The Otherworldly Experience of Seeing Brown Bears In the Wild
Seeing a brown bear up close in the wild, for the first time, was the most life-changing experience of my life.
I grew up as a girl who loved animals. I would watch nature films and documentaries after school and borrow books about wildlife and habitats from the library. I learned about Kodiak Island and Katmai National Park and the brown bear population that lives there. I knew that I would get to see them in person someday, but I couldn’t have imagined how strong of an emotional connection I would feel when it happened.
I can still feel the excitement I had leading up to my excursion. I had finally booked a bucket list trip, with a whole week of Alaskan adventures revolving around one crucial goal: to see brown bears in the wild. I had been to Alaska two times prior and wasn't lucky enough to encounter a brown bear.
I wanted to know the feeling you get when you are in the presence of such a magnificent and powerful soul—one that I had grown up studying and admiring.
I booked my bear-viewing excursion with a local in Kodiak, connecting with a woman in an industry of men who was leading these trips in Katmai National Park. I felt an instant connection with Jennifer, the owner of Kodiak Island Expeditions. We emailed back and forth for weeks before my trip. She was kind enough to guide me through some safety and logistics when planning. I couldn’t wait to meet her in person.
So I was excited when she greeted me at the harbor where the plane was docked. I blurted out, "Hi, I'm Jaime; I'm going to apologize in advance for my enthusiasm because I am SO excited to be here, and I just can't control it!" As a true Alaskan, she was totally into the uncontrollable anticipation and was excited to be a part of my first bear experience.
I was more excited than I had ever been in my life. I was finally going to see my brown bears!
We got geared up with waders and boarded a red-and-cream-colored plane. Our pilot, Willy, instantly struck me as one of the coolest people I have ever met. My first impression was right. We took off and headed toward Hallow Bay, into the wilderness. It felt like I was flying through a dream, seeing nature's raw beauty in its truest form. We flew over herds of elk and deer and over a pure and untouched landscape. It was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever experienced.
And then I saw it: my first bear. And then my second and third! I quickly realized that it was finally happening. My heart felt like it was going to explode with joy.
Willy, a seasoned Alaskan bush pilot, landed that plane so smoothly that I didn't even realize it was happening. We glided along the water and waded up to the shoreline. Jennifer called out, "We have bears just around the berm here," and I felt like I was going to pee my pants with excitement. We walked around the berm and into the meadow, where a dozen bears were grazing and playing.
We hardly walked 30 feet into the field before my life changed forever.
That’s when a bear started casually walking towards us, like a dog wagging her way over to say hi. The bear got closer and closer, leaving two other bears to wrestle and play behind her. She continued to stride towards us when Jennifer started to talk gently to the bear, saying, "Hey, I see you, you're getting too close. Back up, you’re too close." And the bear listened. She stopped in her tracks and gave us the space we needed.
There’s something so spiritual about being a few feet from a creature that could tear you to shreds with little effort. Your brain is naturally wired to make you feel frightened at first, telling you that you’re in a dangerous situation. And yes, you are definitely in a dangerous situation.
But if you’re calm and give the bears respect and space, they will give it back to you. And there is no better feeling than to respect and be respected by wildlife.
As a person who has cherished and appreciated Mother Earth over a lifetime, I knew what it felt like to have an emotional connection with nature. I had seen orcas and humpback whales from a boat, and sea lions from a cliff face. I had witnessed eagles flying above and moose grazing in the foliage. I even saw black bears on hiking trails, all during my travels through Alaska.
But none of that hit home like my day with the brown bears.