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.
This is the second installment of the trip recap. Read the first part HERE
Wednesday – Brooks Falls
We awoke to overcast skies and cool temps. It had been crystal clear in this area for the past month straight and this was the first clouds that they had seen. Of course, it had to happen when we were there! We gathered in the lodge for our first cups of coffee and to talk about the day ahead. Eventually it was time for a hearty breakfast to fuel us for the day.
Over breakfast we confirmed the decision to head towards Brooks Falls. However, the weather was not looking favorable so the decision was made to delay takeoff by 30 minutes. So after we had our fill we went to our rooms and took our time to suit up in waders and grab our camera bags to assemble on the dock.
I loaded up in the first plane along with 5 others and we taxied on to the lake to warm the engine. We took off and headed south towards Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park. The cloud ceiling was very low and right from take off it wasn’t clear whether we’d make it through or not. Sure enough, after about 10 minutes of flying, we swung the plane around and headed back to the lodge to wait for another hour for the weather to clear.
Given the all-go after an hour, we loaded up both planes and made the 1 hour 30 minute flight to Brooks Camp. When we taxied to the beach after landing, there were only TWO planes there in front of us (sometimes there can be up to 70 planes). We unloaded the airplane and waited for the second plane on the beach. After 5 minutes we were all together again and we made the short walk to the ranger station for our mandatory safety talk. Thankfully this year the Forest Service had a new video to show visitors (NOT made in 1970) and after a quick 20 minutes we received our official bear safety pin signifying that we attended the course. Being as it was close to lunch, we ate our lunch in a protected area inside a bear fence and once done, we stashed our extra food in the food cache and began the 1 mile walk to the viewing platforms. When this place is busy, people have to take a number to get on to the platform and then only have a limited time for viewing/photography. Thankfully there was no line and we walked right on to the platform and each found a spot along the rail. And, they don’t allow tripods on the platform, but you can bring and use your tripod as a monopod with only one leg extended. So many of us did this, balancing on one leg and using the railing for a bit more stability.
There were three bears fishing below the falls when we arrived. This was everyones first view of bears in the wild so the group was excited and began honing their technique for shooting wildlife. The bears moved to different areas of the falls, peered underneath the water, stalked the fish as they approached the falls and generally did what bears do. Every now and again new bears would join and some would venture to the top of the falls to try and catch an airborne fish. Unfortunately there weren’t a ton of fish jumping, so it was a bit of slim pickings on top of the falls. Even as a light rain began to fall (first rain in over a month!), we managed to all capture some memorable images from this iconic location. And the bonus, we enjoyed 3 hours of uninterrupted time on the platform!
Since we had a late start to the day, the hour was beginning to get late so we left the upper platform with a little time left to visit the lower platform. Here we saw two bears fishing in the riffles and they demonstrated some great behaviors that we captured on our memory cards. The bears are typically solitary creatures and don’t like being around one another, however, they will tolerate each other for a concentrated food source during the salmon migration. After about 30 minutes, it was time for us to leave for our flight back to the lodge. We had an uneventful walk back to the lodge, not being held up by any bears wandering the trails, so we loaded the planes and took off.
After landing, we all returned to our rooms to change in to some fresh clothes and begin the image back up process. Folks were excited to have seen the iconic Brooks Falls and with the images that they were able to capture. We enjoyed another wonderful home cooked, hearty meal and plenty of stories around the table. Eventually we all retired to our rooms to catch some needed sleep for the next days adventure.
Thursday – Into the Wild
As nice as Brooks Falls is, it still feels a bit like a zoo or Disneyland. It’s a curated experience, mainly because it’s so unique and there are so many visitors. Today, we are planning to have our first day out in the wild, in the bears natural habitat and everyone is excited about that! I was up early as usual to have my coffee and talk with folks as we gradually assembled in the lodge.
Looking out the window, we again were greeted by low clouds and a marginal forecast with signs of improvement. During our fantastic breakfast, we decided to postpone departure by 30 minutes to give the clouds a chance to lift a bit for our flight in to a remote lake in Katmai National Park.
