I told someone not too long ago that this first trip of the COVID-19 era reminds me of when I was a teenager. Back then, when the Texas weather warmed in the spring, my friends and I would gather around our farm pond in swim trunks and wonder if the water was warm enough yet to swim. After considerable deliberation, someone would inevitably decide to jump in. When the rest decided that the water was fine, everyone else joined in and was glad for the experience.
That’s a good analogy for this first trip back after my last Backcountry Journeys trip since February. In Katmai, we found that the proverbial water is indeed fine. When our group convened at King Salmon on the first day of our adventure, the vibe (because of COVID-19) was a bit different – not necessarily good or bad different, just different.
The first-night dinner is always a combination of get-to-know-you banter and questions about the trip and this group was no different. As we waited on our entrees at the Sockeye Saloon, the conversation bounced around about photography and the bears. The excitement was palpable. After dinner, we retreat to our rooms at the Antlers Inn so that everyone can pare their gear to 60 pounds for the floatplane trip. I make my way around each room and weigh baggage while we talk more about the adventure to come. The attitude among the group is universal: the morning cannot come soon enough.
At 7:30 am I walk from my room overlooking a creek that flows past to the Naknek River. The scenery is serene and quintessential southern lowland Alaska. The morning is calm and the temperature has the first cold bite I’ve felt in quite some time. I stand there and let the moment wash over me as I hear nearby gulls erupt into a cacophony and drown out the distant buzz of a floatplane heading out to an unknown adventure.
Soon we are loading the vans and headed down to the river to board the floatplanes. Our carrier, Branch River Air, made the process seamless, and soon, we were floating along the river in a DeHavilland Beaver plane. The pilot added some power to the engine and in an instant we were airborne. As we leveled out, I peeked over the pilot’s shoulder and noted that we were cruising at about 1,000 feet – a perfect altitude for seeing the moraine wetlands of the Naknek hydrological complex.
As we bank and begin our descent to land on Naknek Lake, I see at least six bears walking along the black sand beach. I turn to the guests on my plane and with a nod and a smile, they reciprocate. The excitement just reached the next level.
The first rule of order when you arrive at Katmai is Bear School. Bear School is a brief orientation required by all Katmai visitors. Taught by a National Park Service ranger, Bear School teaches visitors about bear etiquette and bear safety while in the park. The school is brief but essential and required.
Once complete, we check into our cabins. Since this Katmai trip was the first lodge-based trip, I was curious to see the quality of the log cabins by which I’d walked so many times in the past. I wasn’t disappointed. The cabins meld historic charm with the cleanliness you’d expect from a world-class wildlife destination like Katmai. The beds were comfortable and space was a perfect launch point for our daily forays into the brush.
When the entire group arrived, we immediately explored the lower platform. There, bears were abundant. Some were foraging for fish as they lazily floated in the river while others explored the shoreline. Since bears are territorial, they tend to stick to their own fishing areas. The keen observer (and we had some on our trip) has watched and studied the bear cams at explore.org. At the site, you can study and learn the bear’s names and numbers before you even come to Katmai.
“There’s 809,” I hear someone over my shoulder claim. “There are Holly and her cub,” retorts another. Instantly every camera turns to the famous bear’s direction. Holly is a 20-year-old female who’s known to be a stalwart mother and an icon of the Brooks River. While we watch, Holly leads her cub along the river in search of food. Her cub has a noticeable limp. One, that we later learn from a ranger, was caused by the cub’s curious swipe at a porcupine. The cub still had quills lodged in its paw and hence the gimpy behavior. Holly, though, protected her cub from territorial boars and kept the cub fed while it convalesces.
Soon, lunch at Brooks Lodge came. Lunch, like the other meals we’d enjoy during our stay, was top-notch. Each meal is served with locally inspired ingredients and is rich with complex flavors and balanced ingredients. I could write platitudes in regards to the food here but suffice it to say that it is generously portioned and exceedingly flavorful.
After lunch, we hike to Brooks Falls – perhaps the most famous feature of the entire Katmai ecological complex. Here, water spills some six feet over the drop as it flows from the river’s outlet about a mile or so upstream at Brooks Lake. While the Brooks River is short as river’s go ( just about 3 miles long) this ribbon of water that connects Brooks Lake to Naknek Lake is some of the most important sockeye and silver salmon spawning grounds in North America and as such, is a haven for brown bears who are eager to fatten before they retreat to their mountainous dens for a winter’s hibernation.
