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Winging It in Alaska ... "Bear"ly

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Jan115

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A cruise to Alaska isn’t about standing at the railing watching the scenery. Don’t get me wrong; you’ll see some amazing scenery from the deck of a cruise ship – wildlife, panoramic vistas and glaciers. No, to really experience Alaska, you’ll need to get off the ship and venture out into the wild and commune with nature.

My husband came up with the idea first – a flightseeing trip to see black bears in their natural habitat. I’d seen pictures - tiny planes that fly relatively low and land on water.

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The pessimist in me (or “negative nanny” as the hubby affectionately calls me) immediately came to surface, as I thought to myself … are these little winged vehicles safe? Is our will up to date? Is our insurance going to cover if the plane goes down? What if the plane breaks down and we miss the ship? What if the weather’s bad? Will I be able to get my arthritic knees up the ladder into the seat? Will my beefy husband fit? You can see where I was going with this. I found the idea a little unsettling, to say the least.

When I am presented with any potentially new experience, I turn to my best friend, Google. I immediately opened up the iPad and began researching small Alaska floatplanes, the best companies, and the best places to see bears from Ketchikan, one of our ports of call. The more I read, the more I liked the idea. “Hey, this could be fun!” I tried to convince my skeptical side.

My search revealed several well-recommended flight companies, so I began making some calls. Two viewing locations for bears in Ketchikan were recommended – Anan Creek or Traitor’s Cove. Both involved a half-mile trail through rainforest to a viewing platform overlooking a creek. Traitor’s Cove provided a guide to the viewing area. Anan Creek did not – once the plane landed, you were on your own, alone, at the mercy of any bear encountered along the trail. Since our comfort level regarding meeting any large 4-legged wildlife in the woods is pretty low, we opted for the safety and reassurance of a guide and Traitor’s Cove.

The next consideration was price. Like many tours involving travel to locations in the Alaskan wilderness, a flightseeing trip would mean expenditure of a small fortune. Geez, I thought. I could buy another cruise for that money - a short one – but a cruise nonetheless. But, hey, this is Alaska. A ride on a small plane would be an adventure well worth the price. After reading some very positive travel reviews, we finally settled on a small family aviation business. Run by a young couple with two very cute kids (according to website photos anyway), Dad was the pilot and Mom ran the office, and they owned just two planes. Mom was very kind and friendly on the phone, patiently answered all my questions, took my credit card deposit, and we were good to go!

I had read stories of bad Alaska weather – rain, cold and thick fog – conditions that could possibly hinder the view from the plane, or preventing the plane from even taking off, for that matter. As luck would have it, we were blessed with a perfect day for our flight from Ketchikan, with no rain in the forecast.

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I won’t lie, though … I was really nervous. My stomach was doing flips, and I ate very little that morning. We were picked up as scheduled on the dock, driven to the DeHavilland Beaver 6-passenger floatplane, shown a brief safety video while we all settled our account, and led to the plane, along with our 4 other flight mates.

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Now, remember when I mentioned the family owned two planes? Well, as we’re walking to the plane, Mom apologizes for running a little late – that one plane had to go rescue some passengers stranded by their other plane that had developed a small mechanical problem out on a Misty Fiords run. After registering the look of alarm on my face, she assured us that all was fine with the plane sitting in the water in front of us. Dear, God – I thought – I hope you’re right.

It was time to board, and pilot Dad assigned us our seats. David and I were seated side by side in the row behind the pilot. It was a little tricky maneuvering up the ladder and in and out of the seats, but the pilot was happy to assist, and I am happy to report that we all fit just fine.

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Once the engine started and we began to take off, my worries melted away, replaced by excitement, and I felt perfectly at ease. Take off was very smooth, and we hardly felt a thing.

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Even better was the view. In a six-seat small plan like this, everyone has a window with a view, and we gazed in wonder at the mountains in the distance and the beauty of the islands and forestry below.

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After about 20 minutes of breathtaking scenery, with pilot Dad narrating into our headsets as we flew, we landed effortlessly at the dock. A guide greeted us and brought us for a short walk to the van that would drive us into the rain forest.

Close to the van was a small outhouse, and I was reminded of a YouTube video I recently watched showing a woman held captive for some time by a curious bear pacing outside the door of the outhouse she was using at another bear viewing location. I really had to go, and I prayed that wouldn’t be me. Thankfully, no bears came calling.

After a short ride in the van and some preliminary instruction in the event of an encounter with a bear on the trail, we hiked along the half-mile dirt path, marveling at the quiet solitude and beauty of the lush rainforest, with our guide pointing out some exquisite plant life along the way.

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As it turns out, we didn’t run into any bears in our pathway, but we did find some fresh bear poop (yes, you could even see the red berries he had recently eaten!) indicating to us that one may have been recently nearby.

A walk in the woods is not complete without a photo op. Ours would be a scenic overlook from a bridge, with two people fishing nearby to provide prospective.

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We finally reached an observation deck overlooking a creek, where we all had our eyes peeled to the running water below in the hopes of seeing a bear or two come and feast on spawning salmon.

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We quietly waited and waited – for anything … a bear, a porcupine, a moose – something to start our cameras rolling. Other than a few salmon in the running water in the creek below, there was no sign of life – at least none that we could see with the naked eye. Finally, just when we began to give up hope of seeing any animal life, two bald eagles flew low overhead through the trees, landed and posed for pictures. These two majestic birds flew around, landed here and there, and otherwise kept us entertained for the rest of the time at the creek.

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Come to find out, the recent spell of unseasonably warm, dry, sunny weather in the area - while great for the tourists - had not been so good for bear sightings. The water levels in the streams were low, with far fewer salmon running, resulting in fewer bears showing up for dinner.

In the end, no bears were seen on this trip. The only photograph showing evidence of bears at Traitor’s Cove was a detailed picture of bear poop! Although we were disappointed that the bears did not come out to play that day, we thoroughly enjoyed the ride!

And as a bonus, upon flying back into port, we got a great photo of our ship.

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See more photos from our flightseeing excursion in my Web Album

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Great story, Jan...I would have been pretty apprehensive about flying in the plane also. My hubby loves to fly, so I'm sure he would try very hard to get me in one of those planes. I remember when I took my first helicopter flight (at the Black Hills of SD) It was scary at first, but I am so glad that I did. Wish you could have seen the bears.

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