Let's talk bears. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are the white ones, found only in the far frozen north of Alaska. Black bears (Ursus americanus) are smaller, blacker and live in the state's south. Brown bears (Ursus arctos) are big, brown and can be found throughout Alaska except in the Arctic north, where the white ones reign supreme.
And grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis)? Well, they're just a variation of the brown bear - and despite that impressive horribilis tag, they're not even particularly large. To see truly big brown bears, you need to head offshore to Kodiak Island. (A big Kodiak brownie can weigh more than half a ton!) The island is home to about 3500 of the critters, which means your chance of spotting one is practically guaranteed.
Kodiak Island is what you might call a long way from anywhere. Outside of Kodiak town, there's just a handful of villages, a smattering of fishing lodges and a whole lot of pristine wilderness…ideal bear-watching territory. I caught a Beaver floatplane to the island, which dropped me off at Karluk Lake to the west.
Waiting for me on the jetty were my native Alaskan guides, Rome and Alex. These two guys know their bears. They also know their shotguns, which they tote on bear-watching trips, though they assured me they'd never had to use them…
Bear-watching in Kodiak is pretty rough'n'ready. There are no viewing platforms, no real tourist infrastructure – in fact, we didn't come across any other tourists at all. Walking from the lakeside to our favorite bear-watching viewpoint, we had to push our way through shoulder-high undergrowth. The smell of bear hung heavy in the air and I couldn't help wondering whether we might trip over something large, brown and furry, napping in the grass. It was much the same when nature called in the middle of the night – the prospect of bumping into a bear en route between my bunkroom sleeping bag and the outhouse didn't thrill me. The cabin itself was spartan but comfortable, run by a native corporation which works hard to employ local Alaskans.
Over the next three days we saw plenty of bears and bear cubs. The bears saw us too, but weren't that interested, being far more occupied with hunting down some salmon. On our first day, there were no salmon to be seen: the run was yet to start, and the bears were looking uncomfortably skinny. But the next day the fish were on the move. I'm not sure who was more delighted - those hungry bears rampaging into the river to smack a fat salmon on to the riverbed, or us, overjoyed to witness these hulking creatures explode into action.
The secret to bear watching? Find a good viewpoint, relax and wait. That's all it takes.
Tony Wheeler travelled to Alaska on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow his adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.