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Brown Bears of Coastal Katmai
Trip 1 Report, 2013

Click here for Trip 2's Trip Report


One of our favorite Photo Tours is to coastal Alaska, in Katmai National Park, where we visit a great salmon river to photograph Brown Bears. The image above is cropped, and with a long lens, but I hope you get the idea -- the shooting is spectacular.

This was at least our eighth trip to coastal Alaska for bears and we never get tired of the shooting. Each year is different, with some years having a rather spotty salmon run and irregularly appearing bears, while other years the salmon are thick and so are the bears. That was the case this year, where we had as many as 14 bears in view at one time, and often four or five bears in great camera position, making the choice of which bear to shoot a difficult one.

We ran two Photo Tours this year, and everyone on the first trip were veterans of past tours, making the time both on shore when photographing and the down-time on the boat extremely pleasurable experiences. The shooting was great, quite diverse, with spectacular eagles and bears, and the best Sea otter shooting Mary and I have ever had. Here's the day-to-day report.

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August 10. We left our Anchorage hotel at 4:15 for a flight to Kodiak, then via our chartered float plane for a transfer to Geographic Harbor where we’d meet our boat. In contrast to ‘the old times’ when overhead space on a small jet was limited, today’s flight on a 737 was roomy and overhead space was not an issue. Kodiak was sunny, and in the hour or so that we waited for our float plane to arrive at the dock we watched jelly fish pulsating in the blue-green water. The pulses reminded me of a breast-stroke, as this nearly translucent invertebrate floated along, sometimes breaking the smooth surface of the bay with their rounded dome.
The flight to our destination went smoothly, and en route we spotted a few Mountain Goats high on the cliffs. These white goats were introduced to Kodiak  for hunting, and are not present on the nearby Katmai peninsula. Mary spotted a few Fin Whales blowing briefly before disappearing in the vastness. As we neared our harbor we counted six Bald Eagles lining the sea cliffs, and two Sea Otters paddling along before dipping from sight. As our seaplane coasted to our boat several Brown Bears were visible along the shoreline, and as many as ten were in view as we waited for the rest of our party to arrive, two hours later.
We headed to shore at 4:30, spending the next three hours as the extreme high tide slowly receded. Our first bears appeared within twenty minutes of our setting up, and we recognized the female, Ugly Mom, the mother of a cub we called Dancing Bear four years ago. Today she was with a three year old, which had to be a cub that followed Dancing Bear, who must have died during that first year. Scarface, a huge boar we’ve seen many times before, appeared as well, although he looked a little thinner than we’ve seen him in the past, but this might be because the salmon run, and the feasting, had just begun.
bOur second or third bear put on a real show, marching up the opposite shoreline and then charging, diving with forelegs outstretched, and sometimes catching a fish when it emerged after a huge splash. In all, the bears we watched caught at least twenty salmon, but many of these were far off and not photo opportunities. Twice bears caught salmon near our shore and carried their catch to our shoreline, and on several occasions, after catching a salmon, a bear would head toward shore and shake vigorously, spraying water in a wonderful arching cascade.
By 7:30 the light had failed and we packed up to return to the boat. Walt, the second mate, brought the skiff over, but with a rapidly receding tide he almost hung up the skiff in the shallows, which would have meant a very, very long and uncomfortable shore stay until the tide returned or their zodiac arrived. As we headed back to the boat, now in deep water, a light sprinkle began, marking the end of a great first day.

This year I used an 800mm as my principle lens, with a 70-300mm zoom for up-close action. Admittedly, I was over-lensed some of the time as bears often fished and charged down the streams well within 300mm range, but it was still fun to use and I medidn't regret it. I had not been a fan of this big lens because of its lightness, and my worries that keeping it rock-steady would be an issue, considering the magnification. To combat this, I used a Really Right Stuff Long Lens Support package which really worked. The support not only gave a sturdy support but also gave me a nice grip for fine-tuning a composition as my left hand guided the lens, fingers wrapped on the rail. I used this support mounted on my Wimberley and it worked wonderfully. The 800mm, without a camera attached, fit snugly inside my new Bataflae photo backpack by Gura Gear. Mary used the same pack, and her 500mm with a camera attached fit within the bag easily, as the bag is significantly deeper than our previous most-loved backpack, their Kiboko bag.

