Photographing Brown Bear in Alaska - Friend150

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Dan Friend

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From Homer, Alaska flew to Katmai National Preserve in type of pontoon plane called a Beaver. This plane is no longer made but seems to be a favorite of the bush pilots. The bush pilots I met were friendly, little crazy, competent and loved flying . They work hard and talk of past bush pilots that were legends in Alaska.

The Beaver airplane I flew in to Katmai National Park, Alaska

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​View from airplane going to Katmai

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The trip from Homer Alaska to Katmai took about a hour. After landing we hiked couple hundred yards to the campsite that Dave, the guide had set up. The camp site had a electric wire around the tents to keep the bears out. There was only three of us including the guide. We each had a tent and one larger tent where we ate and discussed what going to do next.

Camp site on Katmai

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I really lucked out in booking this trip and guide. We didn't shoot from platforms or top of banks. We went deep in bear country and photographed the bears in the streams at close quarters. I read this only place in world you can do this. The bears have never been hunted here and pay humans no attention. They are just interested in the salmon. Hopefully. If interested in who I used as a guide just email me and I'll send you the details. He has got to one of the best.


It got down in the 40s one night and I got cold when I had get out of sleeping bag in middle of night. Camp sites here don't have fires because there is no wood. Luckily I had some hand warmers that helped.

​Trying to keep warm........in August......in Alaska

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First Brown Bear encounter. After arriving and settling in at camp we headed straight for the stream to take pictures of brown bear. This was my first encounter with the brown bear. I was photographing a brown bear across the stream while he was attempting to catch a salmon. He wasn't doing very good job. I soon learned that all brown bear are not created equal. Some much better fisherman than others. I felt comfortable photographing this brown bear across the stream. He seemed engrossed in catching a salmon and not concerned about us at all.

Brown bear waiting for salmon across the stream

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Then another brown bear crossed the stream above us and started walking directly toward us. As the bear got closer I asked the Dave, the guide, if maybe we should move. He said just keep shooting photos and not make any quick movements. I asked if I could stand behind him and shoot photos. He just chuckled and said not problem. I moved behind him and keep shooting the brown bear as he walked directly toward us. The bear walked directly toward us till about 20 yards away then he veered up the bank, ate some grass and continued on his way. The first of many bear encounters that week.

Large brown bear walking directly toward us

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Later, sitting on the side of the stream waiting for some bears to come up closer to us, there was a loud commotion behind me up stream. I turned to see see this large brown bear start chasing a smaller brown bear that had just caught a salmon. I swung the camera around and started shooting. The smaller bear took off running but clear to see the bigger bear was going to catch up to him. The smaller bear dropped the salmon and the larger brown bear stopped the chase and grabbed the dropped salmon and started eating it.

Bully eating his "catch"

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Whenever the action would slow down and there no bear around Dave, the guide, would move us to another section of the stream. We'd pick a section for the lighting or background. Then we would sit and wait. This way the bears decided how close they wanted to get to us. Some would avoid us but most paid us no attention and if the salmon were close to us then they would chase the fish right up to us. This brown bear was a big male. He seemed to have a favorite fishing spot which happened to be right across from where we were sitting. He would jump in the water catching a salmon about half the time. Then he would take a walk around the block, he was on a island, come back to same place, chase any other bears away and jump in again. He did this five times while we were sitting there.

One day we got into a pontoon plane again and flew to a lake the pilots call "Just Enough Room Lake".   It is the head waters of Funnel Creek, the creek we've been photographing all the bears on.  It is the spawning destination for most of the salmon in Funnel Creek about 25 miles from the sea.    Some spawn before they reach the lake.  The plan was to fly into Just Enough Room Lake and hike back to camp site which was about 4 miles away  stopping at spots to photograph bear.  Flying up to the lake I asked the pilot why call it Just Enough Room Lake.  He said he'd tell after we landed.  "Because there is just enough room to land a plane"  , he said after we landed..  Like I said, these Alaskan bush pilots have weird sense of humor.  lol


Me, talking to the pilot

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Plane taking off "just enough room lake"

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After departing from the plane we walked some distance to get to the stream.  When got to stream we were on a high bank looking down on the stream.  Not ideal position but there were a mother brown bear and two cubs which are always fun to shoot.

Brown bear with two cubs

Brown bear and two cubs

These two cubs were very noisy  and continually chasing after the mom.  Making a 

                               bawling type sound.  She seemed little irritated with whole thing.

Bear cubs nursing

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The mother bear seemed bit perturbed about whole thing and at one  time smacked one the cubs in the head while he was nursing.  I'm only guessing, but figure she was weening them from her milk.  We saw them the next day and the cubs were eating salmon the mother killed and not nursing when we saw them.  I am assuming and do not know.

