When my dad first approached me about joining him in Alaska for a few days to see the state through his eyes, I thought it would be a great change of pace, but not entirely different from what I experienced growing up in my beautiful home state of Montana. Was I in for a surprise! While I am lucky to have been raised in the pristine mountains of Northwest Montana, Alaska is on an entirely different scale, from the crystal blue water to the vibrant contrast in colors of the grand, white, snow laced mountains. Most of my days are spent working just blocks away from the White House in the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C. or traveling across the country working on elections from Portland, Maine to Fargo, North Dakota to San Francisco. I consider myself lucky to travel throughout the continental United States and witness firsthand the diversity and beauty of what America has to offer. Alaska, however, is beyond compare.
One of the most special aspects of visiting Alaska is the people who live there and the love and appreciation they have for their amazing state and their interest in sharing it with visitors. One of the best experiences I had in Alaska was bear watching with Dean Andrew of Andrew Airways. We were lucky enough to have Dean, the proprietor, as our pilot and escort to a world unseen by most.
We started off by flying out of Kodiak Island in Dean’s “Beaver” to the Katmai Coast of Katmai National Park, about a 45-minute flight across the cold, bright blue ocean, arriving at the islands, dipping in and around the mountains, looking for bears and a place to land. The anticipation was palpable - our travel companions were watchful and silent on the flight out. Also unique to Alaska is the diversity of visitors it attracts. We were joined by a couple from Michigan and a fellow from the Norwegian News Agency. What amazing paths we all followed to end up here, together, in this Alaskan adventure, seeking out a live glimpse of one of the most beautiful and dangerous animals on the planet.
My friends back in D.C. joked at the vision of me going bear watching, uncertain as I was of what this experience would entail (now that I’m more of a city girl than anything else). I deal with a different type of animal in the throes of Capitol Hill on most days! Well, I traded my hot pink stiletto high heels for thigh-high rubber boots and jumped on that plane ready for whatever was ahead.
I had no idea how unique and up-close this experience would be. Once we landed we trekked across the ocean shore through tall grass and mud as thick as molasses along the river bed, right across from a lounging 400 lb. Kodiak grizzly. At one moment I had a vision of that dream where you want to run, but you’re running in slow motion and can’t get away. Good thing there was no running necessary, which would have been impossible anyway with the glue-like effect that the river bed mud has on your feet.
The day started out overcast, but the sun broke through the crisp, fresh air. Alaska has a way of seeping into your pores…the freshness of it all adds to the striking authenticity. There were three sets of bears in different spots that we had the privilege of observing. I had no concept of how close we would actually be! We were right there, in their backyard, watching them eat, roll around, and bask in the sun. It was breathtaking and surreal. While I may have been nervous with any other guide, having someone who has owned and operated this business for 18 years and knows the land and just as importantly knows the bears, made us all feel like we were in safe hands. Growing up in Montana we would hear horror stories each year of tourists who had no idea how to camp, and subsequently had encounters with bears in Glacier National Park. Having respect for the land and the animals in it requires you to seek out experienced and knowledgeable guides. I am lucky to have been able to travel across all parts of the world. Before this experience I wouldn’t have thought that bear watching in Alaska would be on the top of my list of cool things to see and do, but it’s definitely up there as one of the highlights of my travel adventures. We are lucky to have access to a place as beautiful, special and mysterious as Alaska. Anyone who has a chance to visit should jump at the opportunity.
My photo with “Mr. Kodiak” in the background was the talk of D.C. among my colleagues for many days. Quite a souvenir...and I lived to write about it!