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Brown Bears of Coastal Alaska
Photo Tour
August 2015
Trip Report


As we have been doing biannually for the last fifteen years or so, we returned to coastal Alaska for the late summer salmon run and the Brown Bears that gather for the feast. Brown Bears are the coastal and larger version of the same bear that, inland, is called the Grizzly Bear, and this species is found from Spain and Finland and across Asia and into western North America. While inland Grizzly Bears can be absolutely terrifying (it is the only animal I really don't wish to meet afied and on foot), the coastal variety, at least at this time of year in an area where they are accustomed and habituated to man, are rather benign. We always are careful, but the bears are most interested in catching salmon, and consequently often walk by or fish quite close. For first-timers, never even seeing a bear in the wild before, having a bear so close is exciting, thrilling, and unforgettable.


Unexpectedly, Mary had to have foot surgery, and her recuperation extended through the time of this tour so Mary stayed home -- of course a huge disappointment to all, as I was reminded constantly! It was unfortunate that she missed this trip as it very well may have been the very best and most diverse Bear shoot we've ever had. Besides Brown Bears fishing, we had several females with cubs, wonderful Bald Eagles, two good Sea Otter encounters, Harbor Seals, and, most surprising of all, an incredible encounter with breaching Humpback Whales!

pThe following is the trip report.

Day 1, August 15.

Most of the group arrived the previous afternoon or evening, and today we drove to Chugach State Park where we hoped to find and photograph Moose. Although this outing was not an official part of the tour everyone who arrived yesterday came along. Two participants flew in today and missed the excursion.

A little portfolio of a bunch of little bears!

I’d never been to Chugach before and really didn’t know what to expect, and having heard that you could have both moose and downtown Anchorage in the same frame, I think I expected something of a suburban experience. Actually, there is almost nothing in Alaska that approaches a suburban experience, and this state park, high in what they might call foothills and what I’d call big mountains in Pennsylvania, was a true and quite vast wilderness. The terrain was surprisingly open, almost tundra-like with low shrubby growth, interspersed here and there with alder and tangled thickets of spruce.  I scouted a trail route that followed the Pipeline, where I had a very brief encounter with a cow Moose, while the group, remaining behind at an overlook, asked passers-by if they’d seen any moose. One hiker did, a bull that was visible further down the trail on the opposite side from where I had scouted, but by the time we dropped down into the valley that huge Moose had climbed up the hill and may have passed quite close to where we had previously been scouting! Judy was using a Nikon with a large file size and obtained a surprisingly nice shot, despite the great distance.
Those two encounters, however, suggested that we might do quite well if we simply sat and waited, as it seemed that Moose were on the move and one might pass on by and in view, as opposed to our hiking around the hills and perhaps missing a hidden Moose that would later show itself. We waited about two hours and watched the valley, and I did find another Moose when I hiked back up to the overlook, a distant Moose on a far-off meadow. We decided to move on and check some other wildlife areas, but when the group reached the original overlook I spotted another bull Moose that ran down to the stream valley directly below us as we watched. Soon another Moose appeared out of the thick tangle of vegetation, and within a few minutes two more appeared, all grazing placidly alongside one another.
A well-worn trail led directly down towards the moose from our overlook, disappearing into the low spruce, and we headed down, hoping to reach the valley floor where we would be much closer to the moose. Unfortunately, once we entered the spruce forest the trail simply petered out, and what began as a strenuous exercise in stooping beneath thick limbs, finally just ended in an impossible tangle of twisted limbs. We were still far above the Moose, and further progress, if it was even possible, would have been very, very tough bush-whacking and would have been quite challenging to find a way back up, if we ever reached the bottom. We gave up, and shot some group shots of the four moose from a distance.
We continued down to Potter’s Marsh where, at this late date, only ducks in eclipse plumage and a few stray Dowitchers and Yellowlegs dabbled in the shallows and the mudflats. Continuing south along Turnaround Inlet, we stopped at several pullouts, looking for a stream where Judy and Don had previously filmed salmon. I did find one spot, a new one along a small stream, where Salmon were swimming upstream along a very narrow waterway. Judy had her GoPro with her – mine was still charging in my room! – and she got some great low angle, underwater shots of Salmon swimming upriver or hanging in the swift current.
By 3PM it was raining steadily and we headed back to Anchorage.

bDay 2. August 16, 2015.

