It’s hot in Texas. So hot, that I am ready to leave my beloved state in search of cooler temps. For the past three weeks, high temperatures languished in the upper 90’s with a mean humidity to boot. Therefore, it’s 98-degrees when I walk down the tunnel into the awaiting 737 but some seven hours and a few thousand miles later, walking out of the plane I could feel the difference. Thirty degrees cooler and it might as well have been a world away. Fall’s commenced here in the Great White North, and I’m excited about our adventure.
A day later, Matt Meisenheimer and I meet thirteen guests for the latest iteration of our Brown Bears of Katmai: Brooks Lodge photography trip. Orientation nights are pretty standard: we meet the guests, get to know one other, talk photography, and most importantly, talk about the bears and the adventure du jour. Of all the things we do, the orientation dinner is the most routine yet at the same time, the most important. Here, the tone’s set for the entire trip and it’s a time for the guests to ask any question they’d like and alleviate any unanswered queries associated with the trip. Above all, the first-night presentation and ensuing question and answer session are fun, light-hearted, and yet essential.
After confirming that everyone has their gear packed according to the guidelines set forth by the air charter with whom we partner, everyone retreats to their cabins for a night of rest. Tomorrow, we head out to the wilderness.
In Alaska this time of year the weather is fickle. Mornings often see fog hanging low in the river valleys and when the cloud ceiling is low, planes don’t fly, therefore, we meet for breakfast and wait for a phone call from Branch River Air to let us know when it’s time to go.
Gray skies spit a little precipitation this morning so Matt and I are wondering if the planes will even leave at all. Our original departure time was set for 9:30 but at 10:30 am we got the call informing us that the first plane was ready to go. I was heading out with the first bunch, so three guests, myself, and all the gear headed to the Branch River’s operations center on the banks of the Naknek River and started the process of loading everything onto the Beaver floatplane.
Just as soon as we finished, rain begins to fall and another delay is imminent. As the fog descends on the river, I am once again unsure if we’ll even be able to fly out. At any rate, we load the gear onto the plane and wait under the porch. Soon, Van (the owner and pilot for Branch River Air) comes out on the porch and says, “Let’s go!”
After a brief taxi down the river, the plane’s throttled up and we are soon airborne. The cloud ceiling hangs low and the plane skirts the edge between “can see and can’t.” For the next hour, we slide between the water below and the clouds above until we make the final turn and head into Brooks Camp. While the fog held close to the ground for the entire trip, it magically lifts as we make our final approach into the national park.
Once taxied onto the shore, we must wait for a brown bear to pass before we disembark. She’s a big sow and her saunter is slow and deliberate, but she pays us no mind as she walks past the floatplane. Once she’s gone, we unload the plane in a quick fashion, and soon, the plane is gone. We head to bear school for a quick safety briefing and get our luggage squared away in the cabins and wait for the rest of our group to arrive.
An hour and a half later, everyone has arrived at Brooks Camp and after lunch, we make our first trip into the field. As expected, bears are everywhere. Some are wrestling in the river while another walks on two feet in chest-high water as he peers curiously into the water looking for salmon on which he will feed. A sow walks on the beach with her two spring cubs in tow while further upriver, a bear splashes in the skinny water in an attempt to catch a wayward fish. For the uninitiated, it’s almost too much action all at once.
Everyone trains their cameras on the closest bear and as the action evolved, a new bear would come into vogue. The guests are excited as body language is a hard thing to conceal. Their smiles and jovial banter seem to belie a bit about what they’re really feeling inside: this place is a nature photographer’s dream.
A couple of hours and thousands of pictures later we pause for a bit for supper. After the meal, we make the mile or so hike to the legendary Brooks Falls. You hear the falls long before you see it and that bit of a sensory clue makes the pace of the hike quicken a bit. Rounding one last corner on the boardwalk, there they are the bears of Brooks Falls.
On the near lip of the falls, one bear is perched on the edge of the cascade waiting for fish to jump up the falls so she can snag it. Just below the falls several males sit chest-deep in the water and wait for fish to come to them. Further downstream, sub-adults and juveniles tool around in the water looking for dead fish to scavenge or get lucky and catch a fresh one of their own. If you study these bears long enough, it becomes apparent that each bear has its own fishing style and its favorite fishing hole. The nutritional payoff is big for each fish they catch. A typical red salmon that’s common in the Brooks River in September yields some 5,000 calories. If a bear eats half a dozen fish a day, it’s not hard to imagine how they’re able to gain so much weight in such a short amount of time. Driven by a biological term called hyperphagia, the bears engorge themselves on fish to prepare for the long, cold hibernation season that lies ahead.
It’s not hard to get a shot here as the bears are plentiful and animated.
At the day’s end, we return to the cabins where we’ll slumber over the duration of this trip. We’re still in bear country so we remind the guests that bears can be anywhere. In fact, a day or so later, a bear walked just a few feet away from Matt and me while we sat on the cabin’s porch.
In Katmai, we end up photographing the same locations again and again. The Brooks River is a short one (two miles long) and there’s a limited amount of places that we can get to along the river. While the river remains the same, however, the bears are always dynamic. Day after day, you can’t predict what you’ll see. Therefore, each day we keep the same basic itinerary: explore the beach, shoot some shots from the bridge and the surrounding landscape, and walk to the falls a couple of times. Each photography session is broken up by delectable meals served by Brooks Lodge and a small slice of time reserved for downloading images and recharging batteries.
Since wading the river is a favorite among guests, we don our waders and head to the river to see and photograph bears at eye level. Wading is a serious business as there are numerous risks associated with mixing water and camera equipment in such close proximity. Therefore, prior to departure, Matt and I give the group a safety briefing as to how we’ll walk in the river and handle ourselves when we encounter a bear. If there is any trepidation amongst the group about wading, I don’t sense it and away we go.
Walking through the grass and down to the river, Matt and I hear some tale-tell splashing coming from the river. It’s two bears sparring. We pause in the grass and wait for the playful sub-adults to pass before we proceed. In the meantime, we’re able to get some fantastic photos. Once in the water, it’s apparent that fish are in this river by the tens of thousands. It’s no wonder that for the couple of hours we wade, bear after bear eases past us in search of food. For the fish, being in the river and swimming back to the place from whence they hatched is an urge that’s embedded somewhere deep in their biology. The fact that there are so many fish is a numbers game for them. The more fish that swim in this river the better the chance that some of the fish make it all the way to their spawning grounds and cleave another generation of progeny that will keep these rivers full. For the Alaskan Brown Bears, it’s also a numbers game. Go to where the most plentiful food is and meals are a guarantee. Here at the Brooks River, it’s the perfect mix of fish and bears that make this a world-class photography location.
For the remainder of the trip, we immerse ourselves in the special piece of the Alaskan outback. Each guest is beaming with the satisfaction of coming on a true adventure and having memorable photos to tell the tale once they return home. The bears, the landscape, and the people here are infectious and each person on our trip vows to return at some point in the future.
As our planes depart for King Salmon, I look down and count fourteen bears along the lake’s shore. Looking behind me at the guests on my plane, it’s smiles all around. Katmai has gained some new fans.
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