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 third installment of the trip recap. Read the first part HERE or the second part HERE
Friday – Just Enough
We were all up early with excitement for the day ahead and filled up on coffee and another wonderful home cooked breakfast, knowing we were going on a unique adventure. Double checking our cameras and gear, we suited up and made it to the dock for an early departure.
The plan for the day was for us to land on one lake and then hike to another lake to meet our airplanes and go back to the lodge at the end of the day. This lake is large enough to land a fully loaded airplane, but it cannot take off with any passengers or gear, just the pilot. So once we land there, we are committed to the hike out to the other lake. This can be an all day hike, depending on the speed of the group and the amount of bears to photograph, it all depends on the group and the conditions.
A short 25 minute flight and we were preparing to land on a small lake between two hills. It is a bit of a tense landing and I could tell the pilot was completely focused on landing the airplane. There is “just enough” room to land a loaded airplane, but you have to touch down right at the shoreline so you can bleed off speed before reaching the other shore. The pilot made a sharp turn and steepened our descent rate then just as our floats crossed the shore, he touched down on the water smoothly and with room to spare before the far bank. We beached the plane and watched the second airplane follow us down on to the lake and to the shore. We unloaded the planes, tightened our backpack straps ready for the walk. But before we left, we all stood on the shore to watch the planes take off right above our heads, no more than 30 yards, the old radial engines at full song as it lifts pulls the airplane in to the air. Once they departed, we were committed to the hike.
We followed a small path across the tundra for ¾ of a mile up a slight rise. Once we crested the rise, the trail dropped back down towards the creek. As the creek came in to view, we immediately saw 3 bears in the vicinity, 2 upstream and one downstream. Climbing down (sliding?) the bank, we waded in to the creek to a gravel bar in the middle of the river to hopefully catch the bears as they came closer. The skies were overcast which made it perfect lighting for photography, a natural softbox!!!!
It’s too much to detail out, but over the next 3 hours, we didn’t move more than 25’ as we enjoyed at least 12 different bears all around us. There were sows with 2 cubs, a sow with 3 cubs, a couple of males, other sows, etc…it was a smorgasbord of bears! They were fishing in the creek, teaching the cubs how to fish, bouncing on logs, chasing and diving after the salmon, sitting in graceful poses providing all sorts of great photographic opportunities.
I wrote a blog post about how one shot, or sequence could make a photo trip. Read HERE. For this trip, I had that experience on this day. I was shooting video on my X-T3 of one group of bears, then as I turned back to a mom and her 2 year old cubs across the creek, I reset my camera to shoot stills. I was watching one of the cubs perched on a log scanning the water for fish. My hand was already on my camera as the cub launched itself off the log and in to the water and my finger instinctively depressed the shutter button as it initiated this dive. Thankfully my X-T3 was set to electronic shutter and 20 frames per second and I was able to catch the sequence from start to finish.
We spent a considerable time in this one location and still had 6 miles of hiking to go before reaching our take out, so we decided to bid farewell to this group of bears. We started our hike downstream, along the bank and in the water itself. The terrain was mostly flat, but it was uneven and very slippery at times. We all looked out for each others safety as we crossed the water back and forth picking our route. We kept a solid, yet not fast, pace, until we came across the next set of bears.
Over the course of the next few hours on the creek, we saw another 15-20 individual bears, as well as repeat showings of bears we had seen earlier as they were also transiting downstream shadowing us. We saw so many bears that it almost became commonplace and at times we didn’t even bother stopping to photograph.
Bears diving off the riverbank, bears lunging for red sockeye salmon in the water, play fighting from the cubs, bears sleeping in the water…..we saw just about everything on this day! It was amazing the variety of photographic opportunities we were given! Everyone burned through memory cards and batteries and we were all a bit giddy with all of the amazing bear experiences we were having. Trying to give this day some context, I kept reminding folks that this was an epic experience so take a moment to pause, reflect and revel in being here with the bears! This day rivaled one day during my first trip when we were surrounded by 21 bears. I knew this was a special day, probably not to be exceeded, and I wanted folks to cherish the experience as it was happening.
Eventually we made our way to the large confluence which was the home stretch for our plane ride back to the lodge. Everyone was physically tired but mentally on cloud 9 with the experience we just shared! We met up with the pilots who were waiting for us, loaded the plane and made the short flight to the lodge, thankful to be sitting down, yet overjoyed with what we witnessed.
As I got out of my waders and started backing up my memory cards from the day, I checked my watch and saw that I had walked 6.5 miles today! Not a bad distance, especially over un-even terrain.
Enjoying appetizers and a cold beverage, our giddiness continued as we each talked about what we saw, which images we think we nailed and what we were happiest about. Gathering for dinner, we all expressed our thanks for the amazing day and enjoyed a filling meal of grilled salmon to replenish what we had worn off during the day.
Conversation eventually turned to our plans for the next day. The first option would be to repeat the hike we just did, however some expressed interest in seeing some new territory. We discussed other options like visiting a trappers cabin, maybe trying a 3 hour flight to view the walruses, but in the end, we came for bears and where the bears are is on the stretch of creek we just hiked. Retiring to bed, we tentatively decided to shoot for the same hike. Afterall, no two days are ever the same, so lets see what might happen!