Katmai, day 2

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

This post is part of a series about our photography trip to Alaska.

Sunday (August 28) Geographic Harbor: We rose for an early breakfast so we could return to the beach during low tide. Many bears were out today, as was another group of photographers. There are no lodges or cabins or roads with access to the extensive shoreline of Katmai National Park, so visitors all arrive by ship or plane and groups (like us) sleep on-board ships. Throughout the trip we were often the only group in a bay, and thus on shore; sometimes there was one (or maybe two) other boats sharing the same bay (and beach). Rarely, we’d see a small group of day-trippers arrive by floatplane. The guides, like our Captain Rob, all knew each other, and there was a tacit understanding that groups stayed out of the way of each other; still, it was sometimes possible to photograph bears as they passed by another group.

Coastal Brown Bear passing close to another group – Geographic Harbor, Katmai.

Meanwhile, we enjoyed photographing the bears that were fishing in the streams near us – often “getting low” to photograph bears at eye level. That’s me on the left; I rarely felt it useful to shoot prone.

David (left) photographing bears in Geographic Harbor, Katmai. Photo by Kevin Lisota.

The highlight of the morning was photographing two bear siblings wrestling playfully – a pair we saw on many of our trips to this beach. We learned that bear cubs stay with their mother for two years; she then kicks them out before seeking out a new mate. The siblings will hang out together another two or three years before reaching maturity. At that age, bears become antisocial loners, coming together only to mate and, once a year during the salmon run, to tolerate the proximity of other bears in places like Geographic Harbor.

Bears in Geographic Harbor, Katmai.

We took the afternoon off to nap, sort photos, or eat cookies. (Star and Karen made two batches of different cookies every day! I’m glad the floatplanes did not weigh us on the way back out.)

After dinner, back to the beach. This time, we were the first group on-site and we staked out “the island”, a small tussock between two rivulets.

Brown bear on the shore at the head of Geographic Harbor.

Reaching it required crossing one or more rivulets; their swift current and rocky bottom meant for tricky footing, and (at Captain Rob’s instruction) we paired up and linked arms for stability. This became routine, because we often had to cross swift rivulets 1-2 feet deep, or waded out to the skiffs from shore. Below, we cross a calm spot without needing to link arms.

Wading shallow drainages at the head of Geographic Harbor.

One of the bears (below) decided he wanted to cross the island – why? to reach the other side, I suppose, and try his luck in the rivulet on that side. He came very close to our group – almost close enough to touch, and definitely close enough to smell (phew!). Captain Rob instructed us to remain still, and sternly told the bear “NO”, when the bear came a bit too close; it listened, turned, and chose a different path across the island. Amazing! Watch this incredible video captured by another member of the group.

Brown bear on the shore at the head of Geographic Harbor.

In our own walks across the beach, we’d sometimes encounter clear pawprints in the mud and sand, like this one.

Bearprint next to my size-12 boots – Geographic Harbor, Katmai.

I still have more than 4,000 photos to sort, process, and select… and then I’ll share a polished collection of photos of the bears, birds, and other wildlife!

(This post was written after the trip and backdated to August 28)

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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