At the falls numerous bears mill about the frothy spray as thousands of red-hued sockeyes cram the river to await their turn at leaping headlong above the falls to their final spawning grounds in Brooks Lake. The falls and the river is a study in the hierarchical world of the bear. The older adults fish the river’s delta while the subadults typically fish the less productive middle river area. The dominant boars and savvy sows get the easy pickings at the falls. Here you’ll see 1,000-pound boars – nearly too fat to move – lying in the water at the falls and waiting for fish to come to them. Mature mother bears also bring their cubs to the falls to forage for dead or weakened fish and teach their progeny about the bounty of the Brooks River.
While at the falls platform we take pictures of fishing bears and jumping salmon as well as landscapes that will help our group tell a complete story about their Katmai experience. After all, to tell a complete story of Katmai means to concentrate on the entire ecosystem and how the bears fit therein.
It’s only day one and we’ve already packed a week’s worth of photography into the scant time we’ve been afield. Opportunities are abundant here.
After a well-earned night’s sleep, we are soon back on the beach where the fog hangs heavy over the immense lake. The term “surreal” seems too cheap a word to describe the way the landscape looks but my mind struggles to conjure an adjective that apropos to the moment. Instead, I just take in the sight and listen to the jovial banter of the group as they work from place to place to photographically interpret the landscape as they see it.
On the beach, we find tracks in the mud. Undoubtedly left overnight as a bear skirted the wet edge where water meets land. The tracks are defined and immaculate and we take some time to photograph them. Soon, one in the group finds a conglomeration of bright red salmon eggs strung about on the beach – a by-product of a feeding bear and a testament to the voraciousness of their appetite as they feed and prepare for hibernation. That singular scene makes for an interesting story all on its own.
As I talk to the group about finding details to tell a story, each discovers a vignette that helps interpret their Katmai experience. At that quiet time on the beach, each is in his or her own moment. That’s the way I like it.
Later in the day, we take to a thin stretch of river where the water runs skinny and the salmon convene in thick groups. Foraging for fish becomes easy and along this stretch of river, females with cubs and sub-adults mill about while stying away from the dominant bears. Each bear has its own unique fishing technique. Some stay on the bank and wait for fish to float by before plunging headlong into the water. Some bears look for dead or weakened fish and expend little energy foraging. Some bears simply snorkel and catch fish straight from the water.
On the river is an intimate way to study the bears and their behavior and the ensuing photographs are both insightful and engaging. On that particular day, we make two trips to the river’s mid-section and the adventure proved to be a group favorite.
By the end of the trips, we’d covered the parts of the park where the bears frequent the most. What we came away with is an in-depth portrait of the brown bears of Katmai and the habitat in which they thrive. Besides the bears, we saw ermines, spruce grouse, Bonaparte’s gulls, bald eagles, merganser’s and a host of other birdlife. While the bears are the star of the show, the other wildlife is noteworthy as well.
I am often asked what’s the best thing about the Brown Bears of Katmai adventure and I tell people that it’s all good. While the sum of the trip’s parts is noteworthy, the details of the trip are what I believe, to be the most engaging. Each tree, each plant, and each type of wildlife has a rich story to tell. The floatplane trip and the interaction with the people on the trip and the people you meet in the park are engaging as well. Photographically speaking, you’ll take a lot from Katmai. Spiritually, you’ll leave a lot here as well. It is a special place.
While undoubtedly the COVID-19 pandemic is something no one wanted to experience, it did make for a once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity. For those guests who were willing to travel to Katmai and “jump in” the proverbial water, the reward was a Katmai experience with few people in the park and an intimate experience with the wildlife and landscapes may never happen again.
I think I speak for everyone in the group when I say that it was a trip of a lifetime and each of us appreciates the days we spent in the wild.
If you’ve read any Texas-based magazines over the past twenty-five years chances are you’ve seen some of Russell’s photos or read some of his words. Since 1989, he has been traveling the state telling authentic Texas stories with his camera and his words – both written and spoken.
A graduate of Dodd City High School and East Texas State University, Russell was an ag science teacher in Childress, Texas for 16 years where he was named Texas Agriscience Teacher of the Year on three occasions.
After leaving that career in 2009, he continued to photograph, write, and speak about his experiences and the people he meets and in 2010, he began delving into television production. His first documentary film, Bois d’Arc Goodbye was filmed entirely in Fannin County and chronicled he and his brother Bubba’s canoe journey as they traversed the creek before a lake forever changes the landscape. The film aired three times to a prime-time, national audience.
Recently he’s worked with such celebrities as the Robertson Family from Duck Dynasty television show, T. Boone Pickens, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Pat Green, and Tracy Lawrence, but he insists that regular people are his favorite subjects.
Currently, Russell lives in the country north of Childress, Texas with his wife Kristy and their two children Bailee and Ryan but still manages to spend a considerable amount of time near his boyhood home north of Dodd City.
You can see Russell’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.russellgraves.com