Lake Clark National Park is located in southwest Alaska, and his home to a wide array of ecosystems, including tidal bays, estuaries, rainforest, glaciers, volcanos, and salmon bearing rivers and streams. And this wide array of ecosystems means that virtually all of Alaska’s iconic animals can be found here, including moose, wolf, bald eagles, wolverine, and one of the greatest densities of coastal brown bears anywhere in the state.
For this year’s Backcountry Journey’s Brown Bears of Alaska: Lake Clark trip, we would be heading deep into the Alaska wilderness by bush plane to spend four full days photographing coastal brown bears as they fattened up on sedges and clams after a long winter’s hibernation. And before the trip was out, we would have some incredibly close encounters with some of the biggest predators on this planet, making for some incredible photographs.
As most Alaska adventures begin, ours began in the city of Anchorage. Home to almost half of the population of Alaska, Anchorage is both metropolitan but also wild, with snowcapped peaks all around it and moose occasionally wandering the city streets. From here, we drove to the town of Kenai to to board bush planes that would carry us across Cook Inlet and into Lake Clark National Park.
After a forty minute ride, soaring above some real backcountry Alaskan bush, our planes touched down gently on a gravel beach just in front of Bear Camp where we would be spending the next four nights.
As soon as we touched down, we saw our first bears, a female with two large cubs digging for clams on the mud flats. But first, we needed to get into camp and get our gear ready before we could head out. So, we were escorted into camp by the camp manager, and my personal hero, Caprice. Running this trip every summer has become the highlight of my year, thanks in large part to the amazing crew that run Bear Camp and Caprice, their fearless leader. She’s been running Bear Camp for at least 16 years, and her expertise and calm command make staying here a relaxing and intriguing experience. She has some of the best stories I’ve ever heard. Even if you don’t care a thing about seeing bears, coming out to meet Caprice and the rest of the amazing staff here make the trip well worth it.
Bear Camp has been running for well over twenty years now, and it is a seasonal encampment made from permanent wood platforms on which they erect WeatherPort tents, complete with single sized beds, carpets, coat hooks, and a propane heater. And to discourage any bears from venturing into camp, the camp is surrounded by an electric bear fence.
Bear camp is also right in the middle of the action. The camp overlooks the beaches of Chinitna Bay, which extends inland from Cook Inlet. Bears regularly patrol the beach, and at low tide, they head out onto the mudflats to dig for clams. Just north of camp is the old homestead of Wayne Byers, who homesteaded here in the late 1960’s. It was his agreement to lease the land to the Bear Camp owners that make today’s experience possible. Sadly, Wayne passed away back in 2011, but his legacy and wild spirit remain strong here. The homestead is much in the state it was in when Wayne passed, and for friends and special guests, Caprice will give a tour through the property and talk about the incredible life that Wayne led.
A dozen yards or so beyond Wayne’s place are two rock bluffs that the bear camp staff have come to call The Nursery, due to mother bears regularly bringing cubs up there to rest safely away from large males that pose a very really threat to bear cubs. And just beyond the bluffs, the beach extends northward until it forms a gravel spit. From here, the steaming peak of Mount Iliamna can be seen, an active volcano with several large fumaroles on its sides.
And just west of the beach, extending back behind Bear Camp, and far beyond, is a salt marsh where sedge grass grows in abundance. For bears coming out of hibernation, sedges are a crucial part of their spring diet. Sedge grasses are high in protein, and provide an abundant and easily harvested food source for bears needing to regain body weight lost during hibernation. It is such a popular food source, that from the viewing platforms at Bear Camp one afternoon, we counted nigh on 30 bears feeding in this one salt marsh. Beyond the marsh, wooded mountains rise into the air. Here is where the bears spend the winter months in hibernation.
The majority of our bear viewing is done from four different viewing areas, NPS Viewing Sites1 through 3, and a private viewing deck that sits about 100 yards behind camp. But, it was often the encounters between these viewing areas that were the most memorable, and which produced the most intimate images.
