8th October 2016
Wild Coasts of Alaska .......
I have been to Alaska a few times now and after my first visit I fell in love with this wild and rugged place. It is hard to explain the vastness and wildness of Alaska but it truly is one of the last great frontiers. All of my visits so far had been in September, either looking for fishing Grizzlies or rutting Moose, so I was excited about visiting at a different time of the year. I had timed my visit to coincide with the King Salmon run which happens in many rivers along the Alaskan peninsular. My ultimate goal was go to Brooks falls in Katmai National Park to photograph the huge Grizzlies that descend there each year to take advantage of this natural resource. I also wanted to try out some other locations for various species, one of which is the beautiful Sea Otter. This has been on my wish list for many years and so I finally made the effort to try and capture images of this marine mammal.
Mark and I had arranged a trip through Natures Images to concentrate on the Brown Bears of this rich coastline but this trip was completely different from our autumn one and was to be split between two locations. Brooks Falls was the main reason to organise this trip but it proved extremely difficult to take a group and after many years of trying we eventually managed to get something organised. The other location was to go to our usual place at Lake Clark National Park. Before the trip had started though I flew out a little bit earlier as I wanted to check out a location for photographing Sea Otters.
I had seen some old images of Sea Otters resting on Ice flows and knew they were taken in Alaska so I did a bit of research and eventually I found the location that I was looking for. After a few emails and phone calls I had found a skipper of a small boat that was willing to take me out to the location. The Skipper had a rough idea of where they might have been taken but it really was a case of well lets go and see what we can find. Sometimes working blind like this has huge rewards but usually it spells failure, which is part and parcel of this job. This time though I just got lucky and couldn't have dreamt of it being this good.
The Otters were resting on Glacial Ice and so we just headed out to various different Glaciers to begin our search. We saw Otters all along the coast so at first the signs were good. The first Glacier we got to though proved a wasted journey as there wasn't any sign of them. So we moved on to the next one and the next one but still no luck. I did though manage to get some nice shots of some Common Seals which was a great bonus. Whilst photographing the Seals though we did briefly see an Otter Swim by.
After our first failed attempts we then tried one more location and bingo there was a small group of about twenty resting on the Ice in front of a small Glacier. The scene looked wonderful from a distance but as our boat got closer one by one they slipped of the ice and into the water. I managed a few shots but not really what I was hoping for. Early the next morning we just headed straight out to this perfect location.
This time once we were at the Glacier we took it much more slowly and really just let the boat drift in and around the Ice. After a while the Otters didn't see us as a threat and so we spent the whole day photographing this beautiful and Iconic mammal in some stunning surroundings. I have done many great things over the years but these brief sessions with the Otters is certainly up there with the best of them.
After the Otters I then headed back to Anchorage to meet up with the Natures Images group that was flying out to join us on the trip. Our first location was going to be Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. This is a location that I have wanted to go to for a while now and so it was really exciting heading out not knowing what to expect. Of course we had done a lot of research and asked many people for their advice but it was still new and so we went with our eyes open. Many people had said to me that it was very busy with people during the day but we were staying there for a few nights and so you can get up early and catch the Bears at the falls before the day trippers fly in. Then during the evenings everyone has left and you kind of get the place to yourself. I will say one thing though, this is without doubt one the premier locations for photographing Brown Bears.
The weather wasn't great for our three days with lots of rain and low cloud cover but for me this was perfect because I wanted to try and capture the Bears in the turbulent water of the falls with some long exposures, so blurring the fast moving water. I have tried this technique with many species so kind of knew what to do. The Bears make great subjects for this style of image though because they sit quietly waiting for a passing fish. I took many images just to get a handful but I do like these kinds of images.
I also shot in the normal way especially once they had caught a fish. The Salmon run had only just begun and the fishing activity was quite slow but this was perfect for capturing the low speed shots. Once a bear had caught a Salmon though I was quick to change back to my normal settings to capture the behaviour.
At the falls it is mainly the large males that have the fishing rights there, further down the stream you can capture images of the females with cubs and the younger bears.
After Brooks Falls we then headed back to Anchorage and then the following day we flew out to Lake Clark National Park. This is the same location that we go to for our trip out in September which we hopefully try and capture images of the Bears chasing Salmon through the estuaries and creeks. In early July though it is much more peaceful as the Bears are feeding in the sedge meadows and going out with the tides to dig for clams.
The first couple of days at Lake Clark were wet which I think is perfect for photographing bears as it really shows that wonderful texture to their fur. We also had some very clear days but I just didn't like the images that I took on these sunny days as the light was just too harsh. At Lake Clark we encountered a few females with spring cubs which were great because it was the main reason of adding this location to our trip. A lot of the time though we had to be patient and wait for the bears because they were heading to the forests as the Salmon berry crop was much earlier and the bears just can't resist these.
During the days we had fine weather at Lake Clark we headed out on a boat further up the coast to visit a small island that supports a small breeding population of Horned Puffins. This was a great addition to our trip as most people weren't expecting this opportunity. It was nice to photograph a different species of Puffin for a change.
The activity at Lake Clark was quite for large parts of the day mainly in the early mornings and late evenings which was frustrating as we would have had some great light to work in, the best clamming tides fell around midday and so the light was just too harsh to get any decent photos. It was a great shame as Lake Clark at this time of the year is fantastic for capturing different images of the bears, but I shall return. We were hoping to organize another trip back out in early July for 2018 but we have got the chance to put a summer trip on to Svalbard and so we just can't fit it in our program. We will definitely be running it again in 2019 which will be called Alaska's Wild Coasts as we don't want to just concentrate on the Bears but incorporate the Sea Otters and Puffins too. If you would be interested in this trip then please drop Liz an email and we will put you on the list.
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