That’s the feeling one has when they first step foot off of the bush plane and onto a gravel beach on Chinitna Bay in Lake Clark National Park in Alaska. And, you’re not surrounded by other park visitors. You’re surrounded by large, feeding brown bears!
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, salmon, and one of the greatest densities of coastal brown bears anywhere in the state. And, that’s what we had come to see.
For this year’s Backcountry Journeys 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 dozens of 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 and also wild, with snow-capped peaks all around it and moose wandering the city streets. But, our stay would be brief. First, though, we met up at the Lakefront Hotel’s Fancy Moose restaurant to conduct our trip orientation and get to know everyone. After a nice dinner, we headed to bed to prepare for an early morning departure to drive to the town of Soldotna to meet our bush pilot who would take us into Lake Clark National Park.
Like many other national parks in Alaska, there are no roads to Lake Clark National Park. The park is accessible only by boat or bush plane, which is how we would be getting there. We would be flying to the gravely beaches of Chinitna Bay to experience what is a venerable Mecca for brown bears during the summer months. But, there is no landing strip here, and bush pilots land their small Cessna bush planes directly onto the beach during low tides. This means that the time window for getting into the park is quite narrow, and you have to time it just right to make sure there is enough beach for the plane to land.
We met our pilot at the Soldotna Municipal Airport, loaded up, and were airborne in no time. Before long, we were crossing Cook Inlet, and we could see the jagged mountains of the national park ahead of us. We began dropping down in altitude to prepare for our approach, and as we looped out over the beach we could already see several large bears digging for clams in the mud flats that had been left exposed by the low tide. We spiraled around, dropping in altitude, flying just over the heads of the bears, which didn’t bother to look up at all. Our wheels crunched down onto the gravel beach gently, and we disembarked to find several of the staff for the camp waiting for us there on the beach.
We would be spending the week at Bear Camp, a seasonal camp set up just during the summer months for travelers coming to Lake Clark National Park for bear viewing. But, it is definitely quite a bit more luxurious than camping. Tents are more like canvas cabins, with raised wooden floors, beds, private toilets, and propane heaters. The camp is surrounded by an electric bear fence to keep out unwanted guests, and leaving the confines of the bear fence is prohibited unless accompanied by one of the camp’s bear guards. But, the camp is very comfortable, with hot water showers, restrooms, and a gazebo with a fireplace overlooking the bay. Most nights, you can sit out there watching bears from the gazebo as they walk along the beach or run up the camp driveway and into the woods beyond.
For those of us from the lower 48, and who may not be yet accustomed to seeing bears in the numbers and at the proximity that you can only find in Alaska in places like Kodiak Island, Brooks Falls, and Lake Clark National Park, one’s first time is often surreal, if not a bit unsettling. Outdoor enthusiasts in the lower 48 states can go years without seeing a single bear. In Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and other southern US National Parks, a bear sighting from over 200 yards away can result in a traffic jam that is over a hundred cars long. But here on Chinitna Bay, the bears outnumber the people, and by quite a lot! And there aren’t any roads, so no traffic jams either!
Our days began each morning with coffee and a hot breakfast in the mess tent with other Bear Camp guests at 7:30 a.m. From here we would head straight out with a bear guard to one of several viewing stations positioned along a salt marsh where the bears feed on sedges during the day. I know that to most wildlife photographers this seems like a late start, but fortunately for us, the bears do not agree. They rarely ventured out into the sedges in strong numbers before 8 a.m. And here, they would feed for a while, then lie down and nap. Then, wake up, feed, nap, repeat. And, when the tide would go out twice a day, several bears would move out of the salt marsh and onto the freshly exposed mud flats to dig for clams.
Throughout the day, we would cycle through each of the viewing stations, as well as checking out the far reaches of the beach in either direction, sometimes by foot and sometimes by a slow-rolling pickup truck. We often found ourselves watching between fifteen to eighteen brown bears, visible to us form a single vantage point as they fed on sedges in the salt marsh. And during low tides, there could be up to five or six bears digging for clams within one section of beach. But it was often in between these areas that the closest encounters occurred, primarily on the beaches, as bears moved between feeding areas or walked down the beach to a rocky outcropping where they liked to nap. And, these interactions were personal and memorable.
We would return to camp several times throughout the day for breaks and for meals, always to head right back out as soon as we were done. We had sunny weather almost every day (all but one), and during the Alaskan summer, even in southern Alaska, it never gets fully dark. And so, it was the late evening shoots that produced the best light and some of the best shots. And the summer sunsets are long, producing “magic hour” light for far more than an hour. After dinner, we would always do one last journey out from camp to shoot in the light of the setting sun, and these setups were truly beautiful, producing some amazing photo opportunities.
The bears, for the most part, ignored us. And for the most part, they were there to feed, but there were exceptions to both of these generalizations. The summertime is also mating season for Alaskan brown bears, which meant there were big males (boars) roaming around, jacked up with testosterone and chasing females. These guys definitely pose the greatest safety risk to people during the summer months, as well as to other bears. Though we did not witness any big fights, several bears were sporting fresh injuries, obviously inflicted by other bears. Some of these wounds were quite bad, especially one on a younger female bear that we lovingly dubbed “Limpy,” due to her limping significantly from the open wound on her rear flank. Limpy is a beautiful, light-colored brown bear with mesmerizing eyes. And she would also get me into trouble. But, we will come back to that.