August 11. We awoke to dense cloud cover, cloaking the harbor in a twilight gloom. At 8AM the light reading was still only 1/60th sec at f5.6 at ISO 4000, far too slow for any type of useful shooting. By 9:15 the light began to look promising and we headed for the beach, now increasingly revealed as an extreme low tide was in progress. As many as twelve bears were in sight at any one time, and we just unloaded from the skiff when we started shooting, with bears walking across the flats to the nearest streams. We stayed along the flats for nearly two hours before moving further in to shore where we lined up along a stream for a shoot that extended to past noon. Bears were extremely active although throughout the day we identified only one definite male, via the wet penile sheath that dropped prominently below its belly fur. The rest were females, including Ugly Mom and her old cub that caught two salmon nearly simultaneously and walked off in separate directions, resembling bookends as they passed.
bWe saw at least two skirmishes up close, and several more at a distance, where bears either met and didn’t like the contact or vied for the same fish. In every case the meetings were met with loud, deep throated, moaning roars, usually followed by posturing where the bears would turn slightly away from each other, not giving ground but certainly not being confrontational. The two ‘good’ skirmishes had one pair of bears fighting over a salmon, with the challenger eventually pulling free the contested catch, and another pair that simply seemed to be contesting turf, standing upright and growling at each other.
More frequently, bears would flee at the approach of another, prompting a chase. One humorous scene involved a timid bear that was fishing and did not notice the approach of a more aggressive bear. When it did, the timid bear fled, and in my images water is bstreaming backwards from its fur like a jet contrail as it galloped across the mud flats.
Several bears stood upright, and Mary and a few others had a direct shot down the stream at a bear that gave them plenty of ‘hang time’ as it assessed the threat of another bear. A huge pile of marsh grass blocked my view, and some silly screw-ups interfered with two other opportunities I missed.
The weather increasingly improved from the dreary fog that had first greeted us to wonderful cloudy-bright skies, then full sunlight, and finally, by 3:30PM, the cycle reversed itself as more heavy clouds settled in the valley, dropping our light level to useless levels, ones we call ‘negative shooting’ as anything shot would certainly be of less quality than what we’ve already done, and would just be deleted later on. We called for our skiff, and as we headed back to our boat it began to rain, further justifying our decision in calling it a day.


August 12. High tide and early morning coincided and we waited until 9 before leaving for the shore, under overcast skies that threatened rain. We headed upriver where we could look down stream and at the intersection of a several braided streams. Two males frequented the stream today, including Scar Face, who we’ve seen previously but far up river. Today Scar Face worked our stream methodically, and seemingly with little effort usually came up with a fish. This boar is almost twice the volume of most of the other bears and it almost seems as if its sheer mass shocks the fish or stuns it, making the catch easier. That, of course, is just a joking conjecture, but the bear had great success.
Ugly Mom and her cub hunted, and today the nearly full-grown cub spent more of its time stealing the back end of a salmon from its mother, who growled or roared but seemed to tolerate the thefts. Several bears walked extremely close to us, walking by or fishing quite close and unconcerned, and as we packed up to leave at the end of the day one young female walked within twenty feet, completely unfazed by our packing commotion.
The weather through the day varied from frequent drizzle to a slight fog to cloudy bright to almost full sunshine at one brief point, with temperatures that ranged from quite cool to almost warm. For most of the day, however, we were fine being layered for a rather chilly day.
dHarlequin Ducks raced past frequently, and two immature Bald Eagles circled often and, at one point, sparred when one dive-bombed the other that had perched upon the beach. My auto focus disappointed me for both chances, and in my out-of-focus shots I can see the birds locked in combat, talons outstretched, with one almost on its back as it leaped upward to foil the other’s stoop.
By 5PM the high tide had returned and the bears began to disappear, and at one point only one bear was in sight. As we headed out, four more bears appeared from nowhere, catching salmon and ignoring us as we marched across the tidal flats to meet our skiff.


