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Best place to see bears in Alaska - Lake Clark National Park

Posted in: Alaska

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Best place to see bears in Alaska – Lake Clark National Park

Lake Clark became a national park and preserve in 1980 and is one of the best places in Alaska to observe brown bears in their natural habitat. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is located on the Alaska Peninsula southwest of Anchorage and west of Homer. People visit the park as day trips from Homer and Soldotna, or as longer stays at the best Alaska wilderness lodges such as Alaska Homestead Lodge or. Salmon Creek Lodge

Brown Bear or Grizzly Bear?

Brown and grizzly are common names for the same species; the difference between the two is the areas they live in, which influences diet, size, and bear behaviour. Bears that live in coastal areas are called brown bears, while typically inland bears that have limited access to marine-derived food, such as salmon and clams, are called grizzlies. Both types of bears have the distinctive large shoulder hump, long curved claws, and the ‘dish-faced’ wide head. In Lake Clark national park, both coastal and inland bears are of the subspecies Ursus arctos horribilis.

Where do brown bears live in Lake Clark national park?

Brown bears love food, so it is only natural that by observing the rich food resources and where they are located in Lake Clark, we can come in contact with brown bears and have the chance to observe their daily feeding patterns. One of the first food resources the brown bears will gorge on when they first come out of hibernation is berries found in the forests which fringe the coastal plains of Cook Inlet. It is not easy to see bears at this time due to the dense cover, but we will see evidence of them being around; including bear scat, favourite ‘rubbing trees’ and bear beds. The bears will move into the estuaries by May to eat sedge grasses and clams; before finally heading towards the rivers during the salmon runs which last from July to September.

Brown Bear diet in Lake Clark national park

One of the key resources for bears in the simple sedge grass; which grows in abundance in the plentiful salt marshes found inside the park. They really do resemble cows with their eating habits at this time of year, as they spend hours pulling and chewing this nutritious succulent in order to start to regain the weight they lost during winter.

Just a few metres further towards the sea, we have huge tidal mud flats which contain millions of clams – ripe for the picking by the expert claws of mother bear, but not so easily obtained by a young brown bear cub still learning the clamming technique. Clams are incredibly nutritious for the bears, so although it might look too small a morsel for a 800 lb brown bear to bother with, the rewards in terms of weight gain are substantial.

Brown bears fishing for salmon is the ‘must see’ wildlife encounter in Alaska, and it is fascinating for many different reasons. Brown bears (unless siblings) are relatively anti-social and will avoid other bears when feeding or bringing up their young, but such is the huge food resource that millions of salmon returning to spawn represents, brown bears start to tolerate – there are limits – the presence of other bears as they descend on the rivers and estuaries where the salmon first arrive. You will still find these water bodies dominated by large male brown bears and sub adults, as it is still risky for a mother and her cubs to approach male bears.  

Best place to see brown bear mother and cubs?

As we mentioned earlier, brown bear mother and cubs prefer to stay away from other bears and if you plan a bear viewing tour in Alaska to focus on females and their cubs, it is not a bad idea to come before the main salmon runs. We therefore arrived at Alaska Homestead Lodge in Lake Clark national park in mid-July and enjoyed some amazing encounters with brown bear families. At one point, we witnessed 3 separate female bears, each with two spring cubs in tow clamming on the beach during low tide.

It was interesting talking to the bear guides at Alaska Homestead Lodge about the behaviour of female bears and their cubs when they are first seen after emerging from hibernation. Although some of the female bears are habituated to seeing photographers and fisherman in their territory, they are always cautious when they first bring their 3 to 4 month old new cubs into that area. It is also not just the female brown bear who is cautious and protective towards her bubs; it is the cubs themselves who will decide how much time they want to spend in more open area. Brown and grizzly bear cubs behave just like black bear cubs when threatened, they climb the nearest tree and stay there. They will also adopt this behaviour when their mother wandered further away to feed. As they gain confidence – often one cub is bolder than the other – they start to follow their mother more and more on her daily foraging trips.

We were very lucky and arrived at pretty much the perfect time to observe the playful interaction and foraging behaviour of the female bears with their cubs. The cubs were perfectly relaxed with the small groups of photographers who observed the bears on foot and the cubs treated us to mock playful charges, energetic river crossings, mixed success with their clamming technique and often standing on their two legs to see what was happening with either mum or the human observers. During this same period, we saw a couple of sub-adult brown bears, including two young brothers, but most of the action was focused on the mother and cubs.

If you are interested in planning a Alaska wildlife holiday which visits Lake Clark national park for some superb bear viewing, then please contact us at [email protected] and we will design a custom bear safari just for you.

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