"If a bear comes right up to you, just stand still and wait for me,” Jim Peterson explains as he directs our group through the thigh-deep seawater between our floatplane and the sandy shoreline of Geographic Harbor in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve. Our guide holds up a hiking pole. “You think these are walking sticks? Nope. They’re bear-pokers!”

The Alaskan coastal brown bears we’ve come to view can reach sizes of more than 500 kilograms; images from the documentary Grizzly Man dance through my head. 

“You’re kidding, right?” I ask. Jim grins and waves us forward to an estuary that divides densely forested volcanic mountains. Katmai is like a lost world—waterfalls, rainforest, roaming predators and zero signs of human interference. The idea that while here, we’d be poking-distance from one of the most imposing beasts on the planet is a shock. But my five-day tour of Kodiak Island and the surrounding area would prove full of surprises.

Fort AbercrombieDavid Webb

The second-largest island in the USA, tucked into the crescent that forms Alaska’s southern coast, Kodiak Island is famous for one thing: bears. Big, beautiful bears. The name Timothy Treadwell also comes to mind. What I hadn’t expected is a population of 14,000 residents—nearly half of whom live on America’s largest Coast Guard base just outside the town of Kodiak. I was also surprised to see three wind turbines spinning on the mountainside above town in a state once made infamous for the decidedly unsustainable motto: “Drill, Baby, Drill!” I didn’t factor in world-class alpine hiking in the mountainous interior of the island or epic kayaking around the coves, bays and islets on the northeast coast. I was stunned to uncover bunkers and cannons leftover from The Second World War hidden within the rainforest. And I absolutely did not anticipate such top-quality craft beer. (Cheers to Sarah Pale Ale.)

I came for the bears. Tremendous, terrifying bears. Bears I was certain would just about roam the streets of town, or at least lurk at the outskirts. So when I learned we’d be using Kodiak Island as a departure point for a 45-minute floatplane flight over the Shelikof Strait to Katmai National Park on the Alaskan mainland to view these famous bruins, I resigned myself to drop all expectations and let coastal Alaska unveil itself to me naturally.

Katmai National ParkDavid Webb

Our Turbine Beaver skims across the turquoise seawater of Katmai’s Geographic Harbor, drifting to a halt 50 metres from the beach. We’re suited in hip-waders for the trudge to shore, each of us lollygagging as we step through the icy water en route to terra firma. The view captivates—mountains formed millions of years ago by violent volcanic eruptions are coated in greenery nourished by two metres of annual rainfall. Torrents tumble from the cliffs. Mist circles the peaks. It’s downright Jurassic; I half-expect a T-rex to pop its head from behind one of the shoreline boulders, though a full-grown brown bear would be almost as intimidating. 

“Stay put on shore until I’m there,” Jim calls out as he helps the last of our seven-person group from the Beaver. We’re on a floodplain with nowhere to hide, dead in the middle of one of the highest concentrations of bears in the state. Needless to say, we oblige.

Katmai takes only minutes to produce. On the far side of a river that empties into Geographic Harbor we spot a sandy-coated sow and two cubs rummaging through the sedges. The bears are distant, even through a 200-millimetre lens, but we breathe a collective sigh of relief. No matter what, we’ve spotted our target. It’s rare to get skunked on an Alaskan bear-viewing tour, however, we’re late in the season—September—and Mother Nature follows her own schedule. The family of bruins takes notice of us and scoots behind a pile of driftwood. We lower our lenses just as a chocolate-coloured boar saunters into view a few hundred metres along the shoreline. 

Kodiak BearDavid Webb

Jim leads us to a sandbar in the middle of the river. “Keep quiet. He’ll walk right past us.”

With nervous anticipation, we wait like rocks on the sand. The bear takes his time, poking around the grass, sniffing the mud and scaring away seagulls as he approaches. By the time he’s mid-river, I lower my camera to revel in the moment. The bear is 10 metres in front of me, as disinterested as an elephant to a fly. I shoot Jim an “are we OK?” glance. He offers a knowing nod. (If the guide is calm, you’re OK; if the guide is scared...) After pawing around the sandbar, the bear waddles upstream, leaving us with full memory cards and slackjawed grins. 

“They’re well-fed and accustomed to groups like ours,” Jim explains. Katmai is a land of abundance and brown bears are opportunists—salmon runs, plentiful clams, lush grasses and low-hanging berries are preferable to two-legged annoyances. This is important to keep in mind if you hope to hold your camera steady while a 250-kilogram brown bear approaches to within a couple car-lengths away.

Kodiak BearDavid Webb

Back on the plane, our group forms two consensuses. The first is the surreal beauty of these bears and the lush ecosystem they call home. The second is how non-threatening the bears seemed. It sounds naïve, and maybe a little Treadwell-esque, but we felt the calmest when the bear was closest. Its indifference had been comforting, not intimidating. In fact, bears should be more scared of us. Beyond the borders of Katmai, hunters kill some 500 Alaskan coastal brown bears every year. Bear-viewing is a passive protest to such sport hunting—illuminating both the value of non-consumptive experiences and the enhanced revenue operators can earn by shelving their rifles.

From atop Mount Katmai, Hallo Glacier snakes downslope toward us, crumbling into a grey-green lake littered with ice chunks like fallen soldiers in the war against climate change. It’s our final stop in the park; a suitable site for introspection on bears, glaciers, wilderness and the means by which we explore. 

Five days later, as I depart Kodiak for Anchorage, I reflect further on the island’s surprisingly diverse offerings: alpine hikes, coastal paddles, sport fishing, craft beer, historical artefacts and excellent coffee. Our brown bear close-encounter, however, remains the peak experience. But that’s really no surprise at all.  

Hallo GlacierDavid Webb

Kodiak or Katmai?

In spring and early summer, bear viewing is typically done within Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, which occupies the southwestern two-thirds of Kodiak Island. Here, you’ll find Kodiak bears, a subspecies of Alaskan coastal brown bear. In the late-summer and fall, more reliable viewing is found in Katmai National Park and Preserve for Alaskan coastal brown bears. Kodiak Island is the best access point for both experiences.

Twelve-thousand years of separation from the mainland plus more historically abundant salmon runs has given Kodiak bears DNA-level differences and a larger average and maximum size than the standard Alaskan coastal brown bear, although in practice the two subspecies are virtually indistinguishable.

Kayaking KodiakDavid Webb

If You Go

Andrew Airways offers a variety of bear viewing packages, from four hours to a full day. andrewairways.com

Explore sea cliffs and beaches while watching for otters and whales on a guided tour with Kayaking Kodiak. kayakingkodiak.com

Take home a freezer full of sport-caught salmon and halibut by booking a day-long fishing trip with Kodiak Island Charters. kodiakislandcharters.com

Hikers should head to Pyramid Mountain—this 760-metre-tall peak offers a scenic trail and a challenging scramble. Guiding available at Adventure Guides Kodiak. adventureguideskodiak.com

Tour past barking sea lions on a scenic dinner cruise with Galley Gourmet.

Book a room at the Best Western Kodiak Inn (kodiakinn.com), walking distance to Kodiak Island Brewing Company (kodiakbrewery.com), Harborside Coffee & Goods (210 Shelikof Street) and Henry’s Great Alaskan Restaurant

Alaska Airlines flies to Kodiak via Anchorage from Vancouver. alaskaair.com

For more information about Kodiak Island, visit kodiak.org.