A photographer’s dream: A family of bears enjoying the sun at the beach
© Jens Görlich

Backcountry bear spotting

  • TEXT TIM CAPPELMANN
  • PHOTOS JENS GÖRLICH

Deep fjords, mighty glaciers, wild animals: Alaska represents the last frontier between humans and nature

Pilot Nic Cunningham has plugged his iPhone into the cockpit console: A Coldplay cover band blares through the headphones. Cunningham banks, scanning the ground for driftwood, and then lands the propeller plane on a beach on the Pacific coast of Alaska. On our right is the dark-blue sea; on our left, a landscape reminiscent of an old-fashioned movie set in the Swiss Alps. Our young guide Chris White is waiting for us on a quad bike with a trailor attached. We climb in. Chris spits out some chewing tobacco, and the quad jolts forward. Exhaust fumes fly in our faces. Chris is in a hurry, and soon we realize why: brown bears – three of them! Unfazed by the continuously clicking cameras of a dozen amateur photographers in rubber boots, the mother and her two cubs wander past us a short distance away. She could easily eat us if she wanted to, but prefers to graze intermittently. The whole scene is both idyllic and surreal. Waves roar, Mount Iliamna, surprisingly free of clouds, shows off its glaciers, and a bald eagle is sitting in a tree. The wilderness guides carry pepper spray on their belts to ward off the bears and keep in touch by walkie-talkie. “Is it okay if the three of us join you?” Chris asks softly. “Sure,” comes the crackling response.

Flashback to 24 hours earlier. Millennium Hotel near Lake Hood, Anchorage, is Alaska’s hub for trips into the wilderness. In its dimly lit lobby, a stuffed Kodiak bear towers almost to the ceiling, its mouth wide open. The sign beside it explains that humans are prey for Kodiaks. The hotel bar boasts great views across the lake. Every day a dozen seaplanes roar above the hotel’s breakfast terrace – bush pilots in bear country with hunters, photographers, hikers, anglers, biologists and dropouts from society on board. The road network only covers a fraction of this huge state, and even the capital, Juneau, is only accessible by ferry or airplane.

Our first stop is Lake Creek Lodge, flying time 35 minutes – if I can find it!

Pilot Dave Oberg, Regal Air

At the bar, the woman next to us introduces herself as Lori. “You’re from Germany? I don’t understand why people keep coming to Alaska. There’s nothing here.” – “Okay, so why are you here?” – “Oh, Alaska is the most beautiful place in the world. I would never want to live anywhere else!” says Lori, looking somewhat confused. There is an awkward silence. Then she pulls out her smartphone and shows us a story in the local paper from the day before about a pack of black bears that invaded a children’s summer camp on a university campus in town and devoured their packed lunches. “You don’t have to fly far to see bears. Just go down to the university,” says Lori. We opt for the wilderness.

The next morning we watch Regal Air pilot Dave Oberg prepare for our flight. The shoreline of Lake Hood is lined with colorful little huts – airline offices with small seaplanes anchored out front. The “flightseeing” business is booming. Alaska engenders a deep longing in many people for adventures in an unspoiled environment, for rare encounters with animals, and for solitude.

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In our video reporter Tim Cappelmann talks about his bear spotting journey to Alaska

 Dave Oberg, 63, has clocked up over 21 000 hours in the cockpit. He started off with small propeller planes, piloting his first flight at the age of 15, then flew helicopters in the military and later worked as a commercial jet pilot for a regional carrier. In the ’90s, Dave ran his own private airline until he crashed into the side of a mountain. He survived, severely injured, and gave in to his wife’s pleas to close down the business – only to be hired by Regal Air shortly after. That was 13 years ago.

“Our first stop is Lake Creek Lodge, flying time 35 minutes, if I can find it!” he shouts, by way of a welcome. There is a stockpile of weapons on the jetty next to ours: guns and crates of ammunition, knives the size of machetes, two crossbows and a quiver containing steel arrows. Clearly, bears are prey for humans, too. A father and son are preparing to leave on a long weekend. That’s life here in Alaska, which has produced governors like the tea party activist Sarah Palin and which keeps the “frontier spirit” alive, thanks in part to the most liberal gun laws in the U.S. The “stand your ground” principle is applied to both bears and burglars: You are allowed to shoot both.

