Alaska Grizzly Bears
Another drop in the bucket of things that I have to do in my life, to intermingle with and photograph grizzly bears, has been achieved. Darlene and I have just returned from an amazing trip to Alaska that included a hike on a glacier, a boat ride into the Prince William Sound and a flight over the glaciated peaks of the Kenai Peninsula, but the highlight of the trip was mingling with grizzly bears in the wild.
We drove to a location that we had visited and were unsuccessful at on a previous trip to Alaska. We weren’t all that confident but decided to give it a whirl. We did know that the river was full of salmon so it would be possible. The bears come down to the rivers when the salmon are spawning for an easy nutritious meal.
As we arrived at the trailhead a group of fishermen were walking out to their cars. They had been chased out of the fishing holes by a sow and her cubs. Darlene and I got excited. We grabbed or gear and headed down the trail toward the river. As I hiked down the trail my mind was on uber-alert with my bear spray quickly available. The last thing that I wanted was to surprise a momma and her babies. Darlene was singing a song to herself as she walked, hoping to alert a bear before we arrived if one was in our path.
We got down to the river just as the evening light was starting to fade. I had 150-300mm zoom but was wishing that I had a 600mm with me. Primarily to be able to get a shot without walking right up to them and asking them to smile. As it turned out the 300mm worked well, but I didn’t get any closeups. – I digress. As we walked along the river we saw a group of people coming out that told of another bear further downstream.
Darlene and I walked with a bit more vigor due to the adrenaline in our veins, but when we arrived the bear had gone back into the woods. We decided to just walk up and down the path for a while until we became tired of that and had a seat to just sit and wait and watch.
We sat there chatting in a low whisper while we sat near the brush next to the river as to not alarm any potential bear who might want to come back for another salmon snack. I told Darlene that it was getting a little dim and that we’d now need to really push our ISO to get anything with an acceptable shutter speed. We discussed being hungry and that perhaps we should leave and find a meal before it got too late when as I looked over Darlene’s shoulder toward the river I saw the big sow grizzly lumbering out of the forest toward the river on the bank right across from us no more than 20-30 yards away. I said in a concerned and excited whisper… “Bear! Bear! Bear!”. Darlene turned and showed her obvious excitement as we both started to photograph the bear as if we were hidden paparazzi! A moment or two passed and out came a cub, then another and then another. A momma and three cubs. We could hardly believe what we were seeing. I will never forget that moment. The moment when she gracefully emerged from the forest. My first thought was, “this is not the zoo”.
We photographed her and the babies until they decided to retreat into the forest. Not long after we heard some commotion down river. All of a sudden I heard the “huff, huff” from a bear. It sent a chill up my spine. A minute later a small group of tourists came walking toward me with a sense of urgency. They said that a male grizzly came out of the woods near them and chased them away. I grabbed my gear, and Darlene and we headed toward where I heard the commotion. My senses on alert I walked slowly as I scanned the trail ahead, the forest to the right and the river to our left.
As we approached we could see a bear in the river. Darlene and I found a safe spot to observe and proceeded to watch one of the most beautiful things that I’ve experienced in my life. In the river was a young bore , perhaps two years old, playing as if he had no care in the world. He walked around in the river picking up fish and tossing them around into the air, wading into deeper pools and just swimming around. He was a joy to watch and to photograph but our light was fading fast. The cameras were having a hard time and I didn’t want to hike out in the dark so we grabbed our gear and headed back.
As we were walking out we could see silhouettes of bears in the river. We walked a little quicker and counted ten bears in all on this visit. It was as if they were all coming out of the forest at once. We hurried out while we still had light to show our way.
That night at our hotel we decided to dedicate the next day to getting some great bear photos. I reviewed my shots that night and came to the conclusion that I needed that 600mm. The shots were great, but not close enough as far as I’m concerned and I’ll be darned if I’m going to get closer! We decided to drive 150 miles one way to Anchorage to rent a lens. We returned with just enough time to get ready and head to the river.
We arrived with my rented 150-600 zoom lens and walked up and down the trail and spent that evening there with absolutely no success. As the light faded I lamented the fact that we had blown a whole day and the cost of the lens. Darlene suggested that we take our last day in Alaska and come back one more time.
The next day was beautiful. We spent a great day in the Alaska scenery, but I was anxious to return to the bears that evening.
We noted that the time that the sow and her cubs came out of the woods was approximately 7:30 pm. We made sure that we were there early and staked out a spot to sit near where she had been the night that we saw her previously. Sure to form at approximately 7:30 down from the forest she came – Her and her cubs.
The rest is history. This family came down and ate for a while, retreated back into the woods for a while and then returned for an encore. Insuring that I got my amazing bear photos. I was beyond excited. We were so excited when we got back to the car that we felt like kids at after a carnival. I scrolled down through the photos, checked focus etc and then drove back to the hotel fulfilled and in disbelief that the photos on my card were mine.