Friday, August 5, 2011

My visit to Katmai National Park

I recently took a trip to visit family in Homer Alaska recently and had a chance to fly out to Katmai National Park for the day to go see some bears.  I decided to enlist Dave Bachrach from AK Adventures based on a recommendation from a friend who used him a year prior to tour Katmai.  I can't praise Dave enough for his knowledge and demeanor while out with the bears.  We had many bears come to us and walk within 20 feet (one was about 10 feet).  They were actually too close as they were well beyond my minimum focus distance with the 600 VR.  Luckily I had a D300s with a 24-70 around my shoulder as well and was able to snap off a few.  More about that later, on to the experience.
It was a beautiful Monday Morning with sun and clear skies.  It was one of those mornings where you could get lost in thought feeling the heat from the glowing sun and staring at the awesome light it cast on the calm, cool lake and mountains beyond.  Even though the weather would be quite different at Katmai, it was the best way to start the day.  I got dropped off at at Emerald Air Service situated on Beluga Lake, just before the Homer Spit, at about 9am.  Once there, I checked in at the office with Sarah Elg and met Dave for the first time in person.  I had spoken with him a few times to set up this trip from Fred Miranda's website through private messages.  We chatted for a few minutes and then I headed down to the water's edge to get ready for the trip.  There I met the other 5 people that would be accompanying me on the trip.

Getting ready to to load up up and get going.

Once down there, we all got hip boot waders to try on and get the perfect fit.  Once we all were situated, Dave sat us down and told us what would be going on.  I was quite excited and couldn't wait to get in to the plane.  After a few minutes of talking, we loaded up our gear, well, my gear as I was the only one that decided to bring an arsenal of photo gear.  They either had no camera, point and shoots or small dslr's with a kit zoom.  There is nothing wrong with that, it just made me stand out even more.  First thing I got: "Are you a professional"?  My response: " No, just an expensive hobby..."  This is unfortunately the truth, but maybe someday I can turn this into a profession.  

I must have had 35-40lbs of gear with me, all packed in a Moose Peterson MP-1 bag.  A short side note: I would love to add a link to this, but it is just not the right bag for something like this.  Yes, it holds a ton of gear, but the backpack straps are not made to support the kind of load that it can hold.  It was ok when I was there as I had most of the gear out of the bag and carried it that way, but to, inside and from the airport, man, was it not fun.  I will add another blog post showing what I brought and what I brought it in, so stayed tuned for that.  Back to the trip.  

We got all packed in (it is a small plane) and took off from the dock.  We did a few circles on the lake to allow the engines to warm up.  Once ready, we radioed in and we were off.  It was going to be a little over an hour flight to Hallo Bay, where we were going to be for the day.  The salmon were not running yet in the rivers, so Hallo Bay was where the bears were at.  The flight was smooth and with the low cloud ceiling, relatively uneventful.  Once we started to get close, the wildlife started appearing.  We must have seen 500+ otters in groups of 15-20 scattered all about.  They even saw a whale close to shore, but it was on the opposite side of the plane, so I missed out.

We did a flyby to see where we could land as there was already a plane parked on the beach.  We circled back and touchdown, a smooth landing.  I love landing on water as you do not even know you have landed until you see the water splashing up.  Our pilot Craig Elg guided the plane to the shore and we all got ready to get out.  Once there, the weather was drastically different from what we left, but I was more than ok with it.  The skies were completely overcast and a slight drizzle of rain was coming down.  Luckily I have all professional Nikon gear and was not worried one bit.  I actually brought ThinkTank Hydrophobia covers for the 600mm and the 70-200mm, but never brought them out. 

Everyone getting off the plane at Hallo Bay in vastly different weather from what we left.

