Bear Viewing in Alaska: Responsible Wildlife Viewing

August 21, 2019

Alaska's Wild Coast

Observing bears in their natural habitat in Alaska is a privilege and a life-long memorable experience. While there are always risks with wild animals, risks associated bear viewing in Alaska can be mitigated greatly if you follow well-established guidelines.

On August 10th, I had the opportunity to travel with AdventureSmith Explorations on the historic ship Westward to view brown bears, also known under the more general nomenclature “grizzlies,” on the remote island of Chichagof in Alaska’s Inside Passage.

Bears Alaska

The Westward

The Westward is an 8-passenger/3-crew historic wooden yacht, just 86 feet long, which allows it enter coves and bays too shallow for larger ships to safely navigate. The Westward and AdventureSmith Explorations promote responsible, eco and sustainable travel, attention to carbon footprint, organic and local sourcing for meals, quiet anchorage, and virtually every way they can make a positive impact and avoid a negative one. They are also experts on responsible bear viewing in Alaska.

Arrival on Chichagof

Bears Alaska

Patti and Alison from Boomer Travel Media with AdventureSmith Explorations

We anchored off the island of Chichagof, one of Alaska’s remote “ABC” islands, about 30 miles north of Sitka. Captain Bill Bailey motored our small skiff into Pavlov Cove, where we exited with a wet landing, i.e. our boots splashed into a couple of inches of cold water to get ashore.

Bears Alaska

Pavlov Cover, excited about the possibility of seeing bears!

As a group, we began the short walk along the banks of the stream which was laden with picturesque yellow lichen, before quickly arriving at our destination, the “fish ladder.” The fish ladder is so-named for its small cascading waterfalls where salmon swim and jump upstream to reach the calm area beyond where they spawn. The salmon are large and abundant, creating a personal buffet line for the bears.

Bears Alaska

The stream leading to the fish ladder.

Finding the bears

Alaska brown bears range in weight from 800 to 1,200 pounds. They feed on spawning salmon which are so abundant they gorge themselves on just the brain and stomach – the fattiest parts and quickest method to store for hibernation – then discard the rest of the fish before moving on to another. The different methods of catching a salmon are fascinating to watch, such as waiting at the bottom of the falls for a fish to jump, or standing at the top and catching a fish in midair, swatting, pinning or catching in their massive paws or sometimes dramatically in their mouths.

Bears Alaska

Waiting for the bears to appear.

It only took a few minutes to get to the area where we hoped to observe brown bears at the fish ladder. We sat on some rocks, a respectable distance away, but with a good camera zoom lens or binoculars, we’d be able to get a decent look.

No luck though. After what seemed like an eternity, Hannah Hindley, our guide, Naturalist, and expert on bear viewing in Alaska informed us we would take a short hike before returning to the fish ladder.

“We’re going a little bit into the forest,” she said. “While it’s unlikely that we will encounter bears, there are some precautions we’ll be taking. We should continue to talk – but no high-pitched or loud screechy noises, please. If there are any bears in the area, they will hear us and should go away.”

“If by some odd chance we do see a bear, do not scream, and do not run!” she instructed. “We want any bears in the vicinity to know we’re here, but not to startle them.” We learned that she carried a kind of portable pepper spray that could repel a bear, if necessary.

According to National Geographic, “Bear spray, especially at close range where most attacks occur, is more reliable than a speeding bullet and extremely effective in thwarting a grizzly charging at 35 miles.”

I like the fact that bear sprays save the lives of both humans and bears. According to a 10-year study by the U.S. Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, “people who defended themselves against bears with firearms suffered injury 50 percent of the time, while those outfitted with bear spray evaded injury most of the time.”

bear viewing in alaska

Bear scat, not particularly fresh.

Hannah lead us though the forest, calling out every now and then, “Hey Bear!” We tromped over roots, rocks, and BSM (boot sucking mud), looking for signs of fresh “scat” (aka poop) which would be a signal that a bear had recently been there.

bear viewing in alaska

Hannah, examining the salmon carcass.

We came upon an interesting, partially eaten salmon carcass. Hannah examined it and determined it was approximately 24-hours old. I will confess, throughout the 8-day trip, I was impressed by her seemingly infinite knowledge about plants and animals and how they live in nature.

We bushwhacked our way to higher ground where we could observe the fish ladder. Within minutes, we were rewarded for efforts.

Bears in Alaska!

bear viewing in alaska

The mama grizzly on the opposite bank of the stream.

