Expert Review: Alaska Grizzly Encounter

November 12, 2018 • Andrew Browning

AdventureSmith Specialist Andrew Browning is 1 of only 8 passengers on this Katmai bear viewing cruise in Alaska aboard the 8-guest Ursus. See his incredible grizzly bear photography and read stories of the bears in this detailed trip review.

The Katmai Coast is far from the Inside Passage and far from Denali National Park where most of Alaska’s tourism is focused. Katmai is wild and free Alaskan wilderness where the coastal grizzlies reign. With only 8 passengers traveling with an expert guide, this trip offers an unparalleled wilderness experience and the chance of a lifetime to safely observe and photograph grizzly bears up close in the wild. 

Grizzly bear with its two cubs as seen from tour on small ship cruise to Katmai ALaska.

Arriving to the Ship from Kodiak or Homer 

Arriving to the ship is an experience in itself. The rugged Katmai Coast is accessed via floatplane from Kodiak Island or Homer.  June and July departures typically use Kodiak while August and September departures typically use Homer. My trip was in July, so after spending a night in Kodiak with a nice welcome dinner included, a floatplane brought us to board the ship the following day.

The flight to the Katmai Coast is a unique and adventurous way to begin this voyage and it gives you a sense of just how remote this wilderness is.

The flight to the Katmai Coast is a unique and adventurous way to begin this voyage and it gives you a sense of just how remote this wilderness is. We experienced unbelievable views of lakes, islands and mountains and, of course, as soon as we started to descend we all immediately began to scan the ground for the bears we had all come here to see. The pilot coordinates with the ship Captain and they land the floatplane in the water near where the ship is anchored. The crew then comes to meet the plane with the skiff to bring you aboard the Ursus. It all feels so wild. 

View from flight of the shoreline and mountains while flying into Katmai.
Float plane on the water in Alaska.

Bear Training Upon Embarkation

Aboard the Ursus, before our first bear encounter, we received a full training on how to safely interact with these particular grizzly bears. The grizzlies of Katmai have been interacted with in an intentional way for many years and are therefore used to humans acting in a non-threatening way. This creates a unique opportunity for humans to carefully observe these bears in a close and safe way. Our guide was always present and has observed these bears for many years. With specific protocol for what to do if bears approach our group, we were well informed and it was incredible to observe these bears 100% in their natural element.

Guide giving a briefing before a grizzly tour from a small ship cruise in Alaska.

Watching these grizzlies in action was like watching a chess match.

Watching these grizzlies in action was like watching a chess match. If a new bear came onto the scene all the other bears would react appropriately. We learned that when a bear sits they are showing the other bears that they are not a threat and want to keep the peace.

Grizzly bear with its two small cubs as seen from small ship cruise in Katmai Alaska.

Seasonal Differences for Katmai Bear Viewing

The Alaska Grizzly Encounter runs mid-June through mid-September. My trip was in early July, and we were able to see many social interactions between bears including a lot of time spent with mother bears and their cubs. This is a calm time for bears, and we were able to observe and photograph them interacting in the sedge meadows with the cubs playing with each other and moms watching out for other bears. Earlier trips in June can have opportunities to see bears in mating season and the competition between males for mating partners. Trips in August and September occur at a time when salmon runs are occurring, and bears are focused predominantly on feeding on salmon. More details about these different timing nuances can be found on the trip page. 

Grizzly bear peering out of tall grass and purple wildflowers as seen from a small ship tour in Katmai Alaska.

A Brief Review of the Ursus as an Expedition Ship

The base for this trip is the 8-passenger Ursus, Latin for “bear.” This expedition ship is the perfect vessel for exploring Alaska’s Katmai wilderness. Designed for exploring the remote waters of coastal Katmai National Park with her shallow draft, the Ursus sails the remote bays of the Katmai Coast with ease. A sturdy metal skiff was deployed to bring us to observe bears from the water as well as allowed for easy disembarkation ashore to get closer to the bears. They have a skiff driver who communicates with the guide to coordinate pickup and drop-off, so we were able to maximize our time in the wilderness.

Exterior of the Ursus small expedition ship cruising through Katmai Alaska.
Guests from small ship cruise get on a skiff excursion from the shore in Alaska.
Dining area aboard Ursus small ship cruise in Alaska.

Being aboard this ship on this itinerary is the definition of an expedition.

