Alaska Bear Camp - 2022

ALASKA BEAR CAMP 2022

THE “BEAR” FACTS

A visit to Natural Habitat’s Bear Camp Lake Clark National Park, Alaska From July 27 to August 3, 2022 Kay, Lois, Betsy and Kim INTRODUCTION

Travel with NatHab is always a special experience, filled with excitement, fun, beauty, learning, glorious sites worthy of photography and binoculars. So, when we saw that we could have another chance at viewing Grizzly Bears in a new setting, we all jumped on the opportunity. Our registration was a while back and then Covid intervened, so we had to wait impatiently. Three of us had previously gone with NatHab on the Good Ship Ursa for a completely different adventure in Katmai National Park. It was such a pleasure that we wanted a repeat performance. You can see the journal with pictures of that trip on our website (www.womentravelsafeblogcom). In the meantime, NatHab, had adopted a new protocol to keep guests as safe as possible from contracting Covid on this excursion. We did not get sick on the previous trip either. So, we knew that every guest would have to prove Covid negativity as did the staff at BearCamp. We were also encouraged to wear masks whenever we gathered together, except when eating or in the great outdoors. It worked and no one got sick on this trip. WHERE IS NATHAB’S BEARCAMP? Lake Clark National Park is aptly named “Alaska’s Hidden Gem” since it is a wilderness park with few amenities. The Park is not connected to a road system and visitors can only arrive by small aircraft or boats. Consequently, it is one of the 10 least often visited National Parks. Compare its average of 18,278 visitors with the most visited Park, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, at 14,000,000 every year. The closest to the Great Smokies is Yellowstone at 3,000,000 and the least visited, Gates of the Arctic at 2,872. Difficulty in accessing Lake Clark and Gates of Arctic accounts for the dearth of visitors. The Northern Park you can reach only by hiking long distances or hiring an expensive plane or helicopter pilot. For Lake Clark, planes leave Homer and Anchorage every day to reach Lake Clark, but there must be landing sites.

The plane that flew us from Homer to Bear Camp was one with large soft tires capable of landing on the sandy beach in front of the camp. On the other side of the park is Port Alworth where light planes land on a gravel runway. That is the site of the National Park Headquarters. The two sides of Lake Clark could not be more different, but both are magnificent in scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities.

DIFFICULTIES IN REACHING THE BEARCAMP

For all four of us, the problems were centered around the long flights it takes to get from Jacksonville, Florida and Omaha, Nebraska. The current situation with the airlines being unable to field sufficient flight crews causing delays and cancellations was our primary concern. We knew we had to be in Homer, Alaska on a certain day and time. Everything depended on our flights going as planned. And luckily for us, they did. The other consideration is the length of the flights and layovers between them. We spent many hours in airports and in the air to reach Homer on time and in getting back home as well: 48 hours (about 2 days) all told). Getting to Bear Camp takes perseverance, patience and, “Patoots of Steel. All that being said, it was worth every anxious moment, every sleepless flight, and every ache and pain. I highly recommend this amazing excursion to anyone interested in photography and wildlife viewing. FLIGHT FROM HOMER TO BEARCAMP An unexpected highlight of our NatHab adventure was the amazing flight from Homer to the sandy shore in front of Bear Camp. Firstly, we had a perfect day to fly in the small plane over the magnificent landscapes between the mainland and Lake Clark NP.

Our pilot William took care to fly over the most scenic and impressive landmarks, like Iiamna Volcano, constantly puffing out sulfurous steam and announcing it is still quite active. We saw the high still snow-covered Aleutian Range beyond which lies the other side of Lake Clark NP, and Red Glacier, and many other rugged mountain peaks, translucent blue lakes and silver rivers and streams. This brief (about 40 Minutes) flight over the magnificent landscapes made every obstacle to the trip irrelevant and forgotten. What a glorious experience that flight was.

HOW DOES BEARCAMP WORK? As we landed on the sand in front of the Bear Camp, we saw 10 tents in a “Quonset Hut” shape creating a horseshoe semi-circle. The camp is surrounded by an electrified fence to keep wildlife (particularly grizzly bears) from roaming around in the campground itself.

