In August of 2015 I traveled to Alaska to photograph the majestic brown bears.
In August of 2015 I was fortunate enough to find myself on an Alaskan Brown Bear Photography Trip with Natural Exposures Invitational Photography Tours. Seeing the brown bears of Alaska has been one of my “Life Lusts” (I hate the term bucket list because it implies death) for several years and finally this was going to be a reality!
After looking at the trip site web page I became a little intimidated by the photography equipment I saw being carried by guests in the posted photos. I decided this would be as good as time as any to upgrade my outdated camera equipment. So several thousands of dollars and two quick camera classes later, I was as ready as I ever would be to join the other nature and photography lovers on this trip.
I arrived in Anchorage, met my small group of fellow travelers, the husband and wife tour operator owners (Dan & Tanya Cox), and boarded one of two small charter aircraft for a one hour flight to the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve area which would be our bear viewing location. Some of the best bear viewing in the world occurs on coastal areas of the Alaskan Peninsula, including the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Katmai National Park and Preserve, and the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge. It is in these areas where bears gather in large numbers to feast on the concentrated food sources such as the salt marsh sedges, the tidal flat clams, the hillside berries, and the abundance of salmon in the estuary streams. The flight from Anchorage to the national park was beautiful and afforded us sightings of mountains, volcanos, glaciers, and even few beluga whales (I just saw one that looked like a piece of floating rice).
Following an unexpectedly smooth and gentle beach landing and disembarking from our planes, we were met by Dave and Joanne, owners of the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, located on the coast of the National Park across from the Kenai Peninsula. We loaded our luggage and ourselves onto ATV wagons and were taken to the lodge which would be our home for the next eight days.
My room was on the ground floor in the main lodge. I had a double bed, a private bathroom, an entrance off the hallway leading to the upstairs kitchen and eating area, and a little porch with another entrance into my room. In the sideview picture of the lodge, that white door under the stair area was the back door off my room; I really enjoyed having the outside entrance off my room.
We began our search for bears as soon as we finished our first lunch and had changed into appropriate bear-hunting-with-camera-gear-attire. I had purchased a large special camera backpack to carry all my gear in and it was super heavy. Because the bears are curious thieves, we could not leave anything in the ATV wagons; which meant every time the ATV stopped near a bear we had to get in and out of that wagon with all our gear. Well, the first time attempting to leave the wagon I tripped on myself and landed on my back! Nice! Like a big black turtle. Oh well; someone had to be the first to fall down. After that first day I only traveled with my camera body and long lens; no more 30 pound cumbersome backpack the size of a dwarf. And why was that backpack super heavy? Well, in my rush to get to the ATV wagon for the first bear viewing on that first afternoon I neglected to remove my mini computer, ipad, my camera manuals, and the heavy metal braces attached to my lenses for tripod stabilization! Capital DUH. No wonder I fell down! Another life lesson: If you fall down, get up and keep going or you will miss the bears or be eaten by them!
We quickly fell into a daily routine at the lodge: breakfast at 8am, with early morning bear viewing on a few days; bear viewing immediately after breakfast; break for lunch with some downtime for fishing or eventually more bear viewing after lunch; more bear viewing before dinner, and again more bear viewing after dinner. In the evenings after the last bear viewing I was always tired, so I usually took a shower and went to bed. Lodge meals were super tasty and almost always involved fresh salmon. One day they made yummy pizzas; I chose the smoked salmon pizza because it was so original. The only thing is, because bears don’t wait for people, most meals were eaten quickly so we could head back out for more bear viewing. I’m a fast eater, but this was super fast eating…for once, eating and running wasn’t considered rude, it was a necessity! Chewing is overrated anyway; just shovel, swallow and get back to the bears!!
Now, I should explain bear viewing was dependent on the tides. The bears were usually near the streams at low tide when the fish are easier to catch. When it was high tide we had the opportunity to go salmon fishing or hang out at the lodge and wait for the tide to go down. Also, bear viewing meant we still had to find the bears. Finding the bears involved getting into the ATV wagons and driving around with our guides until we found bears to watch and photograph. Sometimes we didn’t see any bears; but we knew they were near as we found many fresh bear prints.