We left our hotel at 4AM for a 6:30AM flight to Kodiak. Yesterday, fog prevented flights into Kodiak but today we were lucky, with the flight leaving on time and arriving without incident. The start wasn’t quite as easy, at least for me, as only my ticket of our group of nine did not go through the automatic check-in of Alaska Airlines! Eventually I was directed to a manned counter, after waiting nearly an hour at the sole international desk being staffed by one employee, and the attendent found me in the system and I was ticketed, and upgraded to First Class to boot, although for a 45 minute flight there are not too many perks in going first class.
A snafu at our boat prevented our on-time arrival at Geographic Harbor, and we spent the entire morning, after a breakfast at the King Diner in Kodiak, waiting for our seaplane. We left at noon, but we did have a bonus as we flew across the bay, spotting a pod of Orcas, or Killer Whales, swimming by. They were actively moving, breaking the water constantly, but they also appeared to be bothered by the plane, and dove out of sight whenever we circled close, while we were still hundreds of yards above them.
When we reached Geographic Harbor it was raining, and it was nearly 3PM by the time we had our gear stowed, had our lunch, and picked out hip waders to wear for the next four days. It was raining steadily, and the tide was rising, which usually means there are no bears, but glassing the shoreline with binoculars I could see several bears still visible in the stream, so we headed out.
bBy the time we reached shore only one Bear was present but that bear was a mother with two Cubs of the Year, 8 or 9 months old. The mother captured salmon near us, and the young,  although initially shy, eventually joined her, fed, and then moved on downstream. When the family group rounded the downstream bend they disappeared from sight, and that was the last bear of the afternoon. We waited nearly an hour in the high tide waters, but without a bear in sight we called it a day. As we had dinner and I walked the deck later no other bear had arrived – the tide waters were still too high.

Day 3. August 17, 2015

We awoke to rain and a low andthick cloud cover that dropped the light to discouraging levels. Apparently there was fog or thick cloud cover in Kodiak for no float planes arrived, and by 9:30, despite the rain and the poor lighting, we loaded into the boats. By the time we reached shore the rain had slowed to a drizzle, and nearly stopped as we started a quarter to half mile hike across the tidal flats to reach the bear viewing area.

At one point early into our walk Deb stopped us and said, ‘Is that a wolf?’ as she pointed across the tide flats. I was looking too high, watching the distant grasses, and at first I didn’t notice the gray-white shape of a Wolf lying on the beach much closer to where I was looking. We immediately got our gear ready and over the next forty minutes or so we very, very slowly moved forward, stopping periodically to let the wolf grow comfortable with our move, and angling off to the side, rather than directly approaching the wolf, to win the wolf's confidence and it worked. We got fairly close, and the Wolf was unfazed, actually getting up at one point and walking towards us, then lying back down.
Scar-Face, the dominant Bear in this bay, came by, and the Wolf got up, and several of us got shots of the two in the same frame. The Bear just sauntered by confidently, while the Wolf stood and walked by with his head held low, in partial submission, until the Bear went passed. Eventually the wolf headed back into the tall grasses, but did so slowly, and we felt that we made a major step for another, even better encounter should we see this Wolf again. Note: We never saw the wolf again!
We did very well with mother Bears with cubs, and the morning was productive. Park Rangers came by and visited with us, with the Ranger I was talking to finally got around to telling us that where we were shooting was OK, but that we’d have to back off 50 yards if a bear caught a fish. The rules are, she explained, that it was fine to be anywhere on the beach as bears moved about, but if one was actively fishing, or caught a fish, we'd have to back off. However, she said, we wouldn’t have to do so at the ‘approved’ site, which turned out to have a great gravel bar that was ideally, and I mean ideally, situated for the best angles for our shooting. We said we’d move and that she could lead us to the spot, and we were delighted to discover it was a spot that I’d passed on, worrying that we’d actually be breaking a rule being there! It was a very good encounter with a Ranger! By 12:30 the tide was beginning to rise, and the bear activity was slowing, so we headed in to lunch.
At 2 we returned, figuring we had about 3 hours before the high ground would be inundated by the rising tide. The rain had slowed down to a drizzle when we landed, and almost immediately we had mother Bears with cubs around us. At one point, quite early in the shoot, we had a mother with a yearling cub playing close by, while another mother with a cub of the year nursed in the background. Later, the mother we saw yesterday with two cubs came by, and I’m fairly certain that she was using us as a protection zone from other bears.

