“The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom.”
On a recent trip to Alaska’s Katmai National Park the opportunities for brown bear observation and intimate encounters was truly epic. There was a bountiful run of salmon throughout the summer season combined with low water levels allowing the bears easier access to fish spawning in the lakes and streams. The weather compared to the previous year was generally pretty dry for southern Alaska and provided long daylight hours combined with overcast skies which made for beautiful photography for hours on end.
This particular morning I was up before sunrise with a small group of friends and we headed down to the beach alongside Naknek Lake to photograph two mothers and their cubs of the year as they slept in shallow little beds dug in the sand. These adorable little families gradually woke up stretching, nursing and play fighting to start off nearly every day. After the sun rose and the bears headed further down the long, narrow beach to spend some alone time in the shelter of the forest we took our cue as well heading across to the river in chest high waders to make our way up towards the falls to shoot brown bears fishing, playing and interacting from eye level.
There were 4 of us so we felt great about the whole “safety in numbers” thing. Despite that though it was still time consuming and more than a bit challenging to navigate our way through the marsh grasses and through the forest trails to a point where we could eventually hop into the water with our gear and cross over to a nice little island mid-river because of the dense numbers of bears in the area. Not only were there large boars fishing and mothers with cubs, but this year there were a large number of sub-adults that were both extra curious and playful. The naughty little teenagers of the bear world trying to test out their boundaries and newly found freedom.
After we managed to dodge the fishing bears, the playing bears, the arguing bears and the sleeping bears we got about a third of the way into the river towards our target island when it was very clear that this large mother and her twin cubs were headed from the opposite bank to the same place we were. The island is fairly small, I’m guessing 50 feet long by 20 feet wide so it wasn’t ideal trying to negotiate a “stay-cation” for all of us on it at once. However changing direction and heading any other way lead us into deeper waters and much swifter currents so straight ahead to the island we went.
The following series of images were taken at a focal length of approximately 100mm while this gorgous mother fished for salmon in the shallows and her two small spunky cubs stayed in the grass. She was exceptionally tolerant of our presence and we all felt comfortable enough to just kneel down in the water to a sitting position at the base of the island while the bears stayed about ¾ of the way to the opposite side. The little cubs of course were very curious what we were doing and would peek out from the grass like they were playing hide and seek.
We spent a little over an hour with this trio enjoying every minute of it…. Except for maybe that 10 minutes when mom had absolutely had enough of her two kids squabbling over food and lunged upright to a full standing position, swatting the water with her paws, and roaring without question the loudest roar that I’ve ever personally heard from that close of a distance. She towered over her cubs (and us) yelling and glaring while her kids instantly put an end to their bickering and settled for nibbling from the same salmon throwing a couple dirty looks each other’s way instead. Then larger cub took a quick glance back at us like, “did you see that?” Hard to tell if they were embarrassed we saw or seeking sympathy but their little expressions were quite comical.
Bears have always topped my list of favorite animals for a variety of reasons. A lot of that having to do with my belief that they are very misunderstood by most of society. It’s easy to cast them in a negative light based on their size and power alone, but it’s hard to believe that anyone could still feel this way after spending any time with them. Their dexterity, sense of humor, animated expressions and love for their cubs is an absolute joy to witness. I sincerely hope that for everyone who doesn’t have the fortune to see it in person, will atleast be able to live vicariously and enjoy bears just a little bit more through my images.