I awoke at 4:30am ready for the day’s adventures. I stepped out of my tent and went to hop over the two strand electric fence when I realized that the top wire was now waist high. Obviously Kent had adjusted it after I retired for the night. A thought occurred to me about keeping clients in as well as bears out…. I had to take a running leap to get over it (turning it off would have been too easy). As I landed on the other side I looked up toward the beach and there was a grey wolf sitting in the tall grass on the skyline perhaps 20 meters from me. We both looked at each other in surprise and then he disappeared towards the water.
I began to make breakfast, the usual concoction of instant oatmeal with a handful of dried bananas, granola and some peanut butter thrown in for taste. Just as I sat down to enjoy it I could hear the distinctive sound of grass being uprooted, and it was very close. In the next moment I looked up and saw a female bear munching away right where the wolf had been. How long had she been there? The grass here is waste high and when the bears are laying down grazing you cant see them at all. It was an auspicious start to the day!
Our plan for the day was to catch sunrise mountain reflections in the middle pond. Unfortunately a forest fire somewhere in northern Alaska had created a hazy sky, which is almost never good photographically, especially for landscapes. We opted for sunrise over the ocean and a walk down the beach to see the fledgling ravens on the cliff. We then noticed the film crew out on the flats filming two bears in the water and decided to head their way. The bears had caught two sockeye salmon this morning which meant that the salmon run was starting very early this year. This time of year most of the bears fed on the sedge grass or dug for clams. It was interesting to watch them sniff for clams and then dig down into the sand, pull the clam out and eat the whole thing, shell and all.
Today was the day to shift camps so that the film crews could have the large camp. It was far too hot and bright out for decent photography, so it was a good chance to clean up and get moved. In the late afternoon we decided to catch a ride in the skiff back to the Kittiwake to see if we could scrounge some ‘real’ food. We just had enough time to wolf down some sandwiches and cake before the skiff was heading back out with the videographers. The film crew was pumped, and they told us about their morning successes as they had captured a sub-adult bear swimming across to the puffin island. The crew took their gear over to the island and filmed the bear get out of the water, go directly to the puffin rookery and proceed to dig into their dens. Bears will sometimes go for the puffin’s eggs but this time the bear came out of the hole with an adult puffin in his mouth. They also found another sow with two cubs. It was unclear how they would have got to Inagiak Island. Some thought she may have hibernated there but it did not seem cold enough. Others said the only possibility is that she took her cubs there on a very low tide, which meant she either piggy backed them or they swam the best part of a mile in the ocean. I guess we will never know.
I felt somewhat refreshed from a good meal on the ship, but the last 3 days of hiking with heavy camera gear while wearing hip waders was taking its toll on me. The Neos were great for crossing rivers and standing in the ocean, but were terrible to hike in and I started calling them the ‘boots from hell’. The days had been great photographically, but we had been on the go from dawn till dusk every day. My steps were getting heavier and slower and Kent was getting farther ahead of me on the trail as the miles went by. This was a little disconcerting but I could not force me legs to work any better. We walked past the clay with the good bear tracks in it and I poured another plaster cast. Then we took off too find the sow and cubs. Finally located them down by the river so we set up and started shooting. Another guide with three photographers in tow appeared and set up about 10 meters behind us. For some reason they did not sit down in the crouch position but rather chose to shoot standing up with tripods fully extended. You could tell that this made the sow rather nervous as she looked more agitated than usual. My sense was that she was agitated enough to set some boundaries so I had the safety off my flare. The sow told her cubs to stay put in the long grass and she moved forward to check us out. As Kent and I were closest she arrived to us first and came to within 5 meters. We sat very low and Kent talked to her calmly. The other photographers however, began to retreat in fear – not a good move in this situation. They were not listening to their guide as he told them to stay still and keep together. I thought for sure the sow was going to charge them, but after a while she seemed satisfied that they meant no danger to her cubs and she turned around and gathered up her children and headed over the berm and out of sight.
We decided to pack it in for the day, as it was still a good hour hike back to camp. On the way back we passed the film crew and spoke with their guide Brad Josephs. He expressed concern about the sow and thought from her behavior that she could charge someone if she feels pressured by too many other bears. The guides were all in agreement that she meant no harm to people, but if a boar arrived on the scene and things got hectic we could be in the way. I resolved that for the next couple of days that I needed shots of fishing bears instead.
Back at the new camp by 11pm and too tired to make any food, I took a chased a couple of Advil with the last Dr. Pepper from Bill Simms and crashed for the night.