Katmai Peninsula – Kukak Bay
Our first day on the Katmai peninsula with the bears, and what an incredible day it was! Mum, Marcel, Arie and I were in the first group to fly out, along with Kumar, who we’d met on last year’s trip to Kenya. We assembled at 8:15 and were driven down to the seaplane base, where we were weighed as a group on a giant weigh scale. We came in at an impressive 1044lbs, leaving just 156lbs over for our luggage. With 5 photographers, and all those telephoto lenses, we were just able to get our camera bags in the plane, but the rest of our luggage had to stay back and await a later flight.
We piled into the Otter, Kumar and I on the bucket seat in the back, Marcel performing acrobatics to get into the copilot’s seat, and Arie and Mum in the middle. We were warned it was likely to be a very bumpy flight, so buckled ourselves in, and with little hanging around we were taking off. The first part of the flight, over Kodiak Island was a little cloudy, but with only a couple small bumps as we flew through a pass across the country. Out over the water and it began to clear, and as we approached the Katmai peninsula we were rewarded with incredible views of the landscape and blue waters.
We sighted the ships ahead, and flew past a small island on our left. The plane banked suddenly and we made a U-turn around the edge of the island. Dropping rapidly, it felt as though the belly of the plane would scrape the trees below, we approached the water and touched down in an idyllic bay.
The rest of the group were due to fly out in three flights around midday, so we had a long wait ahead of us, which we spent exploring our ship, the Kittiwake, and photographing the landscape. Finally, just as we were tucking into the sandwiches the crew had provided for us, the second group of photographers arrived. We waited, and waited for the rest of the group, but despite the beautiful clear skies we were enjoying, it appeared that the weather had closed in on Kodiak, and even the commercial flights were grounded. Finally, when it became clear that the remaining group as well as our luggage wouldn’t make it out that day, it was decided that our bear guides, who were fortunately already on the boat, would take us out for our first photo session with the bears. With great anticipation we pulled on the waders that we’d been fitted for earlier, gathered our photo gear and loaded ourselves into the skiff.
Kukak Bay is large, and has a big open, gravel beach, where the bears like to fish at low tide. We set up close to the river, with a couple bears snoozing further downstream. As we waited quietly for some action, a third bear approached from up river, and right before our eyes, burst into a run towards us, ploughing through the water, growing bigger and bigger through the viewfinder and then pounced on a salmon. All the commotion appeared to wake the nearest bear from his slumber, and before we knew it we had a bear on either side, both busy fishing.
Dominance was soon exerted, with the newcomer chasing off the younger female and snatching her fish. This older guy proved to be quite the fisherman, chasing and catching salmon after salmon, only missing a single fish during the time we were watching. As the afternoon turned to evening, the light was fantastic, but the wind was getting stronger and stronger.
At 7:30 the skiff came to collect us, and we piled in for what proved to be a very wet and bumpy ride. Back on the boat, the waves were the only visible sign of the strong wind. That and the very fast variation in the patterns of the lenticular clouds. I haven’t seen clouds like this since I was in Antarctica.
With the remainder of the group only arriving at lunchtime on our second day, the plan was to head out early and photograph the bears in the early morning light. When we woke up we could already see 6 bears out on the beach, and as we looked closer, we discovered something very unusual – a wolf in their midst. With the binoculars the wolf was just discernible, being smaller and very light in colour. Once we’d set out to the beach and set up our gear we could hear the wolves howling in the far distance.
It was a quiet morning on the beach, with only a couple bears, neither of whom were very active. We set ourselves up opposite a snoozing bear, who provided entertainment by rolling over every now and again and kicking his feet in the air.
The tide was coming in this morning and we kept having to move upstream as the tide caught up with us. Eventually, all the bears wandered off and we just sat in the sun and enjoyed the morning.