While we watched her she chomped her jaws loudly, a clear sign of distress and warning, but she was directing those clacking, loud chomps at a male bear that was further upriver. She was comfortable with us, and several times over the next few hours she came by with the cubs, walking close by and being quite comfortable.
One of the larger males charged a subadult when the two converged, and I thought some type of bout would ensue, but nothing happened, except that the smaller Bear simply hung its head down low in a clear submissive posture, thus deflating the ire of the other bear. As the larger Bear wandered off the other held its submissive stance, waiting two minutes or so before gingerly stepping back into the stream.
Both morning and afternoon I sunk a GoPro into the stream, and both times caught some nice video of Salmon swimming by. This transition from salt water to fresh must be metabolically taxing, for these fish are literally decaying before our eyes. On the video I can clearly see pelvic fins that have so decayed that only the boney spines are visible, as the flesh that supports the bone and makes these fins are gone. Some fish looked healthy on one side, but were mottled and cancerous-looking on the other. The stream this year is incredible clear, and the video shooting is great. One Bear visited the camera, stepping in close and either pawing the camera over or picking it up in its jaws. A tense moment, but as I saw last year, the bears show little interest in the cameras.



Day 4.  August 18, 2015

bA gale was supposed to hit Kodiak Island, which Chuck, our boat captain, said usually means that the westerly winds bring clear weather to Katmai and, indeed, that forecast proved true. We awoke to clear skies, which remained throughout the day. We left for the beach at 8:30AM, with a fairly long hike into the observation area as the tide was out. By 12:30PM the tide was even further out when we returned for lunch, requiring about a half mile trudge through the flats. Fortunately the tidal area is fairly solid and the walking was easy, just very long, and carrying our packs we still could appreciate the walk.

On this trip, I used the new Canon 100-400 which I found to be incredibly sharp, and since I have the lens and vowed to always use it if I bought it, an 800mm. Those two lenses and two camera bodies easily fit inside my Gura Gear Bataflae bags which I wore once ashore -- I never wear a bag while in a boat since it would be the ultimate sinker if I felt overboard. I used 64 and 32gb Hoodman Cards, and did almost all of my shooting from a Wimberley Gimbal II head, mounted on a Really Right Stuff Tripod. I've used the RRS quick release clamps so that I can, when necessary, change from a Wimberley to a BH40 or BH55 head, although for this trip I used the Wimberley exclusively. I've listed the pieces for this below, and I can't stress how convenient this system is for switching heads!

TA-LBC: Round lever-release clamp

Round lever-release style quick-release clamp

TH-DVTL-55: Round Dovetail Plate

Round Dovetail Plate

TH-DVTL-40: Round Dovetail Plate

Round Dovetail Plate

Although the weather was spectacular, with an intermittent breeze that kept any mosquitos at bay, despite the warmth, the bear activity was also fairly bslow. A few males, including Scarface, appeared and fished the nearby creeks, but after an initial grouping of perhaps five bears, scattered across the flats, only two or three bears, periodically moving within camera range, was the rule for most of the morning. Bill, Judy, and I all tried GoPro setups, and I planted one camera in a deep pool where, earlier, a Bear fished and swam. Unfortunately, when I finally had the chance to set up a camera the bear wandered down to the inlet and did not return.
As we were yesterday, today we were again visited by Park Rangers and once again the experience was pleasant. We were asked if we were at the official site, which we were, and we could give the name of the Ranger that g
directed us there. The shooting was slow so it was easy to  talk, rather than be distracted by bears, but even so, all of us managed some nice shots. I did a lot of very slow shutter speed images with Bears and Gulls, trying to catch blurry birds and sharp bears.
The skies were clear, and I knew that the afternoon shooting could be severely compromised as we would be facing directly into the sun, and experiencing a high tide as well, which usually limits the bears. Consequently, I proposed we should go for Eagles, and after lunch we took our skiff and headed towards the end of Geographic Harbor, looking for Eagles and Sea Otters.


The afternoon was spectacular, with good shots of Sea Otters, several Bald Eagles, including a wonderful pair at the very end of the day that were in great light and flew directly overhead, Black Guillemots, Common Murres, Harbor Seals, Rock Sandpipers, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Pelagic Cormorants.
But the highlight of the afternoon were the Humpback Whales I spotted when one started pectoral slapping. We headed towards the whales, that did a great job of eluding us for the most part, but giving enough clues, with a tail fluke or blow here and there, that we could keep up with the whales and keep track of their direction. Suddenly one breached, quite close , and seconds later another did so, and a few minutes later a whale did so again, for a total of about five or six breaches. With the light, and the dark sea cliffs, the show was among the best I’d ever had, and this afternoon’s boat cruise was probably the most productive we’ve ever had!



