Growing up in Alaska, I’ve had a lot of interactions with brown bears. I would fall asleep to the sound of them desperately trying to get in our bear proof trash, sometimes I narrowly avoided them hiking in the mountains, often times I saw brown blurs as I drove down the long winding road home, and from time to time I would chase them out of the yard, my trusty cat at my side. They were a part of my everyday life, and I theirs. I rarely had time to pause and marvel at them. It wasn’t until I experienced the thrilling Alaska brown bear viewing eco-tour with Rust’s Flying Service in Chinita Bay, Lake Clark National Park, was I able to develop a deep appreciation for these animals. Away from urban life, and the impact of humans, it was relaxing to observe the bears, as they grazed on salty marsh grass, napped and played. The bear viewing with Rust’s Flying Service in Chinita Bay, Alaska will go down in the books as one of the best eco-tours I have ever done! And it is just an easy day trip from Anchorage.
Not only was it one of the best tour I’ve done, this time I had my new fiancé in tow, and he loved every minute of this trip. His favorite animal is the bear, but hailing from Australia the only bear he has ever encountered is the drop bear, so this was truly a once in a lifetime experience for him and it was the perfect way to celebrate our three years anniversary as a couple.
Alaska Brown Bear Viewing Eco-tour with Rust’s Flying Service
I want to thank Rust’s Flying Service for extending their media rate to me, but as always, views are my own. As a life long Alaskan and former tour guide, this is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my state and I had to pick my jaw up off the floor time and time again. This is a MUST DO eco-tour when visiting Alaska and worth every penny! Rust’s is a local Alaskan company providing small scale tours in remote parts of Alaska. Supporting local companies like this, as well as visiting bears respectfully in their natural wild habitat, makes this such a great eco-tour.
I was a bit hesitant at first to book a bear viewing tour with Rust’s. As a tour guide, I recommended them time and time again to my guests, but as a lifelong Alaskan, surely there was nothing I hadn’t seen before. I mean, I get bears in my yard all the time, what’s the big deal? However, I could not have been more mistaken. There was something special about seeing them in their home turf on their terms. To add the icing on the cake the 2-hour plane ride in a Cessna single engine was mind blowing! I saw remote parts of Alaska I had never seen before, from a unique bird’s eye perspective. We flew past volcanos and glaciers, small Indigenous villages, glacial plains, forests, lakes and mud flats. It seemed every minute brought something new and exciting. Our pilot was knowledgeable and we enjoyed our banter on the radio back and forth as he brought us safely in for take off and landing. Once we arrived in the park we were handed into the care of Chinitna Bay Bear Mountain Lodge, where our expert guides took us to three different viewing areas for bears and allowed us to observe and photograph them at our own pace, while educating us on the species!
Tour Option Booked: Chinitna Bay Bear Viewing day trip from Anchorage with Rust’s Flying Service.
Length of Time: 6-7 hours, departures at 7:30 am and 2 pm.
Skill Level Required: 20-50 HP. Great for the active adventurer, couples, and small families. If you have major mobility issues reconsider, but the viewing is all accessed by easy walking trails. If you’re scared of small planes, conquer your fears, it’s worth it and the pilots are amazing!
Cost of Chinitna Bay Bear Viewing: $795 plus a 3% transportation fee per person.
Seasons: June for the Chinitna Bay, as that is when the bears are most active here. However, Rusts’s offers tours to various locations throughout the summer.
- Small backpack.
- Water bottle or camelback.
- Telephoto lens. It’s very hard to photograph some of the bears without one, as they can be in the distance. We packed our 100mm-400mm and did fine with the closer bears. If you want serious photos of the bears in the distance, bring at least a 500mm or higher. If you don’t have a telephoto lens, the guides did have a scope and can take photos with your smart phone through it for some cool close ups.
- Tripod, or a monopod needed for telephoto lens.
- Check the weather and dress appropriately. Alaska is notorious for moody weather. Be prepared for rain, sun and wind, all in one day. I wore long hiking pants, a fleece jacket, a scarf, sunglasses, hat and long shirt, with a rain coat packed in June and I was happy.
- Hiking boots or solid walking shoes.
- A small lunch is provided, but if you have dietary needs, pack food (there was no vegetarian option).
- Binoculars are provided.
- Bear mace is not needed, safety procautions are handled by the professional trained guides.
