Digital Lifestyles Photography

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?