Grizzly bears are magical beasts. They are the subject of folklore, movies, and countless stories ranging from the magical to the frightening. Go to Yellowstone park and look for the lines of cars and its easy to see that they are easily the most popular animal in any National Park. People will wait in a line of cars forever just to see a grizzly in the wild. When the chance comes to have up close encounters with these creatures it’s easy to see why folks would jump at the chance. It was an enormous privilege to help guide 3 groups of eager photographer through the remote Lake Clark National Park for a few days of close encounters of the fur kind.
Day 1- our groups arrive to the outward-bound bush plane airports of Anchorage, Alaska. Here they will catch one of the numerous Alaska bush planes that will transport them from the comforts of civilization into the many wilderness areas of America’s largest state. While many planes are designed to land on the water, our planes are designed to land on beaches, and in only a little over an hour after take off that’s exactly what they will do. The flights are beautiful and quickly the sights of town exit to the fjords, mountains, and colorful Alaskan outback. Patterns and textures make for some interesting photographs so many students will carry a camera onboard the plane and make their first images before we’ve even touched down in Lake Clark.
Lake Clark National Park was designated a park in the 1980s, and before that was only inhabited by a few homesteaders who were given 150 acres earlier in the century to use for farming and agricultural pursuits. Some of these homesteaders were able to partition their property and sell it off to families and others interested in living the ‘off the grid’ lifestyle. A few descendants from these families have turned their ‘cabins’ into arguably the best accommodations of any wilderness area in the world. Though a true National Park, Lake Clark is ONLY accessed by air or water…and other than a few dirt tracks populated with ATV four runners, there are no roads here.
Our flight lands without issue on the tidal beaches of Lake Clark and our guides and hosts for our time in the park are there to meet us with their ATVs and carts to transport our luggage and us to the Alaska Homestead Lodge. James and Sheila are the owners of the lodge and spend a large part of the year their adding to their lodge, and enjoying all the wonders that Alaska has to offer. Even after the short summer season has past, James and Sheila will still be at the lodge. It’s truly not a lifestyle for everyone, but one they love and love sharing.
Our bear guide for the week, Belle is there to help our groups get outfitted with the proper boots for our time slogging around the tidal flats and sedge fields that the bears call home. It’s not more than an hour before everyone has seen their first bear and is already getting excited for the chance to come up close and personal with their lenses. We do an orientation over coffee/tea and sweets where Belle will go over safety protocol, lodge rules, and I will go over the settings needed to get the bear shots we all hope to capture. The key to wildlife photography is reasonably shallow depth of field, and fast shutter speeds…and within a few minutes we’ve gotten everyone with a good grasp of these basics and how they apply to their cameras…now it’s time to head out!!!!
For all 12 days the bear viewing was spectacular. A group of about 15-20 different bears call this area of the park home, and while we didn’t get to see all of them there was certainly no shortage of bears to see and photograph.
Days 2 and 3 are spent intensively travelling the beach and road looking for bears, and trying to make sense of what it is they will be feeding on that day. Once you know what the bears will be eating, and the best time of day for them to get that meal…then you’ll find the bears.
This time of year the bears are spending the low tides in the tidal flats digging for clams and teaching their cubs this skill. The first 2 days we found 2 separate mothers and their cubs out practicing this skill and eating up the plethora of clams available to them. With paws so powerful and huge, it’s amazing how delicately they are able to use their claws to pop open the shell, and eat the delightful treat waiting within. The younger cubs are not great at this skill yet, so we get to be treated to them moaning and whining for their mother to dig up a clam for them to play with and eat.
During the transitional times when the tide is on its way in…salmon will begin to make the journey from the Cook Inlet into the river. It is during these transitions that the bears will come to the mouth of the river and look for fish. Many of the bears were not very good at catching fish…but watching them try is where the action is and the more they fail, the more we can capture photographs of them splashing and running in the shallow waters. It’s always nice when they do capture a fish…because it leads to more interaction with the cubs…and the various chasing and whining that they do for a fish.
During the hotter parts of the day, yes it was hot in Alaska…all but half of one of the days out of eleven was spent in warm, mild weather…and the sun shining. How awesome is that! During these times the bears would often head inland to eat berries, and seedpods. Once in the trees and thick brush it was often impossible for us to track or find the bears…though a couple groups hiked out into some nearby meadows to try.
