Monday, 6 January 2020

The Grizzly Bears of Geographic Harbor


Arriving in Geographic Harbor, on a rare sunny afternoon after days of rain and low cloud, felt like sailing into a real-life National Geographic magazine spread!  Until then, we had had to use our imaginations to picture the tops of the mountain peaks we were sailing by because the clouds and mist hid them, but the weather cleared for our entrance to the bay, and it was extraordinary to see the mountains reflected off still waters in every direction.

As the sky cleared it was nice to finally see the big mountains we were sailing past.

Beautiful weather for the entrance into Geographic Harbor.

Geographic Harbor is part of Katmai National Park, and is so named because a National Geographic Society expedition explored it for the first time in 1919 following the Novarupta eruption (the largest in the 20th century; it threw out 30 times as much ash as Mt St Helens).  We headed for the northernmost bay, which was known as a good bear watching location, and we were not disappointed.  The anchorage area is quite deep, but it shoals near the shore, so we drove our usual 300ft circle around our preferred location to make sure we would have swing room, and anchored in about 80 ft of water as near as we could get to the beach.  There was an area of lighter green water just beyond where we were anchored, and we weren't sure if it was shallow or just silty.  When the tide went out, the mud flats appeared, and we confirmed that it dried out at low tide!  This is exactly why we do our 'anchor circle' recce before we set our anchor!

Our anchor spot. It looks like lots of room but shoals very quickly from 70 to zero feet at chart datum.

We wanted to make the most of our visit, so after a quick lunch, we launched the dinghy and motored ashore for mid-tide.  Our outboard had travelled the better part of 4,000 nm on our back rail since we had last used it, so we all breathed a sigh of relief when it started as usual.  Two float planes arrived for their afternoon visits as we approached the beach, and we all disembarked in the same area.  This proved fortuitous, as their guided group stood closer to the bears than we would have been brave enough to do on our own, and they welcomed us to join them.  Katmai has the world's largest population of protected grizzly bears in the world so it is pretty likely one will see bears ...

Rush hour.  Usually about two float planes a day fly a few charter guests in to see the bears.
For the next several hours, time seemed to stand still.  We stood under a brilliant blue sky, on a gravelly delta at the mouth of a river, with tall grassy areas all around us.  The guide explained that we would just stay there, chatting quietly, and the bears would go about their day.  Since their food supply was plentiful, and they had no experience of being hunted by humans in this park, the bears saw us as part of the environment, and not as a threat.  They were focused on their fishing, jumping and pouncing to catch salmon to eat.   We had a good view in every direction, and could see several hundred yards up the river and across the grass.  The guide was right; at one point, the bears passed only a few feet in front of us, fishing in the river!

and there were bears up the creek

and in the grass ...

The group was quite big  and I was relieved that we didn't have to be rigidly quiet: I found it quite interesting to talk to the other guests, many of whom were from the US Wounded Warrior Project.  I am always curious to hear what other people do after their time in the military, and it was interesting to hear about their various career paths and business ventures.  One of the men has a company which sells para-cord bracelets; when he noticed Victoria's Turk's Head anklet, he gave her the bracelet from his wrist :)

and of course the bears are not there to show off for us but rather to fish the plentiful salmon.

fishing ....

and more fishing ...

and more fishing.  It was a bit unnerving to have the bear charge towards us as it pounced on the salmon.

Thankfully it wasn't too cold standing on the gravel.  Unlike the charter guests, none of us had hip waders, and the water had either flooded over the top of, or through cracks in, our (very old) boots, so we had wet feet.  As the tide fell, Max went out several times to move the dinghy further away from the beach, but eventually we let it dry out when a bear decided to fish between the group and the dinghy, and he didn't want to disturb it! At the end of the afternoon, I was grateful that Max had anchored the dinghy near one of the deeper channels in the delta, and that the WWP group was quick to help pick up and carry it the short distance back to the water :)

My favourite photo of the season: a grizzy between us and Fluenta.  Our tender is on the other side of the bear from us.
Early the next morning, when I went to the cockpit to have a look around, the tide was low, and one of the bears was fishing and prowling right at the edge of the mudflats where we were anchored.  I didn't even need binoculars to watch her as she ambled around and looked for fish.  She didn't stay long, but this proved a pattern that would continue throughout our visit: the bears would come to the edge of the water at the low tide, and we could watch them from the comfort of our cockpit.

