This is the Alaska you’ve dreamed about.
There exists a place where volcanoes still rumble, salmon are plentiful, bears forage, and mountains tower over it all. A spot where for generations people and culture still depend on the land and water. Lake Clark National Park is symbolic of the symbiotic relationships developed over the years in remote Alaska between animal, human, and the land that stands just as tall as the neighboring Chigmit and Neacola Mountains.
And now, you find yourself on the shores of Cook Inlet, at Lake Clark. Your trusted camera slung over one shoulder. The scene envelops everything. You step down from the tiny floatplane and feel it instantly. “This is Alaska,” you whisper to yourself. “I can hardly believe that I’m standing right here, right now!”
It is at this moment when a 1,000lb local walks by (but not too close) giving a grunt. “A Brown Bear is standing RIGHT THERE!!!” you exclaim, unable to control the excitement. This is the reason you traveled all this way, you think to yourself.
There are few other locations in the world where so many bears live in such a small area. In fact, Park biologists have recently counted as many as 219 brown bears within a 54 square mile area of the spot in which you now stand.
It is right here where you stand that your great adventure will unfold, in the heart of one of the world’s most populous bear country. Camping and photography are on each and every day’s agenda.
“Is this a dream?” you ask, as you pinch yourself.
The answer, if you join Backcountry Journeys on our Coastal Brown Bears of Lake Clark photography tour, is no. This is real. And while bears are always our primary focus, there exists so much more to Lake Clark National Park than just bears. Let’s take a look.
Human history in this region can be traced as far back as the last Ice Age. Native peoples such as the Dena’ina, Yup’ik, and Sugpiaq precluded the arrival of Russian explorers, gold prospectors, trappers, and American pioneers. The peoples who lived here prior to the development of a National Park generally settled on the shores of lakes, along rivers, and at the confluence of rivers and streams. Even following the advent of Lake Clark National Park, Dena’ina people still make their lively hoods here, relying on the land for food and inspiration just as their ancestors did.
Lake Clark National Park protects and preserves roughly four million acres of the untamed Alaskan wild. It is a varied ecosystem here, within it are rugged mountains and volcanoes, glacial rivers, cascading streams, waterfalls, turquoise lakes, boreal forest, and even tundra.
Spring sedges in coastal salt marshes are essential for bear nutrition, providing essential early-season protein prior to the salmon runs. Salt marshes along the Cook Inlet represent one of the most productive ecosystems in the park.
During low tide bears leave the salt marshes for the adjacent mudflats to dig razor clams, among other delectables. In late summer, salmon enter the salt marsh streams on their way to their spawning grounds. As salmon arrive, bears transition from sedges to salmon in preparation for the upcoming winter months. Waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds, moose, river otters, and other small mammals can also be found using these marshes.
There are two active volcanos at Lake Clark; Iliamna and Redoubt. They are located on the “Ring of Fire,” directly where the Pacific Plate drives itself under the North American Plate, causing intense heat and pressure at great depths. Although Iliamna regularly emits plumes of steam, it has not had a confirmed eruption in recorded history. Redoubt, however, has erupted at least 30 times in the last 10,000 years, and four eruptive events have been confirmed in the last century alone.
The jagged peaks and U-shaped valleys of Lake Clark National Park were carved from glaciers. Scientists point to there having been at least three major glacial advances and retreats that slowly carved the landscape around the time of the last Ice Age. At this point, the world’s temperature was much colder, allowing for significant snowpacks to built up, creating great ice sheets that at one time covered over 50% of Alaska. Beginning around 12,000 years ago, these glaciers retreated as temperatures warmed. This retreat carved what we see today!
Each year an average of 372,000 Sockeye, or red, salmon swim up the Newhalen River and enter the waters of Lake Clark National Park, returning to the creeks, streams, and lakes where they were born. Following freshwater births, salmon migrate to the ocean where they’ll spend anywhere from one to three years. Towards the end of their lives, instinct drives them back to the places where they hatched in order to spawn new life and then die. It is the circle of life defined. Sockeye salmon are such a critical part of the Lake Clark story that the National Park was established in part to protect sockeye salmon and their habitat. Sockeye are a critical species in the park’s ecosystems, providing nutrients to live at all levels of the food chain. Without them, the Coastal Brown Bears would not be here as they are.
Coastal Brown Bears
Speaking of Coastal Brown Bears. Because of the abundance of food, these majestic beasts gather in large numbers here to eat and mate. Scientists have determined that these naturally solitary animals are able to live in this fashion because they have become more tolerant of not only each other but also humans and other wildlife. Less dominant bears yield space, breeding rights, and optimum feeding locations to stronger, more dominant individuals with little injury to each-other. It certainly helps the overall bear morale that there is no shortage of food here. The energy-rich diet of Lake Clark’s coastal brown bears allows the largest males to reach weights exceeding 1,000 pounds by the time they enter the den to hibernate. Most adult males typically weigh 600-900 pounds by mid-summer, while females average 1/3 less in weight. This is carried on a frame 3-5 feet tall at the shoulder and 7-10 feet in length.
Backcountry Journeys’ summertime visits to Lake Clark always prove to be outstanding adventures. Our itinerary offers guests a unique and adventurous opportunity to photograph Coastal Brown Bears as they forage for clams along the shorelines and graze on fresh green sedges in the neighboring salt marshes.
We’ll spend three nights “glamping” at a beautiful eco-lodge, located right along the coast of Lake Clark. This allows us to maximize our photography by being right there in the midst of all the action! It is not out of the realm to have the opportunity to witness and photograph between 30-40 bears in one area.
Can you imagine all of this? Have you had dreams about Alaska? This is the Alaska you dreamed about. Turn those dreams into reality and join Backcountry Journeys in June (11th to 15th), 2021. Only two coveted spots remain available for this exciting adventure, so act now so you don’t miss out!
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.