McNeil River State Game Sanctuary is generally recognized as the world's premier brown bear viewing area. I first learned about this wildlife hotspot when looking through a magazine in 1979, while I was still living in Sundance, Wyoming. The images I came across were unbelievable, showing twenty or more bears congregating at a waterfall at the same time, all fishing for salmon. I knew right then that I had to go there. No two ways about it.
In pursuit of wildlife subjects for photography I moved my family from Wyoming to Alaska in the early summer of 1981. Now within range of McNeil River I began what would become a ten year love affair with the sanctuary and its bears. Today McNeil has a very strict lottery system for visiting, but in the 1980's it was a simple matter to catch a float plane ride with Bill DeCreeft, owner and chief pilot of Kachemak Air Service out of Homer, and be left off on the shores of the sanctuary. Technically a formal permit was required in order to visit the bears, but the standby system was loose and easy in those days and there was almost always someone with a permit who did not show or who did not want to walk out to the bears again after their first or second day at the sanctuary. Thus being a standby was almost as good as having a permit. For those entire ten years I never once had a permit to visit the bears yet I flew out there every summer and rarely missed a day of photography.
Legendary ranger-guide Larry Aumiller lived at the sanctuary each summer for almost thirty years and was responsible for leading a group of up to ten visitors daily on the 2 mile walk from base camp to where the bears gathered. Hip waders were always required because of the generally wet conditions and a fairly deep stream crossing. Most of the visitors carried fancy camera equipment and many had tripods as well. It was often the case that the casual visitor had more expensive equipment than the seasoned pros that were out there.
This was the era before autofocus, let alone digital capture, and my camera of choice was the light Nikon FE (and then FE2) with the accessory MD-11 (and then MD-12) motor drive attached. I used two lenses for bears back then, a Nikon 600/f5.6 and an 80-200 zoom. Other photographers prefer faster lenses but I have never found the extra weight and expense worth the tradeoff. To this day my preferance is still to go with slower lenses for the sake of lighter weight and portability, not to mention expense considerations. This approach makes even more sense with the new digital cameras that can handle higher ISO's quite easily, and more easily yet if they are FX cameras with full frame sensors.
The most popular season to visit the bears at McNeil was July when the salmon were running thick and the bear numbers at the falls were at their highest. And for the first few years I visited McNeil in July like most of the other pro photographers. Common wisdom was to go there when bear numbers were at their maximum. But after five summers of photographing the bears I became bored of the same old shots. The setting was spectacular beyond words, but the rules for photographing, of necessity, were very restrictive. One had to remain at all times in the small 20 feet by 20 feet bear viewing area, crammed in with everyone else, watching the bears from the same vantage and angle as everyone else. Thus the resultant photos looked like everyone else's. Year after year. I got tired of this.
So in 1986 I decided to fly out to the sanctuary in mid-June, well before the crowds, and more significantly, before the major salmon run at McNeil Falls. Larry Aumiller of course was out there already when I arrived. Since no one else was around it was like having Larry as my own private guide. And since there were no salmon at McNeil Falls, the few bears that were visible roamed to other nearby areas, grazing on the fresh tall grass. Larry and I went out looking for bears each day and over the course of several days I was able to capture a few good images but nothing extraordinary. Since there were only two of us some bears felt more emboldened and I remember when one approached a bit too close and Larry chambered a round into his shotgun just to make noise, and the noise drove the bear back, as it almost always will.
On the fourth day a few other folks flew in. One was Canadian photographer Wayne Lynch. After their arrival Larry took the few of us out together looking for bears. At the end of day number six our group was in the tall grass about a half mile from camp when Wayne and his friends decided to call it quits and Larry allowed the three of them to walk back to camp on their own. It is my habit to always remain out in any photographic 'situation' as long as I possibly can, and this time was no different. We all had been watching a large female brown bear--one that Larry had named McBride after a local bear advocate and tour operator--munching on grass, and I saw no reason to leave if I didn't have to. Larry was willing to stay out longer so we remained watching the bear as Wayne and the others walked away, heading to the left along the coast.
