My tripod bumped to one side and I felt a spray of water as I heard the thunder of a heavy, running animal (only slightly louder than the hammering of my heart), closely followed by the intense odor of wet fur and fish.
Yes I was finally here in Alaska, in the thick of the Salmon run and surrounded by the concentrated feeding frenzy of the grizzly bears. I was sure glad I wasn’t included on the menu! I would have been an easy target for the huge female bear that had just run past within a half meter of me, knocking my tripod as she went!
After almost a year of planning and eager anticipation I had arrived in the remote, untamed wilderness that is Alaska.
My trip started with a day’s journey on the Across Alaskan Railroad followed by a boat cruise amongst the stunning glaciers of Prince William Sound. And now I was at my first “bear” destination, Silver Salmon Creek Lodge in the Lake Clark National Park on the Western Shores of Cook Inlet.
It had been an early start at the local airport, a small airstrip surrounded by canals lined with dozens of floatplanes – our gruff pilot muttering that there were only 3 roads in Alaska so almost everyone owned a plane… On to the scales and quick calculations on the weight of the people and the assorted camera cases – which were somewhat over the allowed maximum – a bit more mumbling and off we went. After a 35 minute flight down the coast we were circling the landing strip, which was in fact a beach, complete with 5 grizzly bears digging for clams within 400 meters of where we landed! There was no doubt we were in bear territory now.
After sorting my gear at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, a very homely place with huge log fires, incredible food and a total of only 6 guests, I was allocated a guide. Rick was a great character who also had a passion for photography and bears; needless to say we would get along well. A quick briefing and we headed out into the rain. With low tide approaching we were fortunate to find bears with young cubs digging for clams on the beach. They were bedraggled in the rain but that wasn’t going to stop them. Whilst the clams seemed a meagre morsel in proportion to the bears (I tried to imagine “filling up” on shelled peas, which probably have about the same food value for me) the bears seemed content with these small mouthfuls in a determined effort to fatten up for the long months of winter hibernation. As the tide finally turns the bears move to claim a spot near the river mouth where they will feed on the salmon that make their way through the shallows to enter the river.
The amount the bears eat at this time plays a crucial role in their survival over the winter months. An average adult bear consumes around 40kg of salmon a day. In Alaska these bears can weigh up to 800kgs when they go into hibernation, this is considerably larger than the same species in any other region. They spend half their life sleeping and the other half eating salmon. With my own predilection to smoked salmon that was sounding pretty good!
The salmon themselves are oblivious to their role in this food chain. They have returned to their birth stream after years at sea where they will re-adapt from salt water to fresh water, before making the slow and torturous journey up stream where they will spawn and eventually die at the head of the river. If they make it past the bears that is.
Their entry over the sand flats makes for easy hunting for the bears as the fish are visible from a great distance. The bears sprint to launch themselves at the helpless salmon, making a great show with every catch they make. There is an obvious hierarchy amongst the bears for when the fishing is slow their territories are keenly challenged. Even though we were standing in a fully open area the female bear that had connected with my tripod had swerved to run toward a distant fish and passed very close to us without even acknowledging our presence. It was frightening but also strangely comforting to know that I didn’t rate in interest as highly as the salmon did to these hungry bears.
We spent the next two days exploring this area with its open sand flats and grassy marshes. There were several groups of bears feeding in the vicinity so keeping a keen eye in all directions was important. These guys are huge with immense raw power and they deserve to be treated with total respect.
It was then back to Anchorage, followed by a one hour spectacular flight over glaciers and the active, steaming volcanoes of the “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes” to King Salmon, a place that makes Fiordland’s mosquitoes look tame by comparison. Fortunately (for me, not for the mosquitoes) a very short stop and we were into another of the numerous float planes and flying further into the wilderness to land on Naknek Lake at the head of the Alaskan Peninsula. Here I would be staying at Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park. If you have seen any of the numerous and iconic images of salmon leaping waterfalls to land straight into a bear’s open mouth, the chances are it was taken here. During a two week period around 40 million salmon make their way up Brooks Falls and up to 80 bears come into the area to gorge on this banquet. As the number of salmon at the falls decrease the bears then spread out to the shallower streams in the surrounding areas where the fish remain easy to catch.
When I arrive at Brooks Lodge the peak of the salmon run at the falls has passed and so after a quick briefing on bear awareness with a local fishing guide we head out a further 40 minutes by boat to the base of Mount Katolinat and Margot Creek. Here we don waders and hike upstream. With heavy scrub on both sides of the stream we have been instructed to make a lot of “human” noise, in fact the exact instructions were to sing and constantly call out “Hey bear!”. It felt pretty stupid initially but after seeing the large number of bears in the area it soon became second nature. Around every corner there would be groups of up to 4 or 5 bears standing in the stream waiting. As a run of fish came past there would be a huge commotion and flying teeth, claws and fur as they scrapped amongst themselves for the catch. It was an experience like no other! I spent the next 3 days working this area on my own, hiking up streams and waterfalls, singing my “Hey Bear” song and finding plenty of bears fishing and foraging in their natural habitat, my presence thankfully well beneath their notice.
In the peak of the season Brooks Falls is very popular with sightseeing visitors and photographers. It is well organised with boardwalks and viewing areas and a large park ranger presence for the safety of not only the people but also the bears that come to feed here.
But my time was up and from here it was another series of floatplane rides on to my last stop, Reboubt Bay Lodge at the entrance to Lake Clark Pass, a privately owned, boutique wilderness lodge where yet again I was spoilt with amazing food and wonderful surroundings. This 5 acre property sits within a 171,000 acre critical habitat area and it was here that I was going to be looking for Black Bears. These bears seemed to be more elusive and timid than their larger brown bear cousins. However I was told early on that looks were deceiving and they were just as dangerous, in fact maybe even more so because their size tended to give you a false sense of security.
At Redoubt Bay I traveled on a small boat up little meandering streams and skirted the bay to find the black bear climbing trees, eating berries and feasting on spawning salmon. Their size certainly was deceiving but before I could get too carried away with my “aren’t they cute” fantasies their incredible hunting skills and wild nature put me right. These bears are opportunist hunters and will feed not only on salmon, fruit and berries but male black bears may occasionally prey on their own young, as well as other newborn animals or winter killed animals to be found when times are tough.
The salmon were still running high during my visit, so the bears were content feeding in this abundance and watching them fish in the small streams alongside fly fishermen and boating families was an extraordinary spectacle.
All too soon it was time to say goodbye to my cosy ‘home’ in this rustic lodge and take another floatplane ride back to Anchorage. My extremely rewarding time in the Alaskan wilderness had come to an end. It was now time to meet with my hosts from Tourism Alaska for several cold beers and a pizza at the local’s favorite haunt “The Moose’s Tooth”. Swapping bear stories and sharing wilderness tales had me reliving the past week all over again, what an adventure and what an experience! I came to Alaska to photograph bears, but left with knowledge and memories that will last a lifetime. This remote wilderness provides a window into the true ‘circle of life’ that these magnificent creatures of our world have been living for countless generations, I only hope we can take the right steps to ensure this cycle continues.
All images copyright Chris McLennan.