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Brown Bears of Coastal Katmai
Trip 2 Report, 2013

Click here for Trip 1's Trip Report

Our second tour for the Brown Bears of coastal Alaska proved to be just as much fun and just as rewarding as the first tour. While we had all of the same subjects, nature is so variable that the shoots were completely unique, with different weather, new tide influences, more bear behavior, and new poses and opportunities with eagles.

The salmon run that was so productive for our first tour maintained the same numbers and bears continued to fish, with new arrivals appearing as well. Perhaps the highlight of the entire shoot, however, was not a bear but a Bald Eagle experience we had on one of the last days of the trip. Details are given below, in the report, but suffice it to say that it was the best photographic opportunity we've ever had, anywhere, for Bald Eagles.


In 2015 we'll be doing this trip again, as well as our Humpback Whales of SE Alaska Photo Tour, and we'll be anxious to return. If you are interested, please contact our office to get on the first alert list, or sign up for our electronic newsletter.

Here's the day-to-day report.

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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 didn'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 lenswrapped 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 15. Our first group left and, on the same seaplane, our new group arrived. Yesterday, although flights arrived at Geographic Harbor where we are anchored, the weather was terrible, and certainly not conducive for flights. In fact, we later learned that the official airport in Kodiak was closed because of the thick fog. Today, the weather is beautiful and the flight in to Kodiak and then on, via a sea plane, went without a glitch. One from our group from last week’s trip, Bill, stayed on, and we were joined by Cheryl, Kathy, Jim, Tom, and his new bride, Sue. With great weather everyone was anxious to get on shore and after a quick lunch we headed out for our first afternoon shoot, and the action was nearly continuous throughout the period. Scar Face, the big male, was fishing when we arrived but moved on, freeing the stream for several other bears.
bFor our new people, it was fun and exciting to have bears pass by surprisingly close, despite the respectful distance we kept from the stream shore. Twice, the Ugly Mom and her cub sauntered by, fishing right in front of us, and several times the female that resembles an Irish wolfhound fished directly in front of us.
For most of the afternoon I tried very slow shutter speeds to convey action, and in doing so, several times I got caught when a bear caught a great salmon close, dragging the salmon towards the group. Stupidly I didn’t just switch to video, since I was using 1/30th sec which would have worked well but instead I fired away, probably getting nothing.
I did learn something new, or so I thought. Using video with a DX, as with most D SLRs, compromises focus, as the normal AF does not function well. However, by pressing the AF button, after a moment when the viewfinder goes bright (opening up to wide-open to acquire focus), a green rectangle appears, which signifies that AF focus has been acquired and once done, it seems to follow the action. Later, however, when I viewed these videos on the computer I found that the focus was often on the background, not the bear, and most of my efforts were useless. I had forgotten my Hoodman loupe, which may have helped here, but nonetheless I was disappointed with the results.
This is a screen capture from the GoPro video that I placed on the beach and let run until the battery died or the card filled up. I hoped that a bear might walk by, and several did, although for many shots the camera housing fogged and the shots were useless. Although I had worried that the bear might destroy or carry off the camera, none paid it any attention, short of a sniff.

I tried the GoPro on a stretch of beach, and thought that I screwed up with the camera stopping prematurely, but the camera ran and I got a nice shot as a bear walked in and sniffed the camera. Thinking that I had a malfunction I removed the camera, and afterwards several bears walked right up, sometimes carrying a salmon, to where I had originally placed the camera. When we returned to the boat Mary went through the confusing instruction sheet {for me at least) and set up the camera so that tomorrow we should be set, and I should be able to operate the video camera without further problems.
With the great weather several float planes flew in with bear-watching groups, although for most of the afternoon we had the bears to ourselves. By 5:30PM two late groups had arrived and, with most of the bears now disappearing up river, we decided to call it a day, satisfied by plenty of good action and great weather.

eAugust 16. Despite the encouraging skies yesterday afternoon the forecast of NE winds for today proved true and we awoke to dreary conditions, with heavy clouds and a light rain. At 8AM I took a meter reading, getting  f5.6 at 1/100th sec with an ISO of 2000, which was far too dim for any useful photography. We decided to wait a few hours for better light and weather, which gave me some treasured free time to do some editing and to catch up on my notes.
For example, yesterday morning, on the last skiff ride for our first group, we had a chance to appreciate the landscape of Katmai and Geographic Harbor as the angular sunlight gave wonderful relief to the basalt cliffs.  Basalt is a volcanic rock, which when cooled forms distinctive six-sided columns, although with the frequent wet weather many of the exposed edges are now smooth from rain, wind, and wave action and barely resemble the original sharp-sided formation. Much of the surrounding ridges are covered with broad stretches of sand-colored ash, the remnant from the 1912 volcano. Sometimes, when the cloud cover is thick, these patches of ash are mistaken for snow by first-timers.
It’s been just over a century since the Novarupta Volcano erupted, the most powerful volcano of the 20th century. The volcano was ten times more powerful than Mount Saint Helens, and spewed almost twice as much volcanic material than 1883’s famous Krakatoa eruption/explosion in Indonesia. Some areas around Novarupta, close to Mt. Katmai and on the eastern side of the Alaskan peninsula and not too far from our location in Geographic Harbor, about twenty miles, had ash deposits over 700 feet deep. Had this volcano erupted in Manhatten, NY, the ash deposits in Philadelphia, 60 miles away, would have been 18 inches deep. Here, at Geographic Harbor, the deposits must have been hundreds of feet deep.