In the distance below, we spied a sow bear and her two calves at the stream.  Above is my best photo. On the left is cropped version; on the right is what I took from our viewpoint with my Nikon SLR at its full zoom, 55mm; we were pretty far away.

We climbed back down the ravine to where the bushes and trees met the stream and sat down on the ground to watch them, unobserved and undisturbed. They were still a good distance away, and across the stream, but you could hear a pin drop. Every one of our group of nine was breathlessly amazed watching cubs frolic while their mother caught fish for the three of them.

They had no idea we were there – they never so much a glanced in our direction. If they had, we would have left. “Westward’s practice of responsible wildlife viewing is to maintain safety for all involved – humans and animals,” says Captain Bailey. “We do not to impact or cause change to the natural habits of the animals.”

bear viewing in alaska

The sow and her two cubs.

As before, the left is my cropped photo, and the right was taken with full zoom. They’re not going to win any photo contests, but considering the distance, I’m very happy with them.

The bears eventually retreated back into the forest, and subsequently, we humans made our way back to the launch site, marveling at what we’d just been fortunate to view.

Fear vs. Respect

Some people have recently asked me if I was afraid when bear viewing in Alaska. No, I was not. My adrenaline was pumping because I was thrilled, awed, and excited, but I was not afraid.

There’s a difference between fear and respect. I have a healthy respect for wildlife and follow established safety guidelines – our Naturalist, the Westward, and AdventureSmith Explorations are exemplary in that regard.

But I’m not a fearful person. I’m just not wired that way. That’s why I write mainly about adventure travel. I AM fearless… I AM NOT foolish.

bear viewing in alaska

Would you be afraid of this beast?

You may also be interested in:

15 Reasons to Take a Small Ship Adventure Cruise. The Last One Is Life-Changing

Family Adventure Cruise in Alaska

Seeking Adventure on Alaska’s Wild Coast

Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of AdventureSmith Explorations during her stay in Alaska, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.

This article may contain affiliate/compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer.

About the Author

Patti MorrowPatti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and the southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.

She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is scheduled to premiere in the new few months.

Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.


  1. Comment by Jackie Smith

    Jackie Smith Reply August 21, 2016 at 10:57 pm

    A most interesting outing you had. I couldn’t help but think of the old saying (we use in the Pacific Northwest anyway) when something is an obvious fact: “Does a bear shit in the woods?” when I saw your photo of scat!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply August 22, 2016 at 12:29 am

      Too funny! Wish I had thought of that, Jackie! It was very unique and fascinating, seeing the bears’ natural behavior on Chichagof.

  2. Comment by Girish

    Girish Reply August 22, 2016 at 12:53 am

    We were on the Westward too on this trip! What an amazing experience!! Agree with the responsibility of watching wildlife. One can’t forget the environment and have to respect it. Bill, Tracie, and Hannah (the Westward crew) were beyond excellent. Tracie’s food was like having a gourmet chef on board and what versatility, Bill’s navigating us into those tight isolated coves and his Alaska knowledge, and Hannah our knowledgeable naturalist with her plethora of information on bears, whales, trees, ecology, etc. A magical experience.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply August 22, 2016 at 6:08 am

      Well-said, Girish! The whole journey was an amazing, memorable experience, and the crew of the Westward was superlative. I really enjoyed meeting you and your delightful family. Give everyone a hug for me!

  3. Comment by Rebecca

    Rebecca Reply August 22, 2016 at 7:18 am

    I’m so pleased to read about responsible tourism here – where people can respect and appreciate wildlife and nature and not impose on nature.
    What a fantastic opportunity! I would love to visit Alaska one day. We don’t get brown bears in the UK!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply August 22, 2016 at 11:27 am

      Thanks, Rebecca! I hope you get to Alaksa to see brown bears. It’s quite memorable!

  4. Comment by Donna Janke

    Donna Janke Reply August 22, 2016 at 9:28 am

    The experience sounds great. I like how responsible and respectful and knowledgable your guide was. I have no desire to see a bear close up, but what you watched from a safe distance must have been fascinating.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply August 22, 2016 at 11:28 am

      Agree, Donna. Up close would be terrifying and not recommended, but from a respectable distance where you could observe their natural behaviors was very memorable.