Checking in at Rust’s Flying Service and Takeoff
Arrive at Rust’s 30 minutes early. Rust’s is located at Lake Hood, Anchorage, by our international airport. There is limited parking available and you must leave your keys with the front desk if you drive. If you don’t have a car, don’t worry, Rust’s will pick you up from the airport or your hotel! We arrived early to take photos of the cool planes docked at the seaplane base.
Facts From a Local: Lake Hood is the largest and busiest seaplane base in the WORLD, hosting over 200 daily operations! You’ll find plenty of old and quirky planes from single-engine Cessnas to larger Beavers.
We were weighed at check-in, to ensure the flight would be well balanced. Our pilot called us by name when he was ready to have us load up. You can ask your pilot to sit up front and co-pilot like I did, but it will come down to safety and weight balance, so don’t have your heart set on any one seat. Once everyone was loaded up, we began to taxi. We loved seeing all the planes as we drove by. I was prepared for a bumpy takeoff in this small plane, but I barely felt the lift off and before I knew it Lake Hood was getting smaller and smaller.
Flight to Lake Clark National Park
I love bears, don’t get me wrong, but this was one of the best parts of the trip and at the end of the flight my Ganesh, my fiancé, said, “that alone was worth the money we spent.” He was not wrong. I’ll let some of the photos do the talking, but you really get a taste of how diverse and stunning Alaska is.
Facts From a Local: Did you know that Alaska has everything from arctic desert to rainforest?
The flight started out over large glacial mudflats and marshy tundra to one side and the murky Cook Inlet to the other. Here you could spot little duck huts, that are used for duck hunting in the autumn. Wide braided rivers carved through the glacial flats. Out in the inlet, you could spot some of the oil rigs and operations that happen close to Anchorage. There are also some natural gas plants below. You fly past sleeping lady mountain, pictured as the smaller mountain with no snow on it. Sleeping Lady is named as she looks like a lady sleeping, this mountain is an iconic image of the Anchorage area.
Facts From a Local: These large braided rivers and gray muddy areas are a sign a glacier is near. The rivers bring and deposit glacial silt, which is a fine gray mud. It’s incredibly dangerous to walk on and acts almost like sinking sand, avoid these areas at all costs if you ever visit Alaska.
As we left the vast marshy plains behind, mountains rose before us. This snowy range, called the Aleutian Range, is an extension of the Alaska Range, home to Denali, the largest peak in N. America. You will also spot two, and if you’re lucky three, active volcanoes as you fly. Sprinkled through the mountains glaciers rest, including a red glacier – caused by mineral deposits from the volcano! Alaska is huge, and this reminded me how little I’ve seen of my home state. I felt giddy inside as we flew, I couldn’t stop smiling and saying, “WOW!”. The flight really put into perspective how diverse Alaska is. Our pilot was one of those guys that knew everything about everything. I learned so much just talking to him, and every question I asked from geological to economic, he knew the answer. He’s been a pilot in Alaska for 13 years and before that a commercial pilot in Seattle. Alaska is a great place to be a pilot and he seemed very happy doing his job. Alaska has very few roads, in fact, the small state of Rhode Island has more miles of road than our huge state. We rely on small planes for travel and supplies to remote areas. I wanted to keep flying all day, however, I was excited to see the bears. They are what we came for, after all.
Facts From a Local: The fastest way to tell a local from a tourist is by what they call Denali. Often tourists know it as Mt. Mckinley and locals will refer to it as Denali. Denali is the traditional Athabaskan (interior indigenous peoples) name for this mountain. It wasn’t until a gold miner, campaigning for President Mckinley, saw the mountain and decided to call it after him. On all federal documents it was listed as Mt. McKinley, but all state documents had it listed as Denali. Alaskans have been fighting for a federal name change since the 70s and finally, in 2008 Obama succeeded. #thanksobama Be respectful and use the name, Denali.
Our pilot turned the corner into Chinitna Bay and I looked around, wondering where we might land. The beach, it was on the freakin’ beach! How cool is that? We landed smoothly, unloaded and were greeted by the wonderful hosts at Bear Mountain Lodge in Chinitna Bay.
It’s Time for Bear Viewing in Lake Clark National Park!
