Getting Wild in Alaska: Critter Viewing With Kids

AK Mom watches a brown bear along the beach of Hallo Bay

I’m home now after a magical visit to Hallo Bay Bear Camp on the shores of Katmai National Park, and the afterglow from close encounters of the bruin kind still has me in daze. This was AK Mom’s getaway; my “momcation” if you will, with nothing kid-friendly about a weekend spent stalking bears with my Nikon at close range. I’m still amazed I didn’t bolt from the airplane or wet my pants. And I’m a grownup.

Kids and wildlife can be a tricky combination. Both are rather unpredictable, occasionally moody, and not always eager to do what we want. The idea of taking one into the living room of the other makes many a parent nervous, and with good reason. Alaska is home to a wealth of large animals who normally are quite content to live and let live, so long as the two-legged variety does not infringe upon their space. Moose, caribou, bears, wolves, and the occasional lynx are spotted in Anchorage, for heaven’s sake, nevermind the more remote areas of the nation’s largest state. But visitors want to see animals, and they want their kids to experience that same sense of wild wonder outside the normal boundaries of a city zoo or wildlife park. Do it, I say, but heed our Family Wildlife Guide of age-appropriate experiences, it just might save you, your kids, and your tour company time, money, and effort. Questions? Call ahead to make sure you know what you might see and when (time of year plays a large role in animal behavior, especially with respect to bears), how much the experience will cost for the whole family, and how difficult it is to reach the site (a long boat or float plane ride might be stressful for everyone!). Most crucial is knowing your children’s tolerance for all of the above, and be honest with information.

AK Kid at the Palmer Musk Ox Farm.

ALL AGES:

Musk Ox Farm, Palmer. Musk ox are a vital part of the northern-based Alaska Native people, and with good reason. Their thick, luxourious hair is the warmest there is, and when carded and knit into clothing, one cannot but help sink into blissful coziness. They’re pretty cute, too, and at the farm in Palmer, a breeding program promotes, educates, and thrills visitors of all ages. Open May-September, the farm is full of little kid (and big kid) fun, especially Mother’s Day weekend, when calves are introduced to the world and a big party ensues for all visitors.

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, Portage. Walked or driven, the property of AWCC is perfect for families. Bears, moose, elk, a porcupine, lynx, and a lovely herd of wood bison wander happily in their large enclosures, and families can choose how much or how little exertion to put upon kids during a visit. Kids over 10 may enjoy a close encounter tour, with behind-the-scenes looks at how the animals are cared for. Plus, kids get to help cut up veggies and fruit for feeding times, way cool. A visit during the fall, by the way, is spectacular, with bugeling elk and foraging bears. Open all year.

Running Reindeer Ranch, Fairbanks. Want to walk with one of the most revered northern animals around, thanks to a guy in a red suit? The Ranch invites families to take their small herd of reindeer for a walk around their lovely boreal forest near Fairbanks. It’s a fun, relaxed few hours of reindeer bonding that shows off this beautiful creature and their suitability for arctic living. Open all year by reservation. 907-455-4998.

Watching bears fish at Anan.

GRADE SCHOOL-MIDDLE SCHOOL:

Fortress of the Bear, Sitka. I wasn’t sure what I’d think about this place, given that the bears live in a couple of huge water tanks and know how to beg for food. That said, Executive Director Les Kinnear is dedicated to preserving and protecting orphaned brown bear cubs that otherwise might have been destroyed. It’s not a huge facility, only 3/4 of an acre at this point, but plans are underway to expand and continue the mission and vision of Les and his crew. To see the bears, one must climb a tower of sorts, and gaze between the two tanks. The bears are always entertaining, I’ll give them that, and AK Kid enjoyed seeing them play in the water most of all. There is also a small petting zoo on site with a bunch of boisterous goats and a miniature horse quite adept at begging for a bucket of veggies from visitors. Open all year, located a few miles outside of Sitka. 907-747-3032.

Anan Wildlife Observatory, Wrangell. We wrote about this incredible bear-viewing opportunity a few months ago, and it still ranks among my top wildlife experiences for older elementary-aged children. AK Kid, at six, was able to understand and follow directions, crucial to the Anan experience, since one will be hiking right through bear country for a mile before reaching the fenced-in, but not bear-proof viewing deck. For sheer awe-power, Anan is the closest and most accessible wilderness viewing area for both black and brown bears. The safest way to take kids to this area is via a tour, where transportation and a guide is provided and welcome, since Anan is an hour by boat from the small southeast Alaska town of Wrangell. A guide can also provide some authority power for kids who need to listen carefully to “bear aware” rules. At least, it worked for us, as Alaska Vistas provided all of the above and a wealth of fanstatic area information.  June-September. Permits required through USFS, or a guide outfit.

Big bears for big kids at Hallo Bay.

TEEN AND YOUNG ADULT:

Hallo Bay Bear Camp, Hallo Bay/Katmai National Park. There are many, many companies offering wildlife-viewing tours, most of which involve a long day of flying and scoping out bears, wolves, foxes, and the like. If a truly wilderness experience is what you’re after with your teen or young adult, then Hallo Bay is your company. Licensed to operate an overnight camp along the beach of north Hallo Bay, HBBC provides a safari-like trip that awes, inspires, and excites the adolescent in all of us. Very savvy guides lead trips of 6-7 hours from camp to observe the bears in their most raw form, and day trippers spend three hours in the meadow or along a nearby creek doing the same. There are no electric fences, no guns or bear spray, just simple, practical consistency and courtesy toward bears that guides demand from all guests. This trip is not for teens who could care less about wildlife; kids must be open to new experiences that will test not only their bodies, but their brains. This can be a life-changer for your child and you if planned and executed carefully, and the guides at HBBC do their utmost to make it so. Meals, footwear, accommodations are provided for overnight trips, and footwear and lunch provided for day trips. Read our blog post from June for a more complete description of Hallo Bay Bear Camp.

Wildlife is a strong thread woven into the fabric of Alaska’s tapestry. Teaching your kids about of our largest animals can be a powerful tool toward understanding our world, and theirs, too.

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