It’s not uncommon at rural landing strips around the world to buzz the runway before landing to ensure no grazing cattle, wandering wildlife or other ‘native guests’ are in the path of the landing plane…  But buzzing the beach to clear the foraging grizzly bears in Alaska was certainly something different!  And yet it’s a common theme to my arrival into Silver Salmon Creek Lodge as part of the “Alaskan Grizzly Bear” photo tour that I run each year in the Lake Clark National Park area.

For my clients’, it’s always fairly exciting and a great starting point to the trip – flying by classic Beaver fixed wing to our remote and very comfortable lodge, a beach landing literally amongst the bears as they search the shore for food, discovering the majestic beauty of Lake Clark National Park from the air, and meeting our friendly hosts before settling in to the comfy accommodation we will enjoy for the next five nights.

This year was no different, though my “group” was possibly a little more hyped than usual having just spent the previous few days photographing humpback whales, puffins and seals in the Kenai Fjords – a side trip we added to the start of the tour, the highlight of which was seeing and photographing a stunning aurora borealis from the balcony of our accommodation on the very first night!  Which meant we hit the ground running when we arrived at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge – everyone was already feeling very confident with their camera gear and the shots they had captured so far, we had enjoyed some great photography sessions already and we were looking forward to much more to come.

Photographing the grizzly bears in Alaska is something really special and this was my personal favourite destination from which to do so.  Lake Clark National Park is often described as the “essence of Alaska” as the park includes so many of Alaska’s amazing landscape features all in the one area; from mountain ranges to active volcanoes to coastal rainforest, the famous Turquoise Lake and the tundra of the Western plateau…  And then of course you have the local wildlife – including the massive ‘Ursus Arctos Horribilus’.

Silver Salmon Creek lodge is situated on a private 40 acres within Lake Clark National Park on the western shores of the Cook Inlet, and is one of the only locations I know where you can safely enjoy such intimate bear encounters at close range (and I’ve visited a few).  To the point where the bears will wander past our campfire at night while the group is sitting around enjoying a cold drink and eating “S’mores” made over the flames.  (An American tradition made with marshmallows and chocolate melted between shortbread biscuits – the lodge staff flew in the ingredients especially for us).  However having the bears so easily accessible is no laughing matter and the guides are  excellent – ensuring we fully comprehended all of the safety instructions and precautions and making sure we maximised the photographic opportunities each day without risk to ourselves or to the bears.

Because the lodge is situated near the coast, this gave us the option of photographing the grizzlies as they strolled the shoreline digging for clams, watching them at the river mouth as they chased the salmon entering from the sea, or exploring the various river tributaries to see the bears wading through the open marshes either side and standing in the shallows as they watched for salmon.  It was great to have such a diverse range of backdrops and environments for our photography!  The bears themselves are as impressive as ever.  In Alaska it is not uncommon for these creatures to reach a weight of 800kgs when they go into hibernation, which is considerably larger than the same species in any other region.  And when you see a large grizzly bear on hind legs, knowing he or she weighs around the same as the All Black forward pack, it certainly is awe inspiring!

And so it was “cameras at the ready”, snapping and comparing shots of amazing sights every day as we explored this region and photographed the many bears we saw there.  For me, one of the highlights of the tour was definitely the progress of Melanne, a tour participant who arrived in Alaska sans camera!  A quick visit to the nearest camera store and we had her all kitted out with a brand new DSLR and she was eager and ready to go.  Then it was a brief study of my Pocket Field Guide (at the time in printed version only but now available on iTunes as an iOS app called “PhotoTorial”) before hitting the field and trying her hand – for the first time ever – at DSLR photography.  Suffice to say she was a star pupil and by the end of the trip was capturing images as fine as anyone else – that was one exciting learning curve!

All too soon and our journey was at an end.  After enjoying our evenings around the fire, swapping stories and comparing images with the staff and other guests at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, it was time to say goodbye and jump aboard our chartered flight back to Anchorage.  We left with amazing memories – and amazing photos – of a wonderful journey and a fantastic experience.

Chris McLennan is a professional travel photographer working around the world on photographic assignments that have seen him shoot in over 40 different countries to date.  Check out his website for details of his next photo tour to Alaska, scheduled for July 2013.  www.cmphoto.co.nz/photo-tours/

As published in D-Photo Magazine.  Download and view the full PDF here.

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