—all the things that fascinate us,” says our Natural Habitat Adventures guide, Brad Josephs, who has been leading bear tours around the world for nearly two decades. “There’s a mystique about places like Katmai. When people say, ‘That’s grizzly country,’ it evokes a sense of wilderness that’s missing throughout most of America.”
I’ve been obsessed with bears for much of my life, for many of the reasons that Josephs suggests. They’re the undisputed monarchs of the American wilderness, ruling with a unique combination of brute strength and sly intelligence. My DVR is packed with hours of nature documentaries—including the BBC’s Great Bear Stakeout, featuring Josephs himself—but I knew nothing could compare to seeing them in real life.
More than 2,200 brown bears (while they’re sometimes referred to as “coastal grizzlies” around here, grizzlies are technically a separate subspecies) call Katmai home. That number has stayed pretty consistent over the years, as hunting them inside the park is illegal. As of late, however, there’s new urgency to visit Katmai: The proposed Pebble Mine project is currently under review by the Trump administration, and if it is approved, the sulfuric acid runoff from the copper and gold mine would contaminate the Bristol Bay watershed and wreak havoc on the local sockeye salmon population—a primary food source for Katmai’s bears. With that in mind (and my 45th birthday to celebrate), I knew my time to get up close and personal with the bears was now.
Katmai is accessible only by plane or boat, which drastically limits the number of visitors. Fewer than 30,000 people make the trek here each year—compared to the 6.38 million tourists that swarm Grand Canyon National Park annually—but their reward is 6,400 square miles of some of the most beautiful and remote wilderness in the U.S. Crystal-blue water from the Pacific Ocean fills the bays along the coast. Wolves and moose roam the land, while bears congregate along nearly 500 miles of beach littered with bleached driftwood and volcanic rock, as well as in the grass-filled meadows that abut spruce forests, alder thickets, and the snow-covered Aleutian mountain range.
Bear season typically runs from June to September. June is the height of mating season, while August and September are the best months to catch the iconic sight of bears fishing at picturesque Brooks Falls. My expedition spans five days in July, which we spend visiting spots along the coast to get a view of the bears’ day-to-day life.
From Kodiak Island, Alaska, I take a 40-minute floatplane ride to Katmai, touching down in Kukak Bay. A skiff carries me the rest of the way to my home for the next five days: the 73-foot ship Natural Habitat Ursus, which served as a crab fishing boat and a marine-research vessel before being repurposed for bear voyeurs like me. Accommodations aboard are clean but bare-bones: Each cabin contains two beds and a few shelves for storage, with a bathroom for every two cabins. If the rooms are sparse, the food makes up for it. Josephs’s wife, Melissa, prepares gourmet meals each night—the mushroom risotto alone is worth the trip—and even bakes me a coconut cake on my birthday. Every night, after dinner, we sit around the table, sharing stories about our previous travels and slowly draining the ship’s hold of craft beer and whiskey. Between the lot of us, we’ve been to nearly 100 countries across almost every continent, but we all agree this may be our most thrilling adventure yet.
We depart the Ursus (Latin for bear) a couple of times a day, taking a skiff ashore for a few hours at a time. Before our first foray, Josephs and our other guide, Teresa Whipple, gather us and go over a few ground rules. With his dark hair tucked under a baseball cap, Josephs, 43, is vaguely reminiscent of a younger Chuck Norris, and he radiates the sort of quiet confidence that comes from more than two decades of bear guiding.
“We’re trespassing in the bears’ world,” he says, and the first rule is to follow all of his and Whipple’s instructions to the letter, respecting the bears’ habitat as if we are “entering a church or temple.” Next: Be aware. “Imagine a seesaw with fear on one side and complacency on the other,” says Whipple, who just started her first year guiding in Katmai after several years leading grizzly tours in British Columbia. “It’s balanced by awareness.”
Third: No matter how cute the cubs are or how docile the adults seem, under no circumstances are we to attempt to pet or otherwise touch the bears. And perhaps the most important rule? Don’t act like prey. That means no sudden movements, and if anything happens, no running. Bears can gallop up to 30 mph, so unless you’re Usain Bolt, you will be caught. Josephs doesn’t carry a gun in the wild. If a bear is charging you, you likely won’t have time to get a shot off, and even if you do, Josephs tells us, a .44 Magnum bullet “would just bounce off a bear’s skull.” Instead, our guides bring a marine flare to scare away aggressive bears.
