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Alaska Brown Bears
Photo Tour 2017
Brown bears and eagles, sea otters and guillemots: these are just a few of the photo subjects that made our trip to Coastal Katmai for brown bears so successful. While Joe stayed in Brazil to lead a family on a tour of the Pantanal, I came home to lead our group to the wilds of southwestern Alaska. As usual our hosts on the Coastal Explorer, Chuck Keim and Olga Rowland, along with Leroy and Logan, treated our group to sumptuous meals, exciting skiff rides and great bear viewing opportunities. But there were a few surprises in store for me so here’s a rundown on our photo tour to Coastal Alaska.

Day 1: Monday, August 14

bIn checking email last night, I found out that Jerry Jacques, from Bristol Bay Outfitters, had contacted me about coming out to visit his lodge and find out about his operation and photo tour opportunities. Joe and I first met Jerry at the NANPA summit in Jacksonville in March when we went out to dinner with good friend Art Wolfe and several others. Art visits Jerry’s place with groups and he wanted us to meet Jerry. It was a very fortuitous dinner. In reaching Jerry I learned that he could get me out to his place this morning, if I had the time. I decided to make the time and to try and rearrange my schedule for the day.
I flew out on Lake Clark Air on a spectacular flight south along the coast. You could see for miles and the pilot took a route through a narrow, scenic valley to Lake Clark. There I transferred to a smaller plane that took me just a little further south to Lake Iliamna where Jerry met me at the airport. Arriving in time for lunch, I met Daryl Balfour, whom I hadn’t seen for years, and his departing photo group. I got to tour the lodge (a very nice lodge with comfortable, big rooms), see the common lodge area (a great place for groups to meet in the evening and do slide presentations) and to meet some of Jerry’s staff, including his son who I hear is a fantastic bear and photography guide. As fate has it, in meeting the fishing guide, Chuck, we realized that we had gone to elementary school together back in central PA before my family moved to another town. Since then we’ve been catching up on shared friends.
As a departing gift, I got a private 2+ hour float plane tour of the areas that Jerry can take his guests. And with a cloudless day, and no rain, it was fantastic. We flew over several interior lakes and streams full of bears: we checked out McNeil Sanctuary where Jerry has two boats to take clients up river to find bears fishing; we saw parts of the Katmai NP Coast and even though we didn’t go that far south, Jerry can take clients to Hallo Bay; we flew over Silver Salmon Creek and I also found out that with good weather, he can fly clients to the Dutch Harbor area to photograph walrus haulouts. He can also go to several locations in and around Lake Clark. The possibilities are endless. Joe and I are planning a trip to Jerry’s lodge in August, 2019 so if you are interested in joining us, contact Berni in our office.

I got back to Anchorage late and unfortunately had to cut my visit short with Cathy Hart, whom we also met at the NANPA summit. I was supposed to have had lunch with she and the president of the Anchorage Camera Club and changed it to a glass of wine with Cathy before our group dinner. What we were able to discuss is Joe and me doing a three-day workshop with the Anchorage CC in August, 2019 before our different bear trips. The plans are still in the making but I think we’ll be doing it in the Whittier area, doing two days out on a boat for puffins, sea otters, whales and more and a third day of in-house lectures and workshops. It should be fantastic and as info is available, we’ll share it.
After an orientation dinner and briefing, the group was off to bed for a very early start the next day.

