Sunday, September 2, 2018

Brown Bears of Katmai Alaska

This was an unexpected last minute wildlife photography trip. I had a week to prepare for it. Since it kind of fell into my lap due to the generosity of one of my photography colleagues who was supposed to go, but couldn’t make it I had the opportunity to go in her place. I love photographing brown bears and I love Alaska so whether I could afford the time off or not I had to go.
We flew into Kodiak, on Kodiak, Island, Alaska. From there we took a De Havilland Beaver float plane to a boat in the Kinac Bay in the Katmai National Park. The idea is we stay on a boat for seven days and take a skiff to shore and photograph the bears fishing. If one Bay isn’t productive, we try another. As we are staying on a boat for the week we are able to be mobile. From the boat we take a skiff to shore to photograph the bears. The skiff is a 20 foot boat with a ramp. It allows us to get into the shallows of the ocean and safely dismount with our photography equipment.
Half of our trip was cloudy and rainy. I expected that as it is Alaska after all. The weather didn’t bother me. Actually I prefer cloudy days as they provide better light for photography. The problem was the salmon run was quite insignificant. Poor salmon run = poor brown bear viewing. Still we had a few good brown bear photography sessions.
Most of our bear photography trips involve being as big as possible and staying together as a group and shooting with long lenses. The philosophy here is quite the opposite. We were encouraged to use short lenses, get low to the ground and photograph the bears at close proximity while they were fishing. The best images came from the use of short lenses. (100-400mm was perfect) while lying on our stomachs at the water’s edge. The bears came remarkably close to us and completely ignored us as they were busy fishing.
On one occasion the biggest male in the area came bounding toward a photographer chasing a fish. He missed the fish and stopped dead in his tracks about 2-3 feet away from the photographer. She didn’t even flinch. She looked at him and he stared at her for a second or two. That second or two felt like minutes. Then he got distracted by a fish and kept on fishing. If that happens ten times, I bet 8 times that photographer is in the hospital or worse. And if there was an incident, how long would it take to get the skiff out to us, then a float plane would have to be ready to fly in and get the photographer out back to shore where a car would have to take her to the hospital. And would she have the luxury of that 3-4 hours to get to a hospital? After that close call, from that point on, I was obsessed with the “what if’s”. The photographer did the exact right thing and froze. She didn’t move a muscle and had nerves of steel. Still, in my opinion we were too close to the water’s edge and behaving careless in regards to our safety. The bear could have taken a swat at her “just because”. He could have seen her as competition for his fish had he caught it, etc. One bite from that 1000 pound bear or one swat with those six inch claws and her life would have never been the same. I think that day she was beyond lucky to come out of that incident unscathed.
All in all it was a fun trip. On the way in our float plane landed in Kinak Bay, a 45 minute flight from Kodiak. We cruised for two hours out to Geographic Bay where we spent the first 2.5 days. The bear photography was pretty good there. From Geographic it was a four hour boat ride to Hallo Bay. Hallo Bay is beautiful! Unfortunately for us the bear viewing was very scarce and the bears that were there were really skittish. After Hallo Bay we cruised into Kukak Bay. The bears in Kukak bay were dosey and just kind of layed around. After a couple empty bear viewing attempts at Kukak Bay, four of us chose to go on skiff rides instead of photographing sleepy bears. Our skiff highlights were photographing puffins and a family of river otters
On one day we were lucky enough to photograph a wolf. And the bear group was even luckier on one morning. After seeing nothing all morning, the wolf that we photographed earlier approached them and came within a few feet of them. What an incredible encounter!
Hallo Bay, Alaska
I would recommend this trip Captained by Chuck Keim aboard the 70’ Coastal Explorer. Chuck has 30 years’ experience on the sea and is a great guy! His second; Dwayne is about the hardest working guy you’ll meet. He kept that boat “ship shape”.
The other highlight of our trip was meeting Sophia. Sophia is Chuck and Olga’s granddaughter. She joined us on the boat for a few days. She has got to be the happiest four year old I’ve ever met. She kept us entertained on the boat and was happily escorting the photographers to and from the shore on the skiff with her Grandma and Grandpa. That little ray of sunshine definitely added a fun aspect to the trip. We were all delighted to be entertained by this little social butterfly. At four years old she was happy to teach eight adults a life lesson. If you are nice to people and genuinely a positive person. If you are fun to be around and welcoming to strangers, you will make people’s day and they will adore you for your positive way about you. Whether you are four or ninety six, people like that are just fun to be around.