Once I got out, I immediately started to get ready.  I pulled out my D3s that was already attached to my 600 VR.  I slapped it on the Wimberley head and unlocked the legs.  I already had the D300s and 24-70mm on a BlackRapid strap that I took on the plane.  I threw the 3 teleconverters (1.4, 1.7 and 2.0 III) extra battery and extra flash cards in my pockets and I was ready to go.  I already had a Sandisk Extreme Pro 16gb in the D300s and a Lexar 600x 32gb and Sandisk Extreme Pro 16gb in the D3s.  Turns out, I still had room to take more pics on the D3s even after shooting over 1100 pics in Raw format. 

We walked up the bank and immediately ran into a bear feeding about 100 yards away.  So we walked the trail a bit and slowly made our approach. This was the first time I was in the presence of a wild Alaskan Brown Bear and on top of that, not in a controlled environment.  It was an amazing experience and I actually forgot to start taking pictures and I just stared in amazement.  These animals are huge and they get every ounce of respect they deserve from me.  The one thing that amazed me is how quiet they are.  I will talk more about this later, but if this was thicker brush, you really would not know that there was an 800lb brown bear 50 feet away slowly grazing on grass.  

Here we are slowly making our way closer to the bear. Dave is second from the right.

We are getting closer and closer - D300s w/ 24-70mm
 We got pretty close to this bear and little did we know, we would run into him again a little later, unexpectedly of course.  We watched him graze for a bit, probably 10-15 minutes.  In that time, here are some pics that I got:

We then decided to trek on, as we were only 100 yards from the plane and there were definitely more bears to see.  We followed the bear trails, which are very narrow in relation to their size.  It is as if we walked foot in front of foot, instead of how we normally walk.  In the distance you could see many more bears ahead, it was like a something you would see on the discovery channel or a movie where you see bears scattered about everywhere, it was absolutely amazing.

So we were walking for about 5-10 minutes and came upon another bear laying around.  The bear was taking a nap and not really photogenic so we were just about to move on deeper into the bay when we look behind us (you always need to be aware of who and what is around you) and here comes another bear we did not know was there coming straight towards us.  When I mean straight towards us, I mean:

He was coming right up behind us.  Luckily, he did not care about us, he was more concerned with the other bears and eating.  It was quite amazing to feel almost invisible to them.  This bear just came closer and closer till he was about 10 feet away and then made a left turn and continued on around us, paying no attention to us, but watching another bear close by.  He got too close for me to focus with the 600, even manual focus, so I slowly grabbed my D300s and 24-70 and tried to get a few.

The funny thing was, during this entire time, I did not once, feel scared or that my life was in danger.  It was an amazing feeling to be so close to these majestic animals that I really did not even care if I got a picture, it was that great.  After this encounter, we saw 2 bears in the distance that appeared to be fighting.  We tried to head on over as quickly as we could to watch.  We got intercepted along the way by one of the Katmai Rangers who was patrolling the bay.  He just wanted to see how we were doing, wanted to know why we were not going to see the bears fighting and if we had seen any wolves.  He was a nice fellow and once he left, we were on our way again.  

Luckily, we were able to catch up to the bears and witness some play fighting between 2 juvenile bears.  I was using the Nikon D3s with the Nikon 600mm VR and the Nikon TC-20e III teleconverter.  Unfortunately, I did not have the right shutter speed to sharply capture what I was witnessing.  I got a few good keepers, but they were a bit soft due to the slow shutter speed.  I was shooting in manual mode as for some reason my apeture priority was blowing out the highlights regardless of what I was metering on.  I could not recreate it later on, so I have no idea what went wrong.  

They played like this off and on for at least 10-15 minutes.  It was quite awesome to watch as you really see how quickly these guys can move and what force is behind them.  Hair was coming out of their mouths and claws so even though it was play fighting, they were still going at it pretty hard.  After this session died down, we were off again to get close to more bears and boy did we.  We arrived at Katmai about 10:30am and kept stopping to watch and photograph bears.  We had probably walked about 2 miles by 1pm and Dave decided that it is time to take a break and have some lunch.  We were making our way to a nice place to have lunch complete with a felled log for use as a bench when this behemoth of a bear decided it wanted us to watch him for a bit.  He put on a show for us too, which was quite nice.  I think he just wanted some attention.

