This summer, I checked a huge item off my bucket list: photograph grizzly bears. In the past, most of my wildlife photos have been of birds, so much so that I’ve earned the name “bird lady” from my friends. And while birds still hold a special place in my heart, I was ready to branch out and photograph larger mammals. One of the best places in the world to photograph brown bears is in Alaska, specifically in Lake Clark National Park & Preserve.
Lake Clark is one of the least visited national parks in the United States, primarily due to its remote location. The park is only accessible by plane or boat; there are no roads. I met up with a group of photographers in Anchorage, Alaska, and together we traveled to Lake Clark National Park on Cook Inlet where we stayed for six nights. In order to reach Lake Clark from Anchorage, we traveled by 4 and 6 seater passenger planes. During the flight, we were able to see Mount Denali in the distance. As we got closer to the park, we could see the bears below us by looking out of the plane’s windows. We had arrived in bear country.
Once on the ground, we were greeted by our bear guide, Belle. Our mode of transportation for the week was a metal cart towed by an ATV. The first thing I noticed about the ATV was that a large chunk of the seat cushion was missing. Belle told us that a curious bear had taken a nibble out of the seat. On the 5-minute ATV ride to the lodge, we could see bears in what is commonly referred to as “the meadow.”
Our home during our stay in Lake Clark was the Alaska Homestead Lodge, owned and operated by James and Sheila. There were only six guest rooms at the lodge, allowing for the warm and cozy atmosphere that most people search for when they come to Alaska.
The decor was unique and every detail was meticulously thought out. Every time I entered the lodge, I discovered something new.
In order to go grocery shopping, James must fly his own plane to the closest town, Soldotna, which is about an hour ride across the bay. To limit trips to the grocery store, Homestead grows most of its own produce in a garden behind the lodge.
We spent most of our days hiking through Lake Clark National Park, only coming back to the lodge for meals and to quickly charge our camera batteries. Thanks to the extra hours of daylight afforded to us by the Alaskan summer, we had some great photo opportunities.
In Lake Clark, humans are allowed to get as close to 50 yards of the bears, and then it is up to the bears to decide if they want to get any closer. Oftentimes, they came within 20 feet of our group, and we had to back up to ensure that we kept a safe distance between ourselves and the bears.
The landscape in Lake Clark was nothing short of spectacular. Meadows filled with sedge grass were surrounded by beautiful mountains, the most notable one being very creatively named, Slope Mountain.
Every year, many of the same bears return to Lake Clark. The locals can recognize each of the bears and are familiar with their personalities and family histories. I did not expect to befriend some of the bears. To be honest, that was my favorite part of the trip. I would often put my camera down and just appreciate the beautiful bears in front of me, watching them interact with each other.
My favorite photo of the entire trip was of a young mom and her yearling cub, who we referred to as “Little Cub.” Female bears are always on high alert, especially with their cubs around. Mama bears will often stand on their hind legs in order to get a better view of their surroundings. Little Cub’s mom stood often, suggesting that she was more on edge than your average bear.
During our second day, just before lunchtime, we found Little Cub and her mom crossing the slew. There was a small island of grass, and they stopped to eat. The whole scene was simply breathtaking.
One of the other well-known bears was Crimp Ear. A blond-ish female who always had her beautiful, playful cubs with her wherever she went. Crimp Ear got her name because of her slightly folded left ear.
One of the largest males bore the name Scarface due to his gnarly wounds from fights with other bears. He was a very grumpy old man.
The most entertaining bears were two 3-year-old siblings. It was their first year away from their mom, and they decided to navigate their first season alone, together. Since it was their first time on their own, they stood and ran often and were very skittish. But they were also very playful since they were so young. Their mom was known as “Blonde Mom” due to her light fur. This is the reason that her female cub had similar coloring. The white coloring is very rare.
The bears we spent the most time with were Old Sow and her two yearling cubs.
Old Sow has been around Lake Clark for many years. This season, she had two yearling cubs that were extremely playful and very entertaining to watch.
In the months of June and July, there is a large population of bears that flock to the Silver Salmon Creek area, and it is clear that we were merely guests visiting their home. On our second day, we were on our way out for the morning session when we saw Old Sow and her two yearling cubs crossing the slew and heading towards the lodge. Sure enough, the family of three came right up to the lodge and found the wooden porch swing to be a good scratching post.
But sometimes a bear’s curiosity can lead to damage. Old Sow decided that the wooden porch swing looked very tasty and ate a large chunk out of the swing.
The weather in Lake Clark was always changing. The area is known for its fog and rain, and we experienced a lot of both. Photographing in the rain proved to be challenging. We came prepared to stand outside in the rain for hours on end. To top it all off, there were mosquitoes everywhere, so I often wore a bug net. It was quite the look.
There was one upside to the rain: Bears’ damp fur added some beautiful texture to the photos.
As I reminisce on my trip, the time I spent with the bears feels almost surreal. There are so few places left where their habitat remains nearly untouched and humans are mere witnesses to mother nature’s wonders.
Most of the photographers I met on the trip had been to Lake Clark many times in the past. At first, I did not understand why they had returned to this far-off place. This trip seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But now I get it. My trip to Lake Clark was truly an unforgettable experience, and I was ready to go back again as soon as I got on the plane to fly home.
Senior Photography Editor Julia Schachinger can be reached at email@example.com.