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Searching for Bears Near Ketchikan, Alaska with Celebrity Cruise Line

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When my parents returned from their trip to Alaska a few years ago, I was as green with envy as Alaska is green with trees. The main cause of this bout of travel jealousy? Their photos of wild bears scooping up spawning salmon from a rushing river. These photos became the catalyst for my family’s Alaskan Celebrity Cruise. I just had to go see those bears! Here's where to find bears near Ketchikan, Alaska.

Bears fishing for salmon in Brooks Falls, Alaska

The photo that inspired our Alaskan cruise, taken at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park (Photo by Tom Lanin)

Bears near Ketchikan, Alaska

In Ketchikan there were several bear-focused excursion options. We chose one of the most economical, the Bear Country & Wildlife Expedition. Kids must be 12+ to tag along on this excursion, which is all for the best since it involves a lot of standing around not doing much and being fairly quiet…two things my children aren’t very good at. Instead, my husband and I walked through Ketchikan's small downtown with our two kids (ages 5 and 8) before we checked them into our ship's youth program for the afternoon so we could be free to commune with the bears.

Kids with a bear totem in Ketchikan, Alaska

My kids posing with a bear totem in Ketchikan, Alaska

After a half-hour bus drive, we arrived at Herring Cove, where we were met by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide named John. After some brief safety instructions, we bounded into the woods thrilled at the prospect of witnessing throngs of black bears scooping up lunch from a stream.

Looking for bears in Tongass National Park

Looking for bears in Tongass National Park

John led our small group of bear seekers through a 1-mile stretch of  a 64-acre rainforest sanctuary, teaching us about bears and other animals along the way. The sanctuary is just one portion of the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest, the world's second largest rainforest. Between four to six bears make the sanctuary their home.

Salmon remains indicated black bears were nearby in Tongass National Forest

Salmon remains indicated black bears were nearby

Telltale signs indicated bears had recently been in the area. Salmon remains were strewn on rocks in the stream. John told us the bears prefer to eat the brains and stomachs, then leave the rest. (What gluttony!)

We traversed the first of a series of suspension bridges and then stood atop a platform for several minutes. My husband and I, along with a dozen or so other bear seekers, stood staring at the trees. “Look for any movement,” our trusty guide told us.

Alaskan fireweed

Along the trail we spotted fireweed and other wildflowers

Losing hope

As our group glanced from the trickle of water with nary a live salmon in sight and back to the motionless trees, our hopes of witnessing bears in the wild began to dwindle. One of our fellow excursion-goers said, “It's like looking for a needle in a haystack with six bears in 64 acres.”

John did his best to keep us all entertained with stories about bears seen on past treks, like the time a woman stood gaping at him, mouth wide open and pointing. He turned around to find a bear directly behind him, which led to John's involuntary and extraordinary leap and scream that startled the bear into retreat.

A wild berry in the Tongass National Forest

A wild blackberry in the beautiful Tongass National Forest

We learned a whole lot about black bears that day. Did you know that they have animal medicinal awareness? They instinctively know which plants to eat to ease ailments of all sorts. For example, black bears eat artist conch, a fungus that causes constipation to keep from “wetting their beds” during hibernation. When they wake from their long winter naps they eat skunk cabbage to get things moving again.

Black bear den near Herring Cove

Black bear den near Herring Cove

Eventually we traversed onward to another platform where we stood and stared into the woods some more. John pointed out adolescent bald eagles in the treetops (lacking in their telltale white heads due to their youth). We also saw a bear's hibernation den formed in the trunk of a tree.

Above us we heard the whir of zip-liners as they soared over our heads. “Why didn’t you sign us up for the zip-lining?” my husband asked.

I said, “Because we came to Alaska to see bears!”

Our bear encounter on our Celebrity Cruise Line shore excursion

Our bear encounter on our Celebrity Cruise Line Bear Country & Wildlife Expedition excursion

A bear at last!

Nearly two hours into our bear excursion, there were no bears to be seen.  There was grumbling among the ranks when our guide received notice from another naturalist further up the trail…a bear was headed our way. We hurried to the next platform and within a couple of minutes a black bear came lumbering along and strolled past on the path below us.

One of the loudest grumblers said, “You just lucked out, John. If we didn’t see a bear, I think your goose wouldda been cooked, my friend.” Bear sightings occur on about half of all tours and are not guaranteed.

Tour extras

Our bear seen, we moved on to a few tour extras. We started with a brief visit of an abandoned sawmill.

Rescued great horned owl in the Tongass National Forest near Ketchikan, Alaska

A rescued great horned owl

The Alaska Raptor Center has mini outpost here, with a rescued owl and bald eagle. (The main facility in Sitka, Alaska houses 20 rescued birds.) These birds were injured as adults and therefore can't be reintroduced to the wild so they live here as educational animals. Both are apex predators, meaning they are at the top of their food chain. The handler wore a sturdy glove lest her hand be crushed by their powerful claws.

We met five female reindeer that were rescued from a local sausage farm. John said that a bear came by the reindeer enclosure once but was driven off by the herd. The bears never returned.

A totem carving demonstration in the Tongass National Forest near Ketchikan, Alaska

A totem carving demonstration in the Tongass National Forest near Ketchikan, Alaska

Wayne the totem carver gave us a brief demonstration of his tools and methods for carving trees into sculptures in the traditional method.