A bear in the distance bringing his fish ashore.

Tough duty:  watching bears in sock feet while eating breakfast.

For the next two days, we had Geographic Harbor entirely to ourselves!  The charter boats both left, and the float planes didn't come.  We dinghied up to the beach to watch the bears, but we didn't go ashore on our own; we just anchored the dinghy a few feet off the shore, and watched from the boat.  With two pairs of binos and a telephoto lens on our camera, we had a good view of the action.  Again, time seemed to stand still, and we enjoyed several hours of our live version of "Bear TV".

On one excursion, I commented wistfully that the bears seemed really far away, and that I wished that I was closer.  Somehow this turned into a collective decision to anchor the dinghy and stand on the gravel delta!  Right on cue, three bears ambled through the grass off to our right.  They seemed to be adolescents, as they were just as interested in wrestling with each other as they were in fishing.  When they started to growl as they fought, all of a sudden I didn't feel so enthusiastic about being close anymore!  The instinctive urge to be further away kicked back in, and we scrambled (very calmly and quietly) back to the dinghy; a few minutes later, the bears wrestled their way to the exact place where we had been!  I may not be cut out to be a bear guide!
Liz said she wanted to get closer ... The bears were playing nicely at first ...

But then when the third bear joined in, it got rather loud

but maybe this was too close as they started to really wrestle.  You can see in the picture at the top of the blog post that one of the bears has drawn blood.

We had an interesting visitor the following morning: Max and I were sitting in the cockpit enjoying our morning coffee and watching bears on the beach when the first float plane of the day arrived with its passengers.  As usual, it dropped the passengers off at the shore and then fell back to anchor.  Max had hardly finished saying that he might pop over in the dinghy to say hello, when it appeared that the plane was taxiing.  He jokingly said that perhaps the plane would come to us.  Moments later, it was evident that this was exactly the case.  With the finesse of someone who has handled big equipment for decades, the float plane glided up behind us, coming to a stop mere inches from our solar panel and wind generator, and the pilot stepped out with a painter in hand.  He scrambled aboard at our stern (over the pushpit rail and all the gear and antennas that we keep there), and joined us for a visit!  We had a most enjoyable morning sitting on our back deck and watching several bears ashore.  Thankfully, it was warm enough that we didn't need the shelter of the rain enclosure (although I went inside for extra layers a couple of times!)

Rolan and I talking bears and aviation.

We learned that Rolan and his wife had been operating Sea Hawk Air with their vintage de Havilland Beaver out of Kodiak since 1987.  Speaking with Rolan gave us a better sense of the activities of the bears, as well as some of the history of the park and its more interesting inhabitants!  While he was there, two bears started chasing down the beach; apparently we were seeing mating season in action, with the smaller female bear running away from the larger male bear.  Despite his size, we were told that this male was much smaller than the dominant male bears who would show up later in the season.   

I am sure there is room on Fluenta to have a float plane as a tender ...
With no wind, the current kept pushing the float plane towards Fluenta, so we eventually suggested a longer painter to put it back a little further.  This meant that Johnathan and Max had an excuse to take Roland back to his plane in our dinghy after his visit, so they were able to have a look inside his beautifully maintained aircraft.

A quick tour of Rolan's 'plane.  We really need a float plane (and a new dingy)...

