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We awoke early (530-ish) the morning of our second full day at the lodge. I think we all were recovering a bit from the previous day, feeling a bit overwhelmed with the amazing-ness of the day, the epic-ness of the shots we got, being in the hot sun all day with little food or water and just the adrenaline of our first full day with the bears in the wild. I think we all felt a little bit crusty, however, it was easily shaken off as we showered and dressed for the coming day.
We met in the lodge for a 7am breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit, bacon and sausage and other goodies. Looking out of the panoramic windows of the lodge, cloud cover was overhead and pushing down to almost lake level. Over breakfast our pilot explained that it’s a low fog that should dissipate quickly once the sun comes over the hills and we were grounded until it did lift. Unlike ground-based photo trips/workshops when you can essentially travel any time and in most weather, when relying on an airplane for transportation, you are at the whims of the weather gods and sometimes it can alter your plans. We knew this going in and were very flexible in our expectations, so a little delay wasn’t a bummer and we occupied ourselves with reviewing images from the day before.
As we all looked at our images again (I took almost 1500 frames the day before and I’m not used to dealing with such volume to review!), it became even clearer how amazing the day was. Couldn’t have asked for anything better!!! As Jack said, as a workshop leader, sometimes it sucks having your best day on the first day as it’s hard to live up to the bar set so high. For me, even though I knew the previous day would be hard to repeat, I still had high hopes that we’d at least equal the experience today once we headed out.
After about 1 1/2 hours of waiting, the fog had lifted enough for the call to go out to “suit up” and meet on the dock. The plan was to fly to the same lake and go to the same river, but in a different location in the hopes of catching some different compositions and action shots that we got the day before. Following the same protocol as the day before, we loaded the plane, taxied out and took off for the small lake in Katmai National Park. Once we landed and beached the plane, we unloaded it and began organizing our gear for the walk in. This time, we learned from yesterday and made sure to pack our lunch and water along with us, planning on being out all day.
At the shore, a new guide was waiting for us, Caleb, He is the owner/pilots son and had spent the night out here in a tent, surrounded by a bear fence. He is a young guy, around 17 years old, however he carried himself as someone much older. As our pilot needed to head back to the lodge for a bit, Caleb would be the one leading our group and keeping us safe. We shouldered our packs and headed down the trail to the river.
Instead of crossing the river, we wanted to stay on this side of it and be upstream a few hundred yards at a different confluence of creeks. The goal was to catch the bears charging in to the river and lunging with both paws out, diving for the salmon. To get to this location, we had to first follow a winding creek. Caleb asked us to stay behind him because bears were known to sleep in the grass alongside the creek. Sure enough, 50 yards down the creek he asked us to hold up and pointed ahead and there was a big boar sleeping in the grass.
Caleb charged ahead kicking at the water, clapping his hands and talking to the bear. Above is a quick screen capture from the action camera I grabbed and filmed with. The bear didn’t protest, merely got up and headed off in to the alder bushes. We continued our trek along the creek until we reached a point that Caleb said the best way to go would be overland, not trying to wade upstream. But, overland is where the bears are hiding!!!! I thought to myself.
Along the rivers in this part of Alaska the most common foliage is alder bushes. These are resilient bushes that stand 3′-7′ tall and have stiff branches. Along this river, both banks were a solid mass of these bushes, save for a few game trails that the bears had created through them. As we entered the bush along one of the “trails”, Caleb advised the best way to get through these is to raise your arms above your head, holding the tripod, and use your body to push through the bushes. We all did as instructed and followed him in to the bush. For the next 20 minutes, the amount of swearing, grunts and groans and occasionally laughter was something to hear.
Eventually we made our way out of the tallest of bushes to easier walking and then eventually made it to our chosen spot along the river. We dropped our packs along the bank of the river, took a long drink of water and set up our cameras and tripods for the action to come.
Unlike the day before, there were not large numbers of bears in this spot. We could see downriver to the previous days location and even there there weren’t many bears. In some ways I was a bit let down, but realistically we had a HUGE day the day before and it’s hard to recreate that. It did allow us time to be a bit more reflective in our shooting, looking for different types of compositions and different subjects, not just bears.
Above is an abstract of the moving water and bright red salmon swimming underneath. It was a lot of fun to unleash some different creative muscles and look for dips and waves in the water that would be pleasing to the eye and couple that with the pattern of red moving by.
We were also able to capture more scenic shots with bears in the grander landscapes that we were in. Of course, the ever present seagulls were in every shot 🙂
Over the course of the day we photographed perhaps 6-7 different bears, not as plentiful of numbers, but still satisfying. Some bears stayed and hung out at the confluence and fished for several hours before retiring to the bush for a nap, others stayed for only a few minutes before moving on.
In a previous post, I made reference to the saying that “there is a little bit of Labrador in every bear”. On this day, that saying was brought ever truer thanks to one bear we nicknamed Toby. We watched him fish for about 1/2 an hour and then he casually walked in to the water and sat down. I guess he was hot, since the temps were approaching 80 degrees and he needed to cool off. Toby sat there for the longest time, just watching the fish swim by or checking out other bears. Eventually, he laid down fully in the water and acted like a furry bear submarine, floating at periscope depth. We laughed and smiled watching him float in the water and then our laughter became even louder as Toby rolled over on to his back and floated, belly up, in the water. He occasionally kicked his feet up high and then let them fall lazily back in.
As I was watching him, Toby rolled on to his stomach, dove his head under water and then came back up with a big stick in his mouth! He rolled on to his back and grabbed the stick with his forepaws and began gnawing on the stick, just like a dog. I quickly grabbed a few still frames and some video of his playful antics.
Toby played with his stick for at least 30 minutes until he eventually let it drift away downstream. We then turned our attention back to other bears fishing and whiled away the afternoon watching them regain lost body mass from the winter hibernation.
bear jumping in to a swarm of salmon
Around 4:30 it was time for us to pack up and hike out to meet the airplane. This time, since we were headed downriver, we could wade in the water and avoid the nasty alder bushes. We made it back to the lake without incident and awaited the arrival of the airplane. After 10 minutes we heard it approaching and saw the white speck in the distance. It so happened that the upwind direction would lead the pilot right over our heads before he touched down on the water. He came in low and buzzed over top of us, no more than 20 yards before making a graceful touchdown. We did the shuttle routine again to the other lake and eventually we were all onboard and headed for the lodge.
After cleaning up in our cabins, we met in the lodge and enjoyed a fine array of homemade snacks, including freshly smoked salmon, various cheeses, fruits and lots of beverages. 7pm dinner time came around and we all sat down for a scrumptious pork roast dinner. After a divine desert, we all wound up on the couches relaxing, reviewing images and swapping various stories. What I especially enjoyed is asking questions of our hosts and learning a great deal about the animals, the flying and the vast landscape we were in.
The weather forecast had been predicting a front to move in at some point, but as we all gradually left the lodge for our cabins, the skies remained clear (and bright even at 10pm). Satisfied and tired, I drifted off to a more relaxed sleep with anticipation for the next day.
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