Once again Jack Graham and I led a fantastic photography workshop to Alaska to photograph the grizzly bears in their natural habitat in Katmai National Park. We have done this for several years now and each year has been special and memorable to every one of our attendees. It is a bucket list item for many and this trip typically doesn’t disappoint.
We partner with a local outfitter who has been guiding in Alaska for over 40 years, so they know how to get us to the bears and then work with us to provide some of the best photographic opportunities to our clients. Our workshop is based at a lodge in a small village and it’s all inclusive once you get there. With capacity to have 14 guests, it’s an intimate setting, steeped in Alaska lore and vibes. All meals are home cooked and served around the large dining table. We eat a prepared breakfast and dinner, as well as take along a lunch that is packed for us by the staff. All of our needs are cared for by the lodge, which is equipped with multiple float and land airplanes as well as numerous boats positioned around the area. Each days itinerary is determined by the weather and the migration of the salmon and bears, so we never know exactly what, or where, our adventure will be. Guaranteed it will involve up close and personal experiences with bears in the majestic Alaskan landscape.
What follows is a day by day account of our 2019 workshop. For a recap of previous seasons, click HERE
Tuesday – Travel Day
Flying to the lodge, from any part of the lower 48, takes time and several connecting flights. Whether you’re coming from the East Coast, Midwest or West Coast, logistically it requires some planning as well as coordination with the workshop leaders.
The plan is to have everyone meet up in Anchorage for our next flight to the small village and this year several of our group traveled to Anchorage a day early, either because of travel schedule, or that they wanted to see a bit of Anchorage since they were in the neighborhood. I flew up to Anchorage that morning from Portland Oregon and Jack Graham and 2 of our attendees arrived a short time later from Seattle. We had several hours to kill, so we headed to grab a bite to eat and meet up with another client arriving shortly thereafter. After lunch we eventually decided to find a cab and head to the Air Taxi Service to catch the next flight.
Rolling from the formal Anchorage terminal to the air taxi office is a bit of a culture shock and portends the days to come. Gone is the polished corporate feel of big airlines and instead we are greeted by a faux log cabin desk and animal skins on the wall. We soon greeted the remaining members of our group and organized to check in. No tickets required, just gave them our names and then hoisted our bags on to a scale. Each person is limited to 75lbs of gear and thankfully everyone came in under the limit. Then, we had to tell the person how much each of us weighed…welcome to getting to know your fellow travellers that much better! Because our group was so large, we filled the entire airplane, a Pilatus PC-12. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 4:30pm, but since we were all there and the plane was ready, the call to board went out an hour early.
It was raining as we boarded the plane in Anchorage, so I wasn’t expecting a scenic flight to Iliamna. Unfortunate because flying over the mountains and glaciers is so beautiful and makes you feel like you’re really in Alaska. After a short 55 minute flight, we landed at the little Iliamna airport and a forklift came out to get our bags (their version of baggage handling). Our outfitter met us at the airport with 3 vehicles and we loaded our bags and ourselves in to the trucks for the 10 minute drive to the lodge.
When we arrived, the entire staff came out to greet us wearing the logo shirts that Dudley had made for them. They looked quite official in their new “uniforms”. Once greetings were over, we were assigned cabins/rooms and took our luggage to our new home for the next week. Each cabin sleeps 2 people, plus there a couple of rooms in the main lodge that also sleep 2. Instead of sharing a room in the lodge like last year, I was assigned to share a cabin with one of our clients named Dudley, which is great because I get to make a new friend. Quickly dumping our gear and doing a small bit of unpacking, it was time to gather back in the main lodge for our orientation discussion.
The orientation talk is perhaps one of the most important aspects and really sets the tone for how we all need to conduct ourselves on the trip. Being around and in small airplanes is dangerous. Being in close proximity to grizzly bears can be dangerous. Being in the wilderness can be dangerous as well if we don’t use our heads, be cautious and listen to instructions. We listened to our host talk about all of this, signed the liability wavers and received complimentary water bottles and hats.
After orientation we headed out to the gear shed to get our waders and boots. The lodge provides these for us and it’s a wonderful perk to not have to carry these from the lower 48. Waders and wading boots are basically mandatory gear on this workshop as we are constantly crossing streams or standing in water to photograph the bears. They are relatively comfortable for wearing all day and do provide an important layer of warmth and water protection. Once we got everyone in their gear, it was off to the water to test them out. Partly to familiarize each person with the waders, this test also made evident any leaks in the waders and if a leak was found, off to the shed to get a new pair. Once everyone was outfitted, we put our waders in our room and headed to the lodge for dinner.
One of the little things I really love about dinner at the lodge is the owner sits with us and starts a tradition for the group on the first night…..he says a family prayer to start the dinner. Every day after that it’s open to anyone who wants to say a prayer, give a toast, or just speak, to start our dinner time. Part of “breaking bread” with a new group, I think this is a nice touch to get us involved and together around a meal.
We had a wonderful dinner of steak, potatoes, vegetables and home made apple pie for desert. I should mention that this village is “dry”, meaning there is no alcohol available here. Most people don’t seem to mind as there is a wide variety of other beverages to choose from. After dinner we sat around the table and swapped stories, exchanged information about ourselves, talked about camera settings and how to photograph the bears, what to expect when we fly and when we are out there, etc.
Each night we try and set a plan for the next day and on this first night, the owner tells us that Brooks Falls has seen pretty good action the last few days and it might be worth a try. Few people and a good number of bears….exactly the RIGHT combination for Brooks, which can be over-run with people on popular days. The only question would be the weather, as it’s cloudy with a low ceiling tonight. We need a minimum of 700’ of clear skies to make it over the mountains to Brooks Camp…these planes don’t fly on instruments…everything is visual flight up here!
The owner also tells us that this is a very unique year for conditions. It’s been the warmest summer on record, EVER. This has caused the salmon runs to be disturbed and somewhat erratic. Plus, there has not been much rain, so the rain fed rivers are at record lows. And, the glacial fed rivers are at record highs due to the massive melting of glaciers. So, things aren’t “normal” up here and we need to be a bit flexible with where we go to get the bears.
We finally decided to head to our rooms and finish unpacking and double check our cameras, batteries and memory cards for the next day. Even though it was 10pm, it was still very bright outside, the sun not setting for a couple hours yet. It’s hard getting used to going to sleep when it’s so bright, but eventually we drifted off to sleep excited for the coming days.
I am a full time photography workshop leader and creative educator based in the Pacific Northwest. I lead group workshops and individual sessions with the goal to elevate each persons creative vision and technical skills to create compelling compositions. Please visit my website to see my workshops and other offerings. www.johnpedersenphoto.com