Don’t poke the bear!


Twenty years ago, I was staying with my best friend Mark in Golders Green and found myself chatting with his mother. She was in her seventies, but I politely asked if she’d been anywhere nice recently. “Yes,” she said, “I’ve just come back from watching the bears catching salmon in Alaska.” That’ll teach me…!

Ever since that conversation, I’ve wanted to visit Alaska, and last week I finally made it. Now, Alaska is not an easy place to get to. It’s a long way away, and the best spot to see the salmon is at Brooks Falls, which can only be reached by floatplane! The only places to stay are a campsite and Brooks Lodge, both of which get booked up a year in advance. It’s also not cheap. The first time I tried to book a trip was a couple of years ago, but I just couldn’t afford it. This time, I was temporarily flush from remortgaging my flat in Notting Hill, so I thought, “It’s now or never…”

There are no package deals available to visit Brooks Falls, so I ended up just Googling tour operators and picking one pretty much at random. I set a lady from Audley Travel the task of finding out the best time to go and making all the necessary arrangements, including flights and accommodation. The email history was very long and lasted over two years, but she managed it in the end. When she finally sent me my joining instructions, they came in a binder two inches thick!

Packing for a trip like this is tricky. My first priority was taking pictures, so I had to take my camera bag, but that didn’t leave me much room for anything else. I thought about taking a rucksack as well, but I’d been told that there wasn’t much room on the floatplanes, and the idea of having to wait around baggage reclaim at four different airports was too much for me! I decided to take my camera bag and put everything else in my waterproof jacket. Now, this is no ordinary waterproof jacket. It’s a Callaway golf jacket that has one enormous inside pocket that stretches right the way around the back, so it was more than big enough to carry a couple of changes of clothes, my wash bag and my all-important binder!

I flew out on Friday 24 July from Heathrow, and my full itinerary took me from there to Seattle, then to Anchorage, then to King Salmon and finally to Brooks Camp. Door-to-door, it took me 37 hours! That’s the longest journey I’ve ever made – or at least it was until the flight home, which lasted a monstrous 43 hours after I got bumped to the next flight. At least the airline gave me a voucher for $600 and upgraded me to first class on the flight to Seattle. You meet the nicest people in first class, and I had a very good conversation with the director of Minnesota Zoo, but that’s another story…

The first thing I had to do when I arrived at the Brooks Camp was to go to ‘bear school’, which meant listening to a briefing by one of the park rangers and watching a short video covering pretty much the same ground. The main points were as follows:

  • Stay 50 yards away from any bear.
  • Don’t carry food or drink on the trails.
  • Make lots of noise while walking to let the bears know you’re there.
  • If you meet a bear, stand still and then back away slowly – don’t run!

I generally stuck to the rules, but the bears were everywhere, and I finally came face-to-face with one when I stayed at Brooks Lodge on my final night. I was just about to turn the corner to dump my bag in the gear store when I saw a mother and her cub not ten yards away! I immediately stopped, turned round, went back round the corner and ran for my life. That’s the first time I’ve ever run away from anything, but I’m very glad I did!

After the briefing, I was given a brass ‘bear pin’, which meant that I had been through ‘bear school’ and was now officially allowed to see the bears. It was a 20-minute hike to the falls, so I put everything except my camera bag in the gear store and set off…

There were three viewing platforms from which you could watch the bears. The first was too far downriver to see much, and the second was still a bit too far away to get the classic shot of the bear about to grab a salmon as it jumped up the waterfall. However, the platform at the waterfall itself only held 40 people, and it was so popular that you had to put your name on a waiting list before you were allowed to go there. You could only stay for an hour if it was busy, but you could put your name down again when you came off if you wanted to get back on. One day, the ranger forgot to add me to the list, and I ended up having to wait 2.5 hours in the ‘tree house’ downriver. I explained the mistake to the new ranger and thought she’d given me her permission to go back, but she had misunderstood me, and all I could do was put my name down on the list again. The next time I was called, it was raining so hard I only lasted five minutes, and the time after that it was pouring with rain, too! The following day, I was lucky enough to be allowed to stay on the platform just about all day, and I thought that might have been the rangers’ way of making up for their mistake, but it turned out that there had been a three-hour ‘bear jam’ that prevented anyone from getting to the platform! A bear jam was just a traffic jam caused by a bear. Whenever one came too close to the trail, the rangers stopped people from using it until the bear had moved more than 50 yards away, and they happened fairly regularly.

On the first afternoon, I could only stay for just over an hour, as I was given an early flight back to King Salmon, where I would be staying for the next few days. I wasn’t particularly happy about that, but I did at least get to see over a dozen bears fishing on the falls. The platform was right on the river bank, and most of the bears were no more than 20 or 30 yards away, either at the top of the falls – which lay at right angles to the platform – or waiting in the water below. I had a 150-600mm Tamron lens with me, so that was more than enough to get good close-ups of the animals. In fact, I rarely went beyond 300mm for the bears on the waterfall, so I switched to my Nikon 28-300mm lens for the last few days in order to take advantage of the better quality glass.

