Alaskan Brown Bears, Part I
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Over the next couple of weeks or so I am going to depart from this blog’s usual format to publish images and text about a trip that I made to the shores of Alaska’s Cook Inlet during the first week of July to photograph Coastal Brown Bears and other wildlife. For me, it was one of the more thrilling experiences of a lifetime. I came home with thousands of images from which I have extracted more than two hundred of the best.
In order to visit these animals I traveled with a group of photographers as part of a tour organized by Aaron Baggenstos of Aaron’s Phototours. He was a superb team leader and guide and our trip was exceptionally well planned and led. I’m the guy in the orange rain jacket in the image below. Aaron is third from the left.
The bears live in Lake Clark National Park, on the shores of the Cook Inlet, about 150 miles southwest of Anchorage. It is not possible to get there by automobile. We flew in and out by bush plane. Our principal plane, a DeHaviland Beaver, seemed to be nearly as old as I am. However, it functioned perfectly, and the flights were quite comfortable even if the noise level inside the plane was deafening.
Over the course of four days of intense photography the members of our group were in close proximity to bears. There were times that we stood so close to them that we could hear them eat and there were several instances in which a bear approached to within 15 feet of our group.
I’ve always been fascinated by large predators and Coastal Brown Bears are about as big as they get. Brown Bears may be found throughout the northern hemisphere and all of them, from Europe to North America, belong to the same species, Ursus Arctos. There are numerous subspecies of these animals. North America’s Grizzly Bears and Alaska’s Coastal Brown bears are different subspecies, but they are close cousins.
These animals can attain immense size with males in some subspecies weighing well over 1000 pounds. The bears that I observed are a bit smaller than that, but still huge, with the adults weighing upwards of 700 pounds.
We observed these bears foraging, sleeping, and playing on a coastal plain that included a vast expanse of grass and a tidal zone that became an immense mudflat at low tide.
Brown Bears have a fearsome reputation as predators, and publications and the internet abound with stories of bears vs. human attacks. A staple of romantic literature about the Old West is the tale of the attack on a hunter or trapper by a grizzly bear. Every year we read stories about hikers and cyclists who fall victim to these animals. Given that, how could we venture so close to these animals and walk away unscathed?
I think that the answer to this question has more than one element. First, and foremost is the fact that the Lake Clark bears are very familiar with humans. Bears aren’t hunted there. People have come to the area to observe the bears for decades and so, the animals are inured to humans’ presence. Furthermore, we offered nothing of interest to them. We were strictly forbidden to carry food into the field. The bears, on the other hand, had an abundant food supply consisting of the grass that grows densely near the shoreline and clams at low tide. Moreover, nothing that we did interfered with the bears’ activities. Although we stood close to them, we never cut off their lines of travel and never interacted with them. We stood quietly, talked in low tones, and made no sudden movements. Although the bears certainly were aware of our presence they ignored us.
Over the four days that we photographed these bears we saw them engage in a wide variety of behaviors and activities. We photographed bears of all ages, from older adults like the ones pictured above to cubs ranging in age from a few months to three years.
My plan over the next week or two is to post about all of the aspects of bear life that we witnessed. I will post images of male and female bears, of mothers and cubs, of cubs playing, and of bears foraging. And, I’ll post images of other wildlife that we saw and photographed.
The second image made with a Canon 5Diii, 70-200mm f4 L zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 400, f7.1 @ 1/320. All other images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting. The third image shot at ISO 1000, f8 @ 1/1000. The fourth image shot at ISO 500, f7.1 @ 1/800. The fifth image shot at ISO 400, f6.3 @ 1/640. The sixth image shot at ISO 800, f8 @ 1/1250. The final image shot at ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/2500.