Wild brown bear watching at Lake Clark National Park in Alaska
It is no exaggeration to say that our bear expedition to Lake Clark National Park was one of the best travel days I have ever had.
This article is part of a series on traveling to Alaska. You can read my main article with our full itinerary here.
During the first days of our trip, the gloomy weather took precedence over a sunny sky. When that day arrived, our luck finally changed. We ended up with wonderful weather for the remainder of our trip, starting with this spectacular day. The bear tour I am talking about in this article was the Lake Clark tour through the flight service from Rust.
To start our busy day, we boarded a seaplane in Anchorage, facing the rather unusual task of getting on a plane that swings from a dock. Fortunately, boarding was the only nervous part of our flying experience. With the sea spraying behind us, we rose into the air, immediately getting a view of the many mountain ranges all around us. We spotted a group of beluga whales below, like small grains of rice sliding in the water.
We jumped over a mountain range and the most beautiful lake appeared before us, fed by glaciers and gloriously jewel-toned. We landed on this lake, the water providing a soft cushion, slowly surfing the brilliant aquatic waters.
We had arrived at the eastern end of Lake Clark National Park. Contrary to what the name suggests, we were actually on Crescent Lake, a smaller (but still sizeable) lake compared to the park’s namesake. We stopped at Redoubt Mountain Lodge, a secluded property accessible only by seaplane. The lodge is mainly frequented by visitors interested in fishing and wildlife viewing. Unfortunately we did not stay at the lodge during our trip, but it looked totally lovely and the surroundings were utterly beautiful.
Once our plane was pulled up to shore, we hopped into our next car for the day: a small pontoon boat. The only other occupants of the boat were another couple and our guide, completing a wonderfully relaxed group. There were a few other boats around the lake for various activities, but we were never near them. We tidied up, our guide directing us to the day. Our guide was a young woman and aspiring naturalist. She was a knowledgeable guide for guests and a nature-conscious steward, always keen to respect the wildlife and natural spaces we encountered.
Within 10 minutes of leaving shore, we spotted the first bear of the day at the mouth of the river and pushed our way through with our motor. We floated around doing nothing as the bear roamed the shores, keeping our voices low and taking pictures. It was an early harbinger of how we spent most of our day: cruising around the lake until we saw a bear (which never took long), then floating around while watching the creatures spend their days.
Please note, these photos were taken with a zoom and / or crop up to 400mm, so we weren’t as close to the bears as these photos can make it appear. Most of the bear photos in this article were taken with a Sony 100-400mm f / 4.5-5.6 lens.
Each bear had its own personality and behavior. Some bears could easily be spotted for long periods of time, and others offered only a brief glimpse before disappearing into the brush. The most awesome part was spending time marveling at this mom bear. She had two cubs with her, so young that they were surely born that spring. We spotted them strolling along the shore and followed them from a distance as they made their way to a fishing hole.
The baby bears were frolicking happily, fighting each other and delighting us with their heart-melting kindness.
At the fishing hole, we watched her catch several sockeye salmon, carrying a feast to the shore for her little family. After one of her catches, she disappeared in the undergrowth, hiding from her young so that she could eat her catch on her own. It’s not just human moms who need a little time alone. We heard her and her cubs screaming at each other for a few minutes before meeting again. She scored a few more catches, sharing a lot of the rest with the little ones. If you’re ok with a bit of fish tripe, click here to see one of his little nibbles on raw salmon.
It was magical to see this wild Alaskan brown bear doing the sort of thing I’m only used to seeing with David Attenborough narrating in the background.
You can even see the salmon roe popping out of its socket! Click to view the last photo above in high resolution.
In the middle of the day, we returned to shore for lunch. We were served baked salmon with a honey mustard and pecan crust and a side of fresh greens. I’m not a fish girl, and still don’t like salmon in any other context, but to my surprise, I eagerly gobbled up the tender and flavorful fish which is reminiscent of mom bear of that morning.
After lunch, full of fish and just a little sleepy from the delicious meal, we boarded the boat for the second half of our visit. The cool breeze and the hot sun on our faces were quite dreamy. For a little while we circled the lake by boat with little agenda, just enjoying the amazing views and the pristine weather. We stopped on a small island, get off the boat for a few minutes to stretch our legs. We spot bear tracks in the sand and point out other signs of wildlife.
The last bear we saw today was this young male. His behavior was so different from the others we saw that day. He was still clearly learning to be a bear, picking up sticks in his mouth and frolicking around the shore like a playful dog. He was an expressive and goofy showman, unlike the all-business attitude of Mama Bear and the others we had seen earlier.
In total we spent about 8 hours at the lake including about an hour break for lunch. Adding in return flights from Anchorage, it was a busy day. I’m so glad we spent enough time here to really soak up it and not feel rushed.
Seriously, that day was straight out of National Geographic. Although it was also the most expensive day of the whole trip, it is a day that I will absolutely treasure forever.
To complete this article, here are some practical tips for watching bears in Alaska.
Where to see bears depends on the season. The best places to see bears depend heavily on the time of year and the bears’ natural rhythms. The travel agency I booked with created a handy calendar showing the best time for each visit. My visit was right at the start of the recommended timeframe for this place, but we were clearly very lucky. Our guide said she had never organized a tour and had not seen a bear – these people certainly know what they are doing.
Previously I had a lot of worry if I was making a mistake going off the beaten path to Lake Clark National Park instead of the famous Brooks Fall Viewing Area in Katmai National Park. But after going there, I have absolutely no regrets. The Lake Clark tour was by far the perfect choice for us.
Expect the unexpected. Please note that these tours are frequently canceled due to unsafe weather conditions for the flight. With that in mind, and because this tour was one of my top priorities, I intentionally scheduled this tour in the middle of our trip, so that we have contingency plans in our back pocket (i.e., on the day 12) in case our original date has been canceled. If you have an air tour that is particularly important to you, make sure your trip has at least one day that you can reschedule if necessary.
Have questions about Alaskan bears? What is the difference between a brown bear and a grizzly? How long do cubs stay with their mothers? Katmai National Park’s website is full of answers to all your bear questions.
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