After he was done rolling around and playing, he decided to walk right up to us and past us.  He again was too close to focus on the 600 VR, so out came the D300s and 24-70mm again.  He sure can put on a sinister look.

He just kept walking and grazing along the way.  We were then able to continue on to our lunch spot and take a few minutes to talk about our journey thus far and get some food in us.  I ate just because I should have as I was so taken over by what I have been and am currently experiencing that I was not interested in eating at all.  I scarfed down my food that I picked up at the Safeway in Homer earlier that morning.  I also decided to change out the 24-70 on the D300s to the 70-200mm VR II.  The focal length did not change much of anything as I did not use it that much after we ate lunch.  

After everyone had filled up Dave decided to start heading back towards the plane, but it would take a bit as we were easily 2-3 miles out.  Dave kept in contact with our pilot via radio, pushing back our ETA back to the plane.  This was a nice, as it was clear it wasn't a trip to get you here and get out.  We got our monies worth and then some.  The plane that was there when we got there, had already left before we even ate lunch and we were the only ones left in the bay, Priceless.

Shortly after our walk back after lunch, it started to rain quite hard and the wind picked up.  I thought about trying to get out the thinktank covers for the cameras, but decided, if I had made it this far, it wasn't an issue.  Turns out, they were fine.  Even in the brief downpour, the Nikon bodies and lenses had no issues at all.  That is a testament about the robustness of the pro and semi-pro bodies by Nikon (Thank you Nikon).  After the rain stopped, we cam to a small tidal river where another bear also decided to make its way towards us (We could not have scripted any better behavior from these bears).  I got some really great tight headshots from this bear.

He then proceeded to be too close again and I just decided to watch and not take pictures.  He seemed to be more worried about what we might do then what he could do to us.  He just kept on his way, stopping every now and again to take huge bites of grass, on to a large open area not too far from us.  Once he was a safe distance away from us, we decided to keep on trekking.  Again, Dave radioed that we were going to be a little later now.

We came across so many other bears doing their own thing, I couldn't keep track of all of them.  There was one that was scratching himself on felled and washed up logs, staring out, almost contemplating his existence and briefly what to do next:

Then there was the exasperated bear passed out on the beach.  Dave said he had heard people were saying "oh no, there is a dead bear on the beach!", to which he just laughed as he knew better.  It was still funny to see.  He looked as though he was just wiped and fell where he could not muster up the energy to move on any farther.

We just kept on trekking back to the plane, which probably took us another 20-25 minutes.  As we were walking back, you could faintly see the outline of a tent near the water in the distance.  From what Dave and the Ranger were telling us, this was the tent of a Lady that had enough of what was going on in her life and was camping at Katmai all summer.  Not only was that crazy, but she did not have an electric perimeter bear fence and she had to move 7 miles every 14 days.  Not saying she is another Tim Treadwell, but I think it takes a different kind of person to desire to do this, especially on her own.  Hope it ends well for her.

We continued on and finally got back to our plane about 3:30pm.  It was bittersweet.  I was happy to be there, but I could have stayed the rest of the day and then some.  Dave allowed me to have an amazing experience, one that I will not soon forget.  I feel as though I got some great pictures, but it was also a learning experience.  I realized a lot that I did wrong and could have improved so much better in both composition and quality of the pictures.  There was so much excitement going through my head that I made a lot of mistakes as I did not take it down a notch and focus on the task at hand.  Who knows, maybe I would not have enjoyed it as much if I did that.  Time will tell.  Until the next time I get out there, I will be thinking about all I experienced there.  Hope you enjoyed the story...

All of these pictures and a few more can be purchased if you like them.  Just go to my website.


  1. Hi Scott
    May I put a link to this great great page on my website ?
    Rod jenkins

    1. No, Not at all. Thank you for asking first. Please do. Thanks again - Scot

  2. Wow, thanks for sharing. Awesome shots of the Bears. I love the details in the bears fur and faces with scars. Seeing their playful nature in your pictures is fantastic.