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Brown Bears of Katmai
Photo Tour 2009 Trip Report

bear after salmon

The largest land predator in the world, the Alaskan Brown Bear, is also one of the most accessible, and that fact was continually illustrated on our extremely successful back-to-back Photo Tours to Alaska's Katmai National Park.

bear dripKatmai is famous for its bears, and particularly the iconic shot of a salmon leaping into a bear's mouth that has been photographed in Katmai, at Brooks Falls. Until recently, when one thought of bear photography Katmai, and Brooks Falls, probably came to mind. But Brooks Falls is crowded, and because of the tourist numbers the park rangers are forced to be extremely cautious in their judging bear/human interactions. I've been there several times but I was never especially enthusiastic, as the limited shooting opportunities, in terms of time and backgrounds, made the shooting rather unimaginative and repetitive.

For this reason, for the last several years (spaced every two years) Mary and I have been leading photo tours to another area in Katmai -- the coast. There are few tourists here -- often only those in our boat, and when the salmon are running the bears are everywhere. All bear photography requires a bit of luck in terms of weather and availability of salmon, and this year we probably had our best of both. Incredibly, we never lost a day to rain, and, two days before we arrived for our tours, the salmon had returned to spawn at our destination. Bears were everywhere, continually in view.

bear cubThis year we had our most successful bear shoot, ever. There were several reasons for this. One, each group had great spirit and we had fun, and a lively, friendly atmosphere generally leads to good luck. Two, the salmon had just started running (more on this in a minute), so the bears were still extremely interested in eating salmon and were gathering in greater numbers as each day passed. Three, the weather was incredible, and on our last tour we had blue skies and sun almost every day for nearly the entire day. Four, we had the best luck we've ever had with mother bears with cubs, so in addition to the normal feeding behavior we also shot a lot of wonderful interaction between mothers and cubs.

Trip Highlights

dall porpoiseWe arrived at our boat, anchored in a bay where a few bears had been seen, by float plane but before we boarded we learned that bears were turning up at a different location. Once everyone was on board we sailed to this bay where, because of incredible bear viewing, we remained for the two weeks. En route, however, a group of about a half dozen Dall porpoises raced across the seas to join us, bow-riding in front of the boat in a fairly calm sea. I've only had one other opportunity to photograph Dall porpoises doing this, and took a risk in leaving the deck to retrieve a polarizing filter to cut through the sea glare. I'm glad I did -- it made a huge difference, despite the loss of light a polarizer costs.



eag;eBald eagles were frequently seen, sometimes flying over us while we sat and photographed bears. On both trips we also sailed out of our bay along the cliffs where we'd find eagles perched. These would fly off at our approach, but we'd shoot them on the fly. The image-size wasn't as large as we'd like, but cropped the shots were just fine.

Christian Biemans shot this same eagle using a slow shutter speed and did a pan-blur, rendering my literal shot into a beautiful artistic interpretation (see Participants' Portfolio).

On our second trip, along with cruising for bald eagles we worked on shooting abstracts, reflections and motion blurs that consumed almost all of our time on the morning trip. Doing this type of shooting is fun. It may not result in anything anyone can use, but the abstractions, and the fun of simply playing with light and color and form made the entire exercise worthwhile. Several of those on our second trip, in addition to Mary and me, really got into the shooting, and I look forward to doing more of the same on our future trips.



bear composite panoOn most trips we've had some opportunities for photographing mother bears with cubs, but it is always a highlight and a thrill when the first set of cubs appears. This year one mother and cub practically adopted us, and took up residence on a small island where she'd fish and return to her cub. On the first day she arrived, after fishing at what would become 'her spot,' the mother led her cubs right passed up to come to rest, and nurse, so close that from my position she didn't fit inside the frame. I had to do a two-shot pano and stitch the images to catch the whole thing! Over the next two weeks this mother and cub appeared daily, and her cub's behavior was so consistent we named him 'Dancing Bear' for his antics.

dancing bear
Dancing Bear - who entertained us daily

Of course, what we had specifically come to Katmai to film was the fishing activity, with bears chasing and catching salmon. Up until the time we arrived the salmon run, we were told, was slow or had not yet started. Certainly, we found that to be true in southeast Alaska when we visited Kake (see whale trip report), but our luck held at the salmon appeared, in numbers. Each morning, as we took our skiff out to our landing beach, we'd pass over dozens or hundreds of large pink salmon heading toward their spawning river where the bears, and our group, would wait.

The bears fishing behavior varied widely, with some bears chasing and pinning fish down with their paws, while others dove in from the river bank, and others lurked along the river edge pinning salmon against the shoreline. As the days passed it was amusing to watch bears become very discerning, or wasteful, as they'd catch an old salmon, one near death, and discard it almost immediately. It didn't look good to us and, apparently, it didn't to the bears, either.

w salmonshaking fur

Sometimes bears would catch fish directly in front of us, or grab a fish and walk towards us to eat their catch just yards away. The opportunities for frame-filling, very exciting images occured daily, and we never tired of it.

One day, the Katmai park superintendent, head ranger, and an official from the Alaskan fish and game department stopped in and interviewed our group about our experiences. They'd never been to this bay before, and wondered how it differed from the viewing elsewhere. At one point we were asked what could be changed, and we replied, enthusiastically, nothing! Don't fix something that isn't broken. The Alaskan fish and game official pondered whether or not a viewing area should be built, or an area set aside as a sanctuary for the bears, a people exclusion zone, similar to what has been done at McNeil River. We sincerely hope that will never occur because the bears are wide-ranging and the tourists, for the most part well managed by guides, stay sitting in one spot and let the bears do their thing, which often includes them coming quite close by. The bears ignore us and go about their fishing, creating a wonderful, intimate experience that, I hope, never changes.

bear wideangleriver bend
For most of our shooting we sat along the river, yards from shore so that bears have free access to anywhere they wish to fish. The image on the right shows our group as the tide began to rise. Soon after, we moved to a higher, drier location!

If it doesn't, then the best bear viewing opportunities in Alaska will be with us, and we'll return, as we're planning on doing again in two years, 2011. If you are interested, contact our office for details!

For a further idea of the images you too can produce, please check out both our portfolio of some of our best, and one composed solely of our participants' work.