My alarm went off at 2:30am and that meant exactly two hours of sleep and time to head to the airport. Extreme thunder and lightning continued through the morning hours punctuating the sky and spotlighting the towering cumulus clouds above Calgary. Fortunately by the time my flight left at 6:30am the sky was calm and clear. I was flying on Alaska Airlines, from Calgary to Seattle, to Anchorage, then to Kodiak. After landing in Kodiak I was shuttled over to Andrews Airlines. After making a few last minute phone calls to say good bye to family and friends, I located my pilot waiting on the pier. He introduced himself as ‘Willy’ and loaded my gear into the old orange Beaver de Havilland. “You’re travelling light!” he said, and I thought he was being sarcastic. When I realized that he was serious I thought about all the small comforts that I had left behind, thinking at the time that I had overpacked. I laughed when the pilot told me the plane was made in 1958, “it must have been a good year I said, so was I”.
We took off in the Beaver, I being the only passenger, from a small lake covered in blooming lily pads. Within minutes I lost any sense of doubt about why I was on this journey. The vibrant green mountains reminiscent of the hills of Ireland in their emerald colour, were dotted with the remains of the winter snowfall. As we passed closely by these spectacular cliffs a small herd of mountain goats stood sillouetted atop the highest ridge with the backdrop of Shelikov Strait. With the sound of the plane’s engine the goats quickly disappeared over the sharp ridge. The pilot quickly banked the plane in a way that only bush pilots can manage, and we popped up through a valley and found the goats on a near vertical cliff on the other side. Amazing in their agility, even the babies were so sure-footed they seemed to stick to the mountainside as if on Velcro.
This scene was quickly followed by the meeting of an enormous fog bank flowing down Shelikov Strait. Behind that was my destination, Hallo Bay and the Hallo Glacier. We flew a loop above the glacier so that I could get a bird’s eye view. The de Havilland is capable of flying as slow as 60mph so we were able cruise past the glacier and view the incredible moraine and icefields. It was only later that day that I would be told that my pilot was Willy Fulton, a major figure in the Werner Herzog movie “Grizzly Man”, the documentary about the ill-fated Timothy Treadwell. He was the pilot that transported Timothy regularly and was the one that was supposed to pick him up on the last day of his 2003 expedition, only to find that he and his girlfriend had been eaten by a bear. This attack had taken place about 20 miles north in Kaflia Bay, but much of the documentary took place here in Hallo Bay – the ‘Grizzly Sanctuary’.
Willy set the float plane down next to the Kittiwake, a crab ship formerly called the Time Bandit of Deadliest Catch fame and owned by Katmai Coastal Tours’ operator John Rogers. Here was told to rest for a few hours while the crew organized departing passengers and gear. I was back in bear heaven, and this time the weather looked to be in my favour.
In typical Katmai fashion ‘rest for a few hours’ turned into a call half hour later for ‘plans have changed, get your gear in the skiff’. I was given two bear proof containers for my food and a small argument ensued between two guides as to whether it is best to keep the containers within the camp’s electric fence or outside the perimeter. One theory is that if the bears can actually test out the containers and cant get in them that they then never bother. Another suggests, why give them the chance just keep the food inside the fence near the tents and then there is never any temptation. The discussion is not resolved.
A brief ride in the skiff, on with the hip waders (I am trying out my new NEOS hip height pull over boots) and alas I arrived on the tidal flats in Hallo Bay. Kent waded out to help me unload my gear and escorted me back to camp. Our camp is situated below a small bluff in a mossy meadow full of lupines, chocolate lilies and irises. Here I meet ‘Suzie’ a middle-aged woman doing research on the bears and I am somewhat relieved that I am not the only female in the camp. However, I am told for the next 4 days that I will be the only one in this tenting area. Kent is camped a few minutes away and another group is about 200 meters to my west and Suzie is doing a ‘walkabout’ of sorts on her own.
I was given a few minutes to organize my gear in the spacious Hillebrand tent, and after a brief snack we grabbed our camera gear and headed towards the meadow where the bears were feeding on grass. By now the evening light was just beginning to improve and it was nearly 8pm. A group of ‘day-trippers’ had flown in and were observing the small group of 4 bears. Before long they left and Kent said “Ok now we can ‘do our thing’”. We walked to the edge of the grassy flat and set up our gear just as the evening light turned to golden perfection. A female bear was grazing close to us and gradually ate her way over to where we were seated. My bear flare was ready, but I quickly had to drop that in favour of my wide-angle lens. My heart was pounding as I tried to remain calm. This was a much closer encounter than any in my previous trip and it took all my courage (and maybe a few meditation skills) to keep my breathing slow and take advantage of this amazing photo session. I am a confirmed bear junkie.
It was nearly 11pm and still light when I climbed into my sleeping bag. I thought I may not be able to sleep from the excitement of the bear shoot, but the days travel caught up with me and I slept like a rock until 5:30am the next morning.