After a short stint in the gift shop, where complimentary cookies and coffee were offered, we hopped back onto our bus for the ride back to the cruise ship.

Other Celebrity Cruise Line bear excursions near Ketchikan

The Alaska Bear Adventure sounds very similar to our Bear Country & Wildlife Expedition but the destination is reached via float plane rather than by bus. The Neets Bay Bear Cruise includes a high-speed boat cruise to Neets Bay to search streams and beaches near a salmon hatchery for bears. There were a few other bear-viewing options, all of which took place at Herring Cove (where we went) and Neets Bay.

Brown bear at Brooks Falls

Brown bear at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park (Photo by Tom Lanin)

Where else to see bears in Alaska

If you want to witness bears aplenty deftly scooping salmon from rapids, you may want to head to Brooks Camp at Katmai National Park. The bears at Katmai are brown bears (a.k.a. grizzly bears) whereas those near Ketchikan are the smaller and less aggressive black bears.

Most visitors to Brooks Camp arrive via float plane. My parents made their arrangements via the Internet through Inlet Charters Across Alaska Adventures in Homer, Alaska. My dad said, “Brooks Camp is located where the Brooks River flows into Naknek Lake. It’s an easy mile and a half walk through the woods bordering the river to Brooks Falls and the elevated viewing platforms from which most of our pictures were taken. Our start was delayed for about 20 minutes because a couple of grizzlies decided to rest on the bridge across Brooks River. The bears have the right-of-way.”

Celebrity Cruise Line zip-lining excursion near Ketchikan

Celebrity Cruise Line zip-lining excursion near Ketchikan

Other Celebrity Cruise Line Ketchikan excursions

Am I glad I saw a wild bear in Alaska? Yes! Knowing what I know now, would I sign up for this excursion again? Probably not. Despite the gorgeous forest setting and educational tour, I would have preferred a faster-moving excursion.

Instead, I might opt the Rainforest Canopy & Zipline Expedition. From the sound of squeals and cheers coming from the trees above us, it sounded like an exhilarating way to experience the Tongass Rainforest.

If you are visiting Alaska with kids and looking for a family friendly excursion, I'd probably choose the Wilderness Exploration & Crab Feast for a boat ride through the Inside Passage to remote crab fishing grounds where tour-goers can help retrieve crab pots from the water. Then families are rewarded for their efforts with a Dungeness crab feast at the George Inlet Lodge.

Searching for bears near Ketchikan, Alaska

Have you seen bears in the wild? Where? Let us know in the comments below!

A Note from The Travel Mama: Celebrity Cruise Line hosted my family during our 7-night Alaskan Cruise aboard Solstice. We paid for all of the shore excursions ourselves. All opinions are mine, as always.

About Colleen Lanin

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

Comments

  1. Lisa Goodmurphy says:

    We were a bit disappointed that we didn’t see any bears on our Alaskan cruise and a few days after returning we were visiting grandparents on Manitoulin Island when a black bear crossed the road in front of us – the kids were thrilled! We saw a lot of bears growing up in rural Northern Ontario but it never ceases to be exciting to see one – from a safe distance!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      How funny that you saw bears at home right after your Alaskan cruise! You must have been “calling” to them! 😉

  2. We were in Alaska at the end of July and we were told that the likelihood of seeing the grizzlies going after the salmon was determined by when the salmon were spawning. We considered ourselves lucky to see them because it was near the end of this period. We watched them for an hour since we were the last group to get to the lookout stand due to the delay crossing the bridge with the bears. Most groups were allowed 30 minutes.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      What an incredible experience! I want to go back to explore more of Alaska and see more bears! We only scratched the surface of this huge, beautiful state.

  3. We did and adventures by disney land tour in alaska and saw bears twice. Once in Denali and another one swimming in the waters of the kenai fjords. The jokes were endless. Why did the bear cross the fjord? etc. Even the boat captain was in shock. He’d never seen that happen before. The bear was a mile from land. He was a good swimmer. Too cool.

  4. So glad you got to see an Alaskan bear! We spent an amazing day with brown bears on a river just off of Geographic Harbor in Katmai National Park. Took a float plane in from Homer on a guided tour. We sat less than 50 yards away from these mighty giants. One of the highlights of my travels thus far.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Debi – I really want to return to Alaska to explore more of this magnificent state…and to see those bears at Katmai!

  5. I am so glad that you spotted a bear! We have had terrible luck with wildlife excursions. On our last cruise we booked a whale watching excursion where whales are spotted 90% of the time, and saw nothing at all. I am always glad for those extra features so the excursion isn’t a total loss.

  6. wanderingeducators says:

    VERY cool!! i love that your guide was so knowledgeable and humorous. it helps!

  7. I’m going to have to do this one of these days. I love bears. Like really love them.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Katie – It’s pretty awesome to see a bear in the wild. I hope to get back to Alaska some day and get to Katmai to see those grizzlies!

  8. alaskaoceanpros says:

    It’s really cool to see bears in real life!

    If anyone is interested in fishing, we’re here to assist you.

    Our charter business, Alaska Ocean Pros specializes in long range Homer Halibut fishing trips (Halibut, Rockfish, Ling Cod and Salmon). Book your Homer Halibut Fishing trip before January 2017 and receive $25.00 off per person.

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