Alaska Bear Photography

Having been self quarantined since March 10, 2020 due to the Covid 19 virus, we spent the time mostly searching for something new to watch on TV or watching some of the numerous webinars that people were creating to fill their days. One of the TV shows that we stumbled onto was a Disney special about bears. It showcased a Mom with two young cubs and their struggle for survival. My wife, Donna, started musing about photographing bears and wondered if that is something that I would be interested in. We knew that our friend and safari guide, Kevin Dooley arranged trips to Alaska to photograph bears, so we called him to get some information about the trips. As luck would have it, Kevin had canceled his July 2020 trip and moved all the participants to July 2021, due to the fact that there were so many travel restrictions and uncertainty about whether or not the Lodge would even be allowed to open. However, the day of our phone call, he had just found out that the Lodge was going to be open, and that he could bring people there. So, we had a choice of going in July or maybe being able to go on the scheduled September trip. We settled on July and began to make preparations for the trip.

The preparations involved reviewing Kevin’s powerpoint about the trip, what to expect, and suggested items to bring. Then, sourcing and acquiring chest high waders and boots for the trip, which had never been part of our wardrobes, in addition to the normal logistics. This turned out to be a bit of a challenge, as the waders have a built in neoprene sock which necessitates buying a boot size larger than normal shoe size. This ended up requiring a return trip to the store to get the correct size boot.

I must admit we were somewhat concerned about making the trip, in the current Covid 19 environment, which would involve a 61/2 flight from Dallas to Anchorage, an overnight stay near the airport, and another flight the following day from Anchorage to King Salmon, followed by a bush plane trip from King Salmon to the Alaska Trophy Adventures Lodge. The airlines were widely advertising that passengers would be required to wear a mask for the duration of the flight.

Alaska had implemented a program to deal with the virus, which required a test for Covid 19 taken 72 hours prior to departure. Finding a location to get a test, not having any symptoms, required some research, and getting an appointment in the required time window turned out to be somewhat challenging, but we managed to get one at a CVS not far from our home in the appropriate window. Unfortunately, our testing coincided with a dramatic increase in persons affected by the Covid 19 virus in Texas, so the estimated turn time for the results was increasing daily. We arrived in Alaska with the proper forms and had to check the box stating that we had taken the test within the prior 72 hours but our results were not yet available. They had an interesting setup on arrival in Anchorage, with a number of people in personal protective equipment (PPE) who were processing the arriving passengers. Upon reviewing our paperwork, we were advised to email our results to the state when they came in, and in the meantime to self quarantine and limit exposure to others. In addition, we were to have another test within 7-14 days after arrival. We would be on our way home before the 14th day, so that never came into play.

Following our overnight in Anchorage, we went back to the airport the next day to catch the once daily flight to King Salmon. King Salmon is a small town, and the airport reflects that size, not the number of fishers who venture there, some annually. It is essentially one room with the baggage claim belt along on wall, and the ticketing/checkin positions along an adjacent wall. Obviously, it was impossible to maintain any semblance of social distancing in the small room with a 737’s worth of passengers arriving and another similarly sized group departing. We collected our luggage and were met by the folks from the Alaska Trophy Adventures Lodge for transport to the other side of the airport and the waiting “bush” plane which would fly us to the Lodge. Getting into and out of the bush plane was a challenge for both of us, but thanks to the helpful pilot and ground crew, we were able to manage. The flight to the Lodge was about 30 minutes.

Figure 1 This is the plane that brought us to the Lodge.

Upon arrival, we were met by the Lodge staff and owner, Wayne McGee, as well as Kevin Dooley.

The accommodations I describe as appropriately “Alaska Rustic”, with the interiors of the cabin covered in knotty pine planks. We were in the Sockeye Salmon cabin at one end of the row of cabins. Kevin was in an adjacent cabin. Each of our cabins had ensuite shower and bathroom facilities, as well as two beds, a bureau, and hanging racks for clothes, and were fortunately equipped with blackout curtains, as the sun doesn’t set until around 11:30 PM in the summer, with sunrise at roughly 4:30 AM. There is no TV, no cell phone service, and limited Internet service so one is encouraged to focus on the wilderness and nature for most of each day. Power is provided for several hours each day from an onsite diesel generator. The only access to the Lodge is via plane to the Lodge’s dirt landing strip, or via boat. There are no roads to provide access. This is definitely in the wilderness, and is only occupied during the summer months.

Due to the limited number of guests this year (a result of Covid 19) and some repairs to the main Lodge, meals were taken in the Yurt, a circular structure which was central to the other Lodge buildings. Dinner at 6PM, Breakfast at 08:30 AM, sack lunch ordered the evening before and taken while out on the water. In a normal year, the Lodge is booked solid during the season, with 24 guests each week. During our week there, we were a group of 7. Wayne McGee was hoping to encourage more attendance as the season wears on, through some specials and marketing efforts. The Lodge staff were quite friendly and accommodating. The substantial meals were varied each day. We were somewhat surprised that more of the dinners, in particular, didn’t feature fish, as it was plentiful, easily accessible from the river fronting the property, and the reason that many of the guests come to this place.

Donna and I were fortunate to have Kevin Dooley to ourselves for the week, for assistance, photography guidance, and fishing. Between Kevin and Justin, our assigned Guide from the Lodge, we had all the assistance we needed, which was substantial. Getting in and out of the jet boat skiff with waders and boots was a challenge for both of us, moreso for me, given my arthritic knees. We did, however, get better at it as the week went on.

