The Bears of Lake Clark National Park
June 18, 2010
It’s a gorgeous day as I make my way to Seattle from Bozeman. Lots ofholes in the clouds that give intermittent views of thesaturated, verdant greens of the Pacific Northwest. The pines show patches of dead, rust colored needles. The pine bark beetle has ravaged SW Montana, Idaho and parts of Washington. It’s been a wet spring, with torrential down pours from peaks to valleys for several weeks and admittedly it’s become a bit old but you won’t hear me complain. I’ve spent too many years in the mountains with too little moisture. Often, by fall the place is burning to the ground. I’m hopeful that won’t be the case for 2010 but only time will tell.
My journeys end is the great state of Alaska. I’m leading a small group of photo enthusiasts on a weeks worth of brown bear photography. Not sure how many times I’ve stepped foot in this last great land of wilderness and wildlife but it must be at least three dozen times since my first Alaska adventure back in 1986. I never tire of this land where the wildlife outnumbers the people. The variety of photographic possibilities are endless. Over the seasons I’ve shot humpbacks in southeast, grizzlies and muskox at the base of the Brooks range, Dall sheep in Denali, Fall colors in the Alaska range, aurora borealis in Fairbanks, black bears along the coast, moose on the peninsula, gyr falcons, ptarmigan, ice bergs and polar bears. It’s the land you can’t forget.
The morning begins with a great breakfast at our hotel in Anchorage, the Crown Plaza. Big beautiful rooms and comfortable beds. The weather is cool but thankfully dry. We make our way to Lake Hood where our bush planes where waiting. We meet our pilots, weigh ourselves and our gear and by 10:00am we’re off flying over the waters of Cook Inlet, winging our way southwest above the wild Alaskan landscape. In route we see numerous gravel pads scattered across the topography. I ask our pilot what they are. He pulls back the right cup of his head phone and shouts. “natural gas wells”. I immediately am reminded of the ongoing environmental disaster still spewing in the Gulf of Mexico. I haven’t seen any news for several days but I hear it’s still gushing. Off to our left on the far horizon are what looks like oil rigs. Alaska is rich in fossil fuels and I’ve bought into it all just like everyone else. I’m saddened but hopeful that all of society will start working to find a better solution than what we’ve all been using for so many decades.
On our arrival we’re greeted by our host. Not far from where we’ve landed a mature, bald eagle adorns the top of a pine tree. First-timers to Alaska, my friends and guests Dave and Shiela are giddy with excitement, “that’s the stuffed bald eagle that’s put there for greeting new arrivals”, I say with a smile. The eagle jumps from it’s perch and glides off along the shoreline Dave and Shiela’s mouths drop open and give me a smiling glare. “ I was joking you two”. I then remind Shiela that I do have four sisters. We jump in the four wheeler, a trailer hitched to it’s tail filled with duffel bags, driving off to the lodge with smiling travelers. It’s a beautiful place. A large carved, wooden brown bear stands at the entrance of the trail to the door. Smoke drifts lazily from the chimney, spiraling up nearly straight as the lodge pole pines of Montana. We enter the lodge doorway, remove our shoes and say Wow.
The last two days have been spectacular. The bears are here in numbers. Our favorite subject is a beautiful female with two cubs of the year. They are cute beyond belief, especially when you’re able to take the time to watch and truly observe. It’s a fact of life that probably 60% of these beautiful, little creatures will not make it past their second year. Typically they fall victim to the large males patrolling the sedge flats and forests. It is the way of the wild, something we humans rarely understand anymore.
Spending hours on end in the field is the fun part of being a wildlife guide/photographer. I’ve never been one to keep a check list of what I’ve seen and I sometimes regret that. However, typically not, since I generally spend enough time that I don’t forget who or what I saw. My method of operation works for me. I would much rather spend hours, days and sometimes months watching a particular species than to run across the planet making a check list that records momentary, fleeting observations. There are people in my business who have done that and have done it well. Financially several would be considered much better off than I but few have truly been as blessed.
A good example is my work with brown bears. I’ve been coming here to Alaska to experience these creatures for over ten years. Often for 3-4 weeks at a time. My work with polar bears has been an obsession for over twenty. My second book involved documenting the lives of black bears in northern Minnesota and that encompassed a four year window of my life. Whtetail deer was nearly seven years and so the story goes.
