Fairfield native going wild: Clint Hlebechuk and wife Simyra run Alaskan bear-viewing paradise
Jim Hlebechuk wasn't surprised when his younger brother decided to move to Alaska.
What Jim -- and pretty much anyone else -- could not have expected was that Clint Hlebechuk would come to run one of the most sought-after bear viewing destinations in the world.
But that's exactly what he did.
It was the early 1980s and an oil boom in western North Dakota was becoming an oil bust. Besides, everyone knew Clint loved hunting and fishing.
"He had always talked about going to Alaska," said Jim, Killdeer. "I wasn't surprised at all when he said he was going up there."
In the mid-80s, after discovering that many of the customers on his halibut fishing charter boats were more interested in viewing the Alaskan brown bears on Kodiak Island, Clint had an idea.
Fast forward to the present and Clint and his wife, Simyra Taback-Hlebechuk, recently finished the 25th year of operation for the Hallo Bay Bear Camp outside of Homer, Alaska, in the Katmai National Park.
Employing a seasonal camp as its home base, Hallo Bay is a place where anyone can visit and take guided tours of a pristine area nearly untouched by mankind. Of course, that also means visitors and guides are sometimes mere feet away from some of the most feared creatures on Earth.
"People sometimes wonder how a farm boy from North Dakota ended up living with the Kodiaks in Alaska," said Clint, a native of Fairfield. "On our fishing charters, enough wanted to just go look at the bears, so one day we just took people out on a sightseeing tour. When we got back, we had no fish to clean, no slimy mess. I thought, 'Hey, this is great.'"
Over the years, Hallo Bay has grown to employ 12 people during the summer viewing season, has three full-time employees and owns an international reputation, attracting visitors -- about 250 annually -- from around the world to a tiny 2-acre parcel within the nearly 4.1 million acres that make up Katami.
"I've been close enough to reach out and touch a bear on many occasions," Clint said. "We don't carry firearms and there are no electric fences. When we're on a tour, we're in the bears' territory. To them, we're nothing more than a seagull. People sometimes think it's crazy to be out amongst the bears like that, but common sense goes a long way."
Opening in 1988 on a whim, Hallo Bay has grown steadily. Disney has a movie, set for release in 2014, in production that will be partially filmed at Hallo Bay. The movie is directed by Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill, the same pair who directed "African Cats."
This is a unique place, Clint said. "We've never had a problem with the bears and we have tremendous guides who really know what they're doing. Simyra, what she does with the bears is really amazing."
Her husband isn't the only one who thinks Simyra has a special talent in working with the majestic giants. Last week, Simyra was presented with Wanderlust magazine's Silver Guide Award for 2013, naming her as the second-best wildlife guide in the world. Simyra was runner-up out of a pool of more than 1,000 nominees worldwide.
"I was pretty excited," said Simyra, who met her future husband as a guest at Hallo Bay in 1999. "There are not many women naturalist guides out there and especially not many brown bear guides. I'm just very proud to win this award. I hope more people realize that these beautiful creatures aren't these blood-thirsty animals."
Being among the bears
Simyra said there's nothing quite like being in the presence of a Kodiak bear.
"It's a very humbling experience and it never gets old," Simyra said. "You realize that you're the least important thing out there. We're used to being at the top of the food chain as people, but that isn't the case when you're at camp."
Though Clint said he regularly comes into contact with 1,400-pound bears at Hallo Bay, his mother back in Fairfield isn't concerned for her son's safety.
"Not at all," said Martha Hlebechuk. "He knows what he's doing and the bears seem to know him and the other guides. It's really an amazing place up there. I've been twice and I've been within 15 feet of a bear -- it's an incredible experience."
Having just accepted a position based in Alaska, Jim said he plans to visit his brother in Homer later this fall. The trip will be Jim's first to the town.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I don't travel much, but it's going to be great going up there. I don't worry about Clint at all. I think it's great what he's doing -- people all over the world know about his camp."
As a private inholding in the Katmai only accessible by small plane, Hallo Bay is difficult to reach, but welcoming to all and, according to Clint, a trip that is well worth it.
"Unless you're one of the guys who ran away screaming, leaving their wives, the first time they saw a bear on a tour," he jokes about a pair of clients from years ago. "You don't always know how people are going to react when they're put in that situation for the first time, but it's an experience everyone should have, if possible."
An experience made possible by a North Dakota farm boy who made it his life's work to make sure others get to witness what he saw from his fishing boat three decades ago.