I took the first plane of folks and we took off from the lake. With a ceiling of only a couple hundred feet and rain clouds/showers extending down to the surface of the lake, our pilot tried several different routes around the visual obstacles. Eventually we found a safe route and made it to the other side of the lake with clearing skies. Unfortunately, the second airplane was just 10 minutes behind us and they could not find a safe route around the showers and had to turn back.
Our plane continued on to finish the 25 minute flight to the remote lake. We had a smooth landing under partly cloudy skies and taxied to shore. After the plane was unloaded, we made the short 1/4 mile walk to the edge of the cut bank over looking the river. As we arrived at the edge, we immediately saw a bear climbing up the bank and over the ledge, not 50 yards from us. As we quickly got our cameras out and set up, it lingered a bit in clear view of us and then slowly started making its way off to do whatever bears do. At least we saw one bear right off the bat and we were excited.
We climbed down the bank and in to the river. This part of the river can often run high and fast, but since the water was low, it didn’t rise above our knees as we made our way across it. Still, I encouraged everyone to find a “wading buddy” and link arms during the crossing to give a bit more stability. We all made it across safe and sound and started the hunt for more bears. This particular area is a confluence of several streams, so we began exploring the small side streams. We walked on the bank and in the water on the hunt for bears up 3 or 4 different streams. Thank goodness for the waders!
Within 20 minutes, we found a sow with two cubs that were fishing for salmon. Mom spent time between catching fish for her and her cubs and teaching her cubs how to fish. It was amazing to watch how the lessons of survival are passed down the generations. Her and the cubs would fish one creek for a while, then they would leave the river and disappear in to the alder bushes. We would not follow her in to the bushes, but we would sneak around to a nearby creek in hopes she would appear. Sure enough, they would usually pop out and fish the other creek for a while. All this time we stayed a respectful 50 yards away and photographed with our telephoto lenses.
The second plane eventually made it through the clouds and landed on the lake. Our group joined up and we went back in search of the cubs. We eventually found them and the second group had a great time photographing mom and the cubs. After about 45 minutes we wanted to find more bears so we kept walking the streams. We found a couple more, but nothing as exciting as a sow with cubs.
Trekking back down the creek, our guide spotted the mom sleeping in the alder bushes with her cubs. There was a small gap in the brush that we could see her through. Very quietly, we came as near as we could and watched this magical scene of a momma bear sleeping with her kids. Laying on her side, I was amazed at how much her chest rose and fell as she breathed….it seemed like 2 feet of movement with each breath. She was very relaxed with our presence and let us photograph her with our telephoto lenses from a safe distance. I was so amazed by this scene I almost didn’t want to take any photos…..I just wanted to imprint this amazing experience in my brain to carry forever. It was that incredible!!!
I should say that this area we were in is like a bear nursery…..the females have learned that this is a relatively safe area to raise their young. The sows have all gathered in this area for many years due to plentiful food and a reduced number of boar bear that could harm their cubs. Boars (males) don’t like to be around humans and generally steer clear of us and the sows have become habituated to us (we are not a food source nor a threat) and accept our presence. And some sows even make a point to hang out around humans because they know the boars won’t come around.
Eventually we left mom to her nap and went in search of a few more bears before our time to head back. We found a few more but nothing compared (in my opinion) to the experience we just witnessed. We finally had to start making our way back to the plane for the flight out. Walking through the streams, along the bank then the river crossing, everyone did a great job on the uneven terrain. Climbing the cut bank and then a short walk to the lake, we were all on a “bear high” from our experiences in the wild.
After a quick flight in sunny skies, we landed at the lodge and headed to our rooms to get out of our waders. Let me tell you, it’s a great feeling getting out of the waders at the end of the day!!! Gathering in the lodge, we were treated to a table full of appetizers and drinks as we talked about the adventure of the day. Dinner was served and we all gathered together to share another fantastic home cooked meal of chicken and pasta, fresh vegetables and potatoes followed by homemade cheesecake.
Before heading to bed, we discussed plans for the next day. The salmon run had moved to a specific area, along with the bears and we set our goal for tomorrow to visit this area. It’s a bit committing though since we have to complete a walk to another lake for our ride home, so we all went to bed thinking about this and what we might encounter on this next adventure.
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