Last month, at the end of a 7 week spell of non-stop travelling, I was able to embark on the second leg of my year of bears when I visited the beaches and creeks of Lake Clark National Park in Alaska.
It was the first time I had been to this particular state and my expectations of having the chance to see and experience just what a true wilderness it is were well and truly met – even in the small plane transfer from Anchorage to the park which involved a beach landing (a first) the views out of the window were truly breathtaking inspite of the rain.
At this time of the year these coastal beaches are a true magnet as far as bears are concerned.
The reason is all down to the fact that the creeks, that are a constant feature along the beaches, run inland to the spawning grounds of the various species of Pacific Salmon, specifically here in early that being the Coho, or as it’s locally called, the Silver Salmon.
As these fish look to make their way upstream, when the tide is low many of them get caught or delayed in the extreme shallow waters (Alaska has some of the biggest tides in the world so it can happen quite easily) and this represents the perfect opportunity for the areas bears to engage in a true feeding frenzy and pile on the pounds ahead of their impending hibernation.
At times, such as these two images, it really was like picking up sweets from the floor for them.
More often than not though it meant standing in the mouth of the stream watching carefully for the signs of a fish looking to make it’s way through, and so every low tide we would join whatever bears there were gathered there for the key fishing periods of 2 hours or so either side of low water.
Over time we got to know the individual bears quite well, especially this particular female, called Crimp-Ear because of a slight kink in one of her ears, and she was extremely reliable as a subject to work with, turning up in whatever the weather – early morning sun or afternoon wind and rain made little difference to her!
As is the way here, there was plenty of rain and wet days were more the norm but this didn’t prevent the chance to go out and work – in fact the relatively flat low contrast light conditions were ideal for thinking in monochrome terms and some of my favourite images from the whole trip were taken with this end result in mind. Bears are a great subject to work with in black and white as there is so much texture to their fur too.
You can see that fishing was just as successful in these conditions but sometimes the bears could look miserable and fed up with the rain though!
Because the main focus and priority for them is fishing and taking on as much extra poundage as they could (I think the best session Crimp-Ear had was 9 salmon in just one low tide), and also because hunting in the national parks is banned (unlike the rest of the State it has to be said), the bears are extremely unfazed and uninterested in people watching or photographing them. The sheer isolation of the place is in itself a control on numbers as are further park rules limiting group size. The result is a no-hide and very open and engaging experience, and at times some very close encounters indeed.
Lying on the sand as a bear walks up to you and then almost stands over you was both a thrill and a privilege that I will never forget.
She then showed more of this gentler side to her nature and also just how relaxed she was too by wandering off, making a small scrape in the sand and settling down for a short sleep in the open.
The biggest thrills though came on the very last day when a combination of weather and events all came together for a fitting finale – great fishing activity and cracking light to work with proved a heady and intoxicating combination: the sudden burst from rest into running mode, the focus and concentration on the signs of where the fish had gone, the huge splashes of water thrown up during the chase all offered fantastic photographic opportunities.
And then to cap it all a mother who decided this was the time to bring her cubs for us to see! After allowing them to suckle she then decided to leave them with us as she had a short session of fishing herself – quite extraordinary to think she felt they were safer left with humans than alone as potential targets for the other bears in the area, and a testament to how relaxed all the bears here were with our presence too.
As for the cubs themselves, well they were as cute and mischievous as you would expect before Mum finally decided it was time to head off along the beach.
This was one of the most enjoyable trips I have ever done and one I can’t wait to repeat (plans are afoot to return in 2015 so if you’re interested in joining me drop me an e-mail), and although the memories are many, lying in a creek with a short lens as a bear walked by, lying on the sand looking up at a bear and just simply the chance to once again experiment with different photographic styles given the array of weather conditions we had to work with, will be right up there amongst them for sure.
Now next month…it’s Polar Bears!