This story was originally published in Alaska magazine and is republished here with permission.
Make no mistake, the Kodiak Brown Bear Center isn’t a bear rescue center or a rehab facility for orphaned cubs. There are no fences or cages here. Nor is it thronged with tourists like Katmai’s Brooks Falls or the coastal day-tripping spots at Lake Clark. This is a wild bear viewing paradise on Native corporation-owned land, backing to thousands of acres of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. With bear habitat conservation at the forefront of KBBC values, staying here provides an experience like no other.
Bears are kind of my thing. I’ve been running bear viewing photo trips for years, and yet I still choose to spend my vacation time to go and see more. Now, some folks might say, “You’ve seen one bear, you’ve seen them all.” And all is can say is, “That’s crazy talk.”
So, with that mindset, I headed to Kodiak to see Kodiak brown bears, a larger subspecies of coastal brown grizzlies, spread out over the island’s 3,600 square miles. I had never seen a Kodiak bear, which gave me a perfect excuse to go in search of one. Of course, I didn’t search long, thanks to Stacey Simmons, the director of operations for the Kodiak Brown Bear Center, and one of the friendliest people you’ll meet in Kodiak, who set up the logistics for my trip.
Upon arrival in Kodiak, a shuttle whisks me to a float plane, which flies me over lumpy terrain dotted with mountain goats and hanging glaciers during the 45-minute, exceptionally beautiful hop. KBBC consists of four guest cabins, a main gathering room with a kitchen, a maqii (banya), and outbuildings for staff and infrastructure. The property is self-sufficient and sustainable: wind turbines, an impressive water purifying and processing system, dock with licensed boat captains, off-the-grid electricity. The lodge sits on a remote patch of land on the Karluk River, where both bears and people fish for salmon.
Kodiak Brown Bear Center accepts only a handful of guests at one time. It’s this isolation—an island within an island of roadless wilderness—that makes the KBBC feel truly one with the natural habitat and its flora and fauna. Upon landing here, I have a visceral sense of being dropped into the Alaskan backcountry to explore wild Native lands going centuries back.
However, this isn’t roughing it. Not in the least. My Pottery Barn perfect cabin overlooks the Karluk with sweeping views of the mountains surrounding it. Fluffy sheets, glass shower, a reading nook by the window, a desk, even WiFi provide me a place to take it all in that’s better than most accommodations I’ve stayed in across all of Alaska. As for meals, our chef, Wanda, creates gourmet fare, even working around my dietary restrictions, providing me a separate plate when necessary. Next to the banya, a six-foot bald eagles’ nest, rests in the branches of a tree, with its residents at home and taking turns flying out over the water. A river otter lives by the dock, and Sitka deer and fox make frequent appearances at dinner time.
While bears visit the lodge and can be seen from cabin balconies, the center utilizes a 30-foot catamaran to ferry guests out to other viewing sites. Stacey tells me that there are several viewing platforms, and I immediately picture Katmai with its stilted-decks, walkways, and railings. She lets me know that she just means a flat area of ground that provides a good viewpoint for activity, not a structure of any kind.
It’s just past fall at the center, and while I’ve come to see bears, the center’s fishing guides are here to catch steelhead. We boat out to a tributary and hike along the banks. Bear trails abound, along with bear sign and fish guts. The bears here are as they should be, a little more skittish of humans than those at Katmai and Lake Clark. They “feel” wilder to me, more elusive, and yet still relatively habituated. I take photos of anglers and bears for several hours, breathing in the smell of autumn, and reveling in the sight of Kodiak bears fishing and foraging with a backdrop of golden grasses and tundra. I spend time with one bear, who peers at me through some brush on a sandbar, my shutter and camera a curiosity to him.
Fishing trips here at KBBC are a relatively new offering, but from the squealing delight of the anglers, it’s a perfect fit. Catch and release—lots of it—and quivering forearms from the size of the fish and the repetition of catches. I lost count at some point of how many fish they reeled in.
That evening over dinner and drinks, I delight in stories from Stacey and the other Native Alutiiq staff members. One man talks about the orphaned baby fur seal whose mother had been shot in his village. He bottle-fed it, and it followed him around like a dog, even going out with him in his boat. The story is followed by several hunting and survival tales, as well as those about the village girls’ basketball team and the fistfights that break out on the court on a regular basis. Stacey shows me a photo of her youngest daughter in traditional dress, captured in the pages of Discover Kodiak’s visitor’s brochure. Wanda talks about traditional meals she sometimes prepares for guests. It feels like family here—like home.
There are special places, ones that resonate deep beneath the rib cage, and KBBC is one of those. Even if the bears weren’t here, I’d come back again and again.
For more information, see kodiakbearcenter.com.