Two teenagers weigh our baggage and store it in the tail of the plane. If you want to become a pilot here, you start out as a dock boy: mooring, anchoring, cleaning and refueling the planes, helping to cast off, and loading cargo. There is not one among them who has not fallen into the cold waters performing these tasks. “Dylan the diver” holds the six-time record. But today he manages to stay dry. The propeller starts and the plane glides forward. As the engine picks up speed, a powerful jet of water splashes up from the floats. We follow right behind.

Every bear has a personality of its own

Guide Chris White, Homestead Lodge

Lake Creek Lodge uses the advertising slogan “where the fish can weigh even more than the angler.” Looking at most of the passengers, this is difficult to imagine. Richard, a portly guy from Washington wearing aviator sunglasses, comes here every year to fish in the Yentna river. Five nights at the lodge with its five different types of salmon will set you back roughly 1750 dollars, all-inclusive. “If you’re serious about fishing, you eventually end up in Alaska,” he yells through the din of the engine.

Oberg navigates by sight. Landing on the river, he has to take into account currents, waves and driftwood. The floats touch down gently. We glide toward the jetty and a warm welcome: shouts, handshakes, backslapping. Richard disembarks, and boxes of supplies and a large propane gas bottle are unloaded. These small planes are the only link to the outside world for the lodge operators. Ten minutes later we are back in the air, on our way to pick up Steve Emerick from his “burrow,” the shack made of wood and corrugated iron he has built into a hillside.

“In the winter, I always think there’s a bear crawling out of its cave before I realize that it’s Steve,” says Oberg. Despite having spent eight months without a shower or a sewage system, the recluse smells all right. Only his disheveled beard and weather-beaten face betray his life in the wilderness.

Steve is one of Alaska’s “homesteaders”: people who have waved goodbye to civilization in order to live in the wild as self-sufficiently as possible. Yet he still needs to buy coffee and tobacco, and so wants to go to Anchorage for a few days to replenish his supplies. “I’m really not alone,” he explains. “Every year, 51 new species of animal are discovered in Alaska. Listening to the birds, exploring the land, working on my hut – all this is very fulfilling.” He reads a lot, hunts and fishes, and is working on a book about birdsong. Only occasionally is his tranquility disrupted – most recently by a National Geographic film crew, who shot an episode of “Ultimate Survival Alaska” at his home. “I am never bored,” says Steve, looking rather contented.

A glance at the map on the wall of airline Regal Air’s office shows how to get to this remote bear haunt © Jens Görlich

A glance at the map on the wall of airline Regal Air’s office shows how to get to this remote bear haunt

© Jens Görlich
Paw prints on the shore of Silver Salmon Creek © Jens Görlich

Paw prints on the shore of Silver Salmon Creek

© Jens Görlich
Lodge owner James Isaak takes off from a runway right outside his door © Jens Görlich

Lodge owner James Isaak takes off from a runway right outside his door

© Jens Görlich
Pilot Dave Oberg has to keep an eye on the current and watch out for driftwood when landing on the river © Jens Görlich

Pilot Dave Oberg has to keep an eye on the current and watch out for driftwood when landing on the river

© Jens Görlich
An estimated 140 000 black bears, brown bears and even polar bears live in Alaska © Jens Görlich

An estimated 140 000 black bears, brown bears and even polar bears live in Alaska

© Jens Görlich
“Every bear has a personality of its own” - Guide Chris White, Homestead Lodge © Jens Görlich

“Every bear has a personality of its own” - Guide Chris White, Homestead Lodge

© Jens Görlich
Self-sufficient: Homestead Lodge on the Pacific coast of Alaska © Jens Görlich

Self-sufficient: Homestead Lodge on the Pacific coast of Alaska

© Jens Görlich
Busy hub: Lake Hood is the world’s largest seaplane harbor © Jens Görlich

Busy hub: Lake Hood is the world’s largest seaplane harbor

© Jens Görlich
Steve Emerick has been living in the wildnerness for months © Jens Görlich

Steve Emerick has been living in the wildnerness for months

© Jens Görlich
Amateur photographers flock to the Homestead Lodge in hopes of a dream bear shot © Jens Görlich

Amateur photographers flock to the Homestead Lodge in hopes of a dream bear shot

© Jens Görlich
Where’s the bear? Chris White (left) takes our reporter there © Jens Görlich

Where’s the bear? Chris White (left) takes our reporter there

© Jens Görlich

 Back at Lake Clark National Park, 130 air miles southwest of Anchorage. An estimated 140 000 black bears, grizzlies, Kodiaks and even polar bears live in Alaska. We stand stockstill, watching our family of brown bears. The cubs play, the mother grazes. There are a few important rules when dealing with bears, Chris has explained.

