Brown Bears of Silver Salmon Creek 2016 Trip Report

By Gary Alt on Oct 13, 2016

This year, between August 14 and 27, I led two Brown Bears of Silver Salmon Creek trips for Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris for the first time—and it was a uniquely wonderful experience.  I was very interested to see, firsthand, the behavior of the bears, the distribution and abundance of bear foods at this location, the trip logistics, and how this location in Alaska’s southwestern Cook Inlet compared to other bear-viewing areas.  This was particularly interesting to me because for most of my professional life I worked as a bear research biologist, and for the past 27 years I’ve led over 60 tours specializing in bear viewing and photographic destinations for Photo Safaris and for TravelWild Expeditions.  Trips to Katmai, Denali and Yellowstone National Parks, and to several other coastal locations in southeast Alaska and the Northwest Territories primarily focused on brown bears.  Tours to Churchill and Wager Bay along Hudson Bay in eastern Canada, and cruises throughout the Norwegian arctic territory of the Svalbard archipelago concentrated on polar bears.
How was this trip unique?  First, of all the tours I’ve ever led, the Silver Salmon Creek trip provided the most amazing hospitality, especially from one based out of such a small homestead in a wilderness that can only be reached by bush pilots and boats.  This was not just designed to “look like” a wilderness experience, this was the real thing. 
Our group consisted of only eight people and we were treated like family members by the lodge owners, their chef and their guide.  Incredibly delectable breakfasts, lunches and dinners were created, at least in part, from a small but prolific garden in the yard, local wild berries, and salmon captured daily less than a mile away.  We were all served at one dining table, essentially in their home in plain view of their kitchen, where we could watch the food preparation in one direction, and often watch bears crossing the yard or an adjacent meadow through huge windows in the dining and living rooms in other directions.  
Here, regulations on bear viewing were much less strict than in most other bear-viewing areas because of the relatively small number of people who visit the area.  The staff at our lodge was incredibly accommodating and flexible as to the times in the field for our photography and bear viewing.  It did not feel as if we were at a bear-viewing “facility”—it felt like we were at home.
In the immediate area of Silver Salmon Creek it appeared that bears were feeding on a variety of foods, none of which were superabundant.  The most valuable and prized bear food was the salmon coming up the Silver Salmon River.  However, at least when we were there, the salmon run was small and intermittent and the bears needed to augment their diet with other foods.  These foods included clams and scavenged flounder carcasses on the beach (non-target mortality from the local commercial salmon fishery where the flounder died in the nets and were thrown overboard), and soapberries, grasses and sedges found more inland. 
The lower abundance of salmon at Silver Salmon Creek results in lower densities of competing bears than you can observe at locations like Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park or McNeil River Sanctuary, where you might see 15 or more bears along a hundred-yard stretch of the river at one time.  During the peak of the salmon run in places like Brooks Falls or McNeil River, many bears abandon their normal home ranges for miles around and concentrate at the river, especially at falls where salmon are more easily captured.  This pattern results in complex behavioral social hierarchies developing at the falls as bears aggressively compete for the best fishing locations—with the largest and most aggressive bears monopolizing the best fishing spots until they get their fill.  Competition is fierce, many bears get injured, and cubs are much more likely to be killed by adult males.  I’ve personally seen adult males kill brown bear cubs at Brooks Falls twice during photo tours I have led.  If you are a big and strong bear, the rewards are great, but if you are not big and strong the consequences can be disastrous or even fatal.  Dominant adult males can gain hundreds of pounds in a matter of weeks.  Mothers with cubs in this type of situation are often particularly nervous and vigilant for good reason.  In general, male bears are more common than females with cubs at these areas of high fish and bear concentrations. 
What does all this mean to us as photographers?  Well, at Silver Salmon Creek there tend to be more females and fewer adult males, and the bears tend to be more relaxed due to the lack of completion.  The “local” adult males are probably feeding on salmon at other locations along rivers miles away where fish densities are much greater.  Mothers with cubs at Silver Salmon Creek probably tend to stay in the area and those cubs tend to play a lot more than you would normally see in places like Katmai or McNeil—resulting in fabulously rewarding and humorous photos.
One of the great highlights at Silver Salmon Creek was to watch and photograph the behavior of cubs, especially when one of them was lucky enough to either find a dead salmon or steal one away from its mother.  The cub would grab the salmon with its mouth and try to run away with it as fast as it could in the shallow water along the beach to eat it in private somewhere else.  Inevitably the other cubs from the litter would give chase and attempt to steal it.  Almost none of the cubs ever had any interest in sharing.  Sometimes this resulted in a tug of war contest in which the salmon broke in half and both cubs got a meal, but in most cases it resulted in a lot of begging and aggressive growling among the cubs like a roomful of toddlers fighting over a valued toy.  Sometimes submissive cubs would move in close to the dominant cub and whine very loudly to try and solicit some compassion—usually unsuccessfully.  At other times the dominant cub would actually swat and bite its littermates hard, mimicking a serious fight between adults, in an effort to defend its salmon.  The mother usually just ignored this sibling rivalry and let them work out the dominance hierarchy within the litter.  This continuous battle to capture and defend the prized salmon would go on for surprisingly long periods of time and resulted in much laughter among photographers and in a lot of photos—resulting in the depletion of digital storage on many camera cards in a hurry!
During low tides, when salmon were not running up the river, bears would often hunt for clams along the beach.  One thing became apparent very quickly—not all bears are equally good at clamming.  Some bears would move along the beach and dig scores of holes and never come up with a clam.  Others would systematically locate clams with amazing speed.  One subadult male bear we watched had his clamming technique down pat.  He would walk along the beach with his nose just above the sand, sniffing all the way.  All of a sudden he would drive his long claws vertically down into the sand, curl his toes back toward his wrist in a motion like the bucket of a digging backhoe, and keep digging right down to the clam.  Once the clam was exposed, he used his claws to flick it out of the hole onto the surface of the beach, slap it hard enough with his paw to crush the shell, and then use his claws and tongue in a surprisingly dexterous way to extract the meat.  I actually timed this bear and he averaged more than one clam every 60 seconds!  It was interesting to see how feverishly the bear worked to fill his appetite as the tide began to rise, eventually pushing him off of the clam bed. 
Filming brown bears at Silver Salmon Creek is quite different than at any other brown bear-viewing location I have ever been.  With a lower density of bears, the photographic reward is their very interesting behavior, especially the mothers and cubs.  You can routinely photograph bears catching and eating salmon along the river, digging clams along the shores of Cook Inlet, and grazing on grasses and sedges with scenic mountains in the background.  Human densities—especially of photographers—are definitely lower here resulting in fewer regulations.  The lodge accommodations, the quality of the food, and the warm hospitality are all superb.  It’s like nowhere else I’ve ever been.
Trying to judge Silver Salmon Creek for brown bear photography compared to other bear-viewing areas reminds me of a day I spent with David Attenborough in the early 1980s when he came to my research study area to film black bears as part of his BBC wildlife documentary series, Our Living Planet.  I asked him, “Of all the places you’ve ever filmed, where is the best?”  He diplomatically stated, “Wherever I am.”    
I have thoroughly enjoyed all of the many locations where I have led trips to photograph bears, and I hope to return to many.  Silver Salmon Creek is at the top of this list.  I am scheduled to return there to lead two photo safaris in August 2017—and I can’t wait!