Day 2: Tuesday, August 15
bWith a 6:30am flight to Kodiak, the group met in the lobby of the hotel at 4:15am to catch the shuttle to the airport. We were met upon arrival in Kodiak by the Sea Hawk Air shuttle and went for a group breakfast at King’s Family Restaurant. We’ve been using Sea Hawk Air since the beginning of our visits to coastal Katmai and Rolan and Jo - owners, pilot and bear guide - and all of their assistants are great people to coordinate our arrivals and departures in Kodiak, shuttles to different restaurants or the grocery store, and for getting our groups out to Geographic Harbor on their float plane. With 8 people, and 9 including me, it took two trips to fly us and all of our gear, out to the boat. But it was a good day for flying and even though we didn’t see any whales, we had great views of Kodiak Island and the coast of Katmai. I had never been on Chuck and Olga’s new boat and I was pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful and roomy lounge and dining area and cabins of all sizes and shapes with comfortable beds and sinks in each room. One room had a bathroom in situ so we gave that to Phil and Jan. The rest of us shared two bathrooms and showers but also had access to another bathroom upstairs as well as another shower. Plus, there was plenty of water on board and with everybody taking Navy showers, we could shower every day. It was heaven!
After everybody arrived and we had lunch, the group went ashore for our first shoot of brown bears. We hit the late salmon run perfectly and each day only got better. Plus this year, there were at least four sows with cubs. Two mothers had first-year cubs, or COY’s (Cub of the Year) and two mothers had yearlings. Most of the bears weren’t shy so we had bears walking in front of us along the river’s edge, behind us to get from one braided stream to another, along the shoreline of the bay, and across the mudflats at low tide. There were several other groups when we went ashore (we came on bshore late and had a pretty good walk since the tide was coming in) and we took a spot that wouldn’t interfere with the others and would still give us a good view of the action. We set up at the corner of one little feeder stream and one of the main courses (the river split in to at least three different outlets) and had some great running and feeding sequences right in front of us. One of the best bears that afternoon was one with two COY where one cub was just a little feisty and would try to steal the fish from its mother and its sibling. At one point, mom let this cub have it which led to the cub bawling for several minutes, as if it was begging for forgiveness. It was great.


Day, 3: Wednesday, August 16
During the night it started to rain and we woke up to rain and clouds and a typical day in Alaska along the coast. But we were expecting this weather for today after checking the weather forecast before we left Anchorage. We weren’t deterred or bummed out. The tide was coming in for late morning and we decided that we would go for a skiff ride, even if we had rain. Luckily for us, the rain slowed down and then stopped and off we went late morning, at high tide, for our first skiff ride. And what a great skiff ride it was. We started out filming kittiwakes on a sand spit and a rocky island followed by some pigeon guillemots along the cliff front. Then we started finding the bald eagles!

We found several eagles sitting on dead tree branches, or along the cliffs, and got some perched as well as some flight shots. We went the whole way out of Geographic Harbor to check on an eagle’s nest at the mouth of the bay. It had stopped raining and we had great, even light. That eagle nest had two chicks in it with one of the adults flying by, screaming at the chicks as if to say “If you want fed, you’ve got to leave the nest”. We found another eagle nest with two chicks in it as well and that nest was against the rock face, and low, so we had no bright sky behind the nest. Both of those parents were sitting to the sides of the nest.

But the highlight of the skiff ride was finding a fledgling great horned owl sitting in the open on one of the small islands in the middle of the channel. Chuck had seen the owl there previously and had no idea that we would find it again. But there it was and it was very, very nice and cooperative.

After lunch, with clearing skies (we had a few raindrops) and the tide receding, we went ashore for another bear shoot. With two other boats in the harbor, and two other groups, we all shared different shooting locations. This afternoon we moved up to the gravel bar to the left (facing the river) or downstream from a place we call the Grassy Knoll. We had a good view of bears fishing upstream towards us and downstream from the other direction. Plus, we had the one feeder stream to our immediate left. Once again, we were entertained by sows fishing, their cubs begging, and other single females fishing. At this point we hadn’t seen too many boars and that was good since it kept the females along the river.