August 13. We awoke to a black canopy of heavy clouds and thick fog, and as the morning progressed at times the fog was so thick that the shoreline of the bay was almost hidden in the gray gloom. By 11:30 the clouds blew off and the fog lifted, and with a quick lunch we were ready to hit the beach by 12:30. A group had already landed from a float plane visit, but they stayed for only an hour or so before returning to the plane and their flight, and we had the beach to ourselves.
Bear activity stayed constant through the afternoon, as the weather changed through every sort of condition, from a light drizzle to bright sun. Rick and I set up GoPro video cameras, and Rick caught a great sequence where a bear caught a salmon and walked right by his camera. I had several crashing jumps, and one bear that walked right over my camera, bumping it with his hind leg but otherwise over-looking the camera. With the super wide angle of the camera any water droplets on the lens show, and my video quality was marred by fogginess and water droplets. Still, it was fun, and I’m anxious to do this on a rainless day.

Scar Face showed up late in the afternoon and captured multiple smaller salmon. Two females of equal size squared off with open mouths, but a fallen tree blocked what would otherwise have been a great view. I tried several shots at extremely slow shutter speeds, trying to shoot gulls in a ghostly fashion, and once, while doing this, a female caught a huge salmon, faced the camera, and walked towards us, while I’m firing away at a terribly slow shutter speed!
bBy 5 we had full sunlight, but from our position most of the bears were back lit. I waded the main stream to check out positioning with the sun to our backs, but the current was strong and with only two or three bears in the area it didn’t appear worth the risk of everyone moving over. Instead, in the bright light we called it a day, and even as we headed back to the boat western clouds swirled over the ridges, casting the bay into shadow.
At dinner tonight we hosted a wonderful couple from Australia, Chris B and his fiancée Jessica, who are sailing in legs each summer, from Nova Scotia to Australia. They had sailed through the NorthWest Passage, the once legendary and hoped-for sea route that linked the North Atlantic with the North Pacific, in two summers, overwintering their boat at Victoria Island where they put their 29 foot sailing yacht in dry dock. The following summer they made it to Nome, Alaska, and this summer we met them here in Geographic Harbor.
We had the pleasure of visiting with them in their tiny yacht as well, with about fifteen feet of living space on the long side and about eight in width, with everything neatly stowed in place. Chris is a professional photographer from Australia, and between the ages of five and ten he sailed around the world with his parents. Four years ago they bought and, in four months, restored their yacht, giving Jessica about a week of real sailing after a summer of hard work. The effort was worth it, as the next summer they sailed to Greenland and then, eventually, through the Passage and on to Alaska.
En route, they photographed nesting Peregrine Falcons, including doing a video as a chick hatched from an egg; Common Murres returning to the nest – shot with a remote at the nest site; and plenty of Polar Bears. Chris told me of a previous adventure where he and a friend hiked across another arctic island, towing a wheeled sledge with their equipment. One day, as Chris cleared a fishing hole of ice he noticed several white rocks in the distance he hadn’t noted earlier. He continued clearing ice and when he looked up the rocks seemed closer. He returned to his fishing, looked up, and the rocks were even closer, and now he could discern that they were Arctic Wolves stalking him and freezing motionless whenever he looked up. The next time, after pretending to fish he looked up suddenly and caught the wolves in motion, and they knew they were spotted.


Chris felt uncomfortable and headed back to camp, walking and not fleeing, but the wolves, walking also, outpaced him and gained ground. His friend was in the tent and could not hear Chris calling, and it was clear that the wolves would reach Chris before he made it to the tent. Knowing one should never run from a predator and elicit a chase, Chris had no choice but to run, yelling to his friend who, as he got close enough, finally heard his calls and came out of the tent. Seeing two people and not one the wolves stopped and eventually wandered off.
I remarked that wolves are not supposed to attack people, and that there are no known incidences of attacks. Chris had mentioned this, too, to a biologist stationed up north and he said that the fatalities aren’t reported as there are no witnesses! The wolves aggression and boldness is explainable since the wolves may not have seen people before, and are accustomed to taking large prey, like muskox. Wolves in the lower 48, in captive situations, have killed keepers, but wild wolves are a different story. Nonetheless, it was the most exciting encounter Chris had had on that trip, and a great data point for the behavior of wolves.
Chris and Jessica’s adventures can be followed via their facebook page, which they update via Satelite. Check it out!


August 14. The morning began with promising bright skies, with a few low clouds and patches of open blue sky visible above the mountains. High tide was at 8:30 and the hours immediately before and after are usually sparse for bears, as the salmon stream is flooded at our normal viewing area. We scheduled a skiff ride instead, hoping to photograph Bald Eagles along the cliffs. With everyone but Mary in the skiff we traveled light, carrying medium-size telephotos.