  5. Comment by The GypsyNesters

    The GypsyNesters Reply August 22, 2016 at 9:56 am

    Looks as though things were handled safely and properly. There is always danger when encountering wild animals. We got to see a grizzly up close in Denali National Park a few months ago and it was amazing. Luckily we were safely enclosed in a bus.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply August 22, 2016 at 11:30 am

      Wow, glad you were in a bus. It still must have gotten your adrenaline pumping. We were a very safe distance on Chichagof, they never even knew we were there, so we were able to observe. It was fascinating!

  6. Comment by Penny

    Penny Reply August 22, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    I’m impressed with your entire experience, especially the measures taken to insure both your safety and the natural activities of the bears. Also, the bear spray is a great idea. Our son likes to go off camping alone in the mountains of NC from time to time, and I think Momma Bear will get him a can of the stuff. Thanks for the tip.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply August 22, 2016 at 12:11 pm

      Thanks, Penny! I love the concept of the spray, and how it preserves the lives of both the human and the Alaska brown bear. What a great gift to give your son!

  7. Comment by noel

    noel Reply August 22, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    I always wondered how effective those sprays were, I almost used one for a trip to the Grand Tetons, but this was a very popular trail in the day time where hundreds do the same trek so I decided not to do it.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply August 22, 2016 at 3:05 pm

      Apparently very effective, Noel. A very good thing to have (or for your guide to have) if you’re hiking in Alaska or anywhere else where bears live.

  8. Comment by AdventureSmith Explorations

    AdventureSmith Explorations Reply August 23, 2016 at 5:20 pm

    Great recap of your experience and explanation of responsible bear viewing. So happy you were on board with us!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply August 29, 2016 at 8:08 am

      The bears were great and so was our opportunities to see many humpback whales, bald eagles, sea lions and other wild life. The hiking and kayaking were fantastic. Absolutely loved this adventure!

  9. Comment by Irene S. Levine

    Irene S. Levine Reply August 28, 2016 at 10:37 pm

    What a fascinating post. It sounds very much like the approach taken on safaris in Africa. It’s so important to be with a guide who knows about the animals and their behavior.

    • Comment by Irene S. Levine

      Irene S. Levine Reply August 28, 2016 at 10:51 pm

      P.S. Scat is a great Scrabble word!

      • Comment by luggageandlipstick

        luggageandlipstick Reply August 29, 2016 at 8:06 am

        AdventureSmith and the Westward take great care to protect both human and wild animals. It’s was quite a memorable experience!

      • Comment by luggageandlipstick

        luggageandlipstick Reply August 29, 2016 at 8:07 am

        I’ll have to remember that next time I play Scrabble!

  10. Comment by Anne

    Anne Reply August 31, 2016 at 3:22 pm

    Bears are formidable animals that one should always treat with respect. We’ve traveled a lot in North America and have seen a total of 50 bears so far (we keep count!). My husband once hiked at Glacier NP and there was a Grizzly eating berries just 10 yards away from the trail. A couple of dozens of hikers just stood there with the trail “blocked” by the bear because no one wanted to get close enough to walk by… Eventually, they decided they can’t all stand there all day long. They slowly moved forward as a group and the bear slowly moved away.
    That was also the only time my husband actually pulled the pepper spray’s safety pin. Fortunately, we never had to get this close to a bear ever again. Next year we’re going to Alaska and while I hope we see bears, I also hope there will be a safe distance between us and them.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply August 31, 2016 at 3:25 pm

      Wow, that’s what I call a close encounter! We were not nearly that close in Alaska, yet it was still amazing. So glad your husband had the pepper spray, and even more glad that he didn’t have to use it.

  11. Comment by Marc

    Marc Reply March 3, 2017 at 12:50 pm

    So I am a big gun lover….. Let’s just get that out of the way.

    But your right 100% about bears. Especially large bears. Large caliber firearms at close range will not always save you if your being attacked by a bear. Pepper spray works better when you are close.

    But bears are not violent creatures typically. A momma bear will protect her cubs and you never mess with that. But they won’t actively hunt you down to do harm. They do like an easy meal. So if you are camping and have food, seal it where they can smell it and store it high so they can’t get to it.

    Looks like you had a great time. I like the idea of doing a smaller ship than one of those monster cruise ships.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply March 4, 2017 at 11:41 am

      It was a great adventure. And yes, I agree, stay clear of a mother and her cubs!

  12. Comment by Jason Burton

    Jason Burton Reply July 28, 2018 at 6:47 am

    Alaska is an amazing place in the USA. There are lots of wildlife hunting spot in Alaska. The Bear is very decent but sometimes bear can be a dangerous thread for our hunting period.

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