One afternoon late in the trip I decided to go salmon fishing. I am not an animal killer, but I rationalized this activity because they are going to die any minute anyway. I felt really sorry for Dave, the super sweet and exceptionally patient guide who had to teach me how to hold the rod over my shoulder for the wind up, then snap that rod forward and release my finger from the line at the precise moment to get my line all the way across the stream. Once the hook and line plopped in the stream, you had to quickly flip some lever on the reel to secure the line and then slowly start reeling in that line. If anyone has ever had the sad opportunity to see my extremely poor throwing ability, you would have found my first attempts hilarious. I almost hooked Dave in the face a few times….but Dave was nice enough to not laugh at me, he just ducked, pulled the hook out of his hat, and kept trying to help me. After awhile I was able to (sort of) master spin fishing and caught my limit of TWO salmon! I didn’t watch (or listen) when Dave hit the fish in the head with the kill stick. When he had me hold up my fish for the pictures he told me the fish was dead, but I knew it wasn’t because when he cut it to make it bleed out the blood came out in spurts. Well. I’m no expert fisherman, but you can’t spurt blood unless you have a heart beat. At least the poor thing didn’t feel it. I don’t think I’ll ever fish again, but it was fun in a warped way.
We usually were successful in finding a few bears each time we ventured out for a bear viewing session. The bears we saw the first day out were a mother and her second season cubs. Because the guides have the ability to follow the same bears for many seasons, they get to know the bears quite well. The bears in this area have been habituated to humans over many years and although there has never been an incident involving bear and human conflict, the staff is very protective of the bears and how the human guests interact with these animals. Sometimes the bears would get very close to the people. In these cases, the bears always got the right of way.
As a guest in the bear’s territory, we are forbidden to feed them as feeding will disrupt their natural behaviors and will cause them to associate humans with food. Once humans are associated as a food source, it’s cause for eventual bad outcomes for the bears. The mantra of “a fed bear is a dead bear” is strictly followed. As human guests, we had to walk quietly together as a group when around the bears. A large group of people is more intimidating to the bears and offers more protection from the bears should any untoward altercation occur.
Brown bears are actually grizzly bears and any North American subspecies of brown bear is considered to be a grizzly bear. The grizzly bear is sometimes called the North American brown bear because the grizzly and the brown bear are actually one species on two continents. The brown bear, or grizzly, is NOT the same as the black grizzly (Ussuri brown bear) which is another subspecies of bears which inhabits Russian, Northern China, and Korea. The word grizzly means “grizzled” (as opposed to grisled) from the golden and grey tips of it’s coat.
Female bears usually weigh between 290-400 pounds, while the males weigh 400-790 pounds. Average length of a grizzly is 6.5 feet with a shoulder height of 3.5 feet. Because of the ample supply of fish and food, the coastal brown bears tend to be larger than their inland relatives.
This particular mother bear was categorized by the guides as not being very smart because of all the energy she expended during her fishing expeditions and her lack of keeping her cubs close at all times. Of course, being the bear expert I now was, I disagreed. This mother bear was not starving; she and her cubs looked healthy, and when there was danger in the area (another bear), she was clearly on alert. The mother bear could usually be found at low tide fishing for salmon for herself and her cubs. She was gorgeous.
Mama Bear used several different fishing techniques, such as the dive from the shore onto the fish in the stream method and the snorkel method. We saw her catch fish on several occasions. Sometimes she would eat the fish she caught and other times she would pass the fish onto one of her cubs.
Female bears stay with their cubs for 1-3 years and then they pretty much abandon them and become pregnant again. Except for when they are with their cubs, bears tend to be solitary animals. The guides told us the mother bears usually favor one cub over the other, but they couldn’t really say why this was. After the cubs were abandoned by their mother she would usually never interact with them again.
This mother bear was still nursing her cubs and we were able to witness this event on two occasions. She also played with her cubs which was highly entertaining to watch.
After the cubs had snacked on fresh fish and warm milk, they settled down in the sun for a nap. Normally, watching a bear sleep wouldn’t be very exciting, but these bears were so cute I just kept taking photographs!
We also followed an “Old Sow” as she was called by the guides. Everyone had their own name for this bear; I just called her “Gram.” This bear was beyond breeding age and now was a seasoned hardened bear (much like many post-menopausal women I know!). She was known to have attacked and killed at least one bear cub in the past, although at the time of this attack she was not protecting young cubs of her own. Gram was an excellent fisher which was obvious by watching her success and also by her size. It was clear she was gearing up for the winter.
