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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Kodiak

Today was the first official day of our bear photography trip, but all that meant was that the rest of the group arrived in Kodiak during the day, ready for our departure to the Katmai peninsula tomorrow. Since we had the main part of the day free, until a trip briefing in the late afternoon, we scheduled a boat ride, in the hope of spotting some killer whales.

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We started out with a slow ride through the harbour and spent some time photographing a group of sea lions who were basking on a pontoon.

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We were lucky to get fairly close to a group of horned puffins, and spotted a lone tufted puffin. Having only ever seen the atlantic puffins, I was really pleased to finally see the other two species.

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Having taken our fill of the puffins we headed out into the more open waters and went to a couple spots which are known to be good for orcas. In the end, we enjoyed some great cloudy skies, but there was not a whale to be seen.

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Back at the hotel, we met up for the first time with the whole group. As well as my Mum, Arie and Marcel, there are 4 others in the group that I’ve travelled with before, as well as the leader Chris. The four of us were assigned to the first flight out in the morning, meaning that we had to get all our gear packed up and ready for an 8:15 pickup. The adventure is about to begin.

Kodiak

After a gruelling queuing experience in Vancouver Airport, and painfully long stopover in a dark corner of Anchorage’s Ted Stevens Airport, I arrived in Kodiak, courtesy of an Era Aviation Dash 8, to find my suitcase mysteriously absent.

Having been on the move for almost 12 hours, and doubting the competency of the check in agent at Vancouver who’d not only had to ask me for the airport code for Kodiak, but had also put the wrong flight number on my baggage tag, I was just about ready to enter full blown emotional meltdown, when my suitcase was fetched from a little storage room, having somehow managed to arrive on an earlier flight.  How it avoided the tedium of the long wait in Anchorage, I’d love to know!

After meeting up for dinner with Arie and Marcel, I collapsed gratefully into bed, and enjoyed a long sleep… until about 5am, when the jet lag kicked in, and having tossed and turned for a couple hours, I decided to go out for an early run before breakfast.  No camera with me, but I still managed to capture a couple shots with the iPhone in the beautiful morning light.

 

We rented a car for the day, and set off to the explore the island.  Or at least, that part of the island that can be explored from the one main road.  We were hoping to find some good spots where the salmon were running, not so much for the salmon themselves, but for the eagles and bears that might be feeding them.  We did see a couple eagles, but they had the bad grace to fly away as soon as we appeared.  The bears were conspicuously absent.

Arriving back at the hotel, there was just time to switch rooms and download the day’s photos before heading back to Kodiak’s one room airport to collect Mum.

B&W in the greenhouse

After months of absence I finally managed to show my face at VNF-West Fotoclub this evening.  On the agenda today was black and white photography, following on from a presentation given earlier in the year on techniques for converting colour images to black and white.  I spent a hour or so in the greenhouse with my macro lens last Friday, with the intention of using those images to prepare something for this evening.  In the end, between a quick visit to the UK in the weekend and two long days at work, I didn’t have much time to process the images, but I picked out a few to take with me – four which were true B&W, and three experiments, one with a tomato flower, and the other two courgette flowers, in which I desaturated all tones except the yellow of the flower.  The first one, particularly, was very well received.

EK Cross Triathlon

Today was the European Cross Triathlon Championship in Kijkduin – an event which I’d noted in my perusings of the triathlon calendar, and immediately ruled out as out of my league! A good opportunity, therefore, to grab my camera and take some photographs. I’d originally planned to be there in the morning to watch the paratriathlon, but late nights and travelling had caught up with me and I didn’t manage to drag myself out of bed until the event had already finished. So, the afternoon race it was then. Lacking a small camera bag, I wrapped up the camera and lens in bubble wrap, and got on my own bike for the ride down to the beach – a good 18km each way, although if I hadn’t gone slightly off track in both directions it would have been a bit shorter. A good workout for me also, thus.

I arrived in Kijkduin just in time to see the Elite wave emerging from the water. The event was only just getting started and already I was impressed. Swimming the best part of a kilometre in the North Sea looks pretty daunting. I shall surely draw on this the next time I stand nervously waiting for the start of a 500m lake swim. Child’s play in comparison!

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As soon as they were upright and on more or less solid ground, the athletes started to pull off their wetsuits as they ran up the beach to T1 to transition onto the bike.

The bike course consisted of 3 loops around the beach and dunes, a total of 23km. If that doesn’t sound challenging enough, a couple flights of stairs are thrown in for good measure.

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By the end of the bike course, all the athletes were speckled in mud, and a fair few were sporting muddy and bloody sides after falls. Unlike a road triathlon where the bikes come whizzing by, every ounce of strength was needed to move the bikes forward through the sand, and in many spots the most efficient way to move forward was to dismount and run with the bike.

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Without fail, the effort required was showing on the athletes’ faces as they came by, and by the time they finished their third laps, the glimmer of relief could be seen as they dismounted in front of us, and powered up the sand with their bikes to transition to the run.

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It was hard keeping track of everything going on – the race was started in 3 waves, Elites, Under 23 Elites and rather later on, the age groupers. With both run and bike courses consisting of 3 laps, it was hard to follow which athletes were on which lap, and who was heading up each race. Being a European championship, the athletes were all competing in their countries’ colours, and it was pretty exciting to be able to cheer on the British competitors as they flew by.

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I watched the finish of the Elite females, which brought me to the end of my CF card, and then fuelled up with pancakes for the ride home.

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First – Helena Erbenova

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Second – Carina Wasle

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and Third – Maud Golsteyn

Iceland – Reynisfjara beach

We spent our last morning in Iceland at Reynisfjara beach photographing the glacier ice which is swept out to sea from Jokulsarlon Lagoon (photos of the lagoon to follow) and washed up on the black sand beach. When we first arrived the beach was disappointingly bare, with only some small chunks of ice. During the time we spent there, though, the ice kept coming in, until suddenly there were huge pieces of blue glacier ice with large waves crashing over them.

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Berlin

It seems that I have a knack for only seeing my family in other countries these days. Dad had to Copenhagen this week for business, so what better reason to then meet up in Berlin?

We had a pretty lazy weekend, especially since it was very hot, and spent as much time just catching up, as being tourists.

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U-Bahn.  Or maybe it was S-Bahn.  The distinction remains confusing.

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We spend quite some time in the Museum at Checkpoint Charlie.

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Seriously?  A museum dedicated to currywurst.  We gave it a miss.

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We had a long Italian lunch, under a red umbrella.  And finished it off with a lemon sorbet.

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Potsdam Square

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Esplanade – an old hotel, with a glass front.  Above are some new appartments, which are held up by an ingenious bridge construction.

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The Sony Centre

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Playing around with the 3D tv.

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Right opposite our hotel – an official Book Crossing zone.  I couldn’t miss the opportunity to send off the book I picked up at the airport to a new home.

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Since we didn’t have so much time on Sunday, we decided to take an open topped bus tour, and get a better idea of the rest of the city.

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