Katmai National Park, Day 1

A week off the grid on the coast of Alaska – photographing bears.

Brown bear, just after catching a salmon – Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park.

My father and I spent a week on a photography workshop in Katmai National Park, on the southern coast of Alaska west of Anchorage. The trip was organized by Muench photography workshops and was an outstanding opportunity to refine my photography skills in a beautiful setting – up close and personal with Alaskan brown bears as they feasted on the annual salmon run. We spent seven nights on the Dreamcatcher, a small ship that allowed us to anchor in several bays along the Katmai coastline, using its skiffs to visit shore two or three times daily. We saw dozens of bears, as they were feasting on the annual salmon run, up close and personal. I snapped over 8,000 photos and it will take me many weeks to find time to sort, process, and share them all. For now, I’ll post retroactively in segments – with a few preliminary/teaser photos. [I finally posted the edited photographs in November.]

As a reminder, we flew to Anchorage on Thursday (August 25); see my prior post for some spectacular views of the Alaskan panhandle. Then, on Friday (August 26), we hopped on the short Alaska Airlines flight to Kodiak, a small fishing village on the island by the same name; see my prior post. We later met up with our workshop group (2 photo guides and 9 participants), for dinner at the hotel restaurant. That was “Day zero”. The rest of this post is about “Day 1”, when we arrived in Katmai National Park.

Saturday (August 27) Geographic Harbor: at sunrise our group piled into three taxis for the short drive to a nearby bay where Island Air operates air-charter service out of Kodiak. After weighing our group – the people, and their bags – we divided the group into three floatplanes for the 45-minute trip over the mountains of Kodiak Island and across the Shelikof Strait to the mainland coast. It was a beautiful flight over spectacular scenery, quickly leaving behind any sign of human occupation as we passed over the rolling hills of Kodiak, crossed the vast expanse of Shelikof straight, and headed toward the snow-capped Katmai Range. Our plane circled once over Geographic Harbor, where our ship was anchored, then looped low over Amalik Bay before landing in Geographic Harbor via a narrow gap between a headland and an island. The plane pulled up to our ship Dreamcatcher, and docked at its stern.

Jack climbs off the floatplane and onto the ship; Geographic Bay. (Photo by Jeff Wendorff.)

The ship’s captain (Rob) walked us through the ship’s safety features, including practice donning “immersion suits” that would be required in an abandon-ship emergency.

Our group test-fits their emergency immersion suits, as part of our safety training.

After a hearty lunch of soup, we headed out in the skiffs (inflatable motorboats) for a tour of the area. We saw several bald eagles (some adults, some immature) roosting and nesting; brown bears ambling along shore; sea otters; and water birds like black oyster catchers and pigeon guillemot.

Immature bald eagle, Geographic Harbor, Katmai.

We returned to the Dreamcatcher for an early supper. Rob’s wife Star and her inimitable assistant Karen whipped up meal after sumptuous meal in the well-appointed ship’s kitchen, with dining area attached – making every meal feel like being part of a large family gathering around a home-cooked feast.

Jack suits up for a visit to shore.

Tides dictated that many of our shore excursions would occur in early evening, when low tide exposes the vast beaches at the head of Geographic Harbor – and where the river splits into numerous shallow rivulets perfect for the bears to capture salmon. For every visit to shore we donned heavy-duty waders, then bulky boots, and topped it off with a raincoat. This outfit worked remarkably well, keeping us warm and dry even when we had to leap out of of the skiff into shallow water, or when the skies decided to drizzle on us for hours.

Our group scrambles off the skiffs at the head of Geographic Harbor. The buckets will serve as seats for the long hours sitting on the beach.

In this evening’s outing, we received strict instructions from Captain Rob about how to behave around bears – in short, stick together, don’t move when the bears come close, and do what he says. Our general approach was to walk to a promising location, sit down, and wait. Eventually, one or more bears would come by, fishing its way up or down the adjacent streams. (On our many outings, about 3-12 bears were in sight at any time, all roaming widely around the beach and nearby grassland.)

Coastal Brown Bear, Geographic Harbor, Katmai.

Hundreds of seagulls were present, squawking and squabbling over the scraps left behind by the bears – who rarely at an entire salmon. Thousands of gnats were constantly buzzing about our heads – rarely biting, mostly an irritation. Bug spray and bug nets were a big help.

Below is a panoramic photo of Geographic Harbor – and one of the other visiting ships – taken a few days later (September 3). Click to see full-size!

Morning light in Geographic Harbor, Katmai

(This post was written after the trip and backdated to August 27)

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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