THE BBC & ANIMAL PLANET VISIT KATMAI NATIONAL PARK

Welcome to Hallo Bay. Situated on the Southeastern edge of Katmai National Park in Alaska, Hallo Bay offers an experience unlike any other. Where else in the world can ordinary people get within fifteen feet of grizzly bears and observe their behavior in a natural environment while enjoying complete safety? Because of their respect and admiration for the grizzly bears of Katmai National Park, the owners and guides of Hallo Bay have been able to create such a place for you to enjoy. Now, with the assistance of modern technology, you can be taken directly into this amazing world.

During the months of June and August 2005, a crew of filmmakers from the BBC’s Natural History Unit were dispatched to Katmai National Park to document a season with the Alaskan coastal brown bear, better known as the grizzly. Part of a joint production with the Animal Planet channel, the crew followed the bears through a full cycle of summer activity stretching from their emergence in the spring to the winter hibernation. With the footage obtained, both the BBC and Animal Planet have plenty of material to offer their viewers, but gathering their material was no simple task.

The adventure starts in Homer, Alaska with a one-hour flight on a traditional Alaskan bush plane. With majestic mountains and centuries old glaciers in plain view, the flight is a sightseeing trip in itself, but when you approach the beach which will serve as your landing strip, you catch your first glimpse of the true stars of Hallo Bay; the bears. Whether they are in the creek fishing for salmon, in the meadow eating berries, or on the beach digging for clams, you can’t help but stare in awe at the raw beauty of these amazing creatures.

After landing, a short walk up a hill takes you to the Hallo Bay campground where you can drop off your luggage and meet with Hallo Bay’s guides to go over a few rules. A quick glance at the facilities reveals that the accommodations and amenities are vastly superior to most campgrounds. The living quarters for the guests are spacious and comfortable. Cots with air mattresses are topped by down sleeping bags in every oversized tent, which also include amenities such as a sink and a heating source for the colder Alaskan nights. If that weren’t enough to make you feel comfortable, toilets and warm showers are also available at the camp. Fresh, delicious food is prepared daily and served in a modern galley, which serves as a cafeteria as well as a bustling social club where strangers become friends as they discuss the playful antics of the bears. If you expect to be “roughing it” at this wilderness camp, you are going to be disappointed.

Once settled into our quarters, our guide led us on an easy fifteen minute hike to Clint’s Creek where we sat enraptured by the sight of three eight hundred pound grizzly bears swinging their massive paws into the water trying to catch the passing salmon. When you see them work the waters of the creek, you can easily see why these bears are often stereotyped as vicious man-eaters given their sheer size and five-inch claws. However, their behavior told a different story. Skinny Legs, a five-year old sub-adult male named for the way his back legs awkwardly kick out to the side when he runs, attempted to assert dominance by walking directly towards Audrey, an older female who had just captured her first salmon of the day. Audrey, after having suffered through a number of similar awkward attempts in her lifetime, immediately sensed that Skinny Legs was a lesser adversary. With a loud growl and a quick turn into Skinny Legs’ chest, Audrey quickly proved the more dominant bear. The attack was not as ferocious as you would expect and once Audrey was satisfied that Skinny Legs had learned his lesson, she ended her assault.

In order to create the footage needed for the television show, the BBC and Animal Planet chartered two bush planes to ferry the crew of four as well as two hundred fifty thousand dollars worth of equipment into Katmai National Park. Once in the park, the crew hand-carried the sound and video equipment to the various filming locations throughout the park. Gavin Thurston, the crew cameraman, loaded a seventy-pound rucksack on his back every single day for hikes ranging from three to five miles. Other members of the crew slung tripods over their shoulder and hung sound equipment to a belt around their neck. Their feet sank in the sandy beaches of Katmai’s coast with each laborious step, but not a single member complained of the burden.

The behavior exhibited by the bears was an unexpected bonus for the crew. Each member had their own preconceived notions of grizzly bears and their experience at Hallo Bay altered those beliefs. With each day of filming, the crew learned something new about their subjects and these lessons are passed on to the viewers.

When filming began in June, the crew quickly focused on Blondie, an adult female aptly named for the golden-haired tone of her coat, and her two cubs. The crew captured the struggles of a mother bear raising cubs in a harsh environment full of predators and other natural dangers. According to my wilderness guide, the rate of survival for new bear cubs is approximately fifty-five to sixty percent. With the cameras following Blondie and her two cubs, viewers will see the daily hardships they face and how they survive. Viewers will also get to see one of the more light-hearted moments captured during filming.

