The Coastal Brown Bears of Alaska

An aggressive female chases away a younger sow who has caught a salmon too near to her. (The orange dots
flying through the air are the unfortunate salmon’s roe.) Brown bears can move with a speed and agility that
takes your breath away. Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II, EF 500mm f/4.0L IS.

Photographing the Coastal Brown Bears of Alaska

In September 2005 I traveled to Katmai National Park and Preserve in southern Alaska to photograph that region’s famous coastal brown bears. With me were several other accomplished photographers, including Microsoft’s David Vaskevitch, Bob Kennewick of Voicebox Technologies, and my friend Jim Lewis of the Lewis Group, who organized the trip.

Note: for a better look at selected images from this trip, see my gallery Teetering on the Edge

And a whirlwind trip it was—I was in Alaska for just 3 days—but every day was better than the last, with increasingly wonderful encounters with these impressive animals. It was somewhat eerie, however, to know that we were photographing just a few miles from where bear-enthusiast Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed at Kaflia Bay in 2003. I am sure that Treadwell was familiar with most of the animals that we saw.

One appealing aspect of this trip was that we were photographing in a region of the Alaska Peninsula accessible only by float plane or boat (see map). There were no roads, no camps, no lodges, and hence no tourists (other than us). In fact, we had to overnight on the boat and take a skiff to shore each morning.

Because of this isolation, the sense of being directly immersed in a pristine, wild habitat was far stronger than in Africa or other national parks I have photographed in. Just about everything was perfect–except the weather! We had rain for 2 of the 3 days we were shooting, but we were prepared and made best of it.

On the Katmai Coast

We arrived at the Katmai coast via Kodiak Island, which is reached through Anchorage. In Kodiak, we boarded a beautiful 6-seat Dehavilland Beaver float plane for an hour-long flight to Katmai, arriving late in the day at Kinak Bay. We barely had time to drop our bags on the Kittiwake, our shipboard home for the next 3 days, before grabbing our cameras and departing by skiff for our first brown bear encounter. Although the weather was drizzly and the light waning, I managed to shoot a few interesting pan-blurs of the bears charging for salmon in the shallow inlets.

Alaskan coastal bears officially are classified Ursus arctos horibilis, also known as grizzly bears, but are commonly called brown bears to distinguish them from their more inland cousins.

I have photographed polar bears in Churchill, Canada from the safety of high-wheeled tundra buggies. Here, eerily, we were on foot. There was nothing separating us from the bears but their good graces and our careful behavior. It took a little time to get used to the notion that we weren’t likely bear food. But our guide, biologist Brad Josephs, knows the bears well, and assured us that they are timid if not directly threatened.

The Kittiwake and her sister ship the Waters are operated by Katmai Coastal Bear Tours out of Homer Alaska. Owner John Rogers has spent his summers along the Katmai coast for over 15 years. Rogers has escorted numerous wildlife research and photographic expeditions to this coast, with clients such as the BBC, Geo magazine, and IMAX film producers.

With the Coastal Brown Bears of Alaska

The Katmai coast along the Alaska Peninsula is a natural habitat for brown bears, marine mammals and seabirds. Stormy and marked by volcanic activity, this place is a rugged paradise for outdoor photographers and wildlife enthusiasts.

The brown bear ranges throughout coastal Alaska and western Canada. The brown bears of Katmai and their closely related cousins, Kodiak bears, are among the largest of all brown bears. Because of a diet rich in fatty salmon, they may reach a weight of up to 1,750 pounds (800 kg), roughly as large as polar bears. By contrast, the inland grizzly bear subsists on a leaner diet of berries, vegetation and small mammals, and thus is generally smaller. While the term grizzly bear is often used to refer to all brown bears, the grizzly is really a subspecies of brown bear.

Observing these magnificent animals at close range requires care—not only for our safety, but for the animals’. Our guide, biologist Brad Josephs, explained how to behave in the field. He stressed the importance of moving deliberately, keeping low, and staying together as a group: tactics designed to place the least amount of stress on the bears.

The Rugged Serenity of Hallo Bay

Our third and final day of the trip was spent at Hallo Bay, Alaska. After cruising through the night, we awoke to a breathtakingly beautiful and serene landscape of mountains, bays, and rugged glaciers. The environment had lost some of the lushness of our earlier locations, trading it for a loping arctic style tundra. Tidal flats seemed to stretch for miles from the beach into the interior. Over it all towered huge glacier formations. For the first time we felt as if we had found the Alaska of our imagining.

Over the previous two days I had been happy shooting with my long lens, focusing on action and expression. However, here I was compelled to try to capture the bears as a part of this amazing natural landscape, as in the photograph above. It was a truly elemental place.

While shooting at Hallo Bay we encountered an Alaskan red fox that tolerated close approaches by our group. I was even able to capture a unique moment with a wide-angle lens.

Sadly, we speculated that it had grown used to people for having been offered food sometime in the past. “Baiting,” as this practice is known, is considered bad practice among serious wildlife photographers because it can create artificial dependencies in wild animals, upsetting the razor thin balance that often makes the difference between death and life.

As the noon hour passed and the day lengthened into afternoon, all too soon it was time to head back to the Kittiwake to prepare for our float plane trip back to Kodiak. I had a great experience; I hope you enjoy some of the photographs.