Brown Bears of Silver Salmon Creek 2013 Trip Report

By Perry Conway on Oct 31, 2013

The Brown Bears of Silver Salmon Creek photo adventures actually begin in Anchorage. Our chartered single engine turbo-charged aircraft is very well suited to take us, and all our gear, into the realm of Alaska’s most famous wilderness and wildlife icon—the coastal grizzly. Our hour-long flight passes by Mounts Iliamna and Redoubt, two active over-10,000-foot-high volcanoes. At 6,500 feet, our usual flying altitude, we start to see the vast wild areas that are home to these mighty predators—the brown bears, as the locals call them—and will become our home for the next week as well.

Landing on the beach near Homestead Lodge, we are greeted by ATVs pulling large carts. These are the carts which will later take us to bears grazing on sedges, bears nursing their cubs, and bears chasing salmon through the shallow waters of Silver Salmon Creek and the Red River. Tour participants are always amazed at how close we can actually get to the bears—and do it safely. During one of our groups’ first evening out, we photographed a nursing sow at 60 feet. As she landed on her back, both of her cubs climbed onto mom’s chest, found a “dinner plate” and went to work. As cameras fired away, I overheard several people say, “I can’t believe we are actually seeing this!”

Most days we do three separate shoots, two in the morning and one later in the afternoon or, since it is not dark until after 10 PM, in the early evening. Our daily highlights include bears grabbing salmon as they try to navigate through shallow waters. The bears wait patiently and we do as well. Then the ripple of a dorsal fin breaks the surface and the race is on—four powerful ursine feet running toward fish fins with water splashing everywhere as cameras load up memory cards with action-packed images. We can usually spot the fish at about the same time the bears do, giving us enough time to autofocus on the action.

The bears are not, however, the only mammals that are well-fed! Homestead Lodge is famous for fabulous food. For example, for one of our last dinners, we had fresh-from-the-ocean sockeye (red) salmon. It had been caught and cleaned the day before and served to us by the friendliest kitchen staff I have ever encountered.

The most memorial shoot came on the last morning of one of this year’s tours. After enduring several days of on-again and off-again rain, typical for Alaska, we awoke to clear skies and an eagerness to get out and find bears. Scott, the lodge’s bear guide, is great! He knows where to take us for the best possible images and that morning we scored big-time! Mount Iliamna had broken free of clouds and its glowing glaciers glided down from all sides, forming a spectacular backdrop. Now all we needed was a subject. We were in luck. We found a large female bear fishing at the mouth of Red River. With Iliamna as a backdrop, with the river’s meandering curves, and with the bear as a solid foreground anchor, all of us captured the shot of a lifetime. An extra bonus occurred when the bear spotted a nearby silver salmon navigating the shallow water—and the race was on! The salmon shot through the icy cold water with the bear in hot pursuit—water flying everywhere—then wham!!!!…got it!!!! All happening in great light and right in front of us. This is the kind of photographic moment that makes any bear trip an unqualified success.

Our groups were exposed to “Wild Alaska” at its best—wildlife, a wonderful lodge from which to work, and the wilderness of Lake Clark National Park.