Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Guiding Bear Viewing Trips in Alaska

I spent a good part of the summers throughout the 1980's photographing brown bears at various locations in Alaska, mostly in Denali and Katmai National parks and at the McNeil River Sanctuary on the Alaska Peninsula.  That work laid the foundation for producing our Bears Of The World book.  It also put me into contact with many of the best professional wildlife photographers of that time. Many of us wound up at the best hotspots for bear photography at the same time and thus became friends really by coincidence. If it wasn't for bears we might never have met.

One such friend is Matt Breiter.  He had been guiding bear viewing trips for a Boulder, Colorado organization call Natural Habitat Adventures, or Nathab for short.  Starting in the summer of 2002 he set me up with them to guide brown bear viewing trips on the outer Katmai National Park coast, north of Kodiak Island across Shelikof Strait. I was comfortable around most wildlife, including bears, so the pairing with Nathab for these trips made sense. Groups of up to six clients would fly in to tiny Kodiak Airport by jet from Anchorage and there I would meet them and arrange to have them flown by floatplane across Shelikof Strait to meet up with and be transferred aboard a 70 foot converted tugboat called the M/V Waters, captained by  John Rogers. Each trip lasted four days. John's job was to ferry everyone around the coast of Halo Bay
which borders the southwest region of Katmai National Park.  My job was to bring the clients ashore each day and to wander around with them, showing them brown bears up close and personal. It was an easy and exciting job.

During the summer months the bears are everywhere along that coast, eating grass, fishing for salmon, digging up clams, lounging and playing.  And best of all they are very tolerant of humans.  It is true that the bears got some bad press when Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed by one on that coast, but most experts agree that he was not behaving rationally around the bears and given that, that the tragedy was inevitable. With a little caution and some common sense bear viewing on the Katmai Coast is quite safe.

Late one afternoon I took my six clients wandering up a side creek that happened to be full of salmon.  I always keep the people in a fairly tight group with strict instructions to never run from a bear no matter what.
There is no way for a human to outrun a bear and running may trigger a bear's pursuit and attack instinct.

As we walked along the creek a mother bear and her two spring cubs came walking up the same path, wanting to pass us.  I kept the people calm and let the mother walk on by.  But the two little cubs, weighing perhaps 30 pounds each, became very curious and approached to within four feet of our group. I won't lie and claim that I never get nervous in these situations. My heart races like everyone else's.  But I do have to keep things together. So I picked up some pebbles and tossed them at the cubs,  with their mother nearby, and they backed off.  When they tried a second time to approach I told them firmly, "No!", and raised my hand slightly. That was enough and mother and cubs kept on their way.

Thirty minutes later we stood on one side of the creek and watched a large bear on the opposite bank searching for fish in the rapidly flowing water. The creek at that point was about forty feet wide or so.
I almost always carry my Nikon camera with an 80-400mm zoom lens when guiding bear trips. Just in case I have time for grab shots. Naturally the clients are my first responsibility, but bear viewing involves a lot of standing around and watching and waiting and there is often time for me to take some quick photographs while my clients are doing the same.  This was one of those moments. The bear suddenly launched himself into the creek in what appeared initially like a charge right at us and at that instant I reflexively raised the camera and shot.  As a group we flinched a little but soon realized that the bear was aiming for a salmon and not us.

Mark Newman


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