We hadn’t traveled far when we spotted what turned out to be an incredibly cooperative Sea Otter floating and flipping in the calm, flat bay waters. Moving in slowly we got to within almost frame-filling range with a 400mm on a full-sensor camera, but hand-holding the lenses, and with many having too short a lens for great shots, I asked if we could return to the boat for our big lenses and tripods. We raced back, retrieved the gear and returned to the otter, which was now placidly floating on its back. While it wasn’t as active, it was equally as tolerant and we managed what are certainly the best sea otter photos I’ve ever taken, with the best shooting opportunity ever.
We photographed several Bald Eagles as well, and at one nest anchored on a ledge of the basalt cliffs, where a fully-grown chick still sat calmly, we had luck with both chick and both adults, perched on snags overhanging the rocks. Later, we encountered one of the two adults again where it sat upon a boulder along the rock edge, giving us even closer shots.
This was probably the best skiff ride we’ve ever had in Geographic Harbor, as we had frame-filling shots of Harbor Seals, Pigeon Guillemots, and Black Oystercatchers as well. Normally rather shy, we floated up to one large group that seemed unusually tame, with a beautiful seal, black speckled on a white coat, posing beautifully.
As we headed back to the boat for lunch we spotted a mother Brown Bear with her three first-year cubs in tow. Something may have spooked her for she was trotting along the beach, with two cubs almost keeping up and a third lagging far behind. As we neared the mother bear reached a small stream and headed inland, but the cubs remained for a few minutes, giving the laggard time to catch up. Eventually the trio moved uphill as well and disappeared into the tall shoreline grasses.
A thick fog and constant drizzle marked the rest of the afternoon, and we were not tempted to go out and shoot bears. Often the shoreline was barely visible and, at best, only three or four bears were in sight, in contrast to the ten to twelve we’d seen on other days. Three or four float planes with tourists still visited the Harbor, although the viewing must have been miserable, cold, wet, and relatively bear-less. For our crew, it gave us some needed time for editing!


August 15. Sadly, our last day with our first group, and after spending nearly two weeks with Warren, Johann, Rafael, and Rich, the boat will seem empty. But our last morning was an extremely productive one, with partly cloudy skies and fairly warm temperatures. We decided to do one final run for Bald Eagles and Sea Otters, having about 1.5 hours to photograph before the group had to shower and dress for the long leg home.
bWe’d just left the boat when we spotted two eagles on the shoreline, but as we approached the birds flew off. We followed, and rounding a bend discovered an adult Bald Eagle perched along the shoreline. The bird was tame and we drifted in closer than I’ve had an eagle here before. While we photographed an immature swooped down to attack, and the adult merely ducked. I was misframed and too centered and only caught the tail of the immature, but Mary was using a 500mm and had more space, and did catch the attack. Eventually it shuffled along the shore and for a few minutes we wondered if it was injured but the bird took off without difficulty and flew across the bay.
We photographed one more eagle as we searched for Sea Otters, getting a few more flight shots. We spotted a Sea Otter but the otter dove deep, and when it surfaced it continued moving away. We hoped it wasn’t the same otter as yesterday, and so we moved on.
We found another Otter and this time we had our otter, or at least a very tolerant one. The otter dove deep when we approached and I wondered if it was evading us, but it soon surfaced, with several white clam shells clamped to its chest. While feeding the ootter ignored us, as it messily chewed on the mollusks, dropping shell bits back into the sea. When finished, the otter raised its head high, clearing the water for a few seconds before taking another arching dive. It surfaced again, with more clams, and repeated the process for several more feeding sessions before we had to go, giving those leaving time to shower and for the cabins to be cleaned for the next group.
By 10:30 everyone was packed and ready, and now we wait for the seaplane and another group, all veterans of past trips so it will be fun, but we’ll be sorry to see this group go. Fortunately, the skies are clear, unlike yesterday when some of the luggage was sent in through weather that seemed too closed in to fly.

Click here for Trip 2's Trip Report


We will be doing this trip again in August of 2015. The trip is limited to 6 participants, with Mary and me leading the trip(s). Contact our office if you are interested -- spaces are obviously very limited!

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