I went camping in Alaska with Kodiak Bears. All of them. (Part 1)

There’s so much I want to say about this experience because camping with these amazing animals was thrilling and epic in every way: the dramatic and sprawling landscape, the vivid colors and contrast of grey and blue sky to the bright greens of the meadows, the animals themselves and their silent social dynamic, the engulfing remoteness, the sharpness of the snow-covered peaks we woke up to every morning, the busy tide that washed in and back out for miles twice a day, exposing a vast, brown area to explore for six hours – all of it. Epic.

So many starts and deletes on this blog post. I’ll keep this one to just the bears, or at least, try to. Our camp is below:

20164256 x 2832DSC_0520Okay so the first thing to know is that not all brown bears are grizzly bears, but all grizzly bears are brown bears. For the sake of confusion, I had to spell that out. The brown bears in this gallery are all Kodiak bears, also referred to as Alaskan Coastal Brown bears – they are the generrralllyyyy (I think) the same as Grizzly bears except for location and diet.

20164256 x 2832DSC_0234On our first morning, we had a close encounter with this guy (above.) This shot was taken later in the week, but we met this young bear on our first morning on the beach. A not-quite mature male brown bear Michele dubbed “Randy.” We were setting off on a day hike to see the dead whale that had washed up on the beach a few miles away and to get some photos of the bears in and around that area. The group had left the camp and we had activated the electrical fence – I stopped just outside of it to fuss with one of my waders (a necessary evil when hiking in wet, tall grass or far out at low tide in the slick muck of the cove) and was about 15 feet from the group  when Randy appeared around the corner – and he was moving fast.

DSC_87672016DSC_8767Randy was coming around the beach point at the same time we were – and when our guide quietly gestured for us to come together as a group, I scurried to rejoin the group (I should have moved slower and more deliberately, as a bear would, but he was close and I was new. Lesson learned, immediately.) Our encounter lasted a good few minutes, with him swaying back and forth, head low, pacing. In no way did I ever feel threatened. Sure, he was bigger than I was, but he was more ‘testing’ us than acting truly aggressive – even if he was simply “giving us shit” as our guide Brian explained, minutes afterward my heart was still racing. But I never felt ‘un’safe, and somehow even in the moment, I could see he was a younger bear and felt instinctively that he had no real intention of harming us.

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Being a young male he is constantly pushed around by the larger males and so he was seeing where we, the humans, were on his totem pole of social hierarchy. Sadly for him we are near the top, and together as a group and lead by our guide, we used proper body language and movement to let him know he wasn’t allowed to mess with us. The oft-repeated, “Hey bear, move along buddy” didn’t hurt. (Surprisingly, it works.)

But damn, what a way to start the camping trip.

We also met Rachel, a blond Kodiak bear who runs everywhere instead of walking. It’s unclear why she does this; bears don’t usually excerpt themselves more than they have to and running is usually reserved for escaping larger or more aggressive bears. Rachel runs simply “because.” It’s pretty funny to witness, because you always expect to see some sort of chase or something but no, it’s just Rachel running to wherever it is she’s going. We think she might be Randy’s sister – we saw them play-fighting way off in a meadow one night, and it made me happy to think they both had a friend in this world.

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Each day, depending on weather, was more or less the same: wake up from the perpetual overnight sunshine of Alaskan summer, breakfast, and setting out on a hike in a different direction. I loved every minute of it: exploration, exercise, wildlife, nature. Walking for miles a day in waders on soft rocky beaches or through thick, spongy meadows left me aching at the end of each day, but skipping out on any chance to explore never crossed my mind.

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While I was there I wanted to see everything I could see, which meant hiking out in the slick soft mud for miles out when the tide was out, or heading out to one of the various islands off the coast of our beach cove and scrambling to the top meadows, or wading across the tidal river that extended out from our campsite into the meadows.

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The bears were everywhere. You didn’t have to go “find them” because you could just see them everywhere – clamming on the beach at low tide, grazing on “goose tongue” grass in the meadows. Or if you were just in camp, one could just simply walk by. They don’t care that you’re there, as long as you understand how to behave. The best chance to see one up close is to go out, perch yourself with a good view and sooner or later one will happen by.

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Or, in one case, you might accidentally almost walk right into one sleeping so deeply that he doesn’t hear you until it’s almost too late. Which is why you move slowly, deliberately, and must have solid mental focus the entire time you’re outside of camp.

DSC_88032016DSC_8803We woke this guy up (left), and I know now why they say, “Don’t poke the sleeping bear.” He was grumpy AF when he woke up – in a very real, noticeable way. Michele and I happened to be walking below the ridge where the rest of the group was (for just a minute while I once again messed