Remanants of the Novarupta Volcano, with fields of ash resembling snow still blanketing many of the ridges (left). Vegetation is gradually reclaiming the land and most of the ash fields are now covered. Here (right) grasses first make a foothold, creeping into the ash from the edges, and followed by shrubs and small trees. In a few years, this two hundred yard strip of ash will be covered by green.

Obviously, the volcano devastated the island, and must have wiped out all life in the immediate area. Trees would be covered in thick ash, salmon streams choked lifeless with the deposits, and all wildlife not immediately killed would die soon after with these conditions. Yet in less than 100 years the land is reclaimed, as vegetation returned and with it the wildlife. While salmon migrate back to the same rivers and streams year after year, some err and swim up new streams, and over time enough salmon returned to the streams of coastal Katmai to start new salmon runs, and in doing so provided the food for the brown bears that now frequent the area.
In a similar way, the city of Chernobyl, in Russia illustrates this same resiliency.  Suffering a nuclear plant meltdown in 1986 which wiped out most wildlife in the area and left the city and surrounding countryside a no man’s land, moose and wolves wander what were once busy city streets, now devoid of people.
The rain continued throughout the day and we remained on board, with everyone quite satisfied with the quality and quantity of the photography on their first afternoon.

eAugust 17
. We awoke to rain and from our boat the beach looked relatively deserted, giving us freedom for an alternate plan. We took our second boat through the Geographic Harbor bay, hoping for sea otters, eagles, and seals. We found a rather cooperative Bald Eagle almost immediately, perched on the edge of a sea cliff in a beautiful setting, and Mary, Sue, Cheryl, and Kathy took turns using my shoulder as a lens support rather than resting their lenses upon the deck rail, which vibrated from the actions of the engine. I saw Mary’s images later, and they were gorgeous, making me almost sorry I didn’t shoot as well.
We encountered four Sea Otters, and one was the very habituated otter we had last week. Calmly floating upon its back the otter tolerated our large boat which was quite close once, when either the ocean current or its slowly waving tail drew it near. We had a chance to photograph the otter twice. The first time the otter was diving for food, coming up once with what appeared to be a sea urchin.  On the second encounter the otter slept and occasionally groomed, massaging its face and stretching its cheeks in a comical way as it rubbed with its short paws, revealing its white teeth as it pushed and pulled. After several passes, where the otter never flinched, we backed off, leaving the otter at peace.
To negotiate the channels with the big boat we needed to circle out of the bay and into the open sea, where a strong tide and wind-generated waves rocked our boat severely. Earlier I had placed my tripod and long lens up on the top deck, and now worried about its security in the heaving ship I climbed the ladder and wobbled across the roof. In the tossing seas I almost got seasick, fighting off nausea as I secured the gear.
Last week we had made this run with a skiff, and now, with the big boat I had a wonderful view of the eagle nest we’d filmed last week. Unfortunately in the tossing seas my lens was dipping and flying everywhere, and try as I might, I doubt if I caught one shot of the immature eagle hunkered down in the nest. We soon gave up, and headed back to anchor and grab a quick lunch, as the weather had changed. The afternoon looked promising, with clear skies and periodical shafts of sunshine flashing on the mountain slopes where new waterfalls cascaded down the glacier-polished slopes.
After lunch we headed to the beach, and within ten minutes of landing the encouraging weather changed and a light rain began. Undeterred, we headed to our shooting site, unpacking our gear in a minor drizzle that soon petered out. Over the next three and a half hours the weather was erratic, although we had only one short stretch of bright light that was rain-free.  Most of the time it rained, either a constant drizzle or, at one point, a near-horizontal driving rain. Despite the wet weather bears were everywhere, and often seven different bears were visible at one time.
This bear isn't as close as it appears, but does illustrate the silliness of the positioning of the group. This stretch of stream was the only one within this group's field of view and when bears passed our group had to be within their frame, far off but colorful. Had they positioned themselves just a short distance further up river they would have had the same bear shooting, but without the terrible background (us). We had arrived first, so we did not walk into their viewing area!

