Camping in the Alaskan wilderness is always a challenge, both mentally and physically. Last year (2009) in Katmai I was blessed with great light almost daily. This time I experienced the opposite, as it turned out to be the wettest, coldest summer on record in Katmai National Park. This time I would really learn something, not just about the challenges of photography in bad weather, but about the twists and turns of nature, man and beast.
I was somewhat apprehensive (well more than somewhat) about the dynamics of the group I had assembled for Kent to guide into Katmai. The source of this was his insistence that this year I was to be ‘deputized’ as assistant guide. With only two previous bear trips under my belt I did not feel qualified for this responsibility and the idea of leading a group into the grizzly sanctuary seemed daunting. Perhaps after a few days with the bears and with Kent’s guidance I would find the courage to take on the task.
I had assembled 5 people to take the trip including friend and mentor Daisy Gilardini and her husband, artist David McEown . We all met in Anchorage, took the ERA flight to Homer that evening and got acquainted and briefed at dinner that night. The weather looked promising but the next morning was pouring rain and cold, our flight was delayed until the afternoon, but we got in the air by 4:30pm. It was August 6th – my birthday.
Thirty minutes into the flight, I lost any doubt as to my motivation for planning this, my third trip. The Katmai coast is a spectacular display of glaciers, ice, sheer mountain cliffs and emerald green forests and meadows spreading into the Pacific Ocean. The mountains are so rugged they appear impenetrable. We landed on the beach at Hallo Bay at the foot of Hallo Glacier. Bears were seen grazing in the meadows as we flew over and the anticipation was palpable. After unloading the three planes we carried our gear to the camping spot just over the berm and near a rocky spit.
One of the guys asked Kent “what can we do to help set up”. He responded “Nothing, I will set up and ‘Deputy Deb’ will take you to see the bears. Grab your gear and head out.” So much for warming up to the bear guide position. With feigned confidence I led our group of six along the 2km hike to the Middle River. Here we found a bear named ‘Daisy’ with her two yearling cubs, one male and one female. This is the bear that last year raised her cubs on Inagiak Island, a 2km swim from Hallo bay. We found her and the cubs on the far side of the creek and since we had not unpacked our waders we were bound to stay on our side of the river. A relief for me. For Kerry and his father Ken, first time bear viewers, this would be plenty close enough for their first encounter. We enjoyed them from a distance until the last of the golden light disappeared behind the Alaska Range.
By the time we got back to camp, Kent had all the tents up including a wonderfully large teepee style cook tent. We quickly found a meal of instant noodles and spent the remaining light organizing our gear. The day ended with everyone in high spirits, and our first night bedding down with the bears. Most of us slept lightly and intermittently. One’s first night in a bear haven can be a challenge. Add to that the electric bear fence was not up yet.
I checked for the light at 5am, too cloudy – back to bed. Later a leisurely breakfast took us to mid-morning and the group wanted to head out even though the light was poor. Kent sent me out again as he had more camp duties to finish up including the electric perimeter fence. I sensed this did not sit well with the group but this was our guide’s decision. I knew it would not be very productive to go out at mid-morning as the bears typically sleep through mid-day. I was good exercise however and we were able to find a new bear with spring cubs. She was too shy to allow us in range for good shots. Luckily we found Daisy again and watched her nurse her gorgeous babies. Tired and with only poor light we headed back to camp for lunch and a p.m. nap.
Returning to camp we discovered that Kent had done no more work on the camp site. The solar panel was not set up and neither was the fence. It looks like he spent the morning relaxing and visiting with a young camper Jonathon whom Kent had promised would be our dishwasher and water fetcher in exchange for some shared meals. I was getting concerned. When it came time for the afternoon excursion it was clear that Kent intended not to go. I took him aside and insisted that he participate, which he finally agreed to do. With a few moments of good light to work with we managed to get some shots of the bears fishing out on the tidal flats and the group seemed satisfied. My concerns continued to grow as Kent did not step up to organize any meals. It appears we were on our own, so I took the reins and began to set up the meals as would become the routine.
The weather was fogging in and it looked like a day to stay in, but Daisy came to my tent and we discussed that it could be an opportunity to learn more about shooting in difficult lighting. No one wanted to be left behind so we all trudged off into the fog. Kent followed some distance behind the group, and with me at the head of the trail, I was left to choose the path. Fog turned to drizzle and then rain. Since we had gotten this far, we decided to stay out where a female bear was fishing. Kent took us in very close and I could sense the bear was irritated with the intrusion. It seemed like a careless move. She shook her head and glared at us, then marched out of the water towards us. Kent had left his flare deep in his pack, luckily mine was ready and I handed it to Kent and deferred to his expertise in bear closeness. She came aggressively within three meters of us and then changed her mind and reluctantly backed off. My concern about our guide began to grow. As the sky got darker we abandoned the shoot and, well-soaked we plodded back to camp. We did our best to dry out gear, but it was futile. I was wracking my brain for ways to keep up spirits in the group. There was a tension there with Kent that I did not understand. I fell asleep for my afternoon nap, hoping to wake up with a solution.