We do encounter some aggression on our first day, although it’s not directed at us. We watch one large male bear methodically chase another through a meadow. Apparently eager to avoid trouble, the second bear crosses a shallow river, but his antagonist continues the chase and begins popping his jaws—bear speak for “It’s on.” The second bear unleashes an ear-splitting roar, and the two 1,000-pound behemoths proceed to stand on their hind legs and bite and claw at each other. Then, just as quickly as it begins, it’s over; the aggressor jauntily walks away, victorious, while the other bear looks on in shame.
On another trip ashore, we spy a large male sneaking up on a mother bear and her two cubs as they relax on a beach. (It’s estmated that fewer than half of the cubs here reach adulthood, falling victim to wolves, starvation, disease, accidents, or other bears, some of which are cannibals.) Mama and her cubs sense danger and high-tail it for the nearby tall grass—exactly where their stalker awaits. We can’t see the melee, but we can hear it: Grunts, growls, and wails that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie. When the cubs emerge from the brush sans parent, we breathlessly scan the vegetation, fearing the worst, until the mother begins calling out, setting off a frantic game of Marco Polo. Moments later, they are reunited and retreat from danger.
The adult males we see throughout the trip show evidence of all this combat. I spot one bear whose lower lip hangs loose from his muzzle, and another with a scar on his head so deep it looks as if he was scalped. Despite the specter of danger, however, we visitors are relatively safe. In the history of the park, only two people have been killed by bears: Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, as Werner Herzog chronicled in the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man.
Our guides educate us on how to stay in tune with the bears’ communication. In a behavior that’s unique to Katmai’s bears, if two of them spy one another from a distance, one or both sometimes sit down on their haunches to indicate that they’re not looking for a fight. We mimic those cues. Each time we hike single-file up to a cluster of bears, we quietly sit on folding stools and five-gallon buckets to signify our peaceful intentions. Josephs has dodged trouble on more than one occasion by looking down and away, avoiding eye contact, in deference to the bear.
As we walk the trail, Josephs points out signs of the bears, such as trees that are covered in fur, claw marks, and urine. It turns out body waste is one of the most important ways bears communicate—Josephs calls it “pee-mail.” Several times over the course of the week, we watch large males urinate on their paws, then cowboy-walk across the meadow, stomping their scent into the ground. And although we don’t witness it personally, Josephs says some bears will bend a sapling down, pee on it, then step off, sending their scent flying in various directions.
When we encounter bears—and we see a lot of them, at least 15 adults and around 10 cubs on an average day—we typically stop at a distance of 50 yards, per National Park Service guidelines. As we watch, the individual bears’ personalities quickly shine through. Some completely ignore us; others are curious, moving closer, seeming to mug for our cameras. Mother bears even encourage their cubs to play near us, to get them acclimated to strangers, according to Josephs. He points out his favorite, “a heavyset older female that will put a hurt on any bear either brave or hungry enough to come after her cubs.” He calls her Melissa.
The closest we come to danger is on our last trip ashore, when a bear hop-charges us, running toward our group at full speed before abruptly stopping and rising up on its hind legs. Luckily it’s only a second-season cub—more adorable than terrifying, a two-and-a-half-foot-tall blond teddy bear pretending to be a fierce monster. Cubs practice skills like these knowing we’re not true threats—and that mama is only a few feet away if they get in any real trouble.
That’s the scene I keep coming back to the next day, as I board the floatplane to return to civilization. Nowhere else in the world can you have such an experience with wild bears. No matter how many I see, it never stops being thrilling—even if most of them are just lazily going about their days. As my trip rolls on, I find myself less afraid of being attacked by a bear than I am of doing something to disturb the trust and order that has developed between the majestic animals and humans over the decades. I feel I understand the bears in a way I never did before. And I’m more obsessed than ever.
Natural Habitat Adventures runs multiple grizzly-focused trips in Katmai National Park and Preserve from June to September. The eight-day Great Alaskan Grizzly Photo Adventure starts at $9,490, based on double occupancy, including the floatplane flight from Kodiak to the national park.