DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — It was near the end of a six-hour bus tour of Denali National Park that we got a good, long look at a bear eating his way through a field of berries.
Elsewhere in Alaska, my husband, two sons and I had watched whales spouting near Juneau, eagles along the Chilkat River, and waterways in Ketchikan and Skagway so full of salmon they could barely move.
But we'd headed to Denali knowing that the park's 9,400 square miles are home to just 350 brown bears. We hoped to see them, but we were prepared for the possibility that we might not.
And therein lies an important point to keep in mind if you're planning a trip to Alaska this summer. There are no guarantees you'll see wildlife, but you can improve your chances if you're patient and if you put yourself in the right place at the right time.
"People go to Alaska to see wildlife for a reason, but you see it in many ways and in many circumstances," said Holland America Line spokesman Erik Elvejord. "Don't expect a line-up of bears when you hit the pier, or pods of whales everywhere the ship goes.
If you're cruising to Alaska between May and September, you're probably starting to weigh tour options now. "Talk to the shore excursion manager about your expectations so they can help out," Elvejord said. "They won't promise anything they can't deliver, but they have to take all the tours, so they know what happens on them."
The Sea Otter Quest from the town of Sitka is one of the tours recommended by Robert Blythman, director of tour operations for Carnival Cruise Lines. "It's a 100 percent guarantee that you'll see the otters," he said.
Whales are also relatively easy for summer visitors to spot. "The time the cruise ships are up there is when humpbacks and orcas are feeding, so there's a good chance you'll see them," Blythman said.
Whales are so plentiful that some excursions come with money-back guarantees, like the Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest in Auke Bay, offered through Holland America Line.
On a whale-watch tour near Juneau, booked through our Royal Caribbean cruise, we saw so many humpbacks that we lost count. They spouted, surfaced and dove all around our boat, their black Y-shaped tails at a perfect 90-degree angle as they went down.
In contrast, Blythman said, "bears are more hit or miss."
As if to underscore that very point, an excursion we took from the port of Icy Strait Point was called a "bear search" tour rather than a "bear watch." The tour description clearly states that wildlife "sightings cannot be guaranteed." As it turned out, we did see bears, so we felt we'd gotten our money's worth.
Besides, the $100 per person we paid for the "bear search" was modest compared to the $300-$1,600 pricetags for fly-in tours to remote areas like Pack Creek on Admiralty Island or the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. Bears reliably congregate in these places and others, like Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, to feed on the salmon runs in the summer.
Keith Courtepatt, his wife Diana and daughter Alexa cruised Alaska last summer on Royal Caribbean and saw bears twice during shore excursions. "My advice would be, particularly on a trip like a cruise to Alaska, choose your day trips carefully," he said. "And once you choose them, don't worry about the money as it is a once-in-a-lifetime deal."
Among the steps you can take to improve your chances of viewing wildlife: Bring binoculars, be quiet on trails, and remember that early morning and dusk are the best times to see many types of animals. Yes, sign up for the 7 a.m. bear tour, not the 11 a.m., and drag yourself out of bed early on your vacation. The bears are up catching salmon for breakfast first thing, and you don't want to miss it.
Know the right season. According to the Alaska Public Lands Information Center, bears can be seen in Denali from May to September, but July through late August is the best time to see them at the Anan Wildlife Observatory in the Tongass National Forest.
And you'll probably see some eagles if you take the lazy float trip on the river through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near the Haines Highway. But to see the thousands of eagles that the preserve is famous for, you'll want to visit in October.
Recognize the role that serendipity plays. "The strange thing is that I've seen more wildlife just driving or walking around than on tours," Elvejord said . "I tend to do the active things so wildlife is secondary but I've seen moose and bear in towns, goats on the side of roads, wolves by rivers and eagles will always hang out by the rivers to catch the salmon."
One of Blythman's favorite trips is a fly-in to the Taku Glacier Lodge, where you're treated to a salmon bake. But he said there's also "a good chance that you'll see bears because they live close by. I've actually been there when the bear came up to the grill."
Opt for longer tours if you have time. You'll go deeper into Denali on the six-to-eight hour Tundra Wilderness Tour than on the three-to-four hour Natural History Tour. (A third Denali bus tour, the Kantishna Experience, is even longer at 12 hours.)
The Tundra tour buses also come equipped with high-powered telescopes hooked up to video screens throughout the bus so you can get close-up images of animals that are far away. You can even purchase a DVD afterward with footage from your trip.
Some cruises will provide ground transportation to Denali from their first or final port of call, and they'll include the bus tour in your cruise package. But you can also book the bus tour on your own and rent a car for the 250-mile trip to the park from Anchorage.
Once you get to Denali, though, you can only drive your car 15 miles into the park before you must turn around; individual access is limited in order to help preserve the wilderness. That's why 300,000 of Denali's 400,000 annual visitors take the bus tours, which are allowed farther into the park. The Tundra tour travels 54 miles in the park, and it's reasonably priced at $93.50 (children, $46.75).
On the bus tour we took, we saw moose, caribou and Dall sheep in addition to the bear. We were so captivated by the park's landscape, animals and history that we decided to return the next day on our own, even though we knew we'd only be able to drive in those 15 miles.
We were rewarded with an unforgettable moment that rivaled our observation of the bear the day before. We spotted a magnificent owl perched in a treetop by the side of the road, so we pulled over and rolled the car window down so my teenage son could take pictures.
Just then, the bird suddenly stretched its wings wide and shot out of the tree, swooping straight for us. It swerved at the last moment as we rather hastily closed the window.
For a family from New York, where the only birds we see are pigeons, it doesn't get any more exciting than having an owl remind you that you are indeed where the wild things are. Six months later, we're still talking about that owl, along with all the other creatures we encountered in Alaska.
If you go . . .
ALASKA'S BEST BEAR-VIEWING SITES: Listed at www.nps.gov/aplic or www.wildlife.alaska.gov/viewing/bearviewing_sites.pdf.
WILDLIFE VIEWING TOURS AND TIPS:www.travelalaska.com/Activities/Wildlife/index.aspx
DENALI NATIONAL PARK:www.nps.gov/dena/ or 907-683-2294.
DENALI BUS TOURS:www.reservedenali.com or 800-622-7275. Tundra Wilderness Tour offered May 25-Sept. 11, adults $93.50, children 14 and under $46.75. Reservations being accepted now for summer 2008.
CRUISES: Holland America, www.holland america.com. Carnival, www.carnival.com. Royal Caribbean, www.royalcaribbean.com. Princess and Celebrity also cruise to Alaska.
CHILKAT BALD EAGLE PRESERVE: www.dnr.state.ak.us/parks/units/eagleprv.htm.