The vessel was originally built as a crab fishing boat, so her accommodations are not luxurious (shared bathrooms, small cabins). But being aboard this ship on this itinerary is the definition of an expedition, so the close bear experiences, the excellent guiding and the amazing food served more than pleased everyone aboard. The onboard chef prepared us three excellent meals per day, coordinating with the guide and captain to be flexible on meal timing when bear viewing was at its best. The food is high in quality and has a local Alaskan focus. Breakfast and lunch are a single course and dinner was usually three, with appetizers, a main course and dessert. The chef easily accommodated the different diets of my fellow passengers as there were only eight of us.

Fresh local salmon dinner served aboard Ursus small ship cruise in Alaska.

A Dedicated Grizzly Bear Photography Cruise

I traveled on a Photo Tour themed departure, of which there are several each season. These trips have a more relaxed pace to take advantage of photography opportunities. Brad J. was the guide for our departure and he has been leading these trips since 2005 with his specialty in bear biology. Besides guiding travelers in Katmai, he has also guided film crews on expeditions, and we benefited greatly from his past experience guiding photographers. I have been on many AdventureSmith expeditions and in many locations with excellent photography opportunities, but this trip was a step above.

Grizzly bear in stream in front of mountain range in Katmai Alaska.

I have been on many AdventureSmith expeditions with excellent photography opportunities, but this trip was a step above thanks to our photo-focused guide who set us up for shots.

Brad was focused on placing our group in the best possible lighting and locations for getting the best possible shots. Often we would set up somewhere near bears and then wait for them to walk naturally into a perfect background with mountains behind or with a river for them to cross or drink from. It was pretty amazing to be a part of. Many times the bears would do exactly what Brad thought they would and we would be set up ready for it to happen. Specifically, this happened for the shot I got of a mom and her second-summer cubs drinking water from a creek with perfect lighting on our last day in Hallo Bay, as well as a male bear drinking from the creek with huge snowy mountains behind him. These were standout moments from this trip and I have some great photos to remember them by.

Grizzly bears drinking water at a stream seen on a tour from a small ship cruise in Katmai Alaska.

Iconic Moments from My Katmai Cruise

In addition to the wild and remote arrival experience via floatplane, a few moments really stand out from my Katmai expedition:

First Bear Sighting – Mom & 2 Spring Cubs on an Island in Kukak Bay

For our first outing off of the ship we boarded the skiff and set out to explore and get oriented to the landscape of the Katmai Coast. We took the skiff to check out some harbor seals and eagles in the bay we were anchored in. We were motoring the skiff past a nearby island and saw a bear with two cubs in the shrubs near the shore. We saw them go over a ridge and out of our sight. Brad mentioned that he had seen them a few times this year and that it was a young female bear with her cubs. We motored the skiff around the corner and we saw them again. They came down near the shore to dig for food at low tide so we were able to see them quite up close from the skiff. The guide can put the door down in front of the skiff and you can shoot photos right through the opening which allows you to get lower-angle shots that are ideal for wildlife. We stayed with them until they walked up into the trees and out of sight. 

Grizzly bear with two cubs on rocky beach seen on tour from small ship cruise in Katmai Alaska.
Guest from a small ship in Katmai Alaska taking pictures from a skiff of a grizzly bear on shore.

Big Male Sighted from Skiff, First Bear Experience on Foot & 2 Males Fight

Our first outing was a great start to the trip and we were ready to get out and see some more bears and more of the Katmai Coast. We set off in the skiff toward a big coastal meadow that bears graze in during this time of year before the salmon start spawning up the creeks and rivers. As we approached we could see several bears in various depths of the meadow and wetlands. Alex, our skiff driver, stopped the engines and Brad and Teresa got out of the skiff and pulled us in quietly using the ropes attached to the front of the skiff.

We watched in real time as this dominance played out right in front of us.

Walking the skiff in like this is ideal for making a quiet and non-threatening approach to the meadow. While waiting in the skiff for a while because there was a big male bear nearby, Brad explained some more about bear interactions between competing males. We watched in real time as this dominance played out right in front of us. The big male we saw from the skiff moved toward the other darker-colored male opposite a small creek between sections of the meadow and eventually charged the darker male bear. They stood on their hind legs swiping their paws and roaring at each other. It was not mating season or fishing season so the fight ended quickly once one bear had proved its dominance.

Two male grizzly bears standing on hind legs and fighting in a meadow seen from a distance on tour in Katmai Alaska.

