Trip Report: Coastal Brown Bears of Alaska

Step into any souvenir shop in Alaska and you’ll see ‘The Last Frontier’ plastered across t-shirts, stickers, mugs, and more. That reputation is certainly well-deserved as Alaska contains 365.5 million acres of land, 28.8 million acres of freshwater lakes, rivers, and ponds, 6,640 linear miles of coastline, and 4 out of 10 of the highest peaks in North America. It is undeniably ‘The Last Frontier’ and the greatest wilderness area the U.S. has to offer.

Our latest Backcountry Journeys workshop brought us to a small slice of that Alaskan wilderness in Lake Clark National Park. Lake Clark National Park contains 4 million acres of protected land and is located on the west side of the Cook Inlet, just north of Katmai National Park (another Backcountry Journey’s destination). It is home to some of the most spectacular bear viewing in the world and bears of course were our target for the Coastal Brown Bear Workshop. No roads lead to the park, and like many places in Alaska the only options are bush plane or boat. We chose to take a bush plane from Kenai, AK across the Cook Inlet to the shores of Chinitna Bay within the park. Flying in a bush plane is an experience in itself and the sprawling views of Lake Clark NP made the flight that much more enjoyable.

Guides arrived beforehand to set up camp and establish a perimeter. Safe camping in bear country means following best bear practices. For guides, that meant ensuring that our tent area, food storage, and cooking area were all separated (it also meant installing a temporary electric fence around the tents and food storage). After a long day, camp was ready and the fun was ready to begin.

Workshop participants arrived the next morning and all of us were eager to spend time with the bears. After a quick primer on Lake Clark and bear safety, we were ready for action. Armed with big primes, mid-range zooms, and even wide-angles, we were ready for every possible scenario. And just like that we were off, hiking down the shores of Chinitna Bay, surrounded by world class scenery and one of the densest brown bear populations on the planet. The bay offers expansive sedge meadows, tidal flats breaming with clams, and estuaries where salmon spawn…thus an almost unlimited supply of resources for the bear population. Biologists estimate that ~220 brown bears occupy a 54 square mile radius around the area. Our week would bring dozens, perhaps hundreds of bear sightings and some intense encounters…read on for the highlights.

Chinitna Bay offers three designated bear viewing ‘platforms’. We would make use of all three during the week, but had especially good luck at the viewing area furthest west at the mouth of Glacier Creek. We had multiple run-ins with a group of three siblings that took a liking to us. Those respective encounters were definitely the best of the trip. The first occurred as our group had been at the platform photographing a sow and two cubs in the meadow (not the mention the 10 other bears in the field too). To the right of the platform was a wooded area that extended out behind us all the way to the coast. Bears seemed to take refuge in the wooded area and we saw some using it as an access point to the tidal flats. As we were focused on the sow and cubs, three bears slinked out of the wooded area and approached us from behind. Thankfully, we did spot the bears and turned around to face them. They continued to come closer…and closer. Our group got amazing shots, eventually our long lenses became too long as the bears came closer. After what seemed like minutes, the group of three finally continued on down to the meadow and all of us took a deep breathe. It was absolutely incredible – guides can attest, it got the blood pumping.  All of us thought that run-in would be the best of the trip. Then, the next day happened.

It was a similar situation, we hiked to the third viewing platform and starting photographing the bears in the meadow. This time, the group of three bears from the day before was in the meadow feeding on sedges. They approached us and came very close once again and then, when tensions and adrenaline were high…the two bears collapsed and started to nap, right in front of us! We were able to safely back away during their nap and once again thought that things couldn’t get much better.  We were wrong yet again. The bears awoke and began engaging in a little playful banter. What started as a few friendly swipes eventually became a full out battle royale wrestling match. The two bears were rolling all over the beach and our group was able to photograph the entire sequence. For me personally, it was the greatest thing I’ve experienced in nature. Wildlife photography doesn’t get much better.

Those two encounters were definitely the high points of the trip, but the entire week was filled with great photography opportunities. Aside from bears, we saw eagles, fox, and even some porpoises and seals swimming around the bay. We were able to capture the bears in a variety of environments, as the bears would follow the tide in and out to feed. At low tide they’d come to the tidal flats to dig for clams and at high tide they’d push back into the sedge meadows. On our last day, the clouds finally scattered and we were treated to a breathtaking return flight back to the airport in Kenai. It was a fitting end to a great workshop. It was hands down one of the greatest weeks of photography.  Backcountry Journeys is the only workshop outfit to offer a wilderness camping experience along with brown bear photography at Lake Clark National Park. It is an absolutely amazing experience to camp amongst the bears and we take every precaution to ensure safety. Think about joining us next year for a once in a lifetime experience.

Matt Meisenheimer

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin.  His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special.  Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image.

Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world.

As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals.

You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com

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