Kodiak Brown Bear-Our Wilderness visit with Earth’s Largest Bear

Kodiak Brown Bear Center Almost Did Not Happen

The Kodiak brown bear is famous throughout the world.  We were fishing at Kodiak Sportsman’s Lodge on a beautiful August afternoon before taking a short float plane ride in a couple days to Karluk Lake and the Kodiak Brown Bear Center.  

“You need to leave tomorrow, or you won’t make it there,” Conrad told us.  “There is going to be a big blow on Monday.”  We were on the boat trolling for salmon and he was looking at his phone.  On the screen was an image I was very familiar with—a hurricane with a distinct eye just south of Kodiak Island.  I could not believe it.

We got back to the lodge and Lisa started making calls to the Kodiak Brown Bear Center and pilots.  The next day, we were packed and at the Old Harbor dock waiting for the plane.

An Awesome Flight

Lisa’s first float plane flight was in 2000 when we took an Alaska cruise.  A guide flew us to Admiralty Island near Juneau ironically to see a different type of brown bears.  The Kodiak brown bear is a unique subspecies of grizzly or brown bear which has lived on Kodiak Island for approximately 12,000 years.  I remember Lisa sitting in the back of the plane terrified.  The ride was a little bouncy which did not help.  That has all changed.

Kodiak Brown Bear trip Lisa in the Plane

As we stood on the dock, the plane flew over us and made a steep climb and then turned back using the rudder at the peak, landed and taxied to the dock.  I am now relegated to the back—Lisa climbed into the co-pilot seat, buckled up and got her headphones on.   We took off heading southwest for a pass through the mountains to the Kodiak Brown Bear Center.

Kodiak Brown Bear trip plane view

After a few miles, we turned into the mountains and began weaving our way through the high valleys close enough to the ground to clearly see pieces of rock on the mountains.   I always have a downward gust in the back of my mind.  Lisa and the pilot talked the entire way.  The flight was awesome, and we popped out of a gap in the mountains to see Karluk Lake.

Kodiak brown bear Karluk Lake

We had a great evening with other guests and the staff at the lodge.  After sitting around the fire pit and some friendly conversation, we turned in ready for our first day with the bears the next morning.

Kodiak Brown Bear Encounter on the Trail

Across the lake is the Thumb River viewing area.  Our guides, Vic and Jenn, took us to the boat for a short ride to the opposite shore.  I could make out a spot to dock and some steps built with timbers up the bank.  The timbers had been moved around and Vic told us the bears like to tear them out of the ground and play with them.  Off the boat and up the bank we went.  Kodiak is the Emerald Isle—green and lush in the summer. 

Kodiak Brown Bear trip Bill on the Trail

Viewing the terrain from a plane or looking across the lake, you don’t realize the grass and other foliage is several feet high until you are walking the trails.  You walk actual bear trails and bears leave behind salmon parts which the foxes really enjoy.  About five minutes up the trail, there was a loud grunt and something crashed through the brush away from the trail.  We all stopped—I could tell even the guides were startled.  We all huddled up as the guides discussed when to move forward.  After a couple of minutes, we continued down the trail.  “That was probably Broken Ear,” Vic said.  “She has two cubs and I bet they were just sleeping in the grass.  The grunt was a warning to the cubs.” 

Kodiak Brown Bear Bill at Thumb River

The trail is relatively flat but does have areas where water has washed out small gullies and roots are exposed.  This makes the trail uneven in spots and you must step up to a higher mound or down at times to walk the trail.   After about fifteen minutes of walking, we were at the river.

Bear Watching at Thumb River

We stop at the top of the river bank about twelve feet above the water.  The river is churning with salmon—I can easily see dozens right below my feet.   “Find a seat and stay still,” Vic said.  We sit down on the bank.  To the right, you can see Karluk Lake a few hundred yards downstream.  Upstream, there is a bend to the right.  After a few minutes, the first bear walks down the river from around the bend. 

Kodiak brown bear in Thumb River

The bear shuffles from side to side looking at the water.  Then, there are short bursts of running and pouncing on salmon in the water.  I think of my cat trying to catch a mouse.  This isn’t the picture of the bear sitting on a rock with salmon jumping around it.  The bear moves from one side of the river to the other always walking steadily downstream.  There is lots of action but not a lot of fishing success. 

Sub Adult Bear fishing

Vic explains, “This is a young bear and the get excited and chase the fish.  The older bears will come later in the season when the salmon are slower and have spawned.”  The bear makes his way down river and passes fifty feet in front of us.  He continues until we lose sight of him near the river mouth at the lake.

Kodiak Brown Bear Broken Ear

Broken Ear is the matron sow in the area. Here she is with her 8 month old twin cubs.

A few minutes later, a female bear with two cubs comes around the bend.  “That’s Broken Ear,” Vic says.  She is an older bear and the cubs were born last year.  Broken Ear fishes in the same manner but has more success occasionally coming up with a salmon and going to shore.  The cubs come running.  At one point, all three are directly across the river from us eating a salmon.  The trio continues down river toward the lake. 

kodiak brown bear cubs

I’m happy they weren’t curious enough to climb the bank to check us out. We were that close!

Down The Lake

The wind blew hard that afternoon and all night.  At breakfast the next morning, the staff said wind speeds were 80 miles an hour.  Jenn and Vic decided to go down the lake several miles to the outlet to Karluk River which flows twenty-four miles down to the Shelikof Strait between Kodiak and the Alaska mainland.  We saw several bears with binoculars as we proceeded to the outlet.  As we neared the shore, Jenn slid the bow of the boat onto the beach and we disembarked. 

kodiak bear looking over river

This bear smells us and then finally spots us. After realizing he is more hungry than worried about us, he continued down the river.

This trail experience is much different.  Grass and small trees grow several feet high on both sides with no visibility.  Jenn hit rocks together and talked so the bears would not be startled.  We walked down the trail and around a corner toward the outlet and could see bears further downstream on the river.

This foliage was all well over 6 feet and an adventure to hike along the river.

 

We watched another bear walk on the lake shoreline to our left and continue down the outlet to the river directly across from us.  Vic said, “The salmon are just now starting up the Karluk River.  In a few weeks, the outlet will be full of bears including the big males.”

Next Articles and Photos

We have much more to tell.  Jenn and Vic were terrific and gave us so much information about the bears, the wilderness, and what the bears mean to them.  We took several more viewing trips and had time to relax and enjoy our cabin, the food, and the company of the guides, staff, and other guests. 

Kodiak Brown Bear Jenn Lisa Vic and Bill

We have more fantastic photos and videos.  Our time at the Kodiak Brown Bear Center was the best wildlife encounter of our lives.  We want to share the entire experience we had with these great people at this incredible place with you.

Kodiak Brown Bear and Fishing Experience

When we talk to people about Alaska, whales, fishing and bears are always a big part of the conversation.  We wanted to have both experiences on this trip and be able to share that with you.  Fishing and bear watching has its complications but nothing that cannot go smoothly with some good planning, and guess what?  We are really good at that!

Kodiak Brown Bear trip Jenn and Lisa on the trail

This was the most amazing wildlife encounter we have ever had.   If you want to go on one bearing viewing trip in your life, this is the place.   We would love to talk to you about the entire experience as it was so incredible.  If this is a dream of yours, please complete the contact form below or give Lisa a call if you have questions about this great adventure or how to add it to a fishing trip. 

Check out this Brown Bear Trivia page for some interesting facts about the Kodiak Brown Bear.

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