Katmai National Park is well known as one of the best places on earth to view brown bears. It’s rugged, beautiful, incredibly remote, and by all accounts a magical place to visit. I’ve seen photos taken from Katmai since I was a kid, and it’s always been a dream destination of mine. Well, this year has presented me with several amazing opportunities to visit some outstanding places, and working on the National Geographic Sea Lion up in Alaska turned out to be the perfect excuse for me to fly up a week in advance and catch the brown bears at the peak of the season – just as the salmon start migrating up river to spawn. This is by far the most spectacular time of year to visit (mid-July) because the bears are hungry, and spend most of their days fishing in the river. There’s nothing more exciting for a wildlife photographer than to watch as a one thousand pound brown bear dive in the water and pull out a 10 pound salmon, only to devour the entire fish whole within a few seconds. Amazing!
The trip started out with several flights from Denver to Katmai… four to be precise (Denver – Seattle – Anchorage – King Salmon – Katmai). A long and tiresome journey, but one of the most beautiful flights paths in the world as I continuously stared out the plane window to admire the rugged Alaskan mountain ranges below. The last hop, from King Salmon to Katmai, was on a float plane, the first I’d ever ridden on. It was very exciting boarding a plane that was floating in the water, watching (and wondering if it could) take off, then landing again on a big lake! Very neat indeed.
First things first when we arrived in Katmai – bear school with the rangers. We sat inside the visitors center for 20 minutes listening to safety procedures in the park, and what to do in various situations should a bear get a little too curious and approach one of us. Next I set up my home for the next week (my small one man tent), and excitedly toured the area to orient myself with the landscape and the park. There is one main pathway that runs through the entire park and ends up at a big wooden platform about two miles from camp, and this is where most people spend their days watching the bears.
Being the adventurous type that I am, I wanted to stray away from the rest of the photographers and try to get off the beaten path. The excellent platform where visitors can watch safely from an elevated distance left me feeling a bit like a trapped sardine. I figured it was time to try something different. Earlier in the day, I had seen several fly fishermen in the area wading through the water in search of the best fishing holes, and I figured that if I could get down to their level, I would have the best chance at getting some amazing photographs. I went to the lodge asking around in search of waders, an essential piece of gear for anyone looking to go chest deep in the fast flowing water. When I finally got my hands on a pair of river-waders, I packed my camera bag and walked out to the water’s edge. There were already a couple of bears scattered around the river within sight, and I have to admit… it was a bit of a gut wrenching feeling knowing I was about to walk out where these massive creatures were gorging themselves on salmon, in hopes that they wouldn’t take too much notice in me.
I took a deep breath, and stepped in the water. It was cold… and having worn a lot of wet suits while scuba diving, it was a strange feeling that the water didn’t actually penetrate the waders. The river was more powerful than I expected, giving me a new found respect for the bears that effortlessly walk up and down stream in the fast flowing currents. I figured that if I kept myself near the middle of the river, the chances a bear would surprise me on the bank were minimized so I did my best to avoid the tall grass at the river’s edge where a bear could be lurking at any moment. I spent the entire day out in the river, and had an absolute blast watching the bears, from eye level, as they scoured the river for salmon. It reminded me a bit like being in Southern Africa… no longer was I on top of the food chain, and I had an immense respect for these massive animals that could have easily charged me and taken me out. I figured that as long as I kept a mindful distance, and didn’t surprise or antagonize any of the bears, they wouldn’t mind sharing their space with me, and luckily I was right. At one point, as I was sitting on a small rock protruding from the middle of the river, I saw two big bears running full speed towards me from the bank of the river about a hundred yards up. I immediately shot up from my seat, and the first thought that came to mind was ‘uh oh… this might be it! I’ve had a good run’ followed by ‘they never tought me how to fist fight the bear in bear school!’ A split second later, it hit me (kind of like a freight train) why they were frantically running my direction… there was an absolutely MASSIVE male chasing these two younger boys from his fishing spot, and everybody was moving in my direction. Now, I’ll tell you what… if this doesn’t get your blood pumping, I don’t know what would. I’ve been charged by rhino, elephants, and lions before, but being in the middle of a river, surrounded by spawning salmon, with three massive brown bears charging my direction, was a heck of a freight. I sluggishly tried to move to the edge of the river as fast as I could through the fast flowing water, and at that moment the two bears being chased took notice of me and instantly had a look of shock on their face. Seeing a human was probably the last thing they expected, and it almost looked like they jumped back in a moment of recognition and amazement. They quickly deviated course, and thankfully started running towards the opposite river bank. The big male continued to chase them, and off they ran into the woods just 50 feet in front of me. I stood there for a second to digest what had just happened… and of course to thank my lucky stars the bears had seen me and ran in the other direction. That was also about the time when I thought to myself ‘hmmm… I guess this is why I don’t see any other photographers out here in waders!’
But these are the experiences that keep me going. These are the moments I live for, and being out in the river with those bears, rather than crammed on a small wooden balcony with 40 other photographers, was exactly what separates me from the majority of those around me. Yes, some people probably call me crazy, but I try to think of it as getting in touch with nature, and living a more pure and wild lifestyle in touch with the natural world around me. If my time comes, then my time comes, But at least I wasn’t crammed on that viewing balcony with a herd of other people when it does!