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Brown bear sow and cubs in Katmai National Park

An intimate experience with the brown bears of Alaska

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As a wildlife photographer, there are a handful of wildlife experiences that I’ll never forget. These aren’t the experiences where you capture a scene at a great distance with a long telephoto lens. These intimate encounters make you feel like you’re no longer just an observer. You’ve been given a passport to the animal world, experiencing their daily life in a way few people see.

One life-changing encounter was photographing brown bears at Katmai National Park in Alaska. Being at eye level with these bears while they gorge on salmon in the river was frightening, exhilarating, and moving. They are preoccupied with fishing and ignore our presence, often walking right by us. At times, they were close enough to smell. I let out a gasp or two when I could hear them breathe or rip apart a salmon. They were that close.

Brown bear shakes off water

Most days in Katmai, we’d take a skiff to shore from our boat and plant ourselves at one of the river outlets. There was no need to search for bears when the salmon were running. They keep appearing at the river for the feast. The action was nonstop, whether fishing, sleeping, clamming, or sparring with other bears. There were also plenty of playful cubs and adorable interactions with their mothers.

Brown bear sow and cubs in Katmai National Park

I’ve had up-close brown bear experiences in Alaska and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula when the salmon are running. They are typically 20-50 yards away, sometimes closer. When I describe the experience to folks, they ask whether I was worried about my safety. After all, these are intimidating apex predators, with some males weighing over 1000 pounds. While the group was equipped with bear spray, the bears were preoccupied with the salmon and ignored the group of photographers.

Bears usually keep to themselves, but the salmon run brings many bears together, and they are very wary of one another, particularly when boars are around. They are far more worried about other bears than they are about humans. Their full size becomes apparent when they stand up on their hind legs to watch the other bears or scan the water for churning pools of salmon.

Brown bear sow stands at attention while her cub looks on

Katmai National Park is an immense wilderness area encompassing 4 million acres, established after the 1912 volcanic eruption of Novarupta. Almost the entire park is a beautiful volcanic landscape, undeveloped and inaccessible. Most wildlife photographers experience Katmai with a visit to Brooks Camp via a float plane from Anchorage. The Brooks River is renowned for viewing brown bears, with iconic shots of bears fishing at Brooks Falls, the Katmai Bear Cams, and the very fun Fat Bear Week competitions. While the bears are plentiful and the falls are photogenic, it is often crowded during the salmon run, and your photo opportunities on the viewing platforms are limited to an hour, with 1-2 hour waits to get on to the platform.

The remote and wild coast of Katmai along the Sheilikof Strait offers better bear viewing with very few visitors. The coast is only accessible by boat or float plane from Kodiak, and you get to experience the bears uninterrupted, without the crowds and limitations of viewing platforms.

Brown bear sow leads her cubs in front of the mountains of Katmai National Park

I currently run trips to the Katmai coast. We arrive in Kodiak and transit to the Katmai coast. From there, our captain will ply the various bays and harbors based on bear activity. If the sea weather cooperates, we visit Hallo Bay’s meadows, volcanic landscapes, puffin colonies, and otters.

If bear photography is on your bucket list, check out our Katmai trip. You won’t regret it!

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