(This piece originally appeared on www.maitravelsite.com. The League’s own Rainforest Campaign Manager, Dan Kirkwood, guided Federico Sandoval as he headed into the Tongass National Forest for a bear watching adventure.)
On a Floatplane in Alaska: Bear Watching in Juneau
Alaska. So many things come to my mind when I think about this remote part of the world, an untamed environment that has for centuries appealed the likings of explorers from around the world as well as ordinary travelers, and while I’m not sure which of the two categories I fit in I do know that I was in for a trip of a lifetime when I finally made it here.
It all started in Juneau, the state’s capital. A small city which can only be reached by air and sea, it’s a major hub for ferries that cruise the state and British Columbia. While most visitors only stop here for a day (one in every ten visitors comes aboard a cruise ship and just spends a few hours in Juneau’s downtown) the city offers almost all the natural attractions people come to see throughout Alaska, including bear watching, glacier treks, whale watching, fly fishing and more. And just 24 hours after arriving here we boarded a floatplane with Alaska Seaplanes what would take us to Pack Creek bear reserve in Admiralty Island (part of the Tongass National Forest) where wild bears live and feed from wild salmon before the winter sets in.
We met our guide Dan Kirkwood at Juneau’s small airport, who gave us a quick introduction to what we were going to see at the counter while our gear was being weighed- an important step towards flight safety. Soon after we walked to the briefing room where we were explained where we’d be flying, some information about how bears live, bear safety and the geography around Juneau. Gear for the trip was provided to us including binoculars and rubber boots, and when our pilot showed up we were then taken to the small DeHavilland floatplane that would take us to the bears.
Bear Watching on Admiralty Island
Not new to flying in floatplanes (flying a seaplane in Finland’s Lapland a number of years ago had been a highlight of that trip too) I was looking forward to this experience once again. Noise cancellation headphones were given to us and soon after we were taken off, picking up speed and gently rising to the air. There was no wind and the views were magnificent, as these planes fly at low altitudes allowing great sightseeing along the way. The flight lasts about 20 minutes and ever so smoothly we landed in Pack Creek where we stepped out of the plane and were greeted by a ranger who would guide us all to the viewing spot, just under 1 km away- not before having a snack. Walking in a group we made our way and just as we were arriving to the viewing point we spotted the first bear, though quite far from where we were going.
Still, we didn’t have to wait for long. After about 20 minutes the first black bear came out of the bushes and walked into the creek that was about 60m ahead of us. It was easy to tell that he knew we were there, but didn’t mind us. During the next thirty minutes or so we watched him chase fish, eat, rest and return to the forest.
We were all excited. There’s something magical about being out in the woods, relatively far from where the closest humans live, watching these magnificent mammals feed and get along with their lives. We were there as spectators, without interfering, and despite being there for almost three hours in relative silence time did fly away. At one point one bear did seem to want to get close to us, but eventually he went some other way allowing us to take some great pictures. While waiting we learned some interesting facts too.
Did you know that:
- Bears don’t really sleep throughout the whole winter. Most of them will wake up several times to walk out to stretch their legs and see if they can find something to eat.
- Unlike many mammals bears can see in color.
- Grizzly bears have a biting force of over 8,000,000Pa, enough to crush a bowling ball.
- Admiralty Island is home to the largest population density in North America with about one bear per square mile.
Back to Juneau
All good things come to an end, and eventually we had to make our way back to Juneau. We walked back to the same spot where we landed and soon after the float plane landed, picked us up and flew us back home. However this would turn out to be an extraordinary flight. Soon after taking off the new pilot spotted a female bear with two cubs, circling around them, and as we continued the trip back to the city the sky became purple with a few scattered clouds. Lush forests covered the islands and land beneath us while the smooth surface of the ocean reflected everything above it. It was a beautiful and serene experience, one of my best flights ever, hands down. Twenty minutes later we were back in Juneau’s floatplane airport, landing again ever so smoothly…and ready for some food.
This is one-of-a-kind day tour, and of the hundreds I’ve done around the world it easily ranks among my ten favorite. Why? There’s not just one thing, but the whole experience. Dan and the rest of the team we met from Alaska Seaplanes is professional, very friendly, and definitely very knowledgeable. The whole experience is very well planned and includes all the gear you might need including a sacked lunch. Of course flying in a floatplane is always exciting, not matter how many times you’ve done it. Flying to Admiralty Island allows breathtaking views, and sitting out and waiting to observe bears in the wild is a magical sight. However not everything is as nice and dandy as it seems at first sight: a few days after the tour I got this email from Dan that in a way has troubled me.
The Tongass is obviously a world-class adventure travel destination. Bears, whales, glaciers, all easily accessible and well connected for folks flying or cruising. We have an opportunity to conserve what makes this place so great to visit: wild salmon that feed bears and a healthy forest. We also have a growing tourism industry that drives the region’s economy. Sadly the U.S. Forest Service isn’t investing is tourism opportunities on the National Forest. The work you’re doing, telling people about all the awesome things to do up here is so helpful. Spread the word about this good place. It is big and wild and full of surprises.
Why doesn’t the National Forest Service want to help promote eco-friendly tourism like this that will undoubtedly help sustain the bears? It goes beyond me.
So is the tour worth it? Most definitely if you can afford it. While it doesn’t come in cheap it will certainly be a highlight of your trip to Alaska, creating memories of a lifetime. Bring a good camera!
Alaska Seaplanes website: http://www.flyalaskaseaplanes.com/
Pack Creek Bear Tours website: http://www.packcreekbeartours.com/