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Brown Bears of Silver Salmon Creek, Alaska
2022 Trip Report

I led two Brown Bears of Silver Salmon Creek Trips in 2022. The first one was July 5-11 and the second one was August 17-23. The two trips were only six weeks apart but, at this location early July trips are normally quite different than mid to late August trips in Alaska. In early July, at Silver Salmon Creek, there usually are no salmon runs and it is the tail end of the breeding season for brown bears. The bears are largely feeding on freshly emerging vegetation, usually sedges and grasses, and digging up clams along the shore during low tide. In early July you usually see at least some adult males hanging around as the breeding season is not totally over.

In contrast, during mid to late August salmon are usually migrating up Silver Salmon Creek and adjacent rivers, breeding season is over, and it is rare to see adult males in the lower portion of the river near the ocean. Most of the bear feeding activity is concentrated at the mouth area of Silver Salmon Creek, feeding on migrating salmon with little attention paid to the vegetation or clams.

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In 2022, the July tour went as expected except there was an unusually large number of bears concentrated along the shore hunting for clams. At one point we counted 21 brown bears working the clam beds within a few hundred yards of Silver Salmon Creek, which is a bit more than usual. I don’t know whether the clam beds were more productive this year at that time or whether there was a scarcity of their other foods that caused this concentration. From a photographic standpoint, once we got our tripods set up it was a target-rich environment and shooting was fast and furious as you could “film” quite a few different bears from the same location.

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During early August, the Silver Salmon Creek area had very heavy rains for extended periods of time, including most of the week we were there. This resulted in Silver Salmon Creek running much higher than usual and even though the salmon run may well have been coming through, the bears couldn’t catch them because the water was too deep and fast running. We did not see any bears catch any salmon the week we were there in August—that’s a first for me. Fishermen caught a few salmon but less than usual. Because of the inability of bears to be able to catch salmon in the Silver Salmon Creek area that we had access to, many of them likely moved on to feed on salmon further upstream where stream flows wouldn’t be so high, and it would be easier for them to catch fish. That is not to say that we didn’t have photographic opportunities with brown bears in August, we did, but fewer opportunities than normal. We had about a half dozen bears that stayed in the area, including a mother with one cub and another with two yearlings that provided us with quite a few opportunities to shoot the offspring nursing and playing.

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At Silver Salmon Creek, brown bears are our primary photographic focus, but inevitably other subjects occasionally make an appearance and provide some additional opportunities. In previous years we’ve seen wolves, otters, red foxes, or moose, for example. There is usually at least one pair of bald eagles in the vicinity but traditionally they have been a bit elusive and keep their distance compared to areas where eagles are more habituated, like Homer, Alaska. However, this year, we had a pair that were more tolerant of humans and provided some really nice opportunities to photograph them perched on some artistic-looking driftwood and flying low near us with a mountain scenic as a background!

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Of the eight trips that I have led to Silver Salmon Creek so far, I saw my first black bear during our July 2022 trip! We saw it three of the five days that we were doing photography. It was an adult female with an incredibly beautiful shiny well-groomed black coat. As you might expect, it was usually either in or very near the forest habitat and understandably nervous. Brown bears are enemies of black bears and black bears favor forest habitats because of their superior ability to climb trees, due to their short and sharp claws, which they use to escape in the canopy and avoid predation. However, some brown bears do climb trees, especially subadults. During our August 2022 trip we actually photographed a subadult (3-year-old female) brown bear climb more than 20 feet up in a spruce tree and rested for more than an hour. Often you hear people advise you to climb a tree to escape from a brown bear. In general, this is good advice, but it does not always work. In one documented case in Alaska, a person climbed a tree to escape an aggressive brown bear but still got attacked by the brown bear approximately 36 feet above the ground!

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During the July 2022 tour I went along with our whole group which opted to go on a several-hour add-on puffin photo trip based out of Homestead Lodge. We boarded the guide’s boat along the shore near Homestead Lodge and went to a small island less than an hour away where puffins were nesting. It was spectacular! Once we got off the boat onto the island there were puffins everywhere–mostly horned puffins but there were some tufted puffins as well! Most of us shot in excess of 1,000 images of puffins, mainly flying, within an hour! It is a great challenge to keep them in the frame as they fly past you 40-50 miles-per-hour. Success rates of getting a well-composed and sharp image can easily run as low as 2% (you need shutter speeds more than 1,000th of a second and 1/1,600 would be better) but when they are flying by you every 10 seconds or less, with a little persistence I think most of us got some really great puffin images!

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One of the most amazing and rewarding activities I enjoy at Silver Salmon Creek is to get up early, have our guide take our group to the mudflats at the crack of dawn on a relatively clear morning, and try to locate a bear (or bears) walking along the shore. Sometimes when you get there it’s still dark—too dark to take pictures. It can be uncomfortably cold, especially if the wind is blowing hard. If you haven’t been there before, you may well think, “What are we doing here? Why did we get up so early?” But if luck is with you, the bears show up and you get a colorful sunrise, you will soon know why you came. You’ll be shooting images of crisp bear silhouettes in an explosion of colorful sunrise reflections in the shallow flooded clam beds along the western shore of Cook Inlet. For me, those are the images that stand out in a large collection, the ones that are more likely to get enlarged, published or used in a presentation.

I can’t wait to return for my 9th and 10th Silver Salmon Creek tours July 5-11 and July 11-17, 2023. I hope you can join me!

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