We made our way over to a good landing point in the meadow and we dropped the skiff door down to unload and go out on foot. By now the two male bears that had the fight were both pretty far away, but we had another younger male bear approaching from the opposite side. We sat down to show that we are not threatening and waited to see if he would cross a stream near us or if other action would happen between the other males. The loser of the fight started making his way back toward us and the young male.

Male grizzly bear seen on small ship cruise excursion in Katmai ALaska.

We stayed seated and the young male started making his way away from us and toward the forested side of the meadow. By now the male who had lost the fight was coming back across the creek and back up the river bank. I was on the edge of our group, closest to the big bear and this being our first outing ashore I was pretty nervous about a giant male brown bear being 30 feet away and still approaching. He came up the river bank and started grazing on sedge grass, moving slowly around our group and occasionally lifting his head and looking around. My nervous feeling subsided as he moved a little farther away and to the other side of our group. 

Guests on a land tour viewing and taking pictures of a grizzly bear in a field in Katmai Alaska.

Melissa & 2 Spring Cubs, 3 Sets of Moms & Cubs in Hallo Bay

We went ashore in Hallo Bay for some of the excursions on this trip. During these outings we were able to observe mama bears with cubs, which was incredible. Our guide had been leading these trips for many years and knew each bear’s behaviors and story. At one point when we were near a river that winds through the flats of Hallo Bay, we had mother bears with cubs on three sides of us. Two of the mothers had second-summer cubs (born the previous spring and have fluffy fur) and one had spring cubs (cubs that were born less than a year ago and look a bit more scraggly).

Grizzly bear in grass and wildflowers standing in front of its mother seen on tour in Katmai Alaska.

Our guide had been leading these trips for many years and knew each bear’s behaviors and story… It felt completely unbelievable that we were experiencing these moments.

One of the mothers, named Melissa by our guide, is a big, experienced female that our guide said would be the mother you would want to have in this environment. She has successfully raised cubs many seasons before and gives the cubs a higher chance for survival than other less-experienced female bears. On two occasions we had some close encounters with her and the cubs. One morning we walked far to the back of the meadow in Hallo Bay and settled in to our place to get some shots and the cubs were playing with each other as she looked on. The lighting was perfect, and we took some incredible bear family portraits. There were times on this trip where it felt completely unbelievable that we were there in the wild experiencing these moments.  

Grizzly bear with its two cubs, both cubs standing on hind legs in field in Katmai Alaska.
Two grizzly cubs close with their mother in a green field in Katmai Alaska.

Katmai’s Stunning Scenery

I understood that getting into the wilderness to observe the bears was the main focus of this trip, but I didn’t expect the Katmai Coast to be so beautiful. On the occasions when the clouds cleared, jagged mountains and glaciers were backdrops to the meadows. There are also lush islands with wildflowers, forests and rock features making the landscape interesting for photography. Aside from the many bear photos I took, I also came away with quite a few landscape photos that I love as well.   

People on a coastal hike with the islands and shoreline of Katmai Alaska.

Traveling Among Bears

During an excursion in Kukak Bay, our expert bear guide Brad said that “bears are a symbol of the wilderness, and wilderness has a different feeling when bears are a part of it.” This quote exemplifies what this trip is about. It is about going into the bears’ territory and emerging humbled with a newfound understanding and respect for these animals and their environment. I have been to Alaska before, on many cool trips, but this AdventureSmith trip aboard the Ursus in Alaska’s Katmai National Park has surpassed all my previous trips. Getting to experience and photograph these bears up close in an incredible landscape was really a trip of a lifetime. ⠀

“Bears are a symbol of the wilderness, and wilderness has a different feeling when bears are a part of it.”

Grizzly bear and its cub sleeping on the beach in Katmai Alaska.

For more photos from this trip, including a lot more cute baby bear cubs, view my Facebook album on AdventureSmith Explorations’ Facebook page.

This Alaska Katmai cruise review was written by an AdventureSmith Explorations crew member. The Ursus, one of our small ships to Alaska, is on our curated list of Alaska yacht charters and is perfect for a full boat charter. Read all small ship Alaska cruise reviews for more trip reports. For dates, rates and booking information on this trip, see Alaska Grizzly Encounter: Kodiak to Katmai, view all of our Alaska trips and small ship Alaska cruises or contact one of our Adventure Specialists to learn more about our small ship cruises and wilderness adventures: 1-800-728-2875.

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