There are too many food sources stored in camp, from the food we would be consuming to even ourselves, though that human dish has never been “served” in the history of Bear Camp NatHab. We were also informed that we could keep no food in our tents, nor indeed, anything with odor, such as toothpaste and cosmetics. They had to be stored in the shower building in baskets labelled with our tent names. Most of the tents are the accommodations for guests; the others include the dining / gathering tent, and those for the employees. Each tent is named for someone important in Alaska history. Kay and Lois stayed in Ada and Betsy and Kim in Celia. (More on these names later). In addition, there are a few buildings within the semi-circle: a food cache on stilts, the common shower building and the building for the composting toilets. The tents for guests were quite comfortable. Two cots with warm and cozy bed linens and covers. At night, the blankets and coverlets were very welcome.

Each tent was equipped with a porta-potty for urination. It was stressed that nothing should go into the porta-potty except liquids—not even toilet paper which was to be placed in a basket for removal daily. That was especially convenient at night when a walk to the toilet building in the cold dark was less than appealing. There were places to hang clothing and some amenities were provided such as walking sticks (for borrowing) and camp shoes (like crocs) to be used if desired in camp.

Our chef was Brandi and she was truly excellent and innovative in the meals she served. There was always hot coffee and tea and sweets available to early risers from around 6:00 am. A full cooked breakfast was served at 8 am and it included something for everybody— vegans, health nuts, folks with allergies, the pickiest of diners. There was always fruit, gluten-free items, eggs, bacon, sausage, hot and cold cereals, milk and cream, hot chocolate and breads. As soon as we were all comfortably “stuffed,” we usually headed out for our first bear viewing at around 9 a.m. Some mornings we walked to trailheads (approved by the Park Service) which led to a viewing area like a meadow (where we watched grazing bears), or a stream, or even the two-story viewing deck right on the property. Other times, we climbed up on a safari-like truck and were driven farther down the beach away from Camp, either north or south so we could watch clamming bears and fishing bears.

We were blessed with beautiful weather every day but the one. Blue skies with cottony clouds, cool but not cold temperatures, very few insects though we had been warned about gnats and mosquitoes (head nets were provided if we had forgotten to bring our own) and insect repellant was available too. None of walks was long or difficult—flat well-trodden ground and usually not even half a mile in distance.

After a full morning of viewing, we went back to camp for a delicious lunch and sometimes an educational lecture on the many aspects of bears: physiology, conservation efforts and studies, normal daily activities of bears. The staff were well prepared to teach us and intrigue us as well. They made the lectures fun with good senses of humor. Again, the lunches were interesting and innovative. Part of the fun was that it was impossible to guess what would be in store at each meal. The lunch meals usually started around noon. Then there was time to relax, look at our photographs and discuss what we had observed. If there was no lecture, we would head out for another viewing at around 2 or 3 to a site where some moms and cubs were feeding and playing. At most viewing sites, there were logs to sit on and we were asked to keep low profiles by sitting or, if using a tripod, to stand behind the sitting guests. We were also advised that we would see more action longer if we were as quiet as possible. Certainly, no loud talking or exclaiming, no matter how exciting our experiences with the bears. We noticed that sometimes even camera clicking could cause a mother bear to move her cubs further away from our viewing spots. Following the afternoon bear visits, we went back to camp and got ready for supper. We were advised that the time between that return and supper was the optimum time to take showers since then there would be the most hot water available. For those not interested in showering, there was always a “Happy Half Hour” spread to enjoy in the dining tent or out on the front pavilion with its view of the beach and whatever was “showing” there. Another delicious meal appeared around 6:pm after which we would be invited to make yet another visit to an area where bears were active. Often, that would be a short hike to the back of the camp area where the two-story tower was positioned. Since there is still plenty of light in Alaska until about 11 p.m., this outing gave the photographers their chance to shoot in different lighting—with more backlighting, and colorful skies, complex shadowing, and other challenges. Then, after a full day of excellent bear viewing, we could retire “tired” to our cozy tents and slip under the warm coverings. Sometimes we could relax before sleep, listening to the pitter pat of raindrops on the roof of the tent. And that night rain did not necessarily mean it would be raining the next day. Usually, our weather was perfect. Except for one day when we had off and on drizzles.

