Photographing Bears- Summer 2008

We are in Katmai National Park, a road-less area.  Hallo Bay is one of a number of bays on the Alaskan Peninsula, a special protected place for bears, a place to live in harmony with bears. These bears are coastal brown bears, grizzly bears, Ursus arctos.  They occur in very high densities in Katmai NP due to good habitat, plentiful salmon, and lack of competing human activities.  During the clean up after the EXXON Valdez oil spill it was realized that these bears became tolerant of the humans cleaning the beaches.  The bears were tolerant of humans in much the same way as they tolerate one another while fishing a plentiful food supply such as spawning salmon.  This is how bear viewing, living on a boat that moves from bay to bay, began.


These pictures were taken with a Canon 30D w/ 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens and 2X extender.  At times the bears may pass quite close just to check us out.  Sometimes all that is in the viewfinder is bear hair; sometimes you just have to do the details.  The bears are doing whatever they want including grazing on special sedges that grow here due to the nutrient richness provided by the Hallo Glacier, digging for razor clams, fishing or napping.  The salmon are just beginning to arrive in late July.



The weather can be cold, windy and rainy.  The seas can be rough.  It is glorious when the sun shines giving views of surrounding mountains and glaciers.  I am flown from Kodiak, 2 days delayed due to weather, out to the boat on a Dehavilland Beaver floatplane (1+hour). For 4 days I live on the R/V Kittiwake, a retired crab fishing vessel.  The Captain takes us towards shore in a skiff until it is shallow enough to get out and wade through the surf in hip boots.

We view from a distance for a time, 1-2-3 hours.  In the Katmai NP there are bear viewing ethics that basically say if your viewing activities cause the bears to change their behavior, change your behavior.  The bears rule here.  We are in a tight group of maybe 6 to 9 people, not sneaking up on them, respecting their space. No guns are carried. Our guide/naturalist is very aware of bear communication, visual cues that indicate the level of comfort or discomfort a particular bear may be feeling.  Sitting down is an easy way for us to put an approaching bear at ease with our group’s presence.  Should there be a need to discourage a bear’s approach, human words are used first, with pepper spray and hand held flares ready.  Careful attention to bear communication is a more successful way to avoid confrontation.

This mother and her 1.5-year-old cub are grazing in the rich sedge, kind of like a really good spinach salad.  She is noted as one of the best fishermen and passes this skill onto her male cub.  This is my third year of viewing her. The second year I saw this same mother with her then 2.5-year-old cub, a lanky spoiled teenage boy.  This third summer he may still be with his mom, still learning all that he must know to be an adult male bear in the real world.

The fishing twin moves around the bay at low tide, deciding to come by us for a closer look, passing very close – remember bear hair - then off to fishing with her sibling.  I love the opportunity to view the bottom of her beautiful hind foot.  And all that is left in the sand bar is her footprints and the memory of the special encounter.


We turn a corner and see this sleeping bear, stop and let her know we are here with human words “Hey bear, hey bear”.  She lifts her head as if to ask if we had heard a weather forecast, hoping for some relief from the drizzling rain.  She looks around, returns to sleep covering her eyes, moves through dog/cat like stretches, rises in a series of yoga poses – her sunsalutation, and then walks off for some lunch perhaps.




Imagine we are babysitters for a mother bear with 6-month-old triplets.  She spends the afternoon grazing in our proximity, allowing us to view them uninterrupted for a couple of hours. Perhaps she thinks the trouble-making males will stay away since we are there.  The cubs romp back and forth, each as if on a rubber band attached to their mother.  One cub is definitely more adventurous than the other two, getting out of sight, being called back with motherly grunts.  The cubs are curious about us, beginning to learn that there is a point that is too close to approach humans, an important lesson if they are going to coexist without problems later in their lives.



This is a special place for bears; this is a place where bears can be bears without being hunted; this is a place where humans can appreciate a glimpse into the lives of the coastal brown bears of the Katmai coast.