Bear family resting after chasing and eating slamon

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Later that day when we got down on the stream we came across the same bear family.  They were resting out on island in middle of stream.  Even though the mom brown bear looked like she was sleeping she was very diligent.  Whenever a bear would come up the stream on the shore she would jump up and stare directly at that bear.  She wouldn't lay back down until that bear was out of the area.  Dave, the guide, said surprised she didn't attack any of the bears.  But the bears that came up seemed to sense what going on and just keep trucking up the stream away from mom bear.  All the bears were constantly sniffing the air and they know what bears in area.  The interaction between young, old, big males, and moms with cubs was very interesting to watch.

Taking it easy.

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Then the next day we really lucked out.  This same  bear family came directly upstream towards us fishing for salmon and feeding and eventually walking  about 10 feet from where we were sitting.    The mother had already passed when one of the cubs came extremely close to us.   I was thinking never come between a mother bear and her cubs and little beads of sweat were forming on my lip.  lol      After the cub went by the guide said since the mother bear had walked right by us she wasn't concerned about us.    Course if someone had tried to pet the cute little cub, probably be last thing they did.  It was very cool and exciting.  - Later I asked Dave, the guide, if ever had problem with cub bear being curious and wanting to investigate the people.  He said, there have been few incidents but he has only had to raise his hand and say "stop" and they come no further.  Somehow they have learned.

Mother brown bear on a mission

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Mother brown bear shaking salmon and herself

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Bear cubs running in to eat the salmon mother bear caught

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Bear cubs eating salmon mother bear caught

Mother brown bear with two cubs eating salmon

Leaving salmon for the cubs to eat.

Mother brown bear with two cubs eating salmon

Mother starting to look for more salmon as the cubs chow down.

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Mother brown bear chasing after salmon

Mother brown bear chasing after salmon

The chase goes on

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And on

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Still chasing the salmon upstream

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Mother bear and cubs coming upstream toward us

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Mother brown walking past

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Walked right by us

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This little guy came even closer to us trying to catch up.

bear cub looking upstream

Baby bear cub photos

Cute guy......but do not touch!!!!!

Baby brown bear cub walking along the shore
Baby brown bear cub walking along shore of Funnel Creek

Looking for their mother upstream.

Two brown bear cubs walking away

We all survived this close encounter and got some great photos. Katmai  Alaska is a unique place where these brown bear have no fear of humans and don't feel threaten by humans and do not run away or attack.

We took pictures of another brown bear mother but her cubs were two years old.  From what I saw even the two year cubs not very good fishing for salmon and relied upon their mother.  Interesting thing about the two year is that he is a bully when a smaller bear that is three or four years old, but bigger than he is, comes close.  He'll take off after them knowing full well if that bear stays to fight his mommy will take of him.  I observed this happening several times.  The older bear always takes off as soon as sees the two year old cub coming.  Not sure if two year old cub would try that against a large male brown bear.  The ironic thing is that next year when the mother brown bear throws out the cub he'll be the one chased by the two year cubs..

Mother brown bear with two year old cub.

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Two year old bullies with mom

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These two bear cubs may relay information by "gaping," opening its jaws wide in close proximity to another bear's face that he's trying to impress. A favourite sport of bears is wrestling and jawing -sparring with their open mouths almost touching. Dogs do this all the time when they're playing.

Loved this old guy as he would really relax in between hunting for salmon.

Taking it easy while waiting on the salmon

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Diving in head first

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Shaking off the water

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This is what the bear are after, Sockeye Salmon.

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They have traveled about 20 miles at this point and have another 4 to go.

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Of course, large number of them don't make it.

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Some bear use the "submarine" technique to find and get the fish.

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They use to think bears had terrible eye sight but now they think bears see as well as we do.

Close up bears

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Once catching a salmon many of the bear would head straight to the bank so another bear would not try to steal the salmon.

Bear heading for brush with his salmon

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Some of younger bear were not that good at catching the salmon.  I asked the guide how they made it through the winter if they couldn't catch many salmon.  He reminded me that all these fish die after spawning and floating salmon are real easy to catch.  There will be a period when there is a glut of salmon for even the bears that can't fish can eat.

The younger bear sometimes had to go after the scraps.

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Not easy being a bear.  Especially a male bear.  These two guys have seen some battles.

Bear with big gash on back

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Injured bear showing scars on face

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Scar face with other injured bear in background

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The power, ferocity, and grace of these large mammals as they chase the salmon is amazing

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Bear in the field

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me, Dan Friend, relaxing and having a drink water and eating on Funnel Creek, Katmai, Alaska.

Me

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Bear on stream looking for salmon end of day

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Looking forward going back to Alaska someday