Jeff Schultz took this photo during one of the Alaskan bear photo tours in Lake Clark National Park.
After 50 minutes, the droning from the engine of the seven-seat floatplane nearly has my five quiet fellow passengers lulled into an early morning nap.
“Redoubt Volcano is coming up on our right.” Our pilot’s words crackle calmly through the headset as if this is an everyday sight. “It’s just over 10,000 feet and active. See the steam rising from the left side? It last blew its top in 2009.” That statement perks up the group.
The plane is flying 100 mph and 2,000 feet above the ground as we pass the snow-capped volcanic cone not more than half a mile away. Redoubt acts as a curb while the pilot hugs the right-hand turn into the Crescent River Valley, dotted with an abundance of early fall colors on this late-August outing.
We’d departed from Lake Hood in Anchorage, the world’s busiest floatplane base, and now our destination of Crescent Lake in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is within sight; we are less than 10 minutes from touchdown.
Below us, the white rollers of the class IV Crescent River surge downhill as we fly upstream. Soon, the river becomes much wider and completely calm. “Bear! There’s a bear on the left-hand bank. Next to that big tree,” someone says. We all hear the enthusiastic announcement from our fellow day-tripper. We catch a few seconds of the dark-colored, wet bear ambling along the river’s bank. Our group, all strangers to me, have come for an eight-hour day to view, experience, and photograph Alaska’s apex predator, the brown bear. I am on a scouting mission to see if this location might be good for future photo tours I lead. These visitors are five of the 1.4 million Alaska welcomes each summer season.
As the plane banks right and loses altitude for landing, I look left, up the valley and the nine-mile-long turquoise lake resting like a puddle sandwiched between steep 4,000-foot peaks of the Chigmit Mountains. A blue-bird sky is its background. Alaska has put out a stunning welcome mat—again.
For Jeff’s tips on how to pick the right photo tour, click here.
Bear on the right
Upon disembarking and an orientation of bear and boat protocol at our day-lodge, our faction walks aboard a roomy pontoon-style, flat-floored, covered party boat with comfy, cushioned, vinyl seats. Our bear guide and boat captain shoves off and motors south, toward where we’d seen the bear from the plane. Cameras out, we hope to see the animal up closer and at eye-level. As we putter around a couple of corners into the slow-moving section of river, our guide provides detailed information on the park and habits of its wildlife.
“Keep your head on a swivel,” she says. “These bears can be anywhere. They are now in the hyperphagia state of needing to fatten up before hibernation. Their food source is all these red, dying, and dead sockeye salmon. The bears walk circles around the entire lake including the inlet nine miles up-valley and along this outlet, Crescent River.”
“Bear! Bear! Bear on the right.” No more than 10 minutes onboard, and here is a smaller, blond bear 75 yards ahead and walking the grassy embankment directly toward us. The captain turns off the engine and whispers that we will merely wait and watch. With only a couple head bobs toward us, this beautiful animal is obviously on a mission as it pauses, peering into the water every few seconds for a fish treat.
We watch quietly, mesmerized at how close we are and how unaffected the animal is with our presence. Each person, now standing, easily jockeys on the boat for an unobstructed position from which to photograph or simply observe. The bear moves back and forth, walks toward us, then pauses and takes a few steps back, all while looking for salmon. It steps off the bank and pushes slowly, stealthily, into the tranquil water, its nose pointing up, sniffing the clear air. Its position forms a perfect reflection in the river.
Instantly, as if it were catapulted, the bear lunges forward with its clawed paws directly in front, water spraying in all directions. The head plunges beneath the water and quickly comes up, dripping wet, with nothing between its teeth. Wasting no time, the head snaps quickly left and then just as rapidly to the right, the eyes fixated on something we cannot see. The bear pounces forward again, dropping its head to the water for a nanosecond before rising and springing to its immediate left. Water flies in all directions, and we glimpse the backs of a few salmon creasing the surface as they scurry to save themselves.
As fast as it started, the commotion appears to be over. Seemingly unfazed, the bruin walks back onto the bank, shakes the water off its thick fur coat, and continues ambling toward us. Everyone aboard has something to say.
“Wow! How cool was that?!”
“Amazing, just amazing. Ok, we can go home now.”
“That was thrilling. Did you see that?”
The engine starts up and the captain suggests after such a good show we would do well to move on to find another bear. She mentions they saw 15 different bears the day before. Why not get some variety?
A brown bear shakes water off its coat after jumping in the lake to catch salmon. For anyone unfamiliar with wildlife viewing in Alaska, joining a reputable photography tour is a safe way to get shots like this.
‘More bear encounters than we could have imagined’
The boat heads farther downstream on this slow, meandering river where the banks are sprinkled with bright yellow patches of birch trees among the green spruce and birch. Redoubt Volcano towers over us.
And there it is, not easy to spot, but a smallish, furry mass bobbing in the water in front of the boat. A bear is swimming across the river. The visitors, seeing it wade and then paddle across the shallow strait, are thrilled, as most have only ever seen bears in action in documentaries. Once on the far bank, the bear shakes and stands for a moment, Mount Redoubt its backdrop. Camera shutters click wildly until the animal disappears into the brush.
At lunchtime, our group and a few others sit on a log eating a delicious spread the lodge has provided: salmon sandwiches, coleslaw, and homemade cookies. High clouds move in, turning the air cooler. Our guide suggests this is a good thing, as it will likely bring out more bears.
The rest of the afternoon, she takes us around the lake as well as farther down the river where we encounter some 12 or more bears of various sizes and color. What a delight it is for the group to see a sow with two one-year-old cubs sharing a salmon, and a couple of large boars wading and walking the shoreline. Some are merely picking up and eating dead carcasses floating, while others give us a great show of diving and splashing in the water and emerging with a bright red meal.
By day’s end, we’ve had more bear encounters than we could have imagined in a single day. Everyone is satisfied and all go home with abundant photos and stories to tell. And I have certainly found the appropriate location for my Alaskan bear photo tours.