Possible next installments:  Paws/Claws & Teddy Bear Ears, Baby food, Fishing Lesson, Fish Stealing, Dancing Bears, Dominant Males & Rules of Dating, Alaska Landscapes?


Comments

  1. Hi Kay!

    I’m wondering if i can use one of your bear images for a flyer?

    It’s the photo of the bear doing plank pose.

    i found it browsing and surfing thru google images

    The flyer is for a benefit for YogaBear to raise money for cancer patients and survivors. The benefit will be held on Sept 9th in LA.

    if you have any more questions, you can call me at 503-888-7246 (portland) or email me at portLance@gmail.com

    thanks!!!
    Lance

  2. It wasn’t really what I was looking but the bears are irresistible. they are so cute can’t help but pause and look at them

  3. Tom Martineau says:

    Nice images! I’m looking at going and photographing the bears this summer. Do you mind sending me the web site info on where you went and when? There’s so many places online to look at and it’s nice to check out a place that somebody has gone to and liked. Keep up the nice work and please pass on some info.

    Thanks much.

    • dave chudnov says:

      Hi Tom, if you’re still looking to go and work the bears, I suggest contacting David Coray at the Silver Salmon Creek lodge. I think this may be the best deal going. Various levels of cabin are available, the guides were outstanding, and the kitchen staff will blow you away at every meal. Price options are *right on*, and you’ll not be disappointed.

      My shots (this was my very first photo vacation, and I had been shooting about 6 months at this point.) http://davechud.exposuremanager.com/g/alaska_wildlife

      If you go, be sure to do a little fishing too (great to do on a rainy/dark day).

      cheers, Dave.

    • I know Kay, and know that she went with Katmai Coastal Bear Tours (http://www.katmaibears.com/), as did I. You stay (i.e. eat, sleep) on a boat and are dropped off on land with a guide for the actual bear watching / photography. One of the guys who guides for them (Brad) is the same guide featured in the Art Wolfe Travels to the Edge Katmai episode and is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about bears. I cannot recommend them highly enough, if you can afford it.
      While I have not been to the lodge mentioned by Dave, I highly doubt that the bear viewing will be as intense and fruitful, while we spent several days with the bears, through wind and weather, we only saw a boat from the lodge once or twice for very brief spells. This could of course be a result of the group(s) that were staying there at the time and their limited interest in watching bears in the rain. Either way, when staying on a boat you are right there all the time and spend virtually no time (or energy) getting to the locations and can always land quickly when something exciting is about to happen (the guides scan which bears are where pretty much all the time even from the big boat).

  4. Do you ever sell any of your prints? I saw your pictures at the Angelina College theater and they are just beautiful.

  5. Jenny Johnston says:

    Kay….amazing! Awesome! Lucky you! Lucky me for knowing you! Sending you a big bear hug from Nacogdoches! Jenny

  6. Joan Taylor says:

    Hey Kay ! You go girl …. I think you’ve found your niche … great pics … keep up the good work and thanks for sharing :-)

    Joan

  7. Gary VanLandingham says:

    Great writing and beautiful photos. I envy you being able to make those trips to Alaska.

  8. F. E. Abernethy says:

    I think that Kay Humphreys is one of the best wildlife/bear photographers that I have seen. She gets in their pockets. And she saves me a trip looking at bears.

  9. Paula Lewis says:

    I can see why some folks want to move to Alaska and live with the bears. Really exceptional pics, but what else would we expect from our Miss Kay? Thanks for sharing! Keep in touch.
    xoxo PJ

  10. Deborah says:

    Wow, even though I have seen the pics and heard you tell about the bears, it still awes me. The shots are so beautiful and intimate views of their special lives. Be safe and keep up with the bears. Love, D

  11. Britt Stokes says:

    Hello, Kay – what a rare and special opportunity you have to get so close to these beautiful animals. Thanks for sharing these great images and welcome to digitalapplejuice. Best wishes,

    Britt Stokes

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