At rural landing strips all over the globe, it’s common to buzz the runway prior to landing to make sure no roaming wildlife, grazing cattle or other ‘natives’ are in the way of the plane. But buzzing the beach in Alaska to remove foraging grizzly bears is something quite different! It’s a common theme for my arrival in Alaska, where I run my Grizzly Bear Photo Tour every year. This is also where I take my “Alaskan Grizzly Bear” photo tour each year.
It’s an exciting start to the trip for my guests – flying by classic Beaver fixed wings to our remote lodge, a beach landing amongst bears searching the shore for food, discovering Lake Clark National Park from above, and then meeting our friendly hosts before we settle into our comfortable accommodation for the next five night.
Each year is different with slight adjustments to the itinerary. This adds to the excitement. One trip was memorable for me because my group was more excited than usual after spending the previous days photographing the Kenai Fjords’ humpback whales and puffins. This side trip was added to the tour and the highlight was photographing the aurora borealis from our balcony on the first night. All of this combined meant that we were able to hit the ground running upon our arrival amongst bears. One of my guests used her first DSLR and captured images just as confidently as the rest.
It is a wonderful experience to photograph the Alaskan grizzly bears. This was my favorite place to do so. Lake Clark National Park is often called the “essence” of Alaska because it contains so many amazing landscape features in one area. These include the mountain ranges, active volcanoes, coastal rainforest, and the Turquoise Lake. The tundra of Western plateau also includes the famous ‘Ursus Arctos Horribilus, which is the largest of Alaska’s wildlife.
The Grizzly Bear is a subspecies from the Brown Bear. It can be found in Alaska, Mexico and other parts of the world. They are considered carnivorous but they are actually omnivores. Their diet includes fish, animals and a wide variety of plants and fruits, as well as eggs and seashells. They tend to be solitary, only coming together in the mating season when the mother raises her cubs. They will however gather close to the waterways during salmon season, looking for the salmon-rich fish that make up their diet before hibernation. This is a great time to take photographs.
The Photo Tour takes place on a 40-acre private property in Lake Clark National Park, west shores of Cook Inlet. It is one of few places where you can enjoy close encounters with bears (and I have been to many). The bears may wander by our campfire at night, while we are enjoying cold drinks and “S’mores” over the fire. The lodge staff brought in all the ingredients for this American tradition, which is made of marshmallows and chocolate that are melted between shortbread cookies. The bears are not easy to find. However, the guides make it easy. They ensure that we understand all safety precautions and take the best photos possible.
The lodge is close to the coast so we can photograph the grizzlies while they are digging for clams. We also have the option of following them at the river mouth, as they chase salmon into the sea. Or, exploring the river tributaries to capture the bears wading through open marshes on either side, and then standing in the shallows looking for salmon. It’s great to have so many backdrops and settings for photography. The bears are still as majestic as ever. These bears can reach up to 1500 pounds in Alaska just before going into hibernation. This is a significantly higher weight than other species. It is amazing to see a large grizzly bear standing on its hind legs, sometimes 7 feet tall, and it is certainly awe inspiring!
As we explored the region, we had our cameras at our disposal and were able to compare and contrast photos of incredible sights. We also photographed many bears that we encountered. There was plenty to see, from mother bears and their cubs leaving our area, knowing that the adult male bears would be less likely to bother them if they were near us, to juveniles playing in the rain, adults eating salmon, digging for shells, and even one bear “dive” for fish close to the lodge (a learned behavior, they call him Snorkel), there was plenty to choose from. We were in photographic heaven when we added in the side trip to photograph this incredibly awkward horned puffin.
One of the highlights of my recent trip was adding an extension package to Katmai National Park after the tour. Brooks Falls was also a highlight for me. Brooks Falls offers a totally different experience than Lake Clark. Everyone is on the same platform looking at the waterfall, and viewing time is set. It was a strange experience after the five days of freedom. Brooks Falls is where you should be if your goal is to capture the iconic shot of a bear leaping up the river to catch salmon. We arrived to find that there were only a few bears left in the river, but no salmon. The next few hours were a waiting game, as the bears left and the salmon arrived. Literally hundreds of them leapt up the waterfall. After having lunch on the platform, we returned to photograph the salmon leaping up the waterfall. We waited patiently for them to arrive. The action happened all that afternoon, and we were able to capture it all during our time slot. These are some amazing shots of the bears enjoying their jumping sushi buffet You can see the results!
Our journey ended too soon. After spending the evening around the campfire, exchanging stories with each other and discussing images, our flight to Katmai was over. As with every Alaska trip, we returned home with wonderful memories and incredible photos.