Katmai Peninsula – Kuliak Bay Revisited

Sitting with a camera watching the bears feels like a very timeless activity, and being out of contact with the world, we had no reason to care what day it was. As a result, it seemed to come as a bit of a shock that our time with the bears was almost over, and that today’s trip to shore would be our last.

Life in Alaska is far more driven by the weather and practicalities than we’re accustomed, and our final choice of bay was therefore more a decision based on the requirements of the flights (out, for us, and in for the BBC) than anything else. That said, we’d had a good time at Kuliak on our first visit, so we weren’t unhappy.

Our last morning dawned bright and sunny, and after a quick breakfast we donned our waders for the last time, and headed to shore. As the first group out, we set up position at the waterfall, with our guide Steve. We had a long wait. There were few salmon to be seen, and no bears. We waited an hour or so, and with no sign of action we were just picking up our cameras and beginning to move to a new spot when we were ushered back quickly.

I sat down just in time to see a bear approaching and began to shoot. It wasn’t long before we realised that this was the same mother bear we’d seen earlier in the week. Apparently she sometimes caches her cubs in a safe place and comes down to fish alone. She didn’t stay all that long before wandering back, but as another bear had turned up in the meantime, we hung around.

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Our patience was soon rewarded, as the mother returned with her two cubs, which bounded past us, one getting a little skittish and coming within about a metre of my feet! Obviously there was no way we were going to move positions now, we just sat tight and enjoyed our final show.

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Eventually the group moved on, vanishing beyond the top of the waterfall, and so we moved spot to the other side of the river giving the other group a turn at the waterfall. I lay down on the grass, hoping for some shots from a low vantage point. Unfortunately, things went quiet again, so all that really happened was that I got damp and cold, especially as the sun wasn’t shining on our little spot.

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Finally, around the time we needed to think about heading back to the boat, things started to heat up, so we took a back route along some bear paths, and finally across the river, to watch a bear fishing in front of us. The bear put on quite a show, but unfortunately, we were facing straight into the sun, so the resulting photographs aren’t much too look at.

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And then, that was that. Time to rush back to the boat, grab a bite to eat. Time to throw our clothes, camera gear and laptops into our cases. Time to take the skiff out to the float plane. Time to leave.

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As the first group out at the start of the week, we were also first to leave. I must admit that I’d been entertaining hopes of bad weather in Kodiak grounding the planes again, but no such luck.

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The weather was clearer than our first ride out so we had great views from the plane. It was pretty tough though to be leaving such a magical place behind us and return to the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Arriving back in Kodiak and setting ourselves up in the stuffy hotel room, filled with the artificial scent of cleaning fluid, I found myself longing for the fresh air and hint of dead fish aroma of Katmai.

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Katmai Peninsula – Kinak Bay

We landed at Kinak Bay with high expectations, having heard that it’s usually one of the best places for bear sightings. Alas, we were to be disappointed with one of the least active days of photography yet.

After a short stop to photograph a juvenile bald eagle that was sitting and waiting for us when we landed, we had a longer walk than normal for our first stop.

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We arrived in low tide, which meant clambering over a lot of slippery rocks to get into a position looking down on the river.

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There were a couple bears there, but the photography wasn’t great due to the poor light, the distance from the bears, and the fact that we were looking down on them from quite a height.

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Eventually we decided to move further upstream. It turned out to be quite a long walk, especially carrying 300mm lens and tripod and with a long break to photograph a resting eagle.

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We finally settled ourselves down by the river, with two bears in view, both of which were snoozing. One of them rolled over every so often, but that was about it. It was a cold and grey day, and in very little time my toes were beginning to feel like blocks of ice. All the sitting around on cold ground didn’t do very much to improve the situation. We sat, and waited, and waited, and waited a little more.

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Eventually, one of the bears began to stir, and mercifully came in our direction.

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Like yesterday’s bears this one ended up coming quite close to us at times, and whilst she was in front of us, I saw that she’d somehow wounded her hind foot. It didn’t seem to be causing her any trouble though.

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For a little while we had some activity in front of us, and were able to forget how cold we were getting. Then, alas, the show was over, as the bear wandered further upstream. In the hope of a good long photography day, the crew put together some sandwiches for us, and sent them out, but most of us were so cold, we decided to head back to the boat. In the meantime, the area had been transformed, as the tide had come in. The skiff was able to collect us from our spot (where we’d been inching slowly uphill to escape the rising water), and we were saved the long walk back.

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Having lunched and warmed ourselves up, we headed out again. Our original plan was to go back to the same area, but in the end we went to a much smaller bay, home to an old male bear who has killed a couple females in the past year or two. This little trek ended up being the most adventure we’ve had so far, although the bear never made his presence known. Due to his history, we had to take extra precautions – walking in a tighter huddle, always keeping behind our guide, and calling out to make sure that the bear knew we were there. This little river was very enclosed, unlike the open bays where we’ve been spending most of our time, and rich with vegetation. It would have been very easy to miss seeing the bear in those conditions.

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Because of the narrowness of the route, we kept having to cross the fast flowing river, forming a chain to avoid being knocked over and swept away. Having reached a small gravelly beach, half of the group continued into the river to view the waterfall around the corner, whilst the rest of us stayed on dry ground. After all the warnings we’d had about the bear, we were somewhat disconcerted to see the guide vanish around the corner, flares and pepper spray in hand, whilst we were empty handed.

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We walked slowly back to the mouth of the river, stopping en-route to look at the bones of one of the female bears that had been killed here. In the end we had quite a long wait as the batteries of the radio were flat and we couldn’t make contact with the ship.