The weather has been exceptional. Our host informed us upon arrival that it had been pouring for nearly a week. We luck out and get dry, sunny skies for over three days. A front is moving in and today the clouds blocked the sun around noon. However, the light this morning was breathtaking, prompting me to rise at 5:30am and gathering everybody for a 6:00am departure. Our goal was to see if the female with cubs was taking advantage of the low tides to gather clams on the beach. Unfortunately, she didn’t show but thankfully a different individual was working hard at gathering the rich, protein laden bounties of the sea.
Brown bears digging clams is quite interesting. They have amazing dexterity with their 3-4 inch claws, easily prying open the shells of these sand loving mollusks. One paw pins the bottom part of the hard, protective case as the other reaches over the top and gently snags a seemingly nonexistent edge. Gently she flexes her claws, drawing them up as if closing a fist and “snap” the shell gives way. The bears nose darts to the open meat delicately sitting on the half shell. Her jaw protrudes forward, a long dexterous tongue shoots out from her lips and as she sucks the rich, meaty protein in you can hear her her slurp. It’s quite entertaining and an obvious delicacy that draws many a bruin to the open tidal flats for an advantageous meal.
Our time with the bears lasts for a couple of hours. Breakfast is waiting back at the lodge as the sun dissolves the last remaining wisps of clouds. We gather up our gear and head inland.
Bright blue skies prevail, harsh white light envelopes the land and the only shadows one can see are beneath the soles of your boots. Photography is all about light and when the light is shining straight down it’s time to put the camera’s aside. Shadows are what create the feeling of three dimensions in a world where the medium is only two. It’s the element that makes a good photograph great, a dull picture snap. We spend our time in the lodge critiquing pictures and talking about the different locations we all call home. Lunch comes and goes and a few take in an afternoon siesta before we venture out to try and find the star of our week, the beautiful female with her cubs of the year.
Our guide Drew is ready and waiting at 3:00pm, the trailer gets loaded with camera packs and tripods, tired bodies climb aboard the aluminum trailer and we set out to scout the sedge flats. We don’t have to go far. Drew stops within 30 yards of the lodge, literally from the back to the front. He puts on the brakes and says in a soft, deep baritone voice, “we’re here”. Each of us stop our conversations in mid-sentence and look out across the waving grasses. There, out beyond the open meadow, a football field away, was our celebrity family of bruins. The cubs were in rare form. Yesterday they had been rather sedate, somewhat sleepy. Today they were like raging wrestlers. Jumping, running, biting, swatting, rolling and tugging. It was hilarious and a great opportunity to shoot the moving pictures I’ve come to enjoy so much. They gave us a show for a good hour then slowly walked in to the alders. Cubs in the wild doing just what cubs are supposed to do. It’s one of the most amazing scenes in nature.
It’s nearly 8:30am and we’re already back at the lodge. We left for an early morning shoot hoping to find bears on the tidal flats feeding. Unfortunately only one bear showed and he was a young adolescent that proved uncooperative yesterday so we left him to to his morning chores of finding clams beneath the sand. The air was much cooler than recent mornings past. We stood on the berm of the coast waiting patiently for a subject to come our way. Slowly the conversation turned to the thought of a warm cup of coffee. Breakfast was mentioned a time or two and then there was the comment about the light having faded behind the approaching clouds. We waited another thirty minutes then packed our bags and loaded our gear. It was a another spectacular morning in the wilds of Alaska.
Unlike the norm, our Alaskan coastal adventure has been bright and sunny. That’s just not typically the case. Since we’ve been having such good light our schedule has been filled from dawn to dusk. I rise about 5:30am, check to make sure the sun is shining and if it is I wake the others and we head for the tidal flats. We shoot for a couple hours then head in for an 8:30am breakfast. At around 9:30am we gather our gear and head back out to the sedge flats hoping like excited school kids that mother bear and her two adorable cubs have come out of hiding. It’s been a fairly effective plan and for four straight days we’ve eventually found her. Around noon we make our way back for lunch. Appetites satiated, it’s an hour or two of discussion and lessons on how I perform my workflow duties with my digital files. A nap’s in order after to much time on the computer and before going our separate ways we agree to meet at 4:00pm for our afternoon shot before dinner. The light is starting to get better at 4:00 and the mother with her twins seems to like this time of the day. Once the hour of 7:00pm rolls around we’re back at the dinner table for more nourishment then back to the field from about 8:30pm till the sun drops behind the mountains at 10:30pm. As I said, Dusk to dawn.