The key to getting bears out of the water was to catch them in their transition from the forest to the water…then you could get shots of them in the vibrant gold and green sedge grass. During earlier summer the bears will graze on the new young grasses, but during later (and hotter) August the grass has all but gone to seed, so only a few places have grass young and tender enough to eat…but we did manage to get bears in the grass in every single group. One of the highlights of the trip were a couple spring cubs playing, fighting, and chasing one another within only a few feet of our cameras while mother bear contently chomped on grass nearby. Group 1 was really excited to see this, and it was easily one of the most adorable things I’ve ever been a witness too. #Alaska-problems
A really great moment of the trip was a mother bear catching at least four different fish for her cubs to eat while at the mouth of the river…only one group saw this kind of prolific bear fishing.
One of my favorite moments in the whole trip was one that happened over the course of group 2 and 3. There were 2 juvenile bears that each group got to see, they were a little young to be on their own at this point, and Belle didn’t know if they had been siblings, or just hooked up out of need for companionship. Each group was able to see them together, playing and searching for food. Near the end of group 2 they had separated for reasons unknown to us. Nature is wild, and unpredictable so we feared that a larger more dominant bear might have hurt or worse, killed one of the bears. Bears will eventually go out alone…so that was a possibility too…but they weren’t traveling together and we were a little bummed. Group 3 luckily was able to get a view of both juvenile cubs individually, so they were both alive, but now it seemed they had grown up and were going about their business solo.
One night we were at the mouth when we noticed each of the juveniles on opposite sides of the river. Each could smell the other, but they were apprehensive and not sure where the other was…or how to find their friend. The drama continued to build as they stood looking for their friend, catching smells, and wandering the riverside looking for the scent of where the other had gone. Minutes past and it began to seem like they were going to go on without finding one another. Those of us who had seen the bears together in the days past tried to will them to find one another…and eventually it happened. They ended up on the same side of the river, and came face to face. There was a brief moment of checking and smelling then the playing started. For almost an hour the two bears celebrated being reunited. They played, chased, and frolicked in the ocean. It was heartwarming, and a pure delight to capture on film and video. When the playing stopped a mother with two cubs came to the ocean to fish, with her cubs, and 2 more solo bears coming to do the same followed that. It was about 3 hours of solid bear action…so much so we had to call 2 times to delay our delicious dinner. Easily some of the best bear shooting of the entire time.
The last days the bears came to the ocean in the morning and evening, so every one was able to get great shots of the bears with the colorful sunrise and sunset light. Belle did a tremendous job helping get us to the right spots, trusting her insights and putting us right where we needed to be when we needed to be there…she was always game to start early, and stay out as late as we could…and as a result we always got amazing opportunities. My job was to make sure they had the right settings, varied their compositions, and give them some feedback in the lodge on how to process their images. EVERYONE got some OUTSTANDING aesthetically pleasing images, and got a few REALLY close encounters with the bears that made even the toughest individual have to squirm nervously. We all were able to realize that what we were experiencing was unique to this situation, and that bears ARE wild and unpredictable animals…even these bears that seemed to placid and content to pay us no mind as they walked within 5 feet of our tripods could potentially ruin our days. Belle and the other guides were there to keep us together, and keep us safe…and that’s exactly what they did.
One might think that with all the wonderful bears in the park that being in the lodge would be a letdown…NOPE. With Chef Michael and James and Sheila on occasion whipping up amazing gourmet food ALL the time we all found a way to stay content, no matter what time of day it was. Though we were in the wilderness, we were in no way roughing it.
The last day was always hard. Spending a little morning time eating breakfast and searching for bears before the plane flight back to Anchorage. When one group would leave…with smiles on their faces from a magical time spent at Lake Clark the next group would arrive smiles on their face in anticipation at the wonderful time ahead.
I think I can speak for all the groups when I say the entire experience was life changing, and totally amazing. Thanks again to Belle, Michael, James, Sheila, and Kennedy for helping make sure all of our stays were comfortable, safe, and also delicious.
I would like to thank all of you. Michael, Tammy, Scott, Craig, Gregg, Heather, John, Jane, Kristen, Sharon, Geoff, Leanne, Chris, Debby, Cliff, Jillian, Winona, and DeAnna for being ready to roll, learn, and laugh for the duration of our time. It was truly a pleasure working with all of you.
Until next time,
Brian and the rest of the Aperture Academy team
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