Like the best fishermen, bears are patient anglers, slowly padding out to the shallow center of the river and facing downstream, looking for salmon swimming up. When a bear makes a move, however, it is fast, lumbering up to 35 miles per hour before pouncing. Our group watched as one active sow pulled a ten-pound pink salmon from the Thumb River and dragged it onshore, devouring it in a crunch of bones in mere minutes, leaving the tail for the whining cub behind her. Bears are omnivores, and another sow treated the wild grasses on the opposite riverbank like a salad bar, grazing as she walked.
"It's almost like they smell in vivid color," says Katelnikoff, who looks like an outdoorsy version of a Secret Service agent, sidearm at the ready, radio wire in his ear. "If our sense of smell is the equivalent of a postage stamp, a dog's is an 8-by-11 sheet of paper and a bear's is a newspaper."
Though they clearly smell us nearby, the bears largely ignore us in their single-minded search for salmon, treating us to the intimacies of their lives often as close as 15 feet away. One sleepy bear rolls over on a grassy bluff and allows her cub to nurse during their afternoon siesta. Another, after resting, engages in "snorkeling," sitting in a deeper part of the river and putting her head below water to look for fish. When none pass, she grooms herself, scratching with a comb of straight claws as long as fingers.
By midday, all four visible bears have chosen resting spots on the riverbanks, cuing our still cautious but ultimately drama-free departure for lunch. "It's not the bears I see that I worry about," says Katelnikoff, laying his rifle in the bottom of the boat. "It's those I don't."
Info: Kodiak Brown Bear Center, 4-day stay $3,499 per person, double occupancy, 877-335-2327, kodiakbrownbearcenter.com