Most days, Justin took us out in the jet boat expertly navigating the shallow river, as we searched for bears to photograph. The bears were plentiful, and normally right on the bank of the river so they could fish for sockeye. We had plenty of opportunity to capture some good and interesting photographs. There was one favorite spot where we could exit the boat and set up on the shore to photograph the bears coming toward us. With my Canon 5 Ds and Sigma 150-600 telephoto lens, I was able to get some shots that were very interesting, and made the bears appear closer than they actually came to us.

In the afternoon, we beached the boat and fished for sockeye salmon. There are so many salmon this year, in spots the river was almost black, and the normal limit of 5 per person was increased to 10 sockeye per person per day. The plethora of sockeye is also evident in the bear population. Many of them are so satiated already, (you can also read that as so fat) that they are somewhat reluctant to continue to fish. We watched several bears sitting on the bank, watching the fish swim by, moving their heads back and forth, but making little to no effort to catch more fish. Long story short, we came home with a 47.5# box of sockeye salmon, which we are enjoying and sharing with family. The Lodge performs an amazing service at a very small price; $35.00 per box of roughly 45#, they vacuum seal, freeze your filets, pack them for transport home in a special insulated box. Ours arrived after a 22 hour journey, 3 flight legs, still frozen.

After a day on the Alagnak river, we decided to take a float plane to the Brooks Falls National Park to try to get the “money shot” that everyone wants of a bear at the top of the falls trying to catch salmon jumping the falls to get back to their spawning grounds. Justin guided us down river to a spot where we would meet the float plane. A spot where there was sufficient straightway for the plane to take off, and where the current was not as strong as it was by the Lodge. So, we traveled downstream for 45” to get to the float plane. This was another challenge for us to get aboard, but with assistance of Kevin, Justin, and the pilot, Craig, we did manage it. After a 30” flight, we arrived at the Brooks Falls beach. Following an orientation by the Park Ranger, we took off on a mile hike to get to the viewing platforms at the falls. While we didn’t encounter any bears on the trail, their presence was obvious at various points as the vegetation on either side of the trail had been compacted. Due to the social distancing restrictions even with reduced numbers of visitors, there was a bit of a wait to access the upper viewing platform. There are two viewing platforms, one below the falls, which was continuously open, and the other at the upper part of the falls, for which there was a wait. There was a limit of 16 people on the upper platform at a time for a 30 minute viewing. (Before the Covid 19 issue, the platform would accommodate 40 people at a time.)

After our first 30” visit, we put our names back on the list for another tour, but the wait had increased substantially, so we had to kill an hour and a half before getting back to the upper platform, only to find out that the bears had apparently taken refuge from the heat in the woods and were more interested in a nap than continuing to fish. We trekked back along the trail to get back to the beach and the float plane, arriving just in time at the appointed hour, only to find the beach blocked off by the park rangers because a couple of bears had decided to take an afternoon stroll down the beach. After a short wait, we managed to board the float plane, and after a 30” low altitude flight met Justin at the designated point. Flying on the float plane was a unique experience for both of us. We slogged back up river against the current, arriving back at the Lodge just in time for dinner.

The weather the whole week that we were there was most unusual for Alaska. Day time temperatures were in the high 60’s to low 70’s, with sun and a few clouds, so we were glad Kevin had advised us that sun screen would be needed. Until our last day, there was no substantial rain fall, maybe some at night. We enjoyed fabulous sunny weather, occasionally dotted with puffy clouds. Bug spray was essential, however, as the mosquito population was also substantial.

The following day, we went down river to search for a Momma bear with the two little cubs. We spent a fair amount of time watching and photographing Momma and the cubs. The cubs were quite young, and our guide speculated that this was probably the Mom’s first litter. The cubs spent much of the time back behind Momma,which made the photography quite a waiting game.

Mom was not particularly good at fishing this day, but we returned later in the week, and she was doing much better.

Following that event, we witnessed something that was most unusual according to both Kevin and Justin. Justin has been guiding on this river for the last 17 years, and he had never seen anything like this. We saw two grown bears approach each other without the anticipated confrontation. It turns out that they most likely were siblings. There was no fight, only a greeting and nuzzeling each other. We watched these two for quite a while. Photographing them was a challenge, since they were a ways off the bank and in the trees, causing dappled light.

On our last day, it was raining fairly heavily in the morning. I spent time working on editing some of the photos. It cleared up a bit in the afternoon, so we contemplated going out, but decided against it, since we had our box of fish, and plenty of bear photos taken in really good light.

Dinner the last night was special, and the Lodge staff and guides were invited in following dinner to share some memories of the week. Overall this was a great week, full of experiences that were new and unique for us.

We got up on Sunday morning, having mostly packed the night before. Back into the bush plane around 11 AM, in overcast weather for the trip to King Salmon. The Alaska flight back to Anchorage wasn’t until 4:50 pm, so we spent some time having lunch at the only place open, the Sockeye Saloon, right next to the airport. Donna and I played Scrabble to further kill some time. Very unusual, but I managed to beat her by a few points at the very end, playing the Q on a premium space.

Boarded the flight to Anchorage, arriving back there with several more hours to wait to the connection to Dallas. Ate up most of that time having a leisurely dinner at the Silver City Saloon, one of the only restaurants open at the airport. The flight to Dallas was an all nighter, getting back at 0900 the following morning. The box of Salmon made it fine, even having been checked by the TSA. It was still frozen solid when we got to the house.

All in all, it was an interesting trip, has given me approximately 2000 photos the best of which to add to my portfolio, and potential entry into PPA competition.

The Alaska Trophy Adventures Lodge has an excellent and well deserved reputation. The staff at the lodge were very accommodating. Evening meals were an opportunity to share the experiences of the day amongst the guests, and to be entertained by Wayne telling of his life experiences which were very interesting. Many of the guests return year after year to partake in the salmon fishing.

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