Blondie, the ever-protective mother, took her cubs to the relative safety of the tidal flats of Swikshak Bay where they could dig up clams free of threats from other predator bears. Little did Blondie know that she was about to discover a richer food source than the salmon streams they had left behind. Blondie was the first to spot the fortuitous treasure. Her head craned and her nose sniffed the prevailing winds verifying what lay in front of her. Armed with a ravenous hunger and a natural need to consume enough food to maintain weight over a long winter, Blondie and the two cubs bounded over to a seal carcass, which was delivered to the flats by the receding tides. Within seconds, Blondie and her cubs were gorging uninterrupted on the fatty meat of the seal. With no other bears around, the find was theirs and theirs alone. It wasn’t long before the cub’s appetites were satisfied and playing became more important than eating. When Blondie was sated, experience and natural instinct told her that a find such as this needed to be protected so that the family could return for another feast. Using her large paws as a shovel, Blondie dug into the moist mud of the tidal flats and threw piles of dirt over the dead seal. The carcass was almost buried when one of the cubs spotted his mother’s movements. The cub recognized what was going on instantly. Mom was playing a game. The little cub pranced over to the carcass and proceeded to use his paws to remove the dirt that Blondie was piling on top of the seal. It was quite the fun game, but as most children do, it wasn’t long before the cub became bored and moved on to other more challenging endeavors, which allowed Blondie to complete the task at hand. These are the stories that visitors to Hallo Bay cherish for a lifetime.

Since it’s inception ten years ago, the bears at Hallo Bay have become accustomed to a human presence. Having learned that the groups of people milling around them are no threat to their food source or any mother with cubs, the guides are allowed to take their visitors as close as safely possible to the bears. Protection of their guests and protection of their beloved bears is of paramount importance at Hallo Bay. The guides are educated and recognize the subtle signs of grizzly bear behavior. The guides do not carry firearms, but rather, they carry flares inasmuch as a bear is naturally afraid of fire and will react to the open flame. With thousands of trips taken during the ten years Hallo Bay has been in existence, the guides have used flares on only four occasions and no one has ever been injured. It is hard to argue with that kind of success.

Part of Hallo Bay’s success has to do with the environment they so carefully maintain. With certain practices and advice from the guides, Hallo Bay offers bear viewing and photographic opportunities that are unparalleled in the world today. Thurston, a twenty-one year veteran of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Natural History Unit, was duly impressed with Hallo Bay. Without hesitation, he ranked Hallo Bay as one of the top three natural destinations he has ever visited. “This is a special, special place. There are very few places left in the world where you can observe grizzly bears in their natural habitat.

Clint Hlebechuk knows that Hallo Bay is a rare combination of access and magic. “Places to observe true bear behavior in a natural environment is rare. We want people to realize that these bears are strong, independent animals that are to be respected and admired. We want people to be educated in the fact that the bears and the environment that they live in has to be conserved or we will lose the bears forever.” After seeing the playful exchanges between the bears, you will wonder why we don’t protect more habitats like Katmai National Park.

Hallo Bay offers an assortment of trips that range from one day to seven-day excursions. The guides of Hallo Bay work with the guests and while there is some physical exertion needed to reach the prime viewing areas, the hikes are flat and relatively short. Once the visitors reach the viewing areas, all members of the group sit down so as not to disturb the bears. With only a satellite telephone and a radio connecting the camp to the outside world, Hallo Bay is a perfect destination for those who wish to totally immerse themselves in nature.

Costs at the camp vary depending on the amount of time the guests wish to stay with prices ranging from $425 for a single day trip to over $3,375 for a seven-day trip. The experience offered, however, is once-in-a-lifetime material. Trips to zoos and other wildlife parks are certainly satisfying experiences we all enjoy, but seeing the bears of Katmai National Park up close and personal is like peeking into a secret world. “It is truly a magical, moving experience to be on the ground with such magnificent animals….immersed in their world, as neither friend nor foe,” Romin said.

Days passed much too quickly for many of the guests and some guests couldn’t believe that their time at the camp was over. Each and every one of us longed for more of the special magic that Hallo Bay offered, but another world and another life beckoned. As we share our pictures and our stories with our friends and family, we fondly recall the antics of Blondie, Skinny Legs and the others. If there was one thing we learned during our adventure, it was that being a bear could be a whole lot of fun.

Michael Bret Hood

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