The morning was uneventful. Clouds on the horizon obscured the warm morning glow of sunrise. We shot what we could but spent most of our time working with a little female bear who was busy digging clams. We ended back at the lodge earlier than we would have liked but we used it as an opportunity to visit the lake. The lake sits a half mile or so from the lodge. It’s a good trail and there on the shores are two canoes. Linda Henry and I decide to go check it out. There are supposed to be a pair of Trumpeter swans nesting and moose are fairly plentiful in the area. Along the path we see moose, bear and wolf tracks. The lake comes into view and we make our way to the canoe. It’s been many years since I’ve paddled. Growing up in northern Minnesota gave me many opportunities to perfect my paddling technique. One of my favorite places was the BWCA and north of that Quetico Provincial Park. Paddling the calm, lilly padded waters of this northern Alaska lake made me yearn for another trip to the canoe wildrness of the upper midwest and Canada. We take a 20 minute paddle then head back to the lodge. No wildlife other than a beaver that slaps his tail as we rounded a bank on the lake.
It’s our last day in the field and we have a few clouds today. We followed our similar schedule and in the afternoon mother and cubs did not disappoint. We had left just after lunch, drove down to the Silver Salmon Creek, sat there along the banks and shot the breeze for an hour or so. Here we waited for the stars of the trip to reappear. Nobody showed so it was off to the other end of the meadow. On our way we begin to pass the thick alders and spruce trees that provide such abundant, impenetrable cover. We would regularly see the bear family emerge from this thick, mass of near solid undergrowth. The trail ran just beside this wall of vegetation and as we motored slowly along Dave begins pointing over my shoulder behind me, stammering, ‘bear, bear, bear’. I peel around and see mama brown bear on the hill just feet beyond the trail, looking down, out into the meadow. Our guide Drew pulls the four wheeler past several yards and we all quietly scamper out of the trailer reaching for camera bags and tripods.
The next two hours are spent watching, waiting and taking pictures. It’s an opportunity in wildlife photography that doesn’t come often and when it does you know it is special. The cubs are playful beyond belief. Mother grazes contentedly. the cubs are running, rolling, swatting at each other, tugging on ears, biting, jumping and running some more. All the while it’s a game of tag with bursts of energy that end with one standing swatting at the air only to fall back on it;s haunches as he looses his balance. It makes you laugh inside and the you realize how much these two baby brown bears have changed in even a week. We all noticed it. They were much less brave just only a week earlier. Their confidence had grown, their physical stamina had increased, their curiosity was on the rise. they were fast becoming the infamous Alaskan brown bear.
Our afternoon with the cubs lasted for nearly three hours. It’s lengthy amounts of time like this spent peering into the world of an animals life that makes my job so rewarding. Not in a monetary way but in terms of getting to know another creature in a more profound, exhaustive manner. Many of my projects have included spending vast amounts of time with specific species of animals. It’s this colossal payback in life experiences that makes this job something I still love and want to do more than anything else I’ve ever been able to dream of. Sharing that experience with others is nearly as rewarding.
Our day to leave has arrived. The clouds have returned and the air is cool. We all pack our bags and wait patiently in the lodge’s great room, Drew informs us he’ll be watching for the Cessna’s. One comes ahead of the other and makes it landing on the shoreline landing strip. Dave, Shiela, and Mitch take the first plane out. Linda and I hang back waiting for the next set of wings to soar us back to Anchorage. fifteen minutes pass when Drew pops his head in the door and encourages us to get our gear, “the plane is on the beach”, he offers in his low, monotone voice. We make our way down to the plane and within minutes we’re aloft. Out over the coast and heading north towards Anchorage. It was a great trip but I’m looking forward to summer in the Rockies. My trip home to Bozeman begins.