Grizzly Bears are the subject of lore, and many a tale of savagery at the hands of a wild animal comes at the jaws of a Grizzly Bear. Everyone is taught from an early age to fear these giant bears, and by all means...STAY AWAY FROM MOTHER BEARS WITH CUBS! Yet, in one part of the world...there is a place where man and bear have come to an understanding...where each respects the other, and man is able to observe these giants the way that they behave when nobody is watching. Lake Clark Alaska is that place, and for the past 6 years I've been taking small groups of photographers to remote coastal lodges where we spend four days among the bears, watching them with awe as they carry out their every day life.
The Silver Salmon lodge is remote, but calling it "rustic" is a bit of an overstep. It's as plush and accommodating as nearly any hotel in the world. Top notch food, lovely, rooms, and a tremendously helpful and generous staff....all in the heart of bear country. I met my group at the air-strip early in the AM for our flight to the park. We had lovely weather for the flight and everyone's trepidations were calmed by the lovely scenery and the smooth flight. Most everyone has flown on a small plane before, but nearly nobody has ever landed on a beach before. That part of the journey is always a first for people. Once on the beach, Dave, our local guide for our time meets us with our ATV limousine to take us to the lodge, and get us ready for our time with the bears.
Once we're situated with our rooms, we get on our rubber boots, and set off for our first bear encounters. It's only a matter of moments before we're on the beach photographing a large female bear who is just relaxing on the sand, during a low tide, belly full from a productive clamming expedition. I love wildlife photography because the settings, while tricky in the beginning ate fairly simple. FAST SHUTTER SPEEDS, and OPEN APERTURES...bump the ISO if needed to get the shutter speed. Once everyone is comfortable with this, they can really focus in on enjoying the shooting. We shoot high, we crouch and shoot low, we shoot horizontal, we shoot vertical, we shoot close, we shoot wide....there' always a new angle to shoot, and these bears are patient with us, so much so that we often get to roll off a lot of different looks of the creature before they get up, and amble away...glancing back to see if we need one more shot.
The photography at the lodge is amazing, but the food is equally as good. Chef Andrew is a culinary wizard and whips up everything from fresh fish and chowder, to slow cooked ribs and tenderloin. Vegetarian? Well Chef Andrew worked in a vegan restaurant for a year so he has recipes for that too! We never went hungry, and when there might be a doubt...they loaded us up with desserts too! Fern was always ready to take away one plate and leave behind another filled with something sweet!
One new treat to the lodge this year is a resident fox. Curious as can be, this fox was in our yard most every day, and managed to wait until the sweetest light possible before making her appearance. By the end of the first day, everyone has gotten more than their fill of great fox images, and over the course of three more days, she showed up often to make SURE we all had enough. Our time with the bears was amazing as well. We saw several sow bears in the meadow, one with two second year cubs who were ADORABLE, and full of expression. We had one bear, every evening lounging in the sedge meadows enjoying her nightly grass fix. We called her 'lazy bear' and she was a great subject for us most every day. One thing folks don't realize is how quickly they fill up their memory cards with bear images...believe it or not, people often want to know what else there is to photograph.
One day we always take a boat trip up the coast to see birding cliffs, and look to get some shots of puffins, and other sea going birds. The seas were amazing on our trip out...we were able to gently float near the puffins, and then fire away with our rapid shutters as they ran on water and took off to the sky. There's nothing graceful about a puffin, but these flying potatoes are a blast to photograph, and looks so good in images. You always hear about calm waters turning crazy in TV shows, and personally, I never really understood that until our drive home. Winds, and a strong tidal shift created some daunting waves for our drive home, and the smooth ride in was turned to a bumpy ride back to the lodge. Dave, is an expert at driving a boat though, and guided us back safely.
Our time in Lake Clark coincided with some extreme high tides, which made it difficult to get to the beach to see the bears, but allowed us a chance to take the boat up the creek a ways one afternoon and enjoy the scenic beauty of the Alaska wilderness. It's easy to see why so many folks come here to get as far away from the craziness of the mainland as possible. We all felt our inner-frontiersperson coming out.
Shooting critters all day long, laughing and enjoying meals in-between, and image review and processing in the evenings. EVERY DAY was full of fun, laughs, and amazing memories. Even though there was dry weather, and the dust was everywhere, we laughed our way through each day, and everyone came away with some tremendous experiences, and images. I don't think anyone will ever have a mother bear and her two cubs run at full speed past you, a mere five feet away. What an absolute rush!
There were so many awesome memories, and with a guide like Dave to help fill in bits of history of the area, and make sure we're in the right places, and close as we can be to the bears...it was all perfect. When Dave wasn't guiding us, there were a host of awesome folks at the lodge to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable. David and JoAnne have really made a special place in this world, and I'm sure everyone who has been can attest to that. Nature has put on a show here, and we all had front row seats for it...and the group has a book-load of memories to take home with them to prove it. Even if nobody caught an image of the elusive wolf-lynx there's still plenty of images to process once they get home, and a lifetime of good memories to think back on.
Until Next Time,
Brian and the rest of the Aperture Academy team
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