Story/photos by Special Correspondent Caleigh Jensen.
A tiny airplane, a nearby volcano and a national park with nearly 300 bears — what could go wrong? Well, nothing actually, if you let Smokey Bay Air be your guide!
The airline specializes in up close and personal viewing tours of coastal brown bears. And when I say up close, I mean really up close. Fifty (50) yards away close.
I know what you’re thinking — as Alaskans, it is ingrained in our minds to stay as far away from bears as humanly possible. But if you just forget that for a day, you’ll have the experience of a lifetime.
I met the Smokey Bar Air team at their headquarters in Homer (about a four-hour drive from Anchorage). They outfitted me and the other brave travelers in hip waders and earplugs, provided us with snacks and safety knowledge, and we loaded up in the tiny, six-person plane.
The hour-long flight to Lake Clark National Park was smooth and absolutely beautiful. We soared over the Homer Spit above some scattered clouds, and I watched in awe as we looped around Mount Iliamna. It took my breath away being so close to the smoking volcano I felt I could reach out and touch it. That was just the beginning, though.
After a landing on the Chinitna Bay beach runway, we stretched our legs and took in the sparkling water, the mountains and the endless grassy fields. As we wandered around the park in search of our guests of honor, our guide Dylan informed us on absolutely everything there is to know about coastal brown bears, the state park and life in Alaska. Seriously, there wasn’t a question that man couldn’t answer.
We saw our first bear not even 20 minutes into the trek — a huge male out in a field munching on some grass. He was a mile or two away, but with a good pair of binoculars, you could watch his every move. We saw about 15 more out on the mudflats digging for some clams for lunch.
Not much farther down the beach, though, we were in for a real treat — a mama bear and her two cubs napping by the water. To let them know we weren’t a threat, we crouched nice and low and slowly walked closer (against my every instinct) until we were only 50 yards away.
I was a bit on edge at first, I’ll admit. It was terrifying and thrilling all at once being so close to an animal that could easily kill you, but the bears didn’t even give us a second glance. They aren’t afraid of humans since they have never been hunted in this area, Dylan said, which allows you to get much closer to them than pretty much anywhere else in Alaska.
We spent an hour and a half just taking in the little family. In between snoozing, the adorable cubs wrestled with each other and poked at their mama. You could almost just hear her telling them “please just let me sleep for five more minutes.”
Everything I thought about bears changed in these moments. Although they are dangerous (definitely do not try this at home!), there is so much more to them — their unique eating and sleeping habits, what they sacrifice for their cubs, how they survive the winter. If you put your fears and preconceived notions aside for a few hours, they might just become your new favorite animal. I know they are one of mine.
I spent the plane ride back to Homer in a trance, contemplating all of the new knowledge Dylan provided me with. It was an unforgettable and eye-opening experience, to say the very least. Never in my whole Alaskan life did I think I would find myself that close to a mama bear and her cubs, and willingly. But don’t just take it from me. Pack your binoculars, drive to Homer and be a tourist for the day by booking a trip with Smokey Bay Air before the season is over!
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