Needless to add, we never went hungry on this excursion. There were also always snacks of every kind imaginable available in the dining tent. The truth is, we ate too much because there was too much delicious food served or snacked. Tasty food was not the only stimulus to our increased appetites. My theory is that watching bears constantly eating and trying to gain the weight they need for hibernation that caused us to mimic them. We forgot there could be weight limits on the small planes we buzzed in back and forth from Homer to Bear Camp and back to Homer. The bears, however, are focused on weight gain in a positive way. They know they must have enough fat on board to survive the long winter’s nap as well as feeding the cubs that may be born during that time. So, how do they manage this hyper eating summer activity. There are three main food sources & feeding styles for the bears in this part of Lake Clark NP: grazing, clamming, and fishing.

BEAR ACTIVITIES GRAZING : The meadows around the Horn River provided lush plants which supply much needed nutrients. The most plentiful of these is Beach Rye. In two viewing sites we, watched the Mama Bears strip the grasses and demonstrate to their cubs how it is done.

Though it is amazing that a slender reed could supply these enormous mammals with so much of their needed fat, it is quite true that they do. The bears wander among the stands of reeds, pulling up the stalks and chewing on them vigorously. Sometimes they lie down behind the reeds and nurse the cubs. The cubs pop up here and there in the reedy patches, little teddy bear ears showing up first. They play fight with siblings as well as annoying their moms who are trying to rest a bit in the hotter parts of the days. The cubs frolic and caper, playing hide and seek too. The meadows offer such peaceful scenes, surrounded as they are by steep mountains, some retaining snow at their tops and all of them wearing coats of deep green forests rising to their peaks. Cerulean skies top the scenes, punctuated occasionally by ragged, thin white clouds.

CLAMMING : The sandy beaches which are at times quite muddy provide another source of food for different bear hunting styles. Along these shores of Chinitna Bay, the bears are seeking razor clams.

They find them by digging with their powerful front legs and sharp long claws. Once Mama bear has snagged one, she opens it with one strong sweep of her claw! Inside, there is a tasty clam filled with protein, vitamins, and fat. Of course, a huge bear must eat many of these small mollusks to make a full meal. The moms are skilled at this style of hunting, but the cubs—not so much. They try to follow Mom’s demonstration, but they are easily distracted and fall to gamboling with the other cubs around. The adults are endlessly patient with this method of feeding themselves, partly because it is work that does not require much energy. The unlucky razor clams are preyed upon by another predator: the sea gulls who were always around the bears. These clever birds could sometimes steal a clam morsel dropped by a messy eating bear or even snag a dropped and unopened clam. These they dropped from high above on to rocks below to fracture the shell. Then it was just a quick dive down to rock and a meal awaited the crafty bird. The cutest scene we observed was one cub who thought he had the hang of clam digging. He produced one which hung from one claw. He tried Mom’s claw swiping technique to

open the clam, but that one claw could not pull it off. He shook and shook that foot, but the clam hung on. Finally, in frustration, he limped and gimped over to his Mama for help. She made one enormous swipe, freeing the clam from the cub’s foot. Did she then give his prey to her young one? No indeed, she did not. She gobbled it up in one big swallow. FISHING : The scenes along the clamming bay were also challenges for the photographers. There was the bay itself which changed hues as the light changed. There were the misty mountains across the bay which also provided different moods. Behind the shore were more thick green forests with trails running through them. Some were made by bears walking up and down, others by landslides and mudslides, and still others by clefts in the rocky cliffs. Fishing in the bay for salmon or any other fish present was the third feeding method. We were a little early for the full-blown salmon runs, but we did see some bears honing their skills prior to the big run which was anticipated in the next few weeks. The scenery was the same at that for the clamming, but activity required of the bears was much more exciting and energy- costing for the bears.

