The morning dawned with a thick fog. I began with a hot cup of decaf and a bowl of spicy cardboard (aka reconstituted Huevos Rancheros) and waited for Kent to arrive with the day’s plan. Fog can be a double edged sword, you are either socked in for hours – even days, or you will have a spectacular shoot as the fog begins to lift its veil. We decided to head out and be in position with hopes for the best. Today the veil revealed a stunning panorama of the Aluetian Mountains, part of the Alaska Range, and in particular the Devil’s Desk (6700 ft) so named because it appears to be the source of extreme weather. Just to the north of it lies the pyramid shaped Kukak Volcano.
Once the best of the morning light had past, we set up on a grassy bank with hopes of seeing the female bear and her two cubs that Kent had seen a few days before. Eventually we spotted her in a meadow about ½ mile away and began hiking towards her. She stood up to see who was approaching and when she saw it was ‘just us’, she went back go nursing her cubs. She lay on her back and the two little ones climbed all over her for their lunch. Unfortunately by the time I got close enough for a photo the event was past. Still, what a magical moment to view. Despite the harsh light of mid-day I managed to get a few nice shots of this family.
The day had started with fog so dense you could almost call it rain, and by mid afternoon is had to be in the high 20’s Celsius. Luckily I had worn layers and was down to shorts and T-shirt by the time we returned to camp for some rest and a late lunch. Time to regenerate for the evening excursion.
It would have been nice to have a nap, but the tent was like an oven and the mosquitos and horse flies were ravenous around the camp. I opted for a walk on the beach where a cool breeze and no bugs enticed me. Who could have thought that in Hallo Bay Alaska I would be putting on shorts and sandals and taking a walk on the beach with a bottle of ice tea in one hand and bear flare in the other.
We started out again at around 8pm in search of the cubs and ½ hour along the trail (the entire area is a grid map of intersecting bear trails) we met Katmai Coastal Tours owner John Rogers and his 9 year old son James. They had just dropped off a film crew at the south meadow and apparently this is where the sow and her cubs were feeding. We soon caught up with the crew, introductions were made and we all knelt in the muddy flats to watch the show. The cubs are about 7 months old, probably born in January and may have left their den sometime in April. They seem so small and fragile, it is no wonder only about half of all cubs survive to adulthood. Their mother was constantly on high alert, not for humans, but for the danger of other bears. She was very relaxed around us, but the moment another bear would enter the area, she would stand up on her hind legs and snort warnings, calling the cubs over to her and clacking her jaws in agitation. She is one of the most spectacular bears I have ever seen both in size and stature as well has her thick and shiny coat.
We photographed the young family for about two hours. It was mesmerizing watching the cubs tumble and play fight with each other, or pick up a piece of bark or seaweed and toss it around like a toy. Finally the sun went down behind Kukak Volanco and at about 11pm we began the 40 minute hike back to camp. Along the way I found an amazing wolf track in the mud and marked the spot as a candidate for a plaster cast for tomorrow.
As we were returning to camp, walking along the bear trail in the dusk, with high grasses on either side, we passed 6 other bears coming in for the night. All of a sudden there was a frenzied rustle in the grass behind me and an animal darted past me about one meter away and then stopped just ahead of Kent on the trail. A lovely multi-coloured cross fox was out for her evening hunting! Exhausted and with light almost gone, I kept trudging along the trail, too tired to get my camera out of the backpack.
It had been a long and rewarding day of shooting. Kent assured me that in all his years in Katmai, this had been one of the best he had had, calling it a ‘precious day’ of imagery.
Starving and tired, I fired up the stove and cooked a batch of ‘Sidekicks’ (thanks for the idea Brenda!) and crashed for the night. It was 1am.