In the low light I spent most of the day trying for a good slow-shutter speed shot of running bears, and, of course, a couple of times great action occurred during those attempts. I also tried another GoPro video, setting the lens so that it was half in the water but preliminary views of the video were really disappointing, as water lapped up quite distractingly against the glass port, blocking most above-the-water views. If any bears came close the lapping water blocked the view, and later I deleted the files.
Three other bear viewing groups arrived, two from bear-viewing boats that had move into our bay and anchored and another from a fly-in. One of the groups set up almost directly opposite us along a stream although we still had the entire western horizon to shot. We were not compromised but that group certainly was, as from their position they had our group in view whenever they faced straight across. I couldn’t understand why their guide positioned the group there, as there were several other spots accessible.
By 5PM everyone was cold and wet and we headed back to the boat. By 6PM the rain had stopped, but a thick fog had settled over the bay and the surrounding mountains were nearly completely lost in the mist.

oAugust 18. We awoke to clear skies, the first great day since the group arrived three days ago. We left the boat at 8:35AM at a low tide, requiring a very long walk to our position, which, today, was where we had the diving bears on the first trip. I didn’t shoot much, despite the beautiful light, as I concentrated either on running shots with bears coming straight at me or on bears diving-plunging for fish.
The bear viewing area along the stream was crowded, with two other boats and two groups of bear viewers. To our amazement, one group set up at a gravel spit between two streams and most of the action occurred behind them, with harsh backlighting silhouetting the bears and providing terrible contrast. We had thought that after the first series of bears, when they found themselves shooting into the sun, that  they’d get the idea and move to the eastern shoreline. They didn’t, and instead wasted some wonderful photo opportunities, and I suspect their decision was swayed by the closeness of the bears at their location or by the inexperience of their guide. Either way, it was a stupid choice.
Our mother ship (we had two boats available, and our group used both for sleeping) needed water and we had to leave the viewing area by 11:30 to get to the spigot – a gravity fed hose that leads into the bay. The shooting, despite the crowds, had been great and we left with a bit of regret. In the minutes before we had to leave we were surrounded by bears, with a new male bear catching a salmon right in front of us and feeding on our shore. Several other bears walked up the stream fishing, and in the last few minutes before the skiff arrived to take us back to the boat we fired away furiously.
The water collection took longer than expected, but afterwards, with a very high tide flooding the area, we took our boat back out into the bay, hoping for otters and eagles. We found an immature Bald Eagle almost immediately, perched on a vertical slab of rock. We approached closely, with the bird unfazed. An adult flew by, giving us some more shots, before we continued down the bay intent on finding  otters.
We found several, including a mother and nearly full-grown baby that we got a few records shots of, and the tame Sea Otter who floated comically on its back, hind feet straight up, its tail periodically swaying beneath the water, directing its lazy movement. Sea Otters have the densest fur of any mammal, and one square inch of hide will have nearly one million hairs. These incredibly fine hairs form the underfur and insulate the otter as the hairs trap air between the strands. A thicker coat of fur, guard hairs, cover and protect the underfur, keeping this heat-insulating layer dry. Sea Otters, in contrast to many marine mammals, have virtually no body fat, and all of their insulation is through this fur. Accordingly, otters spend several hours a day meticulously grooming, as we’d seen the previous day
The otter’s hind feet were held high, which did look funny but serves a purpose. Unprotected by an underfur these paddle-like feet get cold, and in rest periods having the feet high and dry warms them, or at least keeps them from the heat-draining frigid ewater. Although we had great view, and aside from opening up its eyes, the otter paid us no mind.  When we moved out, the otter still slept.
We circled the outermost islands and into the open sea where, yesterday, we were almost seasick with the rough seas, but today the water was like glass. As we approached the eagle nest we’d visited yesterday, where our previous shots looked as if they were shot from a trampoline, the sea was calm and an adult Bald Eagle perched on the nest with its chick looked very promising. As we approached, instead of flying off as we expected the adult picked up a salmon lying in its nest and proceeded to feed the chick, tearing small chunks that the baby delicately plucked from the adult’s bill. From our big boat we were near the nest level, and from my eposition on the roof I had shots at eagle-level, the best I’ve ever made. For all of us, including our captain and his wife, it was the best eagle shooting session we’ve ever had, anywhere.
Later, we had another very cooperative eagle that perched on a rock before flying off and circling us quite close. Although we had originally planned on returning to the bears in the late afternoon, by 5:30PM when we returned to the boat everyone was sated. We spotted ten bears along the river and on the beaches, and two large bear-viewing groups too, still at the shooting areas. The light was failing, and with an early dinner and a slide show scheduled, no one was tempted to return to the bears. Fortunately, the two bear boats were leaving this evening so we anticipated having an empty beach to ourselves tomorrow!