Bear viewing and photography is interesting, as at times it can seem slow. Several bears will be feeding on sedges about 100 yards out. A photographer will spend thirty minutes or so working every possible composition of those distant bears before settling down into a wait- and-see-what-happens mode. Another half hour might pass, and it might seem to the photographer that nothing is going to change, that they might as well change locations or head in for a hot drink and a muffin. But, this would be a mistake. As with all wildlife viewing, the best stuff happens when you are still and quiet, and most of all, patient. It will be at that point that the bear you didn’t even know was there wakes up from its nap. Perhaps a few yards to your left in the tall grasses, or maybe from the woods behind you, a bear appears….close, very close.
This is when the expertise of bear guides is so crucial, as they must judge the behavior of the bear, and provide instructions to the humans. Typically, if it is an adult bear, it is simply passing through and will give the odd glance into the camera lens for a beautiful big bear portrait. But, if it is a younger bear, curiosity will often get the best of it. Perhaps the bear is curious if it can show us how dominant it thinks it can be, or maybe it just wants to play with the weird looking monkeys with clicking, shiny objects pointing out from their faces (this is obviously a reference to humans as apes with cameras if my bear POV didn’t come through clearly).
These youngsters can provide some of the best photos, as well as a little adrenaline, as they will get close, just as a couple of our clients were lucky to enough to experience this year.
But, for me, it is the in-between shots on the beach that were my favorites this year, especially around the Nursery Bluffs. The same female we had seen clamming with her two cubs when our plane first landed was hugging those rocks all week. And several times as we rounded the bluffs to head up to NPS 2, she or her cubs would pop out. Or, as we would be heading up to the viewing area, they’d come bounding over the rise and onto the beach. One evening, they were sleeping on the bluff, with one of the bear’s faces hanging over the edge observing all that was going on. The family of three then became restless and ventured onto the beach, all while we were sitting in a tight group on the beach, clicking away as the bears moved around us. Then, two new bears appeared from the salt marsh, not full sized adult bears, but still very big bears. This sent the mother and two cubs into a full run, heading back onto the bluff where the two cubs went straight up a tree. One of the bears followed the family up the bluff, where the mother sat waiting, anticipating a confrontation, as we all were. But, when the bear reached the top of the bluff and the waiting mother bear, they sniffed at each other, and did a bear embrace, rubbing their heads against each other with familiarity. It is my guess, and that of our bear guard Johnny, that this was perhaps a family member of the mother’s, maybe a grown cub of hers or a smaller sibling. We were all quite relieved to see the cubs descend from their treetop hideout in peace.
It’s encounters like this that make Lake Clark such an interesting and incredible place to view and photograph Alaska’s brown bears. They operate in such close proximity with one another during the spring and summer months, that one can witness all kinds of interactions, both the hostile variety and the more familiar, even affectionate side, like the one we had just witnessed. Pair that environment and it’s incredible animals with the experience of staying at Bear Camp, meeting the amazing bear-loving staff there, and learning the almost unbelievably courageous history of Wayne Byers and his homestead, it makes this perhaps my favorite trip I run with Backcountry Journeys (except of course the Costa Rica trips, wink wink).
So, to Caprice, Johnny, Steve, Brandi, and all the other amazing staff at Bear Camp, the biggest of thanks to all of you. Your passion and model for ethical wildlife and ecological tourism should be a model for the rest of the world. It is with organizations like these that BCJ seeks out to partner with, not just for their ability to create epic and memorable wildlife experiences, but for their conservation and ethics centered approach. And lastly, a big BIG thanks to eight amazing clients. You guys were so cool and calm around these bears, it was like you’d been doing this for years.
If anyone is thinking about an Alaska bear photo adventure, I highly encourage you to check out our Lake Clark tour next year, where we’ll be heading back to Bear Camp on the picturesque shores of Chinitna Bay in Lake Clark National Park.
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as an video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See his most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com