September in Katmai this year was a real treat. Russ, Crystal & I (Russ will be writing his own blost post soon on this trip ) were able to run three different groups through Brooks Camp, providing twenty-two people with the opportunity to observe and photograph the largest concentration of coastal brown bears on Earth on our Brown Bears of Katmai in the Fall Photo trip. This year was extra special as it was the 100th anniversary of Katmai National Park, and you would have thought mother nature knew it, as we were gifted with beautiful weather and phenomenal shooting conditions for the vast majority of the trip. Only two of fourteen days were spent under the stereotypical Alaskan rainy conditions, while most other days we saw sunny skies and highs in the low 70’s. We even had enough clear nights to entertain the idea of seeing the Northern Lights, something even Russ had never seen at Brooks Camp. Our first group was treated with a look at the lights on the second night of the trip, and the whole camp was buzzing with excitement. We would continue to be on the lookout for the lights the rest of our time in Katmai, despite not seeing them again.
Each day was spent photographing bears, first at the lower platform, then eventually making our way to the falls, where the iconic shot of a bear fishing from atop the waterfall can be had. The rangers were calling this summer the “subadult summer” and we quickly could see why. Over the course of our two weeks in Katmai, each group would be at one point or another “investigated” by at least one subadult bear (a juvenile bear that is no longer with its mother, but also has not yet reached adulthood), whether walking down a trail, or while hanging out on the lower platform. Our last group even had an opportunity to observe four different subadults all playing together under the lower platform!
Our evenings were also special, as this time of year golden hour in the evenings can last up to two hours, allowing for ample opportunities to photograph bears during their most active time of day. Most days we would get great light on the falls, shooting bears catching fish and bald eagles waiting on scraps, before making our way back to the lower platforms where we would see sows and cubs playing on the beach or subadults wrestling and trying out new fishing techniques.
Another highlight over the course of our three groups was the opportunity to go wading in the river. By getting into the water, photographers were able to capture engaging shots of the bears from eye level as they ran, splashed and dove for salmon. Our first group would be pushed around quite a bit by bears entering and exiting the river, as we tried to maintain the park requirement of 50 yards from all bears. At one point, after leaving the river, the group would eventually come face to face with a bear, curious about all the noise we had been making. Chris was at the front of the line as he came over a hill, and there, only fifteen feet away, was a young adult bear, wondering what was going on. Fortunately, both parties were surprised enough to back up and the bear made its way off into the woods, but not before giving the entire group a quick spike in heart rate.
During our time in Katmai, we would also be visited by multiple different groups of cubs, some of which hadn’t been seen since July. One sow had three cubs from this spring that were a real treat to photograph, as one of them was bleach blonde. The contrasting colors between it and its two siblings made for some great photos. Another popular set of cubs was from a sow who showed up on our last tour with four cubs! We were given a great opportunity to photograph all four as mom helped them float down the river as she searched for fish, a very cute sight indeed.
Overall, each of our three trips were given great opportunities to see and photograph a large number of bears under great weather and beautiful fall conditions. Everyone walked away happy with some great additions to their personal portfolios, and even better additions to their personal memories. Nowhere else in the world can you guarantee such up close sightings of such large brown bears, and this was, for some, a truly once in a lifetime experience. On behalf of Russ and Crystal, we all had a great time with everyone and it was a privilege to get to share such a unique experience with everyone. We’re already looking forward to next year!
Chris grew up exploring the mountains of North Carolina, originally with his family on weekend camping trips and later as a self taught rock climber and backpacker, leading him ultimately to a degree in Recreation Management from Appalachian State University with a focus in Outdoor Experiential Education. Immediately after graduating, Chris drove west, knowing the mountains and opportunities for adventure were much bigger. Since then, he has worked in a variety of guiding applications, from small leadership non-profits, to adolescent wilderness therapy, to commercial hiking and tourism guiding in California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, always with a camera in hand. Chris loves teaching and sharing his passions and experience with others and is sure to provide careful insight and education whenever the opportunity arises. Chris currently resides in Bozeman, Montana where easy access to Yellowstone National Park allows him frequent trips into the park to photograph wildlife and the unique geologic features of the area. When not behind the lens, he spends his time backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and mountain biking, always on the lookout for a new unique perspective to photograph. The mountains have always been a point of inspiration for Chris and he is excited to capture the beauty of the natural world in an effort to share the space he is so privileged to work in with those around him. For a look at some of Chris’ work, visit his website www.chrisgheenphoto.com
Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!
Big Alaska: Stories & Slideshow
with Grant Ordelheide
Tuesday, February 1st, 2022
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time