As a guide for Backcountry Journeys, I have the privilege of working in a wide array of ecosystems and environments. And whether I am leading a trip amongst the rugged peaks of Glacier National Park, the tropical jungles of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, or the glacial fjords of Kenai Fjords National Park, it is always a gamble just as to what wildlife we will come across. And as much as I would love to make promises to clients that we will see and photograph large fauna, to do so would be folly; Except when in Katmai National Park!
On a past expedition into Katmai, just as the trip was commencing, a client pulled Russ Nordstrand aside and asked him out of ear-shot of the other clients, “What are the chances we see some bears today?” Russ reportedly laughed and said, “100%.” And he was right, of course.
Katmai National Park is one of the rare places where large brown bears can be viewed in some the highest concentrations anywhere on the planet. They’re walking the beach, sleeping on trails, hanging around camp, and fishing for salmon throughout the summer in this relatively small area between Brooks Lake and Naknek Lake. And for the two groups we ran this past July, we would be surrounded by bears from dawn til dusk. We would be presented with so many opportunities to photograph large brown bears in action that after only a few days we would grow extremely selective of which bears we photographed.
That is not to say that the trip was not without its challenges though. Throughout our two back-to-back trips, we would be battling against the hottest heatwave to hit southern Alaska since the weather started being recorded in the state in the early 1950s. On July 4th, a few days before the first trip’s start, temperatures in Anchorage reached over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius), the hottest temperature ever recorded there. And three days later, in Katmai, temperatures would push past the 90 mark. The heatwave was so intense that it all but shut down the sockeye salmon run up Brooks River for nearly just short of two weeks.
We all know Thomas Mangelsen’s iconic photo of the salmon leaping Brooks Falls into the waiting jaws of a grizzly. And so, it is no surprise that this shot is one that all photographer’s visiting Katmai wish to recreate with their own twist. But, with the hot weather, the salmon were unable to force their way up Brooks Falls but were instead forced to wait out the heat in the deeper pools of the river. Salmon spawning is highly temperature-dependent, and many of the fish would be unable to make their way up shallower tributaries if they forced the falls with the weather as it was.
Throughout most of those two weeks, bears still waited at Brooks Falls in large numbers, anticipating the return of the salmon. But, as the heatwave stretched on, the bears were forced to move into the lower stretches of the river, chasing the salmon riding out the heat in the deep pools. It would take until the second to last day of the second tour for the weather to finally change. And like clockwork, the salmon run exploded, along with the numbers of bears fishing at the falls and on the lower river.
Even though our first group did not get to see bears catching salmon on the lip of Brooks Falls in large numbers, both groups would be inundated with incredible photographic opportunities of bears fishing in the lower river and catching fish below the falls.
We also saw eagles attacking ducklings, several sets of bear cubs, and even a lone wolf that started showing up every morning at the mouth of Brooks River. We had two incredible groups join us for this summer’s Katmai adventure, and all went home with memory cards full of images of big brown bears in action.
The Mama Bear
It is partly Katmai’s intense isolation that makes it such an incredible destination for wildlife viewing. There are no roads that lead to the park, and getting there is only possible by boat or floatplane. But the journey there makes the experience there that much more special.
We met our first group of clients in the community of King Salmon, which is little more than a small airport, a couple of supply stores, a hotel, and a bar. But, it is the gateway to Katmai, and it is where we always meet BCJ clients before embarking into Katmai National Park.
From King Salmon, we took a thirty-minute floatplane ride to the shores of Naknek Lake where we were dropped off in front of Brooks Camp. The campground is just off the beach and is surrounded by a bear fence, which is a low voltage electrical deterrent to keep curious bears from entering the camp. And though this fence very effectively discourages bears from snooping around camp, it is definitely not bear-proof, and incursions do occur from time to time.