Rust’s handed us over to the friendly staff of The Bear Mountain Lodge at Chinitna Bay. They welcomed us in with snacks and genuine conversation. We were allowed a quick break before loading up in the 4×4 monster green bus. We took off down the beach to our first stop. We lucked out as there was a beautiful female brown just a couple dozen feet away! She’s the cute one you see in most of the close-up photos. I scanned the area and counted almost 8 bears, including some large solo males, and a few mommas with two or three babies. The babies were about three years old, so they look almost as big, if not bigger than their mom. This would be the last spring with their mother before they set out on their own.
The bears are so interested in feeding they mind their own business as we mind ours. They’re used to people in the area and it was so relaxing watching them do their thing. We had plenty of time to photograph and observe them feeding and playing while we had a perfect spot for photos! Our guides did carry a weapon in case of emergency, but at no point was there any threat, or did I ever feel scared.
Facts from a local: Bears are omnivores and they are in this protected area to eat high protein salty marsh grass. After they wake up from hibernation- the salmon aren’t running yet, so they need the nutrition and protein these grasses provide. Once the salmon start running they’ll move on to feast on the tasty fish. Bears stay with their mothers until they’re three years old.
As the tide was coming in we needed to load up and head to the second stop. Further down the beach we parked and went down a little trail into the woods. We came out on the bank of a river, still sheltered by the woods. We had a bit of a hard time here, as the bears were quite far away, so photography was difficult. I didn’t mind too much though, as just watching them from a distance was enjoyable.
Facts from a local: Female bears and marked by being smaller in stature and lighter in color. Their ears and face tend to be more round and soft. Male bears tend to be a dark brown with a larger build and a boxier face. The average Alaskan male brown bear weighs 900 pounds! Can you spot the male and female bears in my photos?
The third and final stop was again further down the beach and a small walk through the woods. A lone wolf was in the field with the bears and he ran off just as we emerged from the woods, so we barely got to see him. Wolves are very rare to spot and I’ve only ever seen a few in my life. All the action startled a bear and it began to run through the marshy river bank. It stopped at the other side and gave us a nice show while relieving itself. I guess that answers the question, “do bears poop in the woods?” No one in the group thought my dad joke was funny :(We kept an eye out for the wolf, but he never came back into view. So, we spent our time watching a new set of bears, eat and meander.
Facts from a local: Did you know that you can eat the new growth on pine trees? The tender bright green bits. We nibbled on them as we walked through the forest and they go great in salads!
There was a large family at this stop as well, a momma with three larger cubs. The siblings enjoyed playing together, so we viewed some rough and tumble action and bear boxing!
Did you know that grizzly and brown bears are the exact same species? The only difference is the access to salmon and fresh fish. In the landlocked interior of Alaska, salmon options are limited, so the coats of the bears are haggard and rough, making them look grizzly. Bears near water with access to salmon have shinier and healthier looking coats. Just think, if you give you dog fish oil, its coat will shine!
I almost filled up my camera by the time it was to pack up and head back to the lodge. In total we saw about 10 bears at each site. It was an incredibly satisfying day. Back at the lodge, our pilot was waiting for us with a snack lunch to bring back on the plane. As we loaded up, I let Ganesh take the co-pilot seat. I realized that the back seat was better for photos, so I happily clicked away as Ganesh asked plenty of Alaskan questions.
We weren’t done seeing wildlife for the day, looking down we saw pods of belugas and lot of seals, getting their fill of fresh salmon. Alaska comes alive with the first salmon runs as everyone fights for their chances to fatten up for the winter. Salmon fuel most of Alaska’s wildlife and economy, but as our pilot said, “sometimes you have to root for the salmon, everyone wants them.”
Landing Back at Lake Hood in Anchorage
As we came back in for the landing I observed my little home city from the air. This thrilling Alaska brown bear viewing eco-tour gave me a new appreciation for Alaska and the beautiful animals I share a home with. We could not thank Rust’s Flying Service and Bear Mountain Lodge enough for the truly wild and thrilling excursion into Alaska’s wilderness. This is the type of service I expect when I return home by friendly and welcoming locals. No one on the tour knew I was a member of the media and yet I still received 5-star service from everyone. If you’re visiting Alaska in the summer I highly recommend considering an eco-tour with Rust’s to view bears at one of Alaska’s great National Parks.
Have you been on an eco-tour recently or maybe an Alaska brown bear viewing eco-tour is on your bucket list? Tell me about it in the comments, and remember to share this with all your friends and family.