Katmai, days 4-5

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.

Tuesday (August 30) Kuliak Bay, Hidden Harbor, Geographic Harbor: An early breakfast allowed us to reach the beach by 8am, where an immature bald eagle was perched on driftwood as if waiting for a dozen photographers to capture its portrait. My favorite photo from the sequence came moments after it launched from its beachfront perch. What else did we see in the next two days? read on.

Bald eagle (immature) on shore at the head of Kuliak Bay.

After each of us captured a few hundred photos of the eagle, we went ashore and walked again through the deep grass to the cascades by the deep pool. Two bears were working this spot – or more accurately, sitting on a rock and watching the day pass by. (At this point, we were no longer impressed by photographing seated bears a mere 20m away; we were looking for action!)

Bears fishing in the river above Kuliak bay.

Interestingly, though the bears were not diving into the salmon pool, some seagulls had learned a diving trick – a few flaps to rise about a meter above the water, then a sudden dive, headfirst, to catch something small in the shallow water below. I think they were catching small fish – though in Geographic Harbor I noticed they sometimes used this trick to pick up stray balls of salmon roe from the stream bed.

Gulls dive-fishing in the river above Kuliak bay.

We returned to the lower cascades – next to the beach. A bear sat midstream, choosing a flat rock that made a particularly nice seat. He seemed sleepy, and not interested in doing much. But suddenly his eyes widened as a salmon leaped out of the water nearby, driven by its urge to get upstream and spawn. The bear sprang into action, and moments later, had caught his meal. He ate, finishing off the whole salmon, then sat down on his favorite rock. It appears the more mature bears are content to sit and wait for opportunity to arrive, minimizing the energy required for each catch.

Bear catching fish in the river above Kuliak bay.
The bear eats his catch, in the river above Kuliak bay.

On our way back to shore, we found an adult bald eagle perched in a tree, surveying the beach. We watched until it launched from its perch to swoop across the bay…

Bald eagle near shore at the head of Kuliak Bay.

We headed back to the Dreamcatcher as Captain Rob announced we’d give up on Kuliak Bay and look for bear action in another location. After motoring to Hidden Bay, back along the coast the way we’d come days earlier, we explored the bay (and the even-more hidden ‘Hidden Valley’). There are many streams that reach shore here, and we poked our skiff into each. We saw a few bears – but not many bears, and not many salmon. So Captain Rob decided we’d move back to Geographic Harbor.

Bear in Hidden Valley

Wednesday (August 31) Geographic Harbor: Thus far on the trip we’d escaped the rain. Apparently, it had rained more or less constantly for the three weeks prior to our visit, so we had been lucky – partly or mostly cloudy days, but little or no rain… and when the rain arrived, it was light, it was quick, and it occurred after we returned to the ship. Not so, this morning: a steady drizzle greeted us as we clambered aboard the skiffs and headed back to the now-familiar beaches of Geographic Harbor. We snugged our raincoats tightly, and slipped a raincover over our cameras. We sat. We waited. I was warm and dry wearing the waders and their neoprene socks, heavy boots, goretex jacket, polypro beanie, goretex cap.

David (3rd from left) and Jack (fourth from left) photographing bears on a rainy day in Geographic Harbor, Katmai. Photo by Kevin Lisota.

Bears and seagulls went about their business, undeterred by the rain. We watched one bear swimming the deeper water offshore; and a sow fishing near us while keeping one eye on a big boar (adult male) while eating her catch. The highlight of the morning may have been a sow and cub, right next to us – the cub was full of energy, leaping about as it tried to catch salmon… and then dropping it, re-catching it, and dropping it again.

Bear cub catches a fish in Geographic Harbor – in the rain.

This bear’s antics allowed me to capture one of the most spectacular moments in a bear’s diet of salmon – when they bite the salmon in a certain place, squeezing hard, the salmon roe comes squirting out. In the photo below, the stream of roe is dramatically visible against a backdrop of dark fur.

Bear cub clumsily trying to eat salmon, standing up, mid-stream,
in Geographic Harbor – in the rain.

On our long walk out – these bays have huge tides and the beaches extend by hundreds of meters at low tide – we followed a pair of affectionate bears (siblings?) nuzzling and wrestling and playing while they walked along.

Bear in Geographic Harbor – in the rain – Katmai

We spent the rainy afternoon on board, eating cookies and using the big-screen television for image critiques. I found this part of the workshop especially interesting! Each participant provided three images, and the two photo pros would comment on the photo itself and on our initial efforts at editing. Listening to them comment on my photos, and the photos of others, was extremely valuable.

In the evening we went back to the beach, but the tide was still very high. My favorite moment from that evening was when this young bear stood up, holding his catch, to keep an eye on a bigger, older bear that seemed to be coming his way. He sniffed his fish, decided it was not worth it, and turned to head away. I snapped 30 frames at a high frame rate, and reconstruct the sequence here:

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

(This post was written after the trip and backdated to August 31)

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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