Our passage from Sand Point to Geographic Harbor had been calm enough that Victoria and I could make salmon berry jam, and bread to put it on, while we were underway.  Our friends on Galactic had said that they "just followed the recipe on the box of pectin", but I wanted a little more information, so I did a 'remote internet search': we had no connection, but we emailed both grandmothers to see what they knew or could find!  It turns out that Salmon Berries are low in pectin, so it made sense to use the boxed powder.  We used the amount of sugar listed for raspberry jam (7 cups sugar for 8 cups fruit).  Our jam was tasty but very sweet!  We ended up with four jars of jam, two that we ate right away, and two that we will save for reminiscing!

Ever since we decided to return to BC from the tropics via Alaska, I have been hoping to meet again with friends from the Baja Ha Ha and Mexico.  SV Northern Passage was one of the first kid boats we met when we left California (in fact, our friends on SV Totem had been corresponding with both of us as newbie cruisers, and and suggested we look for each other).  After their year in Mexico, they put their boat on the hardstand and returned home to Alaksa, where they spend winters in Anchorage and summers in Seldovia, which happened to be right on our route!  Seldovia was our next destination, and we were excited to finally see them again.

Sand Point to Geographic Harbor

A more detailed chart at 1:60,000 showing the entrance to Geographic Harbor

And a more detailed chart showing the anchorage itself.  We anchored at the western extremity of the red "track" line.  The recommended anchorage from the RCC was closer to the beach than we were comfortable with.  Depths are in fathoms.

We left the following morning for what we thought might be a one-day sail, but the wind had other plans.  When we got out into the Shelikot Strait (between the Alaskan Peninsula and Kodiak Island), the wind and sea state built well beyond the forecast.  By suppertime, we didn't like the uncertainty of the conditions - was this as bad as it would get, or would it continue to deteriorate?  One nice thing about cruising (as we often have to remind ourselves) is that we can stop if we choose to.  We were on a deep broad reach towards Malina Bay, and Max determined that rather than jibing towards Seldovia, we could probably just anchor overnight!  We radioed a fishing boat which we saw departing they bay on AIS, and asked about anchoring in the little bight we had spotted.  In the understated way of fishermen, he said that we could anchor there if we wished, but it would be rolly from swell wrapping around the corner, and the local fishing fleet would be at work right beside us from about 0500 the next morning.  His recommendation was to go through a narrow channel, beyond the reach of the swell, and anchor overnight with the fleet.  We did a quick speed-time-distance calculation, and determined that we could make the four-hour journey into the bay with minutes to spare before dark, so this is what we did: by 2330 we were anchored in the fading twilight.  Thank goodness for the long northern days!

The forecast was not good for the next day, but it was not terrible, and the weather was predicted to get worse before it got better, so we decided to set out for Seldovia the next morning.  It was good that the wind was behind us: we had up to 38 kts sustained (i.e. gale force) and steep seas for most of the day.  It was not fun, but we made it.  Despite the tough conditions, we were glad we left Malina Bay when we did: as predicted, conditions only intensified over the next week, and we would have been stuck, not visiting our friends, *and* not seeing bears, while we waited out the storm. 

Geographic Harbor to Seldovia with an overnight stop enroute.  It was a tad sporty with a gale for much of it.

The wind died away to nothing as we came into Seldovia Bay, so I woke at dawn to the sound of the engine changing tone.  Max was already setting the anchor by himself!  We both got some sleep, and then moved Fluenta onto the dock in the morning.  We had the rest of a beautiful sunny Sunday to clean and wash the boat before our evening reunion with Northern Passage.  With the foredeck heaped in kiting gear and sails, and two lines of clothing and bedding flapping in the wind, I am sure we looked a bit like a group of vagabonds, but it was worth a few stares to get the cabin emptied and to see what damage we had taken during the month at sea.  Thankfully, although a lot of gear was damp, there was not much actual damage.

Once everything was dry, it didn't take long to stow it again.  With a tidy saloon, swept floors, and order restored to the V-berth, we were ready for a week of catching up with our friends!

Love to all,


  1. Love reading about your adventures! Especially the bears!

    1. Thanks Sue. When are you guys heading up here in your boat !



Comments ? (Note all comments are moderated)