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Alaska: Take a walk on the wild side | Column

By Jerry Vaughn, Travel Talk

Most seasonal visitors to Alaska go by a combination of cruise or cruise tour.

One of the main goals of most tourists is to see the wildlife Alaska is so famous for. For many, they are disappointed either because the weather, temperatures or crowds just don’t seem to work for seeing bears, moose, wolves, caribou and birds.

The biggest problem however, is that most of the cruises and cruise tours are cookie cutter, assembly line processes designed to move large numbers of people through relatively crowded areas in a limited amount of time.

For those who really want to see Alaska’s wildlife, there are some great options that allow you to see far more wildlife than you ever could on a cruise or cruise tour. You need a little spirit of adventure and willingness to “rough it” a bit, but the rewards will be big.

Bear viewing in the wild is one of the truly great experiences of any Alaska visit. When you see these magnificent animals on their home turf — roaming freely along the coastline, catching salmon at Brooks Falls, eating berries in the mountains or against the extraordinary backdrop of Kodiak Island — it’s a moment when you forget everything else and just soak in nature at its best.

Alaska offers many different areas to view bears and each varies in quality, experience and cost. Like nature itself, there are no guarantees. Yet there is nowhere better in North America to study the bears in their element. Perhaps it’s as simple as how Alaska frames the picture — the rugged terrain, scenic grandeur and mystique make the picture complete.

Take an unforgettable bear viewing tour to Katmai National Park and Brooks Falls, the Katmai Coast, Kodiak Island or Admiralty Island to see brown bears, grizzlies and more. Take a group trip or enjoy your own personal bear viewing safari for a day. For marine wildlife where you may see orcas and humpback whales, embark on a wildlife and glacier cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park or Glacier Bay National Parks. For avid birders, marvel at that variety of birds on the stark Pribilof Islands in the remote Bering Sea.

Hallo Bay is a private camp located on the Pacific Coast of Katmai National Park specializing only in guided bear viewing and photography trips. Bear observation in the field is conducted under the direction of professional guides whose primary duties include the safety of guests and the continued preservation of this unique area and its magnificent wildlife.

Hallo Bay Wilderness is designed to be a wildlife and bear viewing experience in a true Alaska wilderness setting. There are no viewing platforms or man-made trails at Hallo Bay, and with a client to guide ratio of 5-to-1, the human footprint on the wildlife habitat is much less impacted. The Hallo Bay Bear Camp was created with an acute awareness of the pristine environment rather than focusing attention on luxurious accommodations.

The Camp, named “Best Bush Camp in North America” by Outside Magazine, boasts comfortable “weather-port” custom tent-cabins (in an electrified fence perimeter), beds with mattresses, and with propane heat and light). Meals are flown in daily from the main lodge and finished by your guides.

In addition to the nearly unlimited time on the viewing platform (the camp is limited to 12 guests per night), available activities include hiking, clamming and beachcombing.

Most guests, however, seem happy to spend most of their time in the presence of the incredible bears while in Alaska’s most private bear viewing venue. This experience is available in a stand-alone version or in many of the fishing and safari itineraries at Great Alaska Adventure Lodge.

Katmai National Park’s awe-inspiring natural powers confront you most visibly in its brown bears. In summer, North America’s largest land predators gather along streams to feast on salmon runs, building weight from this wealth of protein and fat, preparing for the long winter ahead.

Alaska’s brown bears and grizzlies are now considered one species. People commonly consider grizzlies to be those that live 100 miles and more inland. Browns are bigger than grizzlies thanks to their rich diet of fish. Kodiak brown bears are a different subspecies that is geographically isolated on Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. Mature male bears in Katmai may weigh up to 900 pounds. Mating occurs from May to mid-July, with the cubs born in dens in mid-winter.

Up to four cubs may be born, at a mere pound each. Cubs stay with the mother for two years, during which time she does not reproduce. The interval between litters is usually at least three years. Brown bears dig a new den each year, entering it in November and emerging in April. About half of their lifetime is spent in their dens.

Because each bear is an individual, no one can predict exactly how a bear will act in a given situation, so caution is always the order of the day. These awe-inspiring bears symbolize the wildness of Katmai today.

Besides brown bears, Katmai National Park provides a protected home to moose, caribou, red foxes, wolves, lynxes, wolverines, river otters, minks, martens, weasels, porcupines, snowshoe hares, red squirrels and beavers. Marine mammals include sea lions, sea otters and hair seals. Beluga, killer and gray whales can also be seen along the coast of the park.

While not inexpensive, a customized wildlife viewing trip will give you a lifetime of memories in some of the most rugged and beautiful country on Earth.

Jerry Vaughn is president of World Voyager Vacations in Federal Way. Contact: jvaughn@worldvoyagervacations.com.

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