Brown bear beside mossy rock below waterfall

Brown bear looking down in shallow rapids

There were two levels on the platform, and it was easy enough to squeeze in at the front. There were no seats (although I’d brought a folding stool just in case), but at least I had my tripod with me, so I didn’t have to carry my camera the whole day. Unfortunately, there weren’t that many salmon jumping, so I had to make the most of every opportunity. Inevitably, I missed a few chances for various reasons, either because I was chatting to the person next to me or I was in the middle of changing my camera settings or I was trying to shoot something else. There was always something to photograph, particularly on the first day, when everything was fresh and exciting, but the biggest attraction was a mother bear and her four cubs who really put on a show for us every time they were there.

Four brown bear cubs in diagonal line

And that was the problem. I took so many pictures of the cubs and the bears in the river that I was beginning to get distracted. I had written out a shot list beforehand, but the only one that really mattered was the iconic image of a bear with its mouth open about to catch a salmon in mid-air on the waterfall. That was the one I wanted, so I stopped taking pictures of absolutely everything and started focusing on getting that one shot. It was an interesting challenge and one that raised quite a few questions:

  • What shutter speed and aperture should I use?
  • Should I use single point or continuous focus?
  • What part of the bear should I focus on?
  • Should I watch through the viewfinder or use the remote release?

The shutter speed is obviously the priority when you want to capture something that happens in the blink of an eye, so I set that to around 1/1600. I initially set the aperture as wide as I could – which was only f/6.3 at 600mm – but I eventually settled on f/8. I wanted the fish to be sharp as well as the bear’s head, and the depth of field was only going to be 20-30cm, so I needed as much as possible! The Tamron isn’t a very ‘fast’ lens, unfortunately, but I’ve learned that I can push the ISO pretty high on my D800 before I start to see too much noise, so I set it to ‘Auto’. That meant it was usually around 800-1000, although it got all the way up to 4500 for some shots!

The focusing was fairly easy, as the bears stood very still when they were at the top of the falls. However, they still turned their heads from side to side every now and then, so I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t have the right focus at the crucial moment. In the end, I used continuous focusing (in 3D mode) and focused as near as I could to the bear’s eye. Sometimes, I switched to manual, but I generally kept the remote in my hand with button half-pressed. That had the twin benefit of keeping the focus lock and also reducing the ‘travel’ and therefore the time it took me to release the shutter. Those fish were jumping pretty quickly, and I eventually realised I had to focus on the bottom of the falls rather than the bear if I was going to be able to react in time to take the shot. I set the shooting mode to ‘Continuous – High’, but I missed having a proper motor drive for the first time – although even that wouldn’t have helped my reaction time!

In the end, it was all worthwhile, as I managed to capture a couple of shots of a bear in the act of grabbing a salmon. I rate all my photographs, and I desperately wanted to come away with a few that merited five stars, so it was a great moment when I finally saw the evidence on the screen of my camera. Here are my favourites:

Bear about to catch salmon in mouth

Bear about to catch salmon on waterfall

Brown bear about to catch a salmon

The other highlights of my trip included seeing a red ptarmigan walking only a few feet in front of me on the trail to the falls first thing in the morning and seeing a proper salmon run. It took a few days, but finally the fish started jumping like crazy. Unfortunately, there were no bears fishing on top of the falls at that stage, but it was still worth it to see the extraordinary number of fish involved. The other thing I was grateful for was the hospitality and friendliness of both staff and guests. I stayed at the King Salmon Lodge and had breakfast and dinner there. One day, I went down to breakfast at 0630 and bumped into a very nice elderly American couple. We had a good chat, and I met them again that evening. They invited me to join them for dinner and ended up paying the bill! It was the same with almost everyone I met. It was very easy to start up a conversation, and I always had a good chat with the driver of the bus on the way to and from the lodge.

The only real low came after two or three days when I began to realise I was there during the wrong week. I’d tried to get figures on the number of salmon jumping, but it was very difficult, and all I was told by the travel company was that any time in July would do. It was only when I spoke to the rangers and saw the evidence with my own eyes that I realised I should have been there one or even two weeks earlier. It was the holiday of a lifetime, so to miss the peak of the salmon run was very frustrating. However, I got the shots I wanted, and it turned out that I could only stay at Brooks Lodge during the final week of July, so I didn’t feel too bad in the end, and there was nothing I could have done about it anyway.

Was it a great holiday? Not quite, but I still enjoyed it, and I came away with four or five pictures I’m very happy with. Yes, I could probably have spent the money on 66 trips to Ibiza, but it wouldn’t have been the same. It just wouldn’t have been the same…

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