And this aspect of the bear fence would be at the forefront of our minds during our second night in camp. That morning, as we were about to leave camp to head to the viewing platforms, we noticed a mother bear swimming in Naknek Lake just outside the camp’s gate. She was being trailed by three tiny cubs, just born this past winter and experiencing their first summer outside of the den. She swam out about 20 yards, grabbed a salmon that had apparently been floating dead on the lake’s surface, and turned around, swimming back to shore. The three little cubs wrestled and jockeyed for position as they swam, all three of which at one point climbing onto their mother’s back for a ride. She did not appreciate this though and slumped them off before swimming back to the beach. The camp’s shore was lined with floatplanes parked there for the day, and amongst the long line of planes, she paused to eat a portion of the salmon before letting the cubs have the rest of the fish carcass.
We were able to leave camp from a side gate and get down to the beach about 50 yards from the sow and her cubs, photographing them as they ate with a background of seaplanes. And though the planes certainly detracted from the shot’s natural setting, it also told the story of Alaska and Katmai; brown bears and Sea Planes sharing the beach of a pristine salmon-filled lake.
In what seemed like a few seconds, the salmon had been consumed, and the mother bear began walking her family in our direction. We gave ground, moving back up the beach to a safe distance. But, as she continued forward, we were forced to continue to back up. By this point, one of the “bear techs” (a type of park ranger in Katmai whose tasks include keeping bear viewers at a safe distance and bears out of the lodge area) had joined us on the beach. He advised us to move off the beach up a dirt path to watch as the sow and cubs progressed past us up to the beach. The ranger’s advice was excellent, and we got some incredible bear cub closeups as they walked past within 20 yards of us (the minimum viewing distance for bears in Katmai is 50 yards, unless you are with a ranger and following their instructions, as we were).
As she and her cubs strode by our vantage point, she mostly ignored us, but each cub stopped in turn, giving us a curious look and sniffing the air for our scent. They moved off and out of view, leaving us giddy from the excitement of seeing our first set of COY’s (cubs of the year) and slightly buzzing from the adrenaline that always coincides with close encounters with one of the world’s largest predators.
As we moved off, we were told that this was the first appearance made by this sow and cubs near Brooks Camp this year, and she had yet to be identified. We had possibly been the first humans to lay eyes on these cubs. But, this would not be our last interaction with this sow and her younglings, not even the last interaction on this day. And the next one would carry with it some disruption.
As we do nearly every evening in Katmai, we finish the day’s shooting at Brooks Falls, where the last light of the day is perfectly positioned at our backs, illuminating the enormous male bears that dominate the falls in soft warm light.
After shooting had ended for the day, we walked the one mile back to Brooks Lodge, a stopping off point before doing the last half mile back to camp (and often a great spot for a cold beer before heading to bed). But, when we arrived, the same bear tech with whom we had interacted with earlier that day told us that the path to camp was blocked by that same sow and her three cubs. She had apparently decided the put the cubs up a tree that sits within only a foot or two of the camp’s perimeter fence, and a few more feet from the gate. And, this was most likely not a coincidence. She had put her cubs up that tree because it was close to camp, and the chances of her moving them on account of human proximity were slight.
For all bears, it is during their first year of life that they are most vulnerable, and even more so for grizzlies with a nearly 40% mortality rate in their first year. It is only through the intense maternal extinct of mother bears that cubs have any chance of survival at all. In Katmai, experienced mothers have learned that humans are no risk to them or their cubs, and furthermore, that we are a great deterrent for the big males that pose her young the greatest risk.
Male bears will kill cubs sired by other males, sometimes in an attempt to put the mother back into estrus, and sometimes apparently just as a general policy towards cubs. Mother bears know this, and it is other bears that they are so diligently looking out for at every moment. And for reasons I do not wholly understand, considering the long-standing, all be it sometimes tenuous, the coexistence of bears and humans in Katmai, the big males (a.k.a. boars) do not like to be around people. It is only at the falls where large males will tolerate people being around in close proximity.