One thing about bear life is that its all about dominance and size. Even in situations where there are so many in close proximity, such as in Lake Clark National Park during the summer, bears are constantly jockeying with each other for position. The females are far more tolerant of one another. But, the aggressive males will push, pursue, and sometimes attack other males, and they’ll do the same to females who aren’t in estrus that are in the wrong place at the wrong time. They will also pursue and kill cubs so as to put their mother back into estrus.
The mother bears know this. The mothers with young cubs stick primarily to one side of the salt marsh, but as soon as a boar would come within a half mile of them, a threatened mother and her cubs would hastily disappear into the woods, and she presumably would send the cubs up a tree to hide.
And it is the constant jockeying for dominance and position that the bears do that sometimes bring us into close proximity and direct interaction with a bear. It is often the younger bears who do this, as they are still trying to figure out where they fit into the bear hierarchy.
But, these younger bears would sometimes approach us, very close, attempting to intimidate us and push us off of our spot. But, this is one thing we cannot do. We cannot give ground. For one, it could result in an immediately dangerous situation as the bear pursued a group of people attempting to give ground. But, also a major concern is that when that young bear grows up into a truly formidable beast, if he has learned at a young age that he can push people around, he will, resulting in dangerous confrontations. But, if he learns instead that we won’t give ground, won’t interfere with the bear, and behave predictably, that bear will grow into an adult capable of coexisting with people without conflict.
It was on our first night out that a young bear tried to push us off our spot on the beach.
After dinner, we set out to look for great photo opportunities in the long-lasting light of the setting sun. We were up near viewing station number two, which is directly on the border of the salt marsh where it meets the beach. Bears often use this area as a transition point to move from beach to marsh and back again, which is why it is such a great viewing area. I noticed a bear clamming on the mud flats about 75 yards from the edge of the mud. He was glowing red from the setting sun and he was casting a beautiful reflection on the water at his feet.
Our bear guard, Steve, and I guided the group to the edge of the mud flat to photograph this clamming bear. There, we took a knee or sat on the sand to get eye-level with the young bear, that was probably three or four years old. The bear continued clamming for only a moment before he started walking in our direction. He walked straight towards us, not deviating path or pace, all the way from over 75 yards away to within only about 10 feet from us. Steve instructed us to stay still. As the bear approached, it clicked its jaw and urinated, a dominance display. Steve was not impressed and stood up to show his size. The bear did not seem deterred yet until Steve quickly spread his arms out and shouted “Bah!” The bear flinched and cowered, then slunk away to the napping rock, defeated. We all laughed, a bit nervously. I told Steve he was a total badass. And the photos from that bear approaching us turned out to be some of the best from the entire trip.
The next closest interaction would be with three bears, a mother, and two cubs. We were back out near viewing station number two again, this time having arrived on the slow-rolling pickup truck that Bear Camp utilizes to move guests up and down the beach. And it was here that Limpy was going to almost get me into trouble. Terry, another of the bear guards for the camp, had parked the truck just off to the side of the viewing station. As we peaked over a natural rise between beach and marsh, we could see Limpy there feeding. But, a big boar was moving onto the marsh and began chasing her off the marsh. Though obviously unable to walk without considerable discomfort from the open wound on her hip, Limpy took off in a full sprint to get away from the advancing boar. She headed into the high grass between the marsh and beach and the boar broke off the pursuit heading across the tidal stream to the back side of the marsh.
From my vantage point, I had a beautiful shot of Limpy’s lovely face peeking up over the high grass. With a foggy background and wildflowers all around her, I was captivated by the shot and began framing and shooting, refocusing, shooting again, totally engrossed by Limpy’s beautiful face framed by the ryegrass and arctic lupine flowers. And when Limpy’s face craned around to my right, I didn’t think to look up. Then, I heard Terry whisper-shouting at me, “Ben! Lookout!” I looked to my right, and coming straight through the viewing station was a mother bear with two year and a half old cubs, wanting to come straight through the piece of ground I was occupying. My first instinct was to slip behind the truck and out of her way, but before I did, raised my camera and grabbed two photos of the mother and one of her cubs stepping over the viewing station and coming straight at me. And those photos of Limpy looking over my shoulder from the beach grass and of the mother and cubs would turn out to be some of my favorites for the trip.
A week on Chinitna Bay in Lake Clark National Park is a cocktail of awe and adrenaline.
It is an experience of being fully immersed in total beauty all around you, that happens to have giant brown bears crawling all over it! Throughout our four days at Bear Camp, we saw bears from every possible angle you can imagine. We saw the drama of the mating season and the protectiveness that mother bears exhibit for their cubs. We saw the evidence of bears battling, and we saw the difference between older, experienced bears and young bears still learning how to survive and find their place in the world.
And, we met some amazing people at Bear Camp, including the bear guards who spend half their year guarding from bears a range of guests all over Alaska. And Caprise, the camp manager, and the rest of her staff were absolutely incredible and accommodating to our needs, both the creature comfort and photographic kinds.
But, most importantly, we walked away with some truly dramatic photos of wild Alaskan Brown bear in their natural habitat. I for one have some photos I am truly excited about, and I think this trip is quickly becoming a new favorite for me.
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 a 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 the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Image Review: Landscape Edition
with Matt Meisenheimer & Kenton Krueger
Tuesday, Feb 23rd, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)