Day 5. August 19, 2015

We again awoke to clear skies and a fairly high tide, with a few bears visible on the distant shoreline. At 8:30 we reached the beach and started hiking in to our usual spot, which was bear-less at the time. One of the mother Bears with three cubs appeared down by the tide line, and I offered to stay back with the packs so that people could hike to the bears without carrying backpacks and chairs. It was worth it, as the six who went down, Deb, Judy, Doris, Chuck, Dick, and Jack, did quite well. After that mother left, the mother bear with the two small cubs arrived, and played fairly close for more great shots.
sMeanwhile, Don, Bill, and I did some distant watching, as nothing walked up river to our viewing area. Eventually, at nearly noon, the mother with three cubs appeared by us and performed well in great light. Without bears, I spent a good portion of the morning doing GoPro footage of salmon moving up river. We didn’t get off the beach until nearly 2PM, as the bear activity increased as the day progressed.

After lunch, Chuck, the Captain, had to refill the water tanks on the boat and needed to do so at high tide, and so we relaxed and downloaded and edited, and around 5:30 headed back out into the bay on the skiff, hoping once again to find the Humpback Whales. We did spot them, but none breached, although I did hear one do so but we couldn’t locate the direction, nor did we see any sign of that whale. Still, the skiff ride was great, with an excellent Sea Otter, an interesting Bald Eagle nest on a sea stack, and numerous opportunities for Eagles. We worked hard for the whales, and finally gave up after 9PM as the sun finally rounded the surrounding mountain ridge, when we finally came in for dinner. A long but very diverse day.

Day 6. August 20, 2015

We decided to try a different viewing area but the bears returned to our original spot and most of the group headed there immediately. Chuck, Don, and I stayed with the plan, and then moved back to the tide edge to film a Bear in the bay, before finally meeting up with the group at our usual location. The mother Bear and three cubs performed well, as did old Scarface, the dominant bear we’ve now known for six years, and another male that looks primed to succeed Scarface in the near future. We've known Scarface for six years, when he was already in his prime, so we suspect his days of dominance are numbered.
Activity really slowed down by 11AM, and at noon we headed back for lunch. Afterwards, Chuck took our boat out of the channel and up into the next bay, Kinak, where we had a spectacular shooting session of a Bear along a rocky shoreline, and several other bears further off that were fishing, including a mother bear with three cubs that chased off two very young subadults, who ran for at least a half mile to escape.
I spent a good deal of time simply trying to photograph leaping Pink Salmon, gathered in huge numbers, apparently because there was not enough water in the rivers. Alaska was suffering from a drought, and the fish in this river were at a standstill, at least temporarily. It was great fun, and fortunately it was possible to get multiple series as several salmon would do multiple leaps. Because of the repetitive jumps we had time to lead and frame as the fish cleared the water. We returned to our anchorage around 8, eating dinner en route as we headed to our usual spot.

Day 7. August 21, 2015.
Departure Day

bWe awoke to an overcast sky and cool temperatures, but with a scheduled flight out at 11AM we had some time to do a last visit to the beach. We left at 8AM, with two or three bears visible on the beach. It was cold and damp and dark, and the bear activity was rather sporadic. We had one good bear feeding in deep water, with just his head showing as he grabbed salmon, and another bear that played with a large stick but that bear, unfortunately, stopped playing as we approached, and rose and walked towards us as if embarrassed and angry at the interruption. Judy did some more GoPro and was rewarded with a bear finally walking to her camera, mouthing the lens, and stepping over the rig to walk on by.
bIt began to rain and we headed back to the boat, not wishing to get soaked for the packing for going home, but soon afterwards the rain stopped and, while we waited, the sun appeared and so did more bears. Our flight was delayed but we remained on board until noon, when our float planes finally arrived. Our final packing took a bit of time, so the wait wasn’t too onerous.
Our flight to Kodiak had one bonus, five or six Fin Whales that were swimming along the surface, giving us good views, and also a lone Humpback Whale that we spotted soon after we left Geographic Harbor. It was a great way to end a great trip.
Our animal sightings and subjects included the following:
Brown Bear, Gray Wolf, Stellar’s Sealion, Harbor Seal, Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, Orca or Killer Whale, Sea Otter,  Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Common Raven, Harlequin Duck, Teal spp, Black-billed Magpie, Belted Kingfisher, Rock Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Dowitcher spp, Marbled Murrelet, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous-winged Gull, Mew Gull, Pink Salmon, Coho Salmon, and I’m sure I’m missing a few!
We are scheduled to return in 2017 – and we’re looking forward to more spectacular times in coastal Alaska.

We can’t wait, and if you’d like to join us, let us know now!

If you'd like to read about our past Alaska Brown Bear
Photo Tours, check out these trip reports:

2013 Brown Bears of Katmai #1
2013 Brown Bears of Katmai #2
2011 Brown Bears of Katmai #1
2011 Brown Bears of Katmai #2
2009 Brown Bears of Katmai

Read our 2015 brochure. Information applies for 2017,
for reference, although exact dates and prices will differ.

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