Mama bear and her cubs and Gram were regular visitors to our camp. They cut through the camp on a regular basis, many times passing right under the window in my room. One day I saw them cutting through the yard and I quickly went to my room to go out the back door onto the porch….imagine my surprise when I saw them all just under my window which was only a few feet from where I was standing!! We were told not to leave things on the porches as sometimes the cubs would pick up the item and carry it off. I did leave my muck boots out on my porch but no bears wanted anything to do with them…most likely because they stunk.
One evening we followed the bears on foot all the way back to our camp which was a long hike. It amazed me the amount of ground those bears must travel each day. The people who opted out of that night’s bear hunt just had to walk out their cabin doors and watch the bears come to them!
I’m sure it had another name, like Bird Island, or Lost Island, because there was nothing on the island except mainly Puffins. On our first trip to the island it was very windy so the puffins were not cooperative for pictures. I sat patiently to get some photographs of a puffin who had a nest inside some rocks. Sadly, most of my photos that day were disappointing and out of focus; perfect for Monet prints, but not so good for even a bad amateur photographer. The next day the other half of our group went to Puffin Island; it wasn’t windy at all and their pictures were incredible….that bites.
But luckily, we were given another chance to return to Puffin Island on a different day which produced spectacular opportunities to photography these beautiful, yet goofy looking birds. The puffins are built for fishing and swimming and are excellent at those activities. They are terrible at landing as they usually crashed upon impact, which was doubly bad as most of their landings were on rocks.
The Atlantic puffins have a colorful beak in spring and summer, which suggests this is a mating trait as the beak fades to a drab gray in the winter. Puffins can dive to depths of 200 feet when fishing for herring and sand eels but only stay under the water for 20-30 seconds. When flying, the puffins flap their wings 400 times per minute and can reach speeds of 55 miles per hour. No wonder I could not clearly photograph any of these birds in flight! Their wings were a blur!
During some of our bear viewings we were fortunate to spot a few mature and juvenile bald eagles. Immature eagles are dark until they are five years old and lack the distinctive white markings which make the adults so easy to identify. Bald eagles are thought to mate for life and each year they tend to a pair of eggs in an enormous stick nest they have built and added to over several years. Bald eagles usually reuse the same nest and select trees for nesting which are close to the water and allow for a clear view of the surrounding area. Two to three dull white eggs are laid in late April and have an incubation period of 35 days. When the young hatch, sibling rivalry is common and the weaker, usually younger, chick is killed or starved. The surviving young eagles leave the nest after about 75 days and do not attain adult plumage and breed until about 4-5 years of age. Adult eagles weigh between 8-14 pounds with a wing span up to 7.5 feet. The life span of a bald eagle can be 20 years.
“Strong and powerful in his might, the eagle has become the national emblem of a country that offers freedom in word and thought and an opportunity for expansion into the boundless space of the future.”
Some days our bear viewing excursions turned into landscape photography expeditions. I took photos of as much as possible including sunrise and sunset. Big shout out to Tom D for encouraging me to take my tripod out of the package and learn to use it….this helped immensely when it came time to set up for the Aurora Borealis! Thanks again Tom!
A few mornings we went bear viewing before breakfast to look for the bears at the edge of the water when the tide was out. The morning light was beautiful and we were incredibly lucky to find bears this early. On one of our mornings out the we saw the mother bear and her two cubs at the water’s edge; we also saw an injured bird. One of cubs also saw this injured bird and proceeded to paw at it and pretty much try to kill it. The bear cub didn’t kill the bird, but during this activity, this sweet bear cub no longer looked so cute and cuddly; he looked like the predator he needed to be to survive on his own one day.
Although I did photograph the bear cub dragging the poor bird around the beach, I felt bad taking those photos. I know this stuff happens in nature, I just don’t need to see it. Nature is cruel. However, it wasn’t long before those cute sweet bear cubs were back to their playful selves and I was back to loving watching them entertain us.
Sadly, my Alaska bear adventure ended way too soon….I met some great people whom I hope to travel again with; I was inspired by others photographs and enthusiasm for nature and beauty, I learned lots more about photography and how to better use my camera; I felt so fortunate on so many levels. We had one unexpected last “free” day at the Silver Salmon Lodge as it was too windy to fly in those little prop planes back to Anchorage. We made the very best of that extra day by spending our time capturing our final images of those gorgeous Alaskan brown bears.
Thank you for taking the time to read my post on my Alaska brown bear experience. I hope you enjoyed my stories and photographs. Please check out the Alaska Media Gallery for more photos of this trip. Check back on my blog regularly for more great tales of my wanderlust life!