September 29, 2013 KATMAI COASTAL SUMMER
This past summer I sent two weeks camped in the heart of brown bear country, the outer Katmai coast. While several brown bears were present, night and day, we never had any trouble or unusual incidents. I set up an electric around my camp and kept my food in bear-proof containers. The location is the same general area that Timothy Treadwell used to camp in; times have certainly changed since he was the only one camped there.
Up until a few years ago only boat-based tours visited the coast to view and photograph the numerous brown bears. More recently, the number of bear viewers brought in by airplanes from Homer and Kodiak has expanded greatly. Now it is not uncommon in peak season to see ten wheel planes parked on the beach, with other viewers, though a much smaller number, dropped off by floatplanes. In peak season there can be 40 to 50 bear-viewers wandering the main marsh of Hallo Bay! (Including a handful of campers.)
The impact on the bears, I think, has been significant. For the most part all of this bear-viewing activity has gone a long way in habituating bears to people, and reducing risk of dangerous interactions. However, there does seem to be a change in the number of bears seen and a change in age/sex classifications; plus some altered resting, mating, and feeding behaviors. But that is purely my subjective observation based on what I saw there 30 years ago.
What concerned me, however, was what I thought to be some very questionable flying practices. Flights from Homer require a long flight over open water, basically from the Barren Islands off the tip of the Kenai Peninsula to Cape Douglas on the west side of lower Cook Inlet, followed by a flight south along the coast. There is no margin for error in a wheel plane and appropriate altitude must be achieved to allow gliding distance to land. Overcast conditions limit VFR altitudes.
The Katmai coast can be stormy, cold, windy, and wet. It was unnerving to see wheel planes flying in at low level, in stout wind, and sometimes dodging fog, to make wheel landings on the beach. Exiting the plane, the passengers on occasion donned rain gear and bent into the hard wind to hike out to view the bears. The two viewers that I talked to expressed concern for their safety around the bears but apparently did not realize that their flight might have been potentially more hazardous.
Alaska flying is much safer than it once was, the old Bush Pilot-Go in Any Weather days are quickly disappearing. The Alaska Medallion Foundation (http://medallionfoundation.org/), in concert with concerned parties, has worked hard to promote safety in Alaska aviation. Unfortunately, this year Alaska has experienced a very high rate of flying-related fatalities. One bright spot in Alaska’s aviation industry in 2013 has been the safety record In Denali National Park. Through the climbing and tourist seasons, there have been no accidents, an impressive achievement. (The last fatality in the park vicinity occurred in 2009.) If only the record was as good elsewhere. Remember, passengers have RIGHTS and a little research before an Alaskan trip can make a trip all the more safe and enjoyable. Just ask yourself: is a photograph of a bear, or a photo of anything, worth a life?