bFor Joe and me, going back to a place year after year, we get to follow individual animals and it was with great delight that one of the female bears looked slightly familiar. Six or seven years ago, we ran in to a bear that we called Ugly Bear. She wasn’t fat and roly-poly with a chubby face like other females but instead was long and gangly with a long snout. In fact, she looked more like a male bear than a female. But at that time she had a cub that we called Dancing Bear. This yearling loved to stand and play with fish heads that its mother gave it. One-day Ugly Bear nursed Dancing Bear only 10 meters behind us, using us as a shield on one side against other bears. She was a good mom; a good catcher of fish; and she would stand up against any male or female that threatened her cub. And now, all these years later, here was Dancing Bear (who we first called Homely Girl) with two yearling cubs of her own. She was just as gangly and ugly as her mom, as were her two cubs (one female and one male). However she was just as good at catching fish. And she looked great. Needless to say, she became a favorite of the group.


Day 4: Thursday, August 17
bWhat a glorious day in Alaska! The weather was perfect for photography, it was warm and not raining. We were the first ones on shore and that made it nice. We did have a long walk to begin with due to the low tide but with the walk, you get to evaluate what all is happening and allows you to pick your spot well. I took the position closer to the feeder stream on the Gravel Bar with the group angling back away from the river’s edge.

bThe other two groups came ashore and shared the Grassy Knoll with at least one float plane or so coming for a few hours of bear viewing throughout the day. With bears coming from the right, and left, moving upstream and down, and with salmon just hanging out in this major stream, we had great luck with the bears. Homely Girl, AKA Dancing Bear, showed up with her two cubs as did several of the other mothers. Plus, we started to see some younger bores. It’s amazing how Homely Girl rules the roost with others deferring to her. The only one that I saw her give way to was another female bear of about her size and age who didn’t have any cubs.

We stayed ashore nearly four hours leaving only as the rising waters came close to our seating location. We didn’t stay on the boat for long, deciding to go back on shore only about 1 ½ hours after high tide. We were ashore first from amongst the other two boats so we chose the Grassy Knoll to photograph from. This has always been one of our favorite places to set up since it is a small, raised island along the main river channel that normally stays dry (except during a Super Tide at the New or Full Moon). It’s also a good afternoon shooting location with the sun coming over our shoulder for part of the river and side lit the gother way. By the end of the afternoon we were sharing the Knoll with the other groups but there is plenty of room for that number of people.

This afternoon another old friend showed up: Scar Face. This big boar is probably 15 years old or more. We have photographed him for many years and did so the year that he got the scars on his nose and side of his face. I thought that he looked pretty good for his age, if not just a little bit skinny. He fished the way bthat I always remembered: he walks along, putting his face under the water to look for the fish, and then doing a lunge, or belly-flop dive, toward the fish. I can’t tell whether this stuns the fish or if his weight traps the fish underneath his massive paws but it is an effective way of catching fish. He didn’t stay long in the main river stream but liked to go down the feeder stream on the right side of the Knoll and also in a smaller feeder stream off to the side that was shallower and basically stopped flowing as the tide went out, trapping the fish in the stream. Other bears, including Homely Girl, stayed clear of him so despite his age, he appears to still be the King in this part of Katmai. After a fun and productive day of photography, we had another long walk back to the receding shoreline for pickup, a good dinner and a much-needed rest.

Day 5: Friday, August 18
Today our group really lucked out. The other two boats left Geographic Harbor heading north to other bays and bear sites. Plus, no planes showed up during the morning. I guess the weather was iffy in Kodiak but perfect for us so it was nice to have the entire river system to ourselves. We had a long walk in to the main river thanks to the low tide. Coastal Alaska seems to be one of the best places to experience Super Tides compared to other places in the world that we visit with tide swings of at least 20 feet. Chuck tries to get as close as he can with the skiff but sometimes that means we go ashore at the point, a good ¼ mile from the main river.