The first is not to approach them in too large a group: no more than 12 people per bear. And only carrying a large-caliber gun if you can handle it safely. If a bear gets too close, do not scream or run away, as this can trigger its hunting instinct. Instead, lift your arms and yell: “Whoa, bear!” Running away is no use anyway, because bears can run as fast as racehorses (35 mph) as well as climb trees. If nothing else works, play dead. And if the bear tries to eat you in spite of all this, fight back! Punch the bear, kick it and try to poke its eyes with your fingers, or hit it with whatever objects are at hand.

That afternoon we see 13 brown bears, but they ignore us, apart from Blondie, who trots behind us for a while. Chris says, his hand on his pepper spray, that this merely indicates that Blondie has a behavioral problem. The photographers are thrilled, especially about the cubs, and can’t stop taking pictures. Chris tells the story of a woman who burst into tears when she realized that after taking 1 200 photographs, she had forgotten to insert a memory card. And a man once asked him how they got the bears back into their enclosures. “He was totally serious,” Chris says.

I’m really not alone! Listening to the birds, exploring – it’s all very fulfilling

Steve Emerick, Homesteader

Amateur photographers from around the world travel to Alaska hoping to capture the perfect picture of a bear. Those in our group, hailing from Switzerland, France and Russia but mostly from Japan and the U.S., are happily clicking away. The professional photographer among them is the one with the smallest lens. But visiting bears isn’t cheap. A day trip to Homestead Lodge including lunch and a guide costs 585 dollars, but not the round-trip charter flight from Anchorage, which costs an extra 2300 dollars. If you want to stay longer, you pay 1035 dollars a night for a single room.

We are the only guests staying overnight. Sitting at the table with Chris, our guide, and the lodge owners, James and Sheila Isaak, James says grace, thanking God for the peace, tranquility and freedom. Then we dig into the broiled salmon, which looks redder and is tastier than any salmon we have ever eaten. James tells us that his father, one of Alaska’s first flying doctors, taught him how to fly a plane when he was just a teenager. He still flies the old prop plane. “It’s my pickup truck,” he says affectionately. A trip to the supermarket means a plane ride – and taking off from the narrow dirt road in front of the house. “Hardly any of the private pilots here have an official pilot’s license,” says James. And what does the FAA make of this? “What you don’t have can’t be taken away from you.”

Later that evening a bear cub steals one of Chris’s rubber boots from the porch.


Alaska tips

Alaska Homestead Lodge

The Lodge staff not only bring their visitors to the bears, they also grill freshly caught salmon for them – deep pink and delicious!

alaskahomesteadlodge.com

Jeff Woodward Sportfishing

How about a day of salmon fishing? Angling tour operator Jeff Woodward cooperates with several lodges and organizes individual expeditions.

jeffwoodwardsportfishing.com

Hotel Millenium

This rustic hotel has a bear in the lobby, a well-stocked bar and a large terrace, where visitors soon find themselves chatting with locals.

millenniumhotels.com

Regal Air, Lake Hood

Regal Air employs top pilots, complies with maximum safety standards and has been in the flightseeing business for more than two decades.

regal-air.com

These Alaska tips are on Foursquare, too

foursquare.com/lufthansa


Tim Cappelmann planned to start his career in journalism at Cóndor, a German-language weekly based in Santiago, Chile. Instead, he spent a year traveling from Santiago to Brownsville Texas, using only public transportation and a sailboat the whole time. After that, he developed an appreciation for airplanes, and now writes and reports for Lufthansa Magazin. His favorite subjects: pilots and astronauts, adventure travel and extreme sports.