Brown Bears of Silver Salmon Creek 2019 Trip Report

By Gary Alt on Oct 14, 2019

Late last August I led my fifth Brown Bears of Silver Salmon Creek photo tour. Like my four previous tours there, it was another amazing bear-viewing and photography experience. One of the advantages of Silver Salmon Creek is that, because of the relatively small number of people that visit the area, photographers are subjected to fewer regulations than in most other bear viewing areas. Contributing to the success and enjoyment of the trip is the incredible hospitality, quality food, and scheduling flexibility of the folks at the lodge where our groups stays. The timing and duration of photographic activities were mostly dictated by the group’s desire to be in the field when light conditions and bear activity were favorable, rather than when it was convenient for the lodge’s staff. Our group of nine people was treated like family by the owners and staff, and we felt more like we were at home than at a bear viewing “facility.”
Brown bear walking at Silver Salmon Creek AlaskaCompared with my previous four trips to Silver Salmon Creek, this one differed in a couple ways—most notably, we had much more sunlight this year. In August, Cook Inlet can be  very cloudy, rainy and windy. But that was not the case during this 5-day stay. It was cloudless most of the week, never rained until we were just getting ready to leave, and the winds were relatively calm. This unexpected weather pattern provided great lighting opportunities during early mornings and evenings, but it tended to reduce bear activity during the middle of the day when direct sunlight increased the temperature. So we adapted by going on photography excursions during the early- to mid-mornings and late in the afternoons when the light was nice and the bears were active. In the middle of the day, when the light was harsh and the bears were less active, we had time to take naps and/or process photos.
Brown bear foraging for salmonAnother thing that was different on this year’s trip was the locations where the bears spent much of their time. Usually bear activity has been more concentrated along the final few hundred yards of Silver Salmon Creek where it empties into Cook Inlet. There, the bears wait and watch for salmon migrating up shallow portions of the river where it’s easier to run them down and catch them. Also, in past years we would occasionally see bears attempting to dig up clams to eat along the beach, and eating sedges in the meadows.
This year the bears showed no interest in digging for clams or eating sedges and they seemed less attracted to the river. Even when salmon were splashing in shallow water as they swam up the river, we were puzzled as to why a number of bears remained bedded and didn’t even chase them. As soon as I saw that, I assumed they were full and must have gotten plenty of salmon somewhere else where the fish were easier to catch. As we scouted around the local area we soon learned where many of the bears were getting most of their salmon. Large numbers of salmon were concentrated in backwater sloughs where the bears could easily catch them. I’m not sure what caused so many salmon to go up into these narrow and shallow sloughs this year—perhaps the larger than normal salmon run coupled with unusually high tides. Whatever the cause, it was a death trap for the salmon but a boom for the hungry ursids in search of enough calories to survive another long winter of starvation while hibernating. 
A pair of brown bears fishing for salmonAlong the sloughs this year we saw several bears catch and kill fish, bite off and swallow the brains, and sometimes just the skin, and then just walk away from the carcass and go back to catch another fish. Currency in the bear world is not dollars per hour, it is calories per hour and when food is abundant they concentrate on the parts with the most fat (calories), like the brains and skin, and leave the rest. This may seem like a waste but the discarded carcasses are eaten by other bears—those that are less successful at catching fish (especially cubs and sub-adults)— as well as bald eagles, gulls, ravens, wolves, foxes and other scavengers. As is true with human fishermen, some bears are better at catching salmon than others. The bears that are best at fishing can satiate their appetite quickly when salmon are abundant and vulnerable.
This year we observed and photographed approximately a dozen brown bears that were feeding regularly at, or near, Silver Salmon Creek. There was a dark colored female with three cubs of the year, an unusually light blonde female with two cubs of the year, a dark chocolate brown and extremely fat (it looked like an overinflated bear balloon) and undoubtedly pregnant female, and about four smaller sub-adults. I have yet to see an adult male brown bear at Silver Salmon Creek during the second half of August. Local guides told me that adult males are seen at Silver Salmon Creek earlier in summer—during the breeding season—following solitary females (potential mates), but they seem to disappear by late summer. I suspect that after the breeding season adult males probably move off to areas where fish concentrations are higher.   
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Adult males are known to kill cubs. I’ve personally seen this occur twice while leading photo tours at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. In places where very large concentrations of salmon occur, such as below the falls at Brooks Falls or in McNeil River Sanctuary, it is not unusual to see 15 bears within 100 yards of the falls.  In these situations there is tremendous competition for the best fishing spots and a lot of serious fighting (and some killing) with adult males usually dominating the choicest real estate. Females with offspring are usually very nervous in these situations. In contrast, at Silver Salmon Creek during August adult males are rare and the females and cubs are much more laid back. You see more playing and interactions between siblings and between mothers and their cubs. This is one of the real assets of doing a photo tour at Silver Salmon Creek—you get to see and photograph a fair bit of cute behavior between mothers and cubs, sometimes at close range. 
Red fox with voleThough bears are our primary photographic subject at Silver Salmon Creek, other species of wildlife always show up. In past years we’ve seen a wolf and otters. This year near one of the 4-wheeler trails we saw a pair of bald eagles returning to their tree nest to feed their juvenile, and a red fox that caught and ate what appeared to be a meadow vole within 25 feet of most of our group! Of the five photo tours I’ve led at Silver Salmon Creek, each were different but all of them were extremely enjoyable and photographically productive. I can’t wait to return for my 6th tour July 5-11, 2020.   I hope you can join me!  

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