Alaska, the last true frontier. Not many people realize just how vast an expanse of wilderness Alaska is. A lot of clients over the years have come from California, which is a pretty big state, especially if you've ever driven between its borders. But Alaska is over 4 times larger by area. Let that sink in. Its huge. Also by comparison, the largest National Park in California is Death Valley at 3.3 million acres. Alaska is home to the top 4 largest National Parks, two of which are more than double the size of Death Valley. Let that sink in. Basically Alaska has huge untamed swaths of wilderness for all kinds of North American wildlife to exist naturally. The almighty Grizzly bear is one of those species that thrives in the vast expanses of the Alaskan wilderness, and one that happens to be the main subject of Aperture Academy's Grizzly Bear Workshop.
For 4 days in a remote area of Alaska, I led 2 groups of photographers to experience some of the absolute best Grizzly Bear viewing in the world. Lake Clark National Park was our setting, and for good reason. On a small spit of land abutting the western side of the Cook Inlet, there lies an area where Grizzlies have been in close proximity to mankind for decades. The bears here are more habituated to the presence of the humans than anywhere else in the wilds of Alaska. Which means that one can get impressively close to bears in their natural habitat without fear of disturbing the bears normal routine. It's quite amazing and slightly terrifying trying to put your mind at ease while a 400 pound-plus furry killing machine is walking and eating sometimes closer than 10 feet from you. And if you want access to some of the best photography without having to lug major equipment around through the wilderness, this is the place to come.
The Silver Salmon Creek Lodge is one of the premiere bear viewing lodges in all of Alaska. Their operation is astounding, and the people they employ are equally astounding, from the bear guides, to the chefs, who whipped up some of the best food I've had in years. Its from this lodge that our journeys began. You see the only way to even get to this part of Lake Clark National Park is by boat or plane. Plane was our preferred method since its a little over an hour from Anchorage. Let me tell you, if you want to feel small and insignificant, just look out the window during that flight, and on a clear day you wont have to wait long for the anxiety to kick in, the multiple mountain ranges on both sides of the inlet coupled with the fact there's no people or infrastructure in sight, was enough to make this city-dweller pause and reflect. Its absolutely gorgeous rugged landscape that goes and never stops. Back at the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, right of the plane ride, we stepped into our boots and went out immediately to find some of them bears. As you can imagine, you don't have to travel far, when you're in the right place. And the lodge is definitely in the right place.
For 4 days we woke up just after sunrise and went to bed just before sunset (remember that this is Alaska, so 5:00am sunrise, 11:30pm sunset). The bears this time of year (early June) are busy eating sedge grass in the slough between the tree line and the coastline. This wetland area is supports the bears until other food sources come into abundance like berries, and fish (later in the year). But in early June, they are fattening up on the sedge grass, and in fact, they couldn't be happier doing so, and couldn't care less about our presence. So we took out an ATV with a couple people carts attached to it, and rode around the perimeter of the slough looking for bears. Once we found some out eating, we parked the ATV, and walked out into the wetland to photograph the bears. Simple eh? Yup, its just that simple, when you're in the right place. This area of Lake Clark National Park is home to roughly 30 bears, and although we didn't see that many individuals, the ones we did see more than made up for it. We caught bears eating, sleeping, courting one another, fighting, playing, clamming on the tidal flats, and even fornicating. Love was in the air!
One day on both trips we took a short boat ride out to Duck Island, where the views of the massive volcano Mt. Redoubt are second to none. But whats more interesting photographically, was the massive population of birds that nest on both Duck Island and Chisik island to its immediate west. Taking center stage on these trips were the horned and tufted puffins. They fly out and fish in the inlet, and from our boat we could get close enough to photograph them taking flight from the water. It was an amazing experience. I have photographed Atlantic Puffins from the cliffs of the Westfjords in Iceland, but that was on land, I've never been able to photograph them from water. And I didn't realize just how awesome it was to see them run on water as they attempt to take flight. Mixed in with the puffins, were common murres (guillemots) larger black and white sea birds who are equally amazing to photograph while skipping on the waters of the Cook Inlet. We were able to land on Duck Island for the one of the groups, and attempted to photograph the Puffins who were nesting on the cliffs of the island. But I much preferred the action shots of them skipping along the waters edge taking flight. Its really the best way to fill up your memory cards in an afternoon of shooting.
Among the other activities we had the luxury of viewing the bears clamming on the tidal flats of the inlet. The tide goes extremely far out to sea due to the gentle slope of the coastline in the inlet, and we walked sometimes over a quarter mile out on the flats to view the bears clamming with the Kenai Mountains across the inlet as a perfect backdrop. The bears walk out onto the flat at low tide, and hunt for Razor and Butter Clams. They dig them up with their massive claws, and crack them open and sometimes eat them whole. Its pretty cool to see, and the pictures were some of my favorite from the entire experience, because they show the environment and vastness of the wilderness these bears live in.
After 4 days (each) my two groups had more than enough pictures to keep them busy for weeks of culling and processing. But I guess that will happen when you're in such close proximity to some of the most amazing wild creatures on earth. But all good things must come to an end, and thankfully we had the good fortune to have awesome weather, awesome wildlife viewing, and since Lake Clark is remote, we didn't have to share the experience with too many people either. All in all it was a fantastic time and I cant wait to get back to Alaska and rejoin another adventure in the last frontier!
Until Next Time,
Scott,the great crew at the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge,, and the rest of the Aperture Academy team
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.