Once again, we chose the Gravel Bar to set up for the morning shoot. Bill took the spot closest to the river but I set us up about 7 feet back further than we were yesterday. We weren’t in any danger the day before, and we had bears walk past bus as we sat there, but I felt by moving us back just that little bit more, maybe we would have Scar Face, or one of the moms with the spring cubs, walk close to our group. And it worked. Homely Girl’s cubs walked along the shoreline right past our group, as did several other bears. Scar Face did show up again but preferred to stay in the water fishing in his normal style. And that brings me to the different modes of catching fish that we observed this year (and observe on most years).

As I mentioned with Scar Face, there is the Diver Method where a bear walks with his face in the water watching for fish to swim by. We have the Swan Dive Method: this can only occur when the bears are walking along the edge of the river along the raised bank (that is across from our shooting location). From this higher position, the bears watch for fish to swim by and then they leap, or dive, off of the bank with a graceful Swan Dive on to top of the fish. Homely Girl is famous for the Standing Method where she stands on her hind legs, watching intently for fish to be swimming upstream. I guess she has an advantage from this height because she is very successful with spotting nearby fish. Once she spots a fish bshe does the Run, Chase and Dive Method; the most used and successful of all fishing methods. This is when a bear runs at full force, up and down the river, splashing and making for some wonderful action images, diving forward at the last minute to trap the fish. It’s with this fishing method that we get our most dramatic shots when you can actually see the salmon swimming in front of the bear, partially out of the water with its dorsal fin cutting a line through the water.


After catching the fish, most bears carried the fish to the shore to eat it, peeling the skin off the back of the fish first before eating the meat. If it was a female full of roe, you would see the eggs squirting out of the fish. This is a great source of protein and fat and the bear never wastes this good snack. It would usually lick the eggs off of its hair or off of the rocks around the area. Some bears would eat the fish right in the middle of the river by holding the fish with one paw against the opposite leg. This happened when there was another bear around who just might steal the fish. As roe squirted out, or scraps of fish floated away, the gulls and kittiwakes were always ready to feast on the leftovers.

Not all bears are successful as was demonstrated several times on this trip. One young female bear caught a salmon and then, as she was bringing it out of the water, holding it by the tail, she whipped her head around and in the process, the fish flew out of her mouth landing in the water behind her and escaping to freedom. This same bear ran, pounced and totally missed another salmon with the fish, from the percussion of the pounce, flying out of the water and away from the bear to freedom. It was near misses like this that kept us shooting every fishing bear that came along and of course, shooting many, many images throughout the day.

After lunch we were able to go ashore with a short walk and for that reason, Jan joined us for part of the afternoon. We set up on the Grassy Knoll but didn’t go close to the point next to the side stream. Over the past two days other groups set up right at the point and yes, they had some good bear viewing and photography but I also think that it kept the bears from coming along the front of the Knoll as well. Setting up where we did was great as Scar Face cut across the point between river streams, as did several others. A plane of bear viewers came in for the afternoon but they didn’t bother us at all. In fact, they spent most of their time at the smaller feeder stream where Scar Face seems to like to fish. This is also where the one bear with the smaller cubs stays so they had a good afternoon, as did we.

After three days of being with the bears the pattern of fishing in regards to the tide levels became clear. It seems that as the tide goes out the bears spread out since they have more places to fish. Some bears liked the feeder streams since it created pockets of trapped fish. Others went down to the entrance of the streams where the fish were gathering, waiting for the tide to start back in. We didn’t see any bears digging for clams but the open spaces did give some of the bears with cubs a place to rest with lots of empty space around them. As the tides turned around and started to rise, the bears naturally moved upstream as the fish began to enter the river. And with the high tides thanks to the upcoming New Moon, even the Grassy Knoll was close to being under water. That caused the bears to move further upstream and gave us no place to sit or stand. Since we had a short walk to start the afternoon, we then had a long walk at the end of the day. We were hoping to do some star trails but once again, we had some clouds and with a long, yet good, day with the bears, we were all pretty tired.