Then a very lucky and unexpected thing happened. When Wayne's group was about a hundred yards away the big female bear stood up and looked in their direction. I don't know why she stood. Generally when a bear stands on its hind legs it is simply to gather information. It is not a sign of any aggression. Whatever the reason for her standing at that moment, serendipity was on my side as first one and then two and finally three little bear cub heads appeared seemingly out of nowhere, popping up above the grass as the kids stood in imitation of their powerful mother. It was fortunate for me that all four bears held their pose for many seconds because my jaw dropped in astonishment at the incredible sight and I stood frozen and failed to shoot. That had never happened to me before nor has it since. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. The scene was that stunning. Larry quickly snapped me out of my reverie, saying "Shoot! Shoot!" and I finally got it together and pushed the shutter release causing the motor drive to wind away. I knew I had that once in a lifetime shot, the photograph which appears at the beginning of this article. But the story doesn't end there.
The following Spring I decided to return once again to McNeil River with the specific purpose of locating McBride's bear family. Year after year most of the same 140 or so bears return to the area around the McNeil River and the adjacent Mikfik Creek to feed on the salmon runs. I figured there would be a reasonable chance of encountering the McBride family again. Perhaps it was a bit of a long shot but certainly possible. On the occasion of this visit a few photographer friends accompanied me--
John Warden from Alaska, Shin Yoshino from Japan, and Mike Sieve from Minnesota. All were accomplished pros and were impressed by the standing bears photo I had showed them from my previous summer. They were eager to see what images they could come up with.
The four of us took to the air out of Homer, with Bill de Creeft piloting his twin otter float plane over Cook Inlet, past the very active and steaming Augustine Volcano, across Kamishak Bay and landing at near high tide in McNeil Cove and taxiing right up to shore in front of the bear camp. We climbed out on to one of the plane's pontoons and scrambled ashore. As usual Larry Aumiller was there to greet us.
As on my visit the previous year the timing was mid June and the bears were not visiting McNeil Falls yet because it would be two more weeks before the chum salmon run would begin in earnest. There was, however, a smaller run of sockeye salmon in adjacent Mikfik Creek so we intended to concentrate our photographic efforts in that location. The morning after we arrived we put on our hip waders and Larry led us out into the grass flats near our campsite and from there headed upstream along the banks of Mikfik Creek. We encountered several bears along the way, including one mother with two yearling cubs. McBride's three cubs, if they had survived the winter, would also be yearlings now, approximately sixteen months old. But the bear we encountered was definitely not McBride. She was a lot smaller and darker than our mother with triplets. Larry knew all the different bears by name. He would easily be able to identify McBride if we saw her.
It took a mile and a half of hiking and about three hours of waiting before McBride and her cubs walked out of the alders to fish beneath a small falls at the upper end of Mikfik Creek. She and her cubs were on the far side of the creek from us and did not pay any attention to our presence. We all set up our tripods and mounted cameras with 500mm and 600mm lenses. The bear family remained out in the open and we were able to capture image after image of the family fishing. The mother did most of the catching, sometimes sharing the fish with her cubs. This went on for over an hour. Amongst ourselves we fantasized about how great it would be if McBride and her cubs would all stand up and pose as had happened on my earlier visit. Was that too much to ask for?
Apparently not. A large male bear appeared on the rise about seventy five feet directly behind us and coincident with his appearance McBride stood right up. And then her cubs followed suit. All four bears were up on their hind legs and looking past us in the direction of the large male. This time I did not freeze up nor did any of us hesitate. We shot like crazy, all capturing identical images. For me it was that once in a lifetime shot happening for a second time.
I am a writer and photographer of natural history subjects and have traveled to all seven continents. I recently had my book about polar bears published by Henry Holt, and I just published an eBook novel, entitled GOLDEN, about a girl and a wild horse
in the Wyoming wilderness.