bAugust 19. We awoke to partly cloudy skies, a promising start to our last full day of bear photography. Another bear-viewing boat arrived during the evening and this morning, by 7:30, three people were on shore. Because of the extremely low tide, exposing nearly a half mile of sandy tidal flats, we planned on hitting shore around 9AM. Even then, the tide had barely changed and we walked almost a half mile walk to reach our first shooting area. The other group was there as well, but far off to one side, almost in the high grasses and I felt in an unsafe position, as a bear might push through the grasses unseen. Mary asked if we could join them on this stretch of river and received the okay, although we positioned ourselves in a more open area.
We set up about twenty feet from the water and throughout the morning bears often crossed on the bear trail adjacent to the stream, or fished for salmon right off its shores. Several times bears grabbed fish directly in front of us and climbed up on to the shore to feed, giving us wonderful view. Scar Face and the Ugly Mom and baby showed up, as well as another adult male that is barely half the size of Scar Face.

Two young adult bears, one being about a fifth smaller than the other, were play fighting when we started our walk across the tide flats, but the bears were too far away for any shooting. We hoped they’d continue and eventually move closer, and later on in the morning they did. Usually the smaller of the two initiated the play, but that was also the one that broke off and ran away, with the larger bear in pursuit. After pausing, the smaller bear would approach the larger, sometimes draping a forelimb over the back of the other, who would then turn and start the wrestle. Occasionally both bears would stand on their hind legs to push or to bat, and one time, bthe larger bear pushed the other over, who smoothly rolled onto its back almost in a somersault-like move, before the larger bear climbed atop and pinned the other to the earth. Unfortunately the play was still far away and rather small, even with my 800mm. I did some video, and afterwards wished I’d done more as the video was more interesting to watch.
After the fact, I also regretted that I had not recorded some data, like how many dives or chases were involved before a bear caught a salmon. Although I didn’t take a true count, I’d suspect their success rate is about twenty percent or better, and with lengthy runs where the bears chase down salmon it’s probably over thirty percent. Scar Face had several feeding strategies, but the one that was most puzzling, being so successful, was his simply plunging forward in a short lunge, and usually coming up successful. I’d give his rate at almost 50% with this method.
Ugly Mom usually caught the fish and her nearly adult baby would often moan or growl, the same vocalization that two angry bears use when confronting one another, and over half the time the baby would get half of the fish. Most of the time the female attempted to turn out of the cub’s way but the cub moaned and pushed, reaching out until finally grabbing hold of a fish and ripping at least half of the carcass free.
Over the weeks we’ve often seen bears catch a salmon and, after just a few bites, abandon the catch to seek another. We suspect these bears were after eggs, and if they caught a male they did little but dispatch the fish. One bear, catching a salmon along our shoreline, brought up a fish and, after biting off its whole tail-end, dropped the large fish and left it flopping on the shoreline. About five minutes later I walked by the fish which was still twitching pathetically, its body quivering in spasms as its jaws worked, trying to catch oxygen. Although some suggest lower animals don’t feel pain, I doubt this – they avoid painful stimuli – so I suspect this salmon died a painful, lingering death.
bHigh tide was about 2PM, and shortly after noon we headed upriver to another location where almost ten days ago, we had bears repeatedly diving for salmon. With the incoming tide bears continued moving upriver and towards us, and for the next 1.5 hours we had plenty of activity. As high tide approached, bears were moving upstream, and for a short time, as we began packing up gear, the river was empty. By the time we had our gear packed much of our shooting area was under water, with the tide moving so quickly that there was nearly six inches of water where Mary was sitting just ten minutes earlier. The ‘grassy knoll’ where we often shot at high tide in past years was now completely underwater, with only the tallest grasses rising above the water. This was the highest tide we’d had, but the forecast for the next week had even more extreme tides, requiring very long walks at low tide and virtually no shooting area at the peak of high. We were happy to miss that.
I’d hoped to do a final skiff ride for sea otters in the afternoon but the sky stayed overcast with a light wind rippling the east end of the bay and periodic showers discouraging the effort. At 4PM the sky opened up and it poured, discouraging any thoughts of returning to the bears. The two bear-viewing groups that had arrived by float plane must have had miserable conditions, although they were no doubt thrilled at seeing bears. By 5:30 the wind had died and the rain stopped, but our gear was packed for home, as everyone now relaxed or edited images.

August 20. We awoke to great weather, but with a very high tide flooding the shooting site and the first sea plane schedule for 10AM we simply relaxed until the plane arrived. The next flight arrived two hours later and Mary, Bill, and I flew out, meeting the rest of the group at a restaurant in Kodiak where we had our final lunch before returning to Anchorage and our flights home.

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


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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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