Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska tops the marquee when brown bears are mentioned, but there's another national park in Alaska that will surprise you with its bear-viewing opportunities.
Earlier this month, I fulfilled a wish from my bucket list by joining up with an organized photo tour and flying to Alaska to photograph the brown bears of Katmai National Park. I’d arrived in Anchorage a couple of days prior to the start of the tour, so I decided to reserve a spot for a bear-viewing day trip in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.
Yes, I know I was already scheduled for bear photography within Katmai, but since I was here in Alaska anyway with a big honkin’ lens, I might as well get my fill of bear photography. Since Lake Clark is located above and to the northeast of Katmai, I figured the environment might also present some photographic differences (and challenges).
I currently live in Texas, which is a rather large state. Alaska is about 2.3 times the size of Texas and is a geologist’s paradise with glaciers, volcanoes, marshes, braided streams and meandering river bends.
Air Taxi To Lake Clark
I saw all of this amazing scenery while flying in the Regal Air 5-seater along with three other people and our pilot. If you’ve never flown in a float plane or small wheeled plane, you should do so to get a completely different perspective of the land below you, with all of its patterns and colors which cannot be fully viewed and appreciated at ground level.
Scheduled to depart at 8 a.m., the flight was delayed approximately 45 minutes due to the weather. You see, in these small planes, there is no auto pilot switch to flip. The pilot flies using his own eyes. Because of this, weather conditions may be problematic regarding takeoff and landing and as such, a close eye is kept upon the weather, both locally and along the flight path.
The flight from Anchorage to Lake Clark is about 1 hour. During that time, we all wore well-padded earphones to dampen the plane’s droning and allow us to clearly communicate without resorting to shouting above the din.
We landed on the beach to an overcast day, cold with some light rain. Spruce and other trees lent their fragrance to the fresh cold air. Pure heaven!
Gazing across the sandy beach revealed by the low tide, we spotted small groups of people clustered near bears intently digging in the sand for razor clams. It was not yet time for the salmon to start migrating along Silver Salmon Creek – that usually occurs later in August - so the bears were using their incredible sense of smell to detect clams beneath the sand.
These humongous creatures appeared not the least bit bothered by the onlookers with their cameras; they totally ignored the humans as they went about their business. Each group of tourists was led by a guide standing alert to keep bear and human alike at a safe distance from each other.
Preparing For Bears....And Rain
Our pilot introduced us to our guide: James Isaak, proprieter of Alaska Homestead Lodge, Inc. James picked us up in what appeared to be a modified tractor/ATV “carriage” that transported us and our camera gear to the lodge for a bathroom break and a change into rubber boots suitable for walking in wet grass or on the beach.
James also supplied raincoats for those of us needing the protection. Having checked weather conditions in advance of my Alaska trip, I had the foresight to tote along my waterproof field jacket under which I wore warm fleece. I also remembered to bring rain gear for my cameras and lenses.
Suitably attired for the elements, we clambered back into our ATV “carriage” and were chauffeured around in search of bear-viewing, eagle-viewing, or any other wildlife-viewing photo ops. Purple-blue lupine (similar to bluebonnets back in Texas) and other colorful wildflowers carpeted patches of the ground around us.
Yes, mosquitoes swarmed our heads in spots; the locals say the mosquito is Alaska’s state bird, and during my entire trip, I was inclined to believe that. Those pesky insects are much larger than the ones in Texas, and you don’t even feel them when they bite.
Tricks Of Photographing Blond Bruins
The brown bears (aka grizzlies) range in color from dark brown to a honey-blonde shade. Photographing them against a much lighter, brighter scene is a bit tricky. One risks either blowing out the lighter parts of the scene or under-exposing the bears.
I generally metered for the midtones of the bear, rather than the lighter surroundings. I operate my camera in total Manual, and my settings were usually in the range of 200 ISO, 1/80 shutter speed, and 5.6 f-stop for those bear scenes with little movement. For times when I wanted to freeze the movement of the great (and little) bruins, I increased the ISO to between 800-1250 and was thus able to accordingly increase the shutter speed.
If the bear(s) in my image came out a little dark, I fixed that with the Shadows/Highlights portion of either Lightroom or Photoshop. I risked the possibility of noise in the darker images, but didn’t encounter any issues that couldn’t be fixed with noise removal software like Imagenomic’s Noiseware. ￼
For this day trip, I brought along the rented Canon 500mm prime with an attached 1.4x teleconverter for an effective focal length of 700mm.
I didn’t much care for the bit of softness produced with the addition of the extender, so I ultimately eschewed it in favor of shooting at just the 500mm focal length while photographing later in Katmai.
I also brought along the 17-40mm and 100-400mm lenses (not a light load by any means for a day trip). I ended up loaning that 100-400 to another Canon user on this day trip since I stuck with the big prime; the majority of the time those bears we saw were not very close to us (remember, the salmon were not yet in full migration within that area). Because of this, I often opted to create landscape images into which I incorporated the bear as part of the scene. ￼
On this rainy day, I also discovered just how useful my Lowepro Flipside 500 AW camera pack proved and how sturdy and weatherproof my camera bodies and lenses were (thank goodness).
Roughing It, Alaska Style
Part of this day-trip included a fantastic lunch of home-caught, home-smoked salmon, fresh fruit, bread, a variety of cheeses and lunch meats, and homemade chocolate chip cookies. We enjoyed this bounty inside the cozy, comfortable, generator-powered lodge built by James and his wife. Coffee, water, hot chocolate and lemonade quenched our thirst.
Having lived along Lake Clark for some 20 years, James remarked that everything, from the building materials to the foodstuffs to the mail, was flown in. There is no access to roads.
The word “remote” is almost too small to use when describing the incredible vastness of the Alaskan land. If you get sick out here, you may be days away from help and that help must be flown in or you flown out to a hospital.
Our pilot informed me that the few small buildings I saw dotting the land as we flew to and from the park are accessed only by small plane; sometimes, these places are reached only when the snow and ice can provide a stable enough platform for an ATV.
As my photo tour leader later opined during our stay in Katmai, this kind of living is more for the young (and healthy).
Day trips like this one generally last about six hours, give or take. There’s the flight time, maybe 1-1/2 to 2 hours of photography time, an hour for lunch or early dinner (depending upon the tour), and then the flight time back to Anchorage. It’s not cheap (this trip ran $735), but it’s a neat experience if you’ve never done anything like this.
For me, this day trip was not only a great chance to see parts of Alaska, but also a good opportunity to practice exposure techniques in anticipation of my Katmai experience. There are a number of flight operations offering flightseeing, bear viewing, and glacier viewing day trips departing from Anchorage (Regal Air, Rust’s Flying Service, Trail Ridge Air Inc. and Sound Aviation LLC, to name just a few). I chose Regal Air after seeing an advertisement for them on a website dedicated to the Anchorage area (www.anchorage.net).
I read various internet reviews about Regal Air and was pleased with what I read. And in case you were wondering, Regal Air, as with most other flightseeing operations, keeps their plane windows clean so people like me can photograph the amazing view of Alaska as seen from above. On a side note, Regal Air now offers a 10-hour Alaska Photo Safari Workshop. For more information, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or go directly to their website www.regal-air.com ￼