One young bear was the major actor on this stage. He worked tirelessly at mastering the method of more experienced bears. He would wade deeper into the water and peer straight down to find a fish swimming just ahead of him. Then with a huge energy burst he would charge through the water pushing little tsunamis in front of him. The small walls of water made for exciting viewing and interesting photography techniques. The camera buffs

wanted their pictures to portray the action of the bear in his element, as well as the effect on the water he was surging through. He repeated this hunting method many times and never did we see him catch a fish. Of course, we all know “practice makes perfect” and we all hope that by the time the water is teeming with fish, he will have mastered the needed fishing skills. Yet another species competed with the fishing bears. A pair of eagles with one large chick in the nest was also dependent on the bay for food for themselves and the all-important chick. Though we never saw one fishing, we did observe the parents feeding fish to their offspring on more than one occasion. I am not sure where to place the fast-running red fox we watched racing along the sandy beach. He did not appear to be interested in fishing or clamming nor was he noticed by the bears. He also did not seem to be afraid of the fishing or clamming grizzlies. We do not know what he was up to—maybe exercising to stay in shape for winter hunting? WAYNE BYERS: An interesting and important subject for us to hear was how this man helped with the establishment of Natural Habitat’s Bear Camp.

Wayne was longtime resident and owner of the property which Bear Camp now includes. One of our interesting “tours” was with Steve who knew Wayne personally. He led us through the property and showed us the many buildings that Wayne built for his life in the wilds: a cabin for himself, shelters for his animals, storage sheds for his supplies, curing huts for his fish and other food supplied. He ingeniously built everything that he needed usually single-handedly. As he approached the end of his life, he worried that his beautiful property would be developed, and its wildness would be lost forever. He met with the owner of Bear Camp (Ben Bressler) who discussed with him his ideas of expansion and protection of Wayne’s legacy. And that is why this historic property is preserved as Wayne would have wanted it to be. He was a true “sourdough” as early Alaskans who lived on the land are usually called. TENT NAMES: As promised, I must say a word or two about the names given to the tents we enjoyed. All the people were folks with ties to Alaska of one kind or another. Celia Hunter was a WASP pilot (Women’s Airforce Support Pilot) during World War II. After flying across the country ferrying warplanes from factory to airbases, she fell in love with Alaska and made it her mission to preserve the state in its pristine state. She fought industrialists, developers and is responsible in an enormous way for the preservation of Wild Alaska. Ada Blackjack, an Inupiat women born in Alaska who became a heroine and a legend in survival when she was a castaway for 2 years on Wrangel Island in the Arctic. She joined an expedition supposedly to claim the uninhabited Island for Canada, but her personal reason for joining the crew was to earn enough money to get her son out of a TB hospital and Orphanage. She was hired as seamstress and cook. The expedition organizers were inept, unaware of how to navigate in Arctic waters and totally unprepared for the ordeal that ensued One by one, crew members perished and finally the survivors abandoned the island as well as Ada who was left to nurse one crew member who was suffering from scurvy. Eventually, Ada was alone on the island to survive as best she could. At last, a passing ship rescued her, and she returned to Alaska with sufficient funds to redeem her son’s stay. Her story became known worldwide and her survival skills were attributed to her heritage—as a native of Alaska and its northern peoples. Ironically, Wrangel Island is owned by Russia today. Other names on the tents include members of the Bressler Family who founded NatHab, a company intent on safe environmental travel for customers and the areas they visit and own.

STAFF: Special recognition and thanks must be given to the wonderful staff members at Bear Camp. They made our experience rich, safe, and tons of fun. Even more basic, they made it possible for us to see and enjoy the Big Bears in comfort and safety. So endless thanks to: Jessica, Mike, Brandi, Chris, Ben, and Steve. NATHAB really knows how to pick its staff. They could not be better. Thanks also to Sofia in Homer who made our transition from airport to the Homer Spit and the Lands End Hotel easy and convenient for us jet-lagged arrivals. We enjoyed our time in that unusual Environment as well. What an adventure, what a thrill, and what a truly unforgettable experience! Bravo to the Big Bears!

CLICK LOGO FOR KAY’S PHOTOALBUM OF THIS TRIP

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