Ok folks, as you’ve read in my previous posts about this trip, we’ve had epic days, sunshine, quintessential bear fishing shots, lots of great flying adventures and above all else, lots and lots of bears and unbelievably gorgeous landscapes. As I suspected at this point in the trip, time has gone by way too fast!!!! The trip has been one amazing experience after another and time has just flown by and I can’t fathom coming back to the “real world” in a couple days.
We awoke at our normal time of 6:00am, showered and got ready for breakfast at 7am. As we stepped out of our cabins, we were again met by low clouds hanging over the lake. We met the rest of the group in the main lodge and sat down for another scrumptious meal to fuel our adventure for the day. As we ate, we discussed with the guide what that recommended plan was for the day…..his suggestion was to fly back in to Katmai, land on a different lake and go for a short (ish) hike to a location on a river that is another popular spot for bears. I was excited to go to a different location as I wanted to see as much variety as I could on this trip. We all agreed that would be a good plan and after breakfast, headed to our cabins to “suit up” for the day ahead. Cooler temps and a chance of rain meant that we all packed an extra layer of clothing, along with our rain jackets. With a double check that all batteries are charged and I have my memory cards, I headed down to the dock to load the plane. The cloud ceiling had lifted enough for us to take off and fly 25 minutes across Iliamna Lake and in to Katmai National Park.
Under solid overcast skies we landed on a large lake nestled between two mountains and taxied to the beach. We offloaded our gear from the airplane on to the beach and again checked we had everything. Our pilot said he is going to hop over to another lake to pick up Caleb who will be with us for the rest of the day and it’s ok if we hike downstream to the “falls” area and Caleb will catch up with us. So with that, and a can of bear spray, our little band of adventurers headed in the general direction of the river to find the falls and the bears.
The hiking itself was mainly over flat ground, no big hills. It was uneven ground though with soft hummocks that were unstable alternating with holes that could grab the foot and send you sprawling. We had to pay attention as we walked and couldn’t admire the scenery as much as we would have liked. It felt amazing to be walking through the mighty Alaskan wilderness with no sounds except for the others in our party and vast wide open spaces, snow topped hills and the sound of the rushing river next to us.
After about 45 minutes to an hour of walking, we arrived at what we thought was the “falls” area that we had overflown in the airplane. We all dropped our packs and had a quick drink of water. There aren’t any actual falls (by PNW standards) but there was shallow water, rapids and fertile fishing grounds for the bears. The geology of the landscape was very interesting to see, more rocky and dramatic than other locations we visited so far.
Were we decided to stop, we were about 75 feet above the river. Many of us set up our cameras and began shooting the bears down in the valley. Compared to how close we were on previous days, we were pretty far away from these two bears. However, it gave us a chance to shoot the bears with new landscape textures and colors to give more context to the shots and I welcomed this new color pallet.
We hadn’t been there more than 10 minutes and Caleb came hiking up to our location. Having been dropped off at the lake, he hustled to catch up with us. He also packed down our lunches so we wouldn’t have to. So helpful he was!!!! With this outfitter, they do such a fantastic job of taking care of the clients and everything is so well thought out.
As we paused for a bit of a snack, someone noticed a dead cub across the river along the bank. It was a bit of a sad thing to see, and it was also a stark reminder about the sometimes brutal nature of life in the wild. It was most likely killed by a Boar and probably within the last couple of days. I worked to put that out of my head and get back in to the creative zone.
Caleb asked if I wanted to go down to river level to get a new perspective, which would involve scrambling down a loose slope (and then climbing back up). At first I was content where I was and then he said he needed some promotional shots of clients shooting the bears, so I agreed to help him out and go be his subject. We scrambled down the slope and entered the river upstream of the bears. Caleb suggested a spot for me to stand, which was close enough to make me nervous, but was at a good angle for his composition of me and the bears. He had his gun with him which brought a little bit of comfort being this close to the bears.
We shot 2 or 3 different locations, enough for him to get some good variety of promotional shots. And as I was “posing” for him, I was also able to get some fantastic shots, right at eye level with the bears. When we were done I backed away to a more comfortable distance and several folks from the group scrambled down the slope and in to the river.
With the Fujifilm 100-400mm and 1.4 teleconverter, I had plenty of reach to get tight compositions if I needed, or zoom out for a wider field of view. What I really paid attention to on this day was the type of shots I was going for. I had had 3 days of intense bear action and many of my shots were focused on the “action” of the bears fishing. On this day I really worked hard to bring more emotion, mannerisms and personality of the bears through in my compositions.
Of course there was fishing action which was fantastic as the bears worked upstream and then back downstream charging and diving on the salmon.
I really appreciated how the river sloped away from us and it gave a great chance to get the river in the foreground and also be at eye level with the bears.
The chase is on
what you looking at?
lunging for a fish
After several hours of fishing, mom and her cub tired of the activity and climbed up the bank to have a nap in the grassy landscape away from the river. We followed her and climbed out of the gorge. Flush with the thrill of being in the water with the bears, in their element, we had a quick snack to regain some energy. It was mid-afternoon at this time and the clouds had been spitting little bits of rain off and on for the past hour. We agreed that we should begin the hike back to the lake and hope the weather will hold long enough for us to fly back to the lodge.
After an uneventful hike back to the lake, we arrived at the same time as the pilot touched down on the lake and taxied to the beach. He had the same thought that we best hurry if we want to make it home. We offload a couple of survival barrels from the plane and left them on the beach, stocked with sleeping bags, food, stove and all the essentials. The barrels will stay there during the season as a safety precaution and be readily available if needed. I wasn’t alarmed at possibly having to spend the night out there, it could have been a neat adventure. However, I was hoping for a shower and a soft bed.
Before we hurriedly loaded the plane, Jack had the idea to grab a group picture. I set up my camera and tripod and with a 10 second timer was able to press the shutter button and scramble down in to the water to be in the shot.
We loaded up and took off in a slight drizzle with very low cloud cover. Our most direct path was between two peaks, however we were flying Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and the clouds had blocked off that route. We tried 3 others passages through the mountains and all were closed off. Eventually on our fourth, and last, possible route out, there was just barely enough clearance to squeak between the clouds and the land and make it out over the river.
As we unloaded the plane at the dock, the rain really began to fall. We hustled to our cabins and changed in to warm and dry clothes. When we met up in the lodge before dinner, I asked the pilot how close was it to not making it back and he replied “we were so very close to spending the night out there, we got lucky on that last pass through the mountains”. Whew! As I said previously, weather controls most things in Alaska and I just learned it includes your chances of making it back to the lodge to a warm shower and bed!
Another delicious meal and relaxing in the great room reviewing our images and swapping stories. As we wandered off to bed, the rain continued to fall. Thank goodness it was still relatively warm, however with the rain we may not be flying the next day. Contented with a very productive day of shooting, I drifted off to sleep.