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You have to go to bear school before they let you into Katmai National Park and here's the reason why. Grizzly bears, some as big as nine feet tall, roam the same grounds the guests do.
These giant brown bears, two of whom are seen above, were first called grisley bears by the explorers Lewis and Clark. Whether this referred to their grizzled, or golden, hair or to their fear inspiring appearance no one knows. The naturalist George Ord classified them formally in 1815, giving grizzlies the Latin name of U. horribilis.
The schooling at Katmai occurs in a small auditorium next to the welcome center just off the beach where your float plane lands. No roads or trains can get you their. You have to fly in. Our plane landed within feet of where these two bears were playing just an hour later.
We heard them splashing before we saw them. We had just walked to the main lodge after finishing our class and were standing outside the lodge less than 100 feet from the beach. When we looked over, we saw these bears frolicking in the water just a few feet offshore. A ranger stood between us and the bears ignored us but, still, my heart beat quickened as I walked closer to kneel down and take these pictures.
Our classroom was in a one story log structure not unlike the one above, which hosted the outfitter for the park and stood right across from the main lodge. Our training was all about how to react and carry yourself if you walk near a wild bear in the park. No running is the first rule. When prey run, predators chase and you do not want to act like prey. Stay together and talk while you walk so you do not surprise a bear. Give them the right of way and stand tall as they pass.
There are two gated walkways that lead to the famous Katmai Falls where grizzlies congregate during salmon spawning season. First gate, just 50 feet from the lodge, puts you on a walkway that leads over a small pond.
The bear shown above was sharing the pond with a few fishermen, seen casting in the distance. The two tussling below were playing on a rise in the middle of the lake a few feet away from the walkway.
If you look down and closely into the water from this raised platform, you can see why the normally solitary grizzlies are in the park in large numbers. Salmon in a mind boggling abundance, there for the taking.
After you cross the pond and exit the gated pathway you walk more than a mile on a path, shared with grizzlies, through the woods. Another gated path awaits you when you approach the falls. All along the open path, there is evidence of the bears - shredded bark on standing trees, matted long grass where they have rested, and matted paths cut through the grass.
This is not the ordinary park viewing experience with great distances separating you from predators who might view you as a tasty morsel. Yes, we would view many bears from the raised platforms near the famous Katmai Falls but we would have to walk where they walked to get there.
And, as you will see in our next posting, even the raised platforms were close enough to feel intimate with the bears, The image below, of a grizzly fishing less than 30 yards away on the top of the falls, will give you a preview of just how wild and close the experience was. No long lens was needed to capture this image. A 100 mm portrait lens was all that was needed.
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Travel, history, and business with original photos.
Clinton Richardson - author, photographer, business advisor, traveler.
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