That afternoon I decided I could only be responsible for my own behaviour not Kent’s and I resolved to make the trip as pleasant for everyone as I could. I would try to bring the group together and encourage the building of friendships and be supportive of everyone in the group. I had to keep the bigger picture in mind that this amazing bear experience would hold lifelong memories for all of us. We would all cross paths again somewhere down the road and I wanted to build those bridges.
We went out at low evening tide and a few breaks in the clouds provided some small opportunities. Finally we saw Melissa. Sadly she only has one cub. ‘Hope’ the little female had not been seen this year. She may have been killed by a boar last fall or simply succumbed to the elements. No one knows. Scrappy, however, had grown tremendously and was in fine form! The event that transpired next brought home to me how fragile his place is and how tenuous is the freedom we have with the bears. A family of three from France had flown in to Hallo Bay and camped illegally in the middle of the bears’ meadow and grazing area. They had no guide and clearly were not aware of the ‘rules’.
Two bear viewing guides had tried to speak with them about where they were camped but they refused to move. They were frequently wandering around alone, rather than staying together. The mother managed to get herself between Melissa and her cub Scrappy. Luckily this happened with Melissa and not a less tolerant bear. We were too far away to help and I am not sure what we could have done. This family were determined to do things their own way. Melissa watched out of one eye while grazing, as Scrappy proceeded to stalk the woman. She made the mistake of backing away nervously which served to entice the cub even more. He moved to within a few feet of her and she took off her jacket and started flicking it at him. He was very amused and not at all afraid. We were terrified as we watched knowing full well that if he attacked her the wardens would be forced to come in and shoot him. The wonderful Melissa allowed her cub this folly but finally ‘huffed’ and called him back to her before real trouble ensued. We were so relieved.
Back at camp sleep is a long time coming…We still have no fence, and thoughts of nearby bears concerns us all. The crash of the waves at high tide is near and a strong wind buffeted the tents. Semi-dry, and bear flare next to my alarm, I retired for the night.
I awoke at 3am and peeked outside: STARS! There was hope for a clear morning. I went to the cook tent at 5am and began to lay out breakfast and coffee. Hopeful for some good light, we ate quickly and prepared our gear. Soon the sky began to turn pink in the east. Some unusual cloud formations were building and we excitedly moved to the tidal flats. The bears were searching for fish but very little action was taking place. The cold wind eventually drove us inland to the meadows where we watched Melissa’s sister Hanna and her two dark spring cubs. She had not been ‘out’ very long with them so she was not ready to let us close. Soon the storm that had been hanging just south of us began to move in.
Not relishing another soggy day we ran for camp, but by the time we got there the sky was clearing and the day warmed up. We took the opportunity to hang out all our wet gear and followed the bear’s example of a warm afternoon nap. I hung the camp’s solar shower bag from my tripod and had an outdoor shower of sorts. Amongst the group many concerns are being voiced about Kent’s lack of leadership and enthusiasm as well as the still absent perimeter fence.
Finally, after much pressure from the group Kent agrees to cut some branches and hang the electric wire, which he feels is not necessary. He does it grudgingly and decides this will be in lieu of guiding us on the evening shoot. Now more confident about my own guiding skills, I take the group out without hesitation. With good light finally bestowed upon us, we set off on the 45 minute hike out to the meadows. As we hiked past the French family’s camping area, we saw they had broken camp and were expecting to leave. This is a welcome sign.
I took my group to the edge of Daisy’s meadow and we all lined up along the driftwood to prepare for our shots. Daisy and her cubs were on the opposite side of the meadow about 200 meters away and I knew it was just a matter of time before she made her way over to see us. When she and the cubs were about 50 meters away, behold the French family emerges behind them, the three people spread in a wide arc forcing the bears to choose a path directly into our group. Before we knew it, the bears were upon us. George, the one rogue photographer in the group, always pushing the envelope of safety, had positioned himself 5 meters away from us.
It was through this gap that Daisy charged, in an effort to get over the berm and into the forest. One cub followed her closely. The other cub stopped to visit us. My heart was pounding, as I was thinking about the potential consequences. I drew out my flare and shouted at George stand up and make himself imposing to the cub. He drew his flare and stood up, but the cub was undaunted. An aggressive move by George could upset the mother bear, who had now stopped to wait. George played it cool and allowed the cub to sniff him, then with a ‘huff-huff’ from mother bear, the cub spun around and joined her. There was a huge collective sigh of relief, followed by a ripple of nervous laughter from our group.
I was so angry with the ignorance of the French family. It could have been a disaster. The father approached and wanted to know if we had a sat-phone, so he could call Homer and see where his flight was. We told him there was no phone, and if the plane was not here by now it was not coming. He was furious and shouted about missing an important meeting somewhere. We were not sympathetic! They were forced to rebuild camp and wait another day.
At low tide we made our way to the beach where there was plenty of fishing activity. We stayed out until near dark and were rewarded again by a sight few people will ever see. A young wolf was interacting with a sow and her two cubs. The behaviour was fascinating to watch as the wolf teased and played with the yearling cubs. They were probably too big for him to take down and mother watched carefully, but only intervened when the wolf showed any aggression. We watch for 1/2 hour until darkness fell and the wolf trotted off.
We arrived back at camp at 11:30pm and, behold, the electric fence was up! We all slept better perhaps from exhaustion but for sure feeling safer with the new boundary in place.