Mother bears with cubs are quite aware of this, and so choose to keep close proximity to the camp, lodge, and other human habitations of the park, where the big boars are not. So, this sow’s choice to tree her cubs in a Sitka spruce that was literally hanging over the camp was in all likelihood an intentional decision, and she was unlikely to have them come down anytime soon.
So, with our path to camp blocked, we were told about a back utility trail to camp that would allow us to get inside the perimeter fence. But, this only partially fixed our problem. As I mentioned before, the perimeter fence is little more than a deterrent and a 50-yard distance must be maintained even if the fence is between you and the bear. And two of our clients had tents within 15 yards of the tree where the cubs were hanging out. And, mother was not far away. After we arrived back at camp, we pulled a picnic table back to watch the drama unfold from a safe distance, and wait for the bears to depart so our clients with the closest tents could go to bed. While we sat there the mother bear reappeared twice. The first time, she beckoned the cubs down, but for only a moment. After only a second or two on the ground, she became alarmed, possibly at the sight or smell of another bear, and sent them back up the tree. One of the cubs nearly ran under the fence before back-pedaling and following its two siblings up the tree.
It was probably sometime close to midnight before the mother bear finally returned and the cubs descended the tree for the night. We all shared a sigh of relief and went to our tents. I was told though that she returned later in the night and had her cubs back up the same tree. Luckily though, no one was the wiser and we slept peacefully through the night.
Over the decades, Katmai National Park has been developed by the National Park Service into the premier park for viewing brown bears in their natural habitat. And to accommodate both visitors and the wildlife, the Park Service has erected several elevated viewing platforms from which people can view the bears up close without detrimentally affecting the bears’ behavior. And, though incredible photographs can be taken from these platforms, it is the opportunity to get down eye-level with the bears that make for the most compelling images, in my opinion. And to do this in Katmai, it means going wading in Brooks River while bears are operating in the river all around you.
Throughout our time in Katmai, we would make several wading expeditions. But, it was the last that would stand out the most.
It was the second to last day of the second trip, and the heatwave had finally broken. For nearly two weeks, we had had had clear skies, intense sun, and record-breaking high temperatures. The heat had slowed the action on the river to a crawl. Most of the big male bears had moved off of Brooks Falls to forage elsewhere, and downstream, subadults had resorted to foraging for carcasses and scraps.
But, on the next to last day of the trip, clouds moved in and the temperature dropped. And apparently sensing the barometric change, the sockeye salmon run exploded. Fish were moving up the river in enormous shoals and with them came the bears.
The evening prior, I had been sharing a beer with one of the fishing guides, and he gave me a tip about a fishing trail that would give us easy access to one of the most active fishing holes on the river for bears and people alike. So, the following morning, my fellow guide Russell took the group to the viewing platform while I did preliminary scouting of the trail. Walking through the riverside brush, I popped out in front of a deep channel of Brooks River, and I could see hundreds of dark salmon-shaped shadows moving upstream. I moved along the riverbank to a bend in the river and suddenly found myself surrounded by fishing bears. Upstream, a mother fished for her three yearling cubs, and just downstream, two four-year-old subadults snorkeled (a fishing technique used by bears where they dip their faces into the water and scan underwater for fish) and crashed into shoals of fish. I radioed to Russell that this was indeed the spot we where would be heading. And after a quick breakfast, the group was geared up and following me down the fishing trail to the river.
And it was as it had been when I was there scouting; there were bears all around us. We navigated to a small sandbar island in the middle of the river, which gave us some solid footing from which to photograph, and some ground to work with should we be approached by a bear.
Upstream of us, a five-year-old, chocolate-colored male fished tenaciously, occasionally charging downstream in our direction, making for some incredible head-on shots of a bear smashing through the water. Two more subadults fished downstream, occasionally pushing up onto our island in search for better vantage points for fishing.
