Adventure in Southeast Alaska

Ten days in Southeast Alaska make the biggest summer vacation of your life

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  • Canada lynx

    Don't try this at home ― Alaska wildlife expert Steve Kroschel holds a Canada lynx.

World of bears

The floatplane lifts off from the Gastineau Channel and flies south over Juneau. I look through its window, down at the world I'm convinced I won't see again. Good-bye, little cars. Good-bye, little houses. Good-bye, little Fred Meyer discount center.

It's near the end of my trip and I am doing something I have always wanted to do but am now very worried about: seeing, close-up, in the wild, Ursus arctos, the Alaska coastal brown bear ― the same species as the inland brown bear, more commonly called the grizzly. I'm taking a 30-minute flight from Juneau to Admiralty Island, which is famous for having brown bears the way Manhattan Island has people.

Admiralty's bear-watching visitors are steered toward the Pack Creek viewing station, on the north end of the island. "We have a lot of rules," says the ranger standing on the beach where the floatplane drops me off. "They're all designed to prevent stressing out the bears."

What, I think, about stressing out the visitors?

Among the rules: Put all food in a bear-resistant box. Do not wander from bear-viewing areas. If you encounter a bear on the way to the bear-viewing area, let the bear pass. Finally, the ranger tells me, if a bear charges you, do not futilely attempt to outrun it. Instead, stand your ground, stand tall, wave your arms, and shout, "Whoa, Bear!"

At this point, as I stand holding my arm out in a manner reminiscent of Diana Ross and the Supremes singing "Stop! In the Name of Love," I realize there is not a chance I will say "Whoa, Bear!" to a charging brown bear. I will attempt to run away and will be eaten.

But a few minutes later, as I watch from the viewing platform, a sow and two cubs lumber along the creek 30 yards away. They are, I think, the most astonishing things I've ever seen: the red-brown fur, the shambling walk, the sudden and surprising bursts of speed. The mother scans the creek for salmon, occasionally scooping one up, biting its belly, letting the carcass drop back to the creek. The cubs hunt, too, but get distracted, sitting down in the creek to splash water at each other.

Then, menace. A second, larger sow and her older son arrive. "He's trouble," the ranger says, "and his mom always backs him up." The first sow and cubs scatter downstream.

By now what had been drizzle has turned to hard rain. My glasses fog, the seams on my allegedly waterproof jacket let rivulets of cold water course down my back. I should be miserable but am entranced. The ranger leaves; I keep watching. The rain gives the scene a silent intimacy. All I hear is the sound of water falling and the occasional cry of a raven.

On that afternoon, all of Alaska seems like a bear: shrouded in mist and mystery, beautiful, forbidding, fiercely alive. You feel lifted out of yourself viewing it. You realize that what scared you the most was what you most needed to see. You realize, too, that what the trip has taught you is that the world is greater than you ever imagined. It has bears and glaciers, whales and wolves, and a prevailing sense of wonder. It would take a checklist as big as the universe to write it all down.

More: Alaska travel guide

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