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Brown Bears of Silver Salmon Creek
2023 Trip Report

The highlight of our photo tour this year, without question, was photographing mother bears with cubs—which is often the highlight at Silver Salmon Creek/Homestead Lodge. Cubs are the definition of cute. They are restless, impatient, and curious so they are almost always on the move and doing something that will make you laugh out loud. They spend a lot of time wrestling, play-fighting, chasing each other, exploring novel objects, nursing, and following their mother wherever she goes. Cubs can make a wide variety of sounds and tend to be extra loud if they are hungry, they don’t get their way, or if one of their siblings has food and they don’t. Any parent watching a mother bear keeping her litter in line will empathize with these grizzly challenges. And yet, watching a mother bear lie down or sit back and cuddle their cubs while nursing is one of the most tender sights you will ever see or photograph.


Our 2023 Brown Bears of Silver Salmon Creek photo tour ran from July 5 through July 11. Our group of nine met for orientation and dinner at the Lakefront Hotel in Anchorage on the evening of July 5th. The next morning, we took a 75-minute low-altitude flight southwest from Anchorage to the western shore of Cook Inlet, just slightly north of Silver Salmon Creek, along the eastern edge of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. The group arrived in three Cessna 206 model aircraft, flying in tandem, and landing on the wet, sandy beach during low tide. There we were welcomed by the Homestead Lodge staff and transferred, as well as our luggage, into aluminum carts pulled by ATVs and shuttled about one-half mile inland to Homestead Lodge. Once at the lodge, we received an orientation, unpacked, and had a delicious lunch. Immediately after eating we all grabbed our camera gear, hopped into our carts, and started our 4+ day quest looking for bears in one of the most scenic areas in all of Alaska.

Edited in PS 6594 2

In my four decades of experience as a bear biologist and tour leader photographing wild bears (black, polar, and brown) at many destinations in Alaska, Canada and Svalbard/Spitsbergen, the Silver Salmon Creek/Homestead Lodge location has been the most dependable to get great photos of mothers nursing and cubs playing. Multiple times each day this year we were able to locate and photograph mothers with cute cubs, and that has been fairly consistent from year to year. That is one of the real strengths and advantages of the Silver Salmon Creek/Homestead Lodge bear tour location.

Why? I think this location is the “sweet spot” for mother/cub photography for a variety of reasons. In many brown bear photo tour destinations, especially along rivers during salmon runs, you are largely restricted to photograph the bears from crowded and elevated viewing platforms where you are shooting down on them—a less than ideal angle.


In areas where you have viewing platforms, usually just below a waterfall, you have a high density of bears fiercely competing for the best fishing spots and these are dangerous places for cubs. In many cases the mothers will tree their cubs before entering the high-risk area (falls)—the mothers are very nervous, and the cubs are justifiably scared. Twice I have witnessed adult male bears killing cubs right in front of viewing platforms. It has been my experience that from those platforms it is rare to see cubs nursing or playing because of the high stress levels for both the mother and the cubs in this situation.


Speaking of stress, during peak seasons in some locations these viewing platforms can get a bit crowded and tempers sometimes flare between competing photographers in ways that detract from the desired feeling of photographing wildlife in the serenity of the “wild”. Also, photographically the images taken from these viewing platforms look like thousands of other images we have all seen that were shot from the same place. At Silver Salmon Creek/Homestead Lodge we are moving around quite a bit with ATV’s and hiking which results in more variety in our photos, because our backgrounds are not so stereotypical, and our photographic experiences have a lot more diversity.

You have almost no chance of getting great nursing or tight cub play shots unless the mother is habituated to humans. She needs to feel comfortable and secure enough with human presence to largely ignore them—not to approach them or to run from them, but to just do what they normally do and treat humans no different than a row of protruding boulders.

Edited in PS 8008

I feel this has been accomplished at Silver Salmon Creek by the quality and due diligence of the establishment, in general, and the “bear guides” in particular. They consistently keep their groups to small numbers and train them to travel in a tightly spaced row, like a “human centipede” and to carefully follow their guide and his or her instructions. The predictability of human movements and human behaviors reassures the bears that people at that location are not a threat and they quickly learn to largely ignore the people and go on about their business of normal life—walking where they want, feeding, nursing, sleeping, as if people were not there.  No yelling, no threats, just a calm quiet guide on what to do and where to go.  This results in decreased stress for the bears and the photographers. Another important part of their program, in my opinion, is that they coordinate the movements of their groups so that individual bears are not being followed for extended periods of time. They give individual bears breaks from disturbance from time to time to let them have some “free time” which I think makes the photographer/bear relationship work better.

The bear guides at Silver Salmon Creek are there with the bears every day pretty much all summer. They keep track of individual bear’s observed travel routes, favorite feeding areas, and feeding times. A good bear photography guide knows that it isn’t just where the bear is that counts. It’s even more important to know where the bear is going to be, and what the photographers are looking for. Then, with that knowledge they can position the photographers where they need to be when the bear gets there. It is their knowledge that increases our chances of having the photographic trip of a lifetime.

Edited in PS 7171

On every tour there are certain shots that stand out in our memory. For me, on this tour, I was excited to get some nice images of brown bears walking through lush patches of flowering purple lupine and wild geranium, perfect reflections of bears in soft early morning light while digging for clams on a slightly flooded beach, and an alert mother bear and her tiny cub standing erect on their hind legs, laser-focused on a large male approaching.

One particularly memorable moment on this trip occurred while photographing a National Park Service sign along a trail in a forested area near Silver Salmon Creek. The sign provided helpful advice to visitors on how to minimize stress and negative impacts on bears. The sign was titled, “Bears Live Here” and prominently featured a large photograph of a brown bear looking to the right. What made this experience so memorable for me was that instantly after looking at the sign with the bear looking to the right, I looked to the right, and amazingly less than 10 feet from the sign was a live brown bear, like an obedient ursid model, facing the sign and drinking water from a puddle!  I knew no one would ever believe this story without a documentary photo but feared the bear would be gone before I could get the shot. Turns out I was able to snap a quick photo and it is featured in the slide show associated with this trip report!


I have led 9 brown bear photo tours to Silver Salmon Creek between 2016 and 2023. Each were uniquely different but all of them were very enjoyable and photographically productive. Of all the locations where I have led photo tours over the past 37 years, this is one of my favorite destinations. The comfort, food quality and hospitality while staying at Homestead Lodge is amazing. It doesn’t feel like you are at a tourist destination. It feels more like you’ve come home to share a world-class brown bear photography experience with just a small group of friends and family. And from the single dining room table where we eat all our meals, you can look out the large picture window and often see bears walking around in the meadow and sometimes right in the yard! This is one of the best locations I know where you can dependably get great photos of mothers with cubs—nursing, playing, and traveling together. I can’t wait to return for my 10th and 11th tours, July 5-11 & August 17-23, 2024! Hope to see you there!

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