Katmai Peninsula – Geographic Harbour

As we sailed to Geographic Harbour, the clouds dropped lower and lower. By the time we arrived in the archipelago, the islands were clouded in the mist, and the rain was beginning to fall.

We awoke this morning to pouring rain, and re-evaluated our plans for the morning landing. We decided to wait until the rain lessened, and occupied ourselves watching a couple tv shows about the brown bears and polar bears of Alaska, recorded by Chris Morgan, a bear biologist who lead my first trip to Alaska, back in 2004.

Eventually the rain began to ease off, and after wrapping up ourselves and the cameras in multiple layers of plastic for protection, we piled into the skiff for the ride down to the beach.

The day was a little slow getting started, with a lot of sitting around and waiting, but our patience was rewarded by a mother and her cub.

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As well as watching the cub playing, bouncing up and down on a small stick in the water, we also managed to see the mother nursing the cub, albeit through a curtain of tall grass.

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After a while we headed along a path the bears had made through the grasses, and parked ourselves by the river upstream where we had some opportunities to photograph another mum with an older cub, who was trying his own hand at fishing.

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After a couple hours the sky finally started to brighten and at around 5pm we wandered back down to the beach where we were rewarded for our patience with the most incredible close up action we’ve experienced. We were all strung out along the river bank, with very little happening, when a large bear started slowing moving towards us, walking up the river, hugging the bank. I kept expecting that when she approached, she’d move further away, into the middle of the river, but no, she walked straight past us, seemingly looking me straight in the eye, though in reality focused on the fish in the river. Thus followed an extremely exciting hour or so, with a couple bears coming back and forth almost within cuddling distance of us. Nothing beats seeing a bear belly flop into the water on top of a salmon just a couple metres in front of you. The 300mm lens I had to hand was simply far too big for the job, so after taking a couple frame filling shots, I put down the camera and enjoyed the show.

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After returning to the boat and eating a hard earned dinner, it was time to sit out on the bow and enjoy the ride to our next destination, Kinak Bay. It was a beautiful evening, with an almost full moon, and we spotted a couple sea otters along the way.

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Katmai Peninsula – Kuliak Bay

Our group was finally complete by early afternoon, so after lunch we set off for our next destination, Kuliak Bay. Unlike Kukak, which is very large and open, with the river opening up right into the bay, Kuliak is smaller with high walls, and to reach the river we had to climb a small rise and walk through some tall grasses.

By the time we arrived at Kuliak it was late afternoon, and we ended up taking an early dinner before landing. A mistake, since the light was dropping fast by the time we landed, and with the structure of the bay, the sun was already behind the mountains. Nonetheless, we saw some great bear behaviour whilst we were watching.

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This was the most bears we’ve seen together so far, with a lot of action. One bear proved to be a very cautious fisher, and we all sat, fingers glued to the shutter for what seemed like forever, barely settled, and very uncomfortable, whilst she stared intently at the fish, but making no move. Eventually she moved on, and just as we decided to start moving upriver, our attention was grabbed by some growling downstream, which was the precursor to the arrival of a mother with a yearling.

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The mother proved to be a great fisher. The cub rather less so, although he (she?) applied himself to the game with great enthusiasm. Each time his mother caught a fish, he’d rush over and start growling until he managed to snag a piece from her.

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The mother and cub slowly moved up to the waterfall further up stream, and we moved along behind. What followed was a game of bear politics, with more dominant bears pushing out the smaller bears. A younger bear turned up, turning over rocks looking for leftovers. She was pushed away by a bigger male, and walked right past us, 5 metres away at most. This may have been our closest encounter yet, but the bear was clearly the more nervous, keeping an anxious eye on us as she passed.

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The next morning saw us back at the waterfall, waiting for the light to reach over the mountains. We had a long wait before we saw any action, but finally the bears turned up in their numbers. First one of the lone bears we’d seen yesterday, then a second lone bear, and then most excitingly of all, a mother with two spring cubs.

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The two cubs were clearly a little nervous about the path they had to take down through the fall, jumping from stone to stone. Like the mother we saw yesterday, this one was a good fisher too, and the cubs enjoyed some treats on the way down. After entertaining us for a few minutes, the mother brought her cubs along the beach, right in front us, perhaps 3m away. With a fixed length 300mm lens in hand, and sitting check-to-jowl between the rocks, it was almost impossible to photograph, but watching those cubs walk right by was a magical moment.

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After a while we switched positions with the other group and went to sit on the opposite side of the river. With hip waders on, crossing the river doesn’t pose any difficulties, and with the water being very clear, it was easy to see where you were putting your feet.

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We were lucky with our new position, there was plenty of bear action in the river, with a couple bears snorkeling – walking with their heads underwater to look for fish. We saw a couple catches just in front of us, and the water made a lovely back drop for the photographs, much easier to work with then the waterfall, where both the shadow and the stones made exposure difficult. One of the stars of this afternoon’s show was a young bear, perhaps alone for the first time, who had the look of a gangly adolescent.

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One problem we ran into at both spots near the waterfall was that another photographer had set up a couple of remote controlled cameras, one in the river and another in the waterfall. A couple of the best moments I shot were marred by the presence of the cameras right in front of the action.

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We had one more visit to the river after our lunch break, and picked a new spot further down the river where the salmon were very active. It was a beautiful spot, the light was fantastic, the only thing we were missing were the bears! Eventually, a long bear turned up and caught one salmon after the next, amidst much splashing amongst the seagulls. Once the sun went down behind the mountains it was time to head back to the Kittiwake and set sail for our next destination, Geographic Harbour.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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