We were engaged in a sort of choreographed dance, constantly being pushed upstream or downstream by fishing bears as we worked to keep our 50-yard minimum distance. For the most part, the bears were cooperating. They’d come crashing in our direction, allowing us some great action shots. We would give ground, the bears would stop, start working the other direction, and we would be able to retake our original position on the island.
As the morning began growing late, we were joined at our sandbar island by three fishing French Canadians. One of them was also equipped with his camera with a 100-400 lens on it. The action had slowed slightly on the river, and we were waiting there for another bear to work its way into range. Just downstream of us was a four-year-old blond female bear, still learning how to fish. She was out of range for photographs, but I was aware of her presence. Then, a larger bear, probably a six-year-old popped out of the woods just downstream of her and began chasing her in our direction. The frightened young female first ran straight for the three fishing Canadians before turning in our direction and running right up to our group within only ten yards. It looked as if she was attempting to join our group, seeking safety from the larger bear in the proximity of people, or maybe just looking for safety in numbers. This was obviously quite startling to everyone in the group. Russell and I directed the group to give ground and allow this young bear room to pass. She stood there for a moment, looking left and then right, before choosing to head into the grasses at the riverside. But, as she stood there in indecision, it allowed the fisherman with his camera an opportunity to snap a photo of us and the bear all standing on the island together.
He was kind enough to send us this photo after the trip, and the photo has a renaissance look to it, with a group of tightly packed photographers working to get clear of the young bear, everyone’s eyes locked on the bear.
To me, this is what photographing brown bears is all about. It’s the fusion of photography and adrenaline. Though these bears are somewhat acclimated to human presence, there are no words to describe having a close encounter with one of nature’s largest and most successful predators.
After the morning’s session, everyone was giggly with adrenaline and joy from shooting a collection of some truly epic action shots. In addition, for the entire morning, we had seen shoal after shoal of sockeye moving upstream. This told us that this evening would be the one we had been waiting for at the falls for nearly two weeks. The salmon were going to be forcing the falls, and the bears knew it too.
That evening, for last light, we made the 1.5-mile hike to the viewing platforms above Brooks Falls. As soon as we arrived, we could see that everything had changed. Whereas the action in the days prior had been slow, punctuated by complete standstills, the falls were now populated by several big males. And there was one especially tenacious subadult fishing from the lip of the falls. This young bear’s apparent elation was palpable as salmon attempted to leap the falls in constant succession and in groups of three to five at a time.
Dozens of seagulls squawked and argued over the scraps only to be flushed into the sky as bald eagles swooped in snagging the bears’ leavings. Half a dozen more bears fished the “Riffles” (a section of small rapids just below Brooks Falls), putting the number of visible bears fishing at ten or more.
The young bear fishing the lip was having incredible success plucking the flying salmon from the air. As we watched, he caught and ate the skin of at least twenty fish. After a while, he was barely eating any part of them, just catching them, pulling off a small chunk and then returning to the falls to catch another. The seagulls were having a heyday with this bear’s greedy fishing, as were we, capturing photo after photo of the bear swatting and snagging fish from the air in its jaws.
Though I feel bad that our first group did not get to witness this salmon assault, it was a perfect punctuation to the trip’s conclusion. We had spent days working in intense heat and sun, waiting for our reward of a big salmon run at the falls. And, it had finally come, complete with an army of waiting bears.
With memory cards full, the last day came, and we broke camp to head back to King Salmon and one last dinner to laugh and share stories of our Katmai adventure. Despite a small weather hiccup with the seaplanes, our departure was smooth thanks to everyone chipping in to help us break camp and get all the gear packed up.
And so, I’d like to conclude by first giving a big thanks to Russ Nordstrand and Russel Graves for helping this trip run as smoothly as it did. And another big thanks to two incredible groups of clients, for their excitement, amazing attitudes, and constant willingness to do whatever it took to make this a successful trip for everyone there.
And, I can’t wait to get back in September to see just how fat these bears will have gotten!
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”
Backyard Bird Photography: Simple Techniques for Wildlife Close to Home
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, March 9th, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)