Day 6: Saturday, August 19

bWe knew that today was going to be probably our best day with weather and that is exactly how the day turned out. But because of that, we also had several plane loads of bear viewers throughout the day. Luckily with us staying right there in Geographic Harbor, and knowing that the first plane never shows up before 9:00 – 9:30am, we could get ashore first and get a prime shooting location. With the tides out, once again we had a long walk in to the Gravel Bar. We set up again back off of the shoreline leaving plenty of room for bears and cubs to walk by as they fish.

b b

I explained the different fishing techniques but I didn’t explain how the cubs follow their moms, walking along the shoreline, waiting for them to catch a fish. With the spring cubs, if the mother wanted to eat the caught fish herself, all she had to do was to stay in the middle of the river away from the smaller cubs. They might try to swim out to her but by the time they arrived, she was usually done with her part of the fish. Normally she would take the salmon to shore so that the cubs could catch up to her and get the remains.

With the yearling cubs, if the mom caught a fish, they would go right in to the river to try to get part of the fish before the mom could finish. As the mother caught the fish, you would hear the cubs start to ‘complain’, begging for the fish. With two cubs, both cubs would have their faces in close to the mom vying against each other on who would get the remains first. Usually this would be just the head but in the case of Homely Girl, she was such a good fisher-bear that she would catch a fish for each of the cubs and then one for herself.

On this last morning with more people around, the pattern that we had become used to with the bears was disrupted. One small group of people decided to stand behind us (we always stay seated throughout our shoot) so that when one set of yearling cubs went to pass in front of us, following the mother who was in the feeder stream, they got a little spooked with one going in front and one going behind us. Luckily, they didn’t make a ‘scared cub’ noise until after they were passed us. After this we decided to go down to the smaller stream as a final place to shoot the bears. I didn’t realize that there would have been room for us to set up with our chairs but we still got the one bear with spring cubs and another young one checking out the stream.
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dWe wanted to do another skiff ride and our last afternoon proved perfect for this excursion. High tide was scheduled for midafternoon so with sunny skies and very little wind, we took off after lunch with everybody on board. Once again, we had some good eagles, perched and flying, on the skiff ride. We also found the fledgling great horned owl again and got another shot at photographing this bird. We finally saw some sea otters and worked with one for about 15 minutes. But then we found another sea otter that turned out to be the best sea otter we had ever had on this trip. We approached slowly and then just drifted with it and that kept the sea other close to the boat. In fact, it was nearly full frame! Everybody got the otter so it was a marvelous way to end the trip.

Day 7: Sunday, August 20
We woke up to clouds and drizzle and by the time we got to Kodiak, it was raining. We couldn’t have chosen our weather better if we would have tried. With the bad weather nobody was even tempted to try and go out to photograph on our last morning. And with the worsening weather in Kodiak, our flight times were moved up. In fact, Sea Hawk Air hired another pilot to fly out at the same time so that the new group coming on to the boat could get there in one flight, two planes, and we could get off of the boat and back to Kodiak the same way. We asked Sea Hawk Air to take us in to town to the one restaurant for lunch. After that we went to the airport to check in. Rhett and me had the first flight out of Anchorage so we were happy to get in on time. James and Scott had a room at the Marriott until their flight later that night. Bill found his laptop at the airport security office (he inadvertently left it at the TSA security checkpoint the morning we flew out when they wanted to take everything out of his computer case) so the trip ended up on a high with great photos, a great group (Bill, Chris, James, Scott, Phil, Jan, Rhett and Wayne – thank you), a great crew (Chuck, Olga, Logan and Leroy – you were awesome) and good weather for the coast of Alaska.
We already have dates set for August, 2019 for a trip back to Geographic Harbor on the Coastal Explorer, as well as a workshop scheduled with the Anchorage Camera Club and a 5-day trip scheduled with Bristol Bay Outfitters. If you would like to go onto our inquiry list for these trips, please contact Berni at info@hoothollow.com and continue to check out our website for updates on these trips as well as other workshops and tours.

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