Katmai, day 3

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.

Monday (August 29) Kuliak Bay: Today we decided to move to another bay, also well known for bears: Kuliak Bay. So we spent a few hours motoring out from Geographic Harbor and Amalik Bay, then northeast through the Shelikof Strait along the Katmai coastline. It was a gorgeous day with calm seas and scattered clouds, with snow-capped peaks in the distance behind the coastal hills. Read on to see what we found in Kuliak Bay…

Panorama from offshore Katmai National Park – click to see fuller size.

We stopped for a while near a tiny rocky islet to watch a family of sea lions, who were rather sleepy but who looked up to see what was going on nearby.

Sea lions on a rocky islet near Kuliak Bay – Katmai.

To catch the tide we rode the skiffs to shore as soon as we anchored. The terrain here was very different than Geographic Harbor – at low tide, the river cascaded over rocks to a narrow beach, all of which disappeared at high tide. Arriving at low tide, we paused on the beach to watch a sow and her two cubs exploring these shallows.

Bear cubs fishing in the river above Kuliak bay – Katmai.

It was interesting to watch mama fishing for salmon and sharing her catch with the kids who, despite their energetic efforts, did not yet have the skill to catch many fish. One of the two cubs was crippled – one forepaw was bent at an awkward angle, possibly the result of a broken arm that had healed badly. It hobbled about reasonably well, but it’s hard to see how it will survive long when it is time to go it alone.

A bear with a crippled left arm, in Kuliak Bay.

A large adult bear came by, and the sow immediately became alert. We learned that adult males will sometimes attack and kill cubs, which forces the sow into heat and gives the male an opportunity to mate. So this mother bear was instantly on alert, and soon chased off the bigger interloper.

Mama bear (right) stares down a big adult male bear, in the river above Kuliak bay – Katmai.

We then left the beach and moved through tall grass – tall enough to obscure any bears that may be present – following well-trodden bear paths. As a courtesy we each warn the person behind us about potential stumbling points – like piles of bear scat, which can be the size of a softball or even bigger.

Bear scat, Kuliak Bay, Katmai.

Captain Rob had a bear-bell on his backpack and often paused to stop, look, and listen – and to verbally announce our presence to any bears sleeping in the grass nearby. Bears generally ignore us – but a surprised bear is not a safe bear.

Walking through high grass in the meadow above Kuliak Bay, Katmai

Our route took us back to the shore of the same river, where we met the sow and cubs again, now fishing upstream. Another group had staked out the shoreline at a bend in the river, less than 50m upstream, and were treated to some excellent photography as bears chased, caught, shared, and ate fish right in front of them. We could only watch at a distance, rarely with good photo angle.

Bears fishing in the river above Kuliak bay – Katmai.

That said, the bear cub caught a fish and I caught him looking at me as he carried it to the shore.

Bears fishing in the river above Kuliak bay – Katmai.

We decided to move on, crossing the river and another meadow before returning to the river’s shore at a point where it cascades over rocks and into a deep pool. Here we saw salmon – hundreds of salmon – circling in the clear water of the pool… all while the bears sat quietly by, or strolled along the shore. Only once did we see a bear dive into the pool for a snack:

Bears fishing in the river above Kuliak bay – those dark streaks in the water are salmon.

Last week, said Captain Rob, there were 14 bears at this tight spot, at the same time – some swimming (‘snorkling bears’) and some diving (‘submarine bears’), feasting on the salmon. Today, there was nothing like that – but I did capture a video of a bear sitting peacefully near this pool stocked full of salmon and, later when it was quiet, I stuck my iPhone down into to the pool to capture some underwater video of the fish. Fun!

Salmon schooling in the river above Kuliak Bay – Katmai

Tiring, and with the tide returning, we turned around and headed back to the bay shore. As we climbed into the skiff we saw a bear swimming nearby, then scrambling out of the water and up a steep bank. Hey, someone noted, there’s an immature bald eagle sitting at the top of the bank; this could be interesting!

Brown bear and (immature) bald eagle in Kuliak Bay, Katmai.

Indeed, as the bear reached the top of the bank, the eagle launched from its perch. Very cool sight.

Brown bear and (immature) bald eagle in Kuliak Bay, Katmai.

A late lunch on return to the ship – then some rest time while we waited for the tides to allow another visit. We returned again to the same spot with the cascades and the deep pool of salmon. This time we watched ‘flipping bears’ – bears that patiently use their claws to pry up rocks in the stream and flip them over, in hopes of finding the remains of any salmon that got stuck during their upstream swim. [Video.] They were surprisingly successful – bears have a great sense of smell and seemed to know which rocks to explore.

Bears fishing under rocks in the river above Kuliak bay – Katmai.

Brown bears need to eat hundreds of salmon during the season, so as to fatten up for the long winter ahead. Although we spent only 2-3 hours on shore at any given time, we’d sometimes see the same bear eating a dozen salmon in that time. The bears preferred the female salmon and their roe – sometimes eating only the roe and tossing the rest aside for gulls and others to scavenge. With thousands of salmon passing by, food was plentiful.

[Editor’s note: I later selected, edited, and posted the best photographs.]

(This post was written after the trip and backdated to August 29)

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.

One thought on “Katmai, day 3”

  1. Fascinating- You write and take photographs making the reader feel like they are on the trip with you.
    Am enjoying this experience 2nd hand as our travel days are over BUT you make the reader feel like they are right beside you. Hope the forecasted storm lessons for the sake of animals & people.

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