Up Close and Personal with Alaskan Grizzly Bears
These huge, beautiful, often misunderstood and underestimated animals roam the great white northern regions; and if the grizzly bear is your creature of choice, then timing and positioning are key to bear watching from a safe yet intimate distance.
In the fishing season of southern Alaska, in the town of Seward, grizzly bears come down from the alpine tree line to feed on the abundant sockeye river salmon.
Towards the end of the season, the fish are tired and an easy catch—which is perfect for the less-than-perfect fishing skills of the grizzly. Their technique centres on swinging a dinner plate-size paw wildly at the water in the hope they connect with lunch. A dozen swipes later and the silver pink iridescence of a salmon pirouettes in the air above the water and lands on the bank. Lunch is served immediately, and you can hear the bones crunching in the bear’s teeth, and see the steam rising from its mouth as it chews and swallows.
So where can you see this? There is an allocated bear viewing platform alongside the aptly-named Bear Creek that runs through Seward. The platform is a high wooden structure open to the public, and is situated opposite the tree line of the Chugach National Forrest. The best viewing times vary greatly from week to week, sometimes even day to day, and the grizzlies don’t exactly have booking agents—so no shows are entirely possible. Bears are governed by their bellies, and so they’ll come down through the trees when they’re hungry. You’ll know when a bear is approaching the river as the trees start to swing from the top of the hill. This is your cue to get the camera ready.
A few things to remember: If the bear stands up, this normally means they are curious, and it’s not an aggressive stance. Never attempt to feed the bears as this is both dangerous and illegal. Stay on the viewing platform and do not approach the bear. As is the case with most wildlife, bears will leave you in peace if you do likewise to the bears. Goad them at your peril.
To be in the presence of a wild grizzly bear feeding, and be so close that you can see and hear every detail, yet you are a safe distance away; this is a rare moment through the looking glass. And what is better than watching an Alaskan grizzly bear from across a narrow river? Watching two or even three of them together, to be precise; such is the treat you may be given for turning up at the right time. Check at the visitor centre or with the local residents for the best times to see them.
Wherever you decide to stay, after bear watching you’ll likely come back to your accommodation to find one of their former relatives, stuffed and lurking in the corner of the bar or restaurant. If you ask, there’s normally a story to go with the shooting of this bear; and Alaskans love to tell bear stories.
Alaska is home to 98 percent of U.S brown bears, of which grizzly bears are the largest at 7-10 feet tall and weighing approx. 1,500-2,000 Ib. They are believed to have crossed into Alaska from Russia about 100,000 years ago, and are also known as the silvertip bear.
Southern Alaska in the late summer and fall is a land of sun showers, husky dogs and Everclear… err, say what? Everclear: recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the most alcoholic drink, illegal in most regions of North America, and presumably most of the world too. Most of the bars in Alaska sell it, so you may presume it’s legal there; or maybe not, but it’s available and sensibly controlled by most liquor houses to one shot per day—which is more than enough. If drinking and driving is out, then Everclear and bear watching is out too for all the same reasons. Better to save this Alaskan rite of passage for the evening.
When to Go to Alaska Grizzly
If travelling by car from Anchorage, the Seward Highway All America Road will lead you directly into Seward. Coming from Canada, Seward is a 17-hour drive along the Alaskan Highway from Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, across the international border to Tok, and then down through Anchorage. The road trip from Anchorage to Seward will keep you wide eyed and present, and there’s a visitor centre about ten miles outside of Seward that can offer vital advice about bear watching from designated viewing platforms in and around Seward.
Seward Airport is a few miles north of town, and is serviced by local flights. Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is 76 miles north.
Some say that train travel is the best way to see Alaska, passing around mountains and by picturesque glaciers, rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Alaska Central Railway built the first railroad in Alaska in 1903, and it started in Seward: “the gateway to Alaska”. The new Grandview station is located at cruise pier, and the old depot was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
Grizzly bears don’t do the winter in Alaska, and so to follow suit, neither do the tourists either. Alaska in the winter is what you imagine Alaska in the winter to be. The best time to view the bears is during the salmon run from late August to the end of October. The salmon run brings in eagles and ravens, and is also the best time to see bear cubs. Bears move into hibernation towards the end of October for the next three months.
You can take your pick of accommodation options in Seward, from rustic character-drenched cabins, to motels and hotels, guesthouses, RV parks and camp sites. Most visitors to Seward spend anywhere from a few days to a few weeks exploring the town and the surrounding features of the area, including participating in the many tours and activities on offer. Whole days can be spent just chatting with locals and learning about the seasonal operation of the town, so allow enough time in your timetable to wander around off the grid.
Odds n' Ends
If you’re a dog lover, then Seward fulfills on this front too, and it seems to be a place equally populated by canines and people. The Siberian Husky with its bi-eyes (different coloured eyes: one green and one blue, for example) is a staple of Seward with their beautiful thick coat and friendly temperament. They roam freely around the town and lounge under a tree to shelter from the sun showers. Feel free to say hello.
Kenai Fjords National Park has glaciers within walking distance of Seward town centre, and Exit Glacier is one of prizes of the Park.
Because of the frequent, almost constant sun showers in southern Alaska, the ground is always wet. It’s a fine rain in the sense that it’s thin and gets through your clothes—not fine as in wine. Wear good quality clothing to keep the rain out, and wear shoes with a sole that grips on damp ground.
The local first nations community in Seward is a tree of knowledge on all things grizzly bear. They are happy to tell you where and when to find the bears in the safest allocated areas. You may even get given a free fish for your dinner.
The mountain vistas and coastal locale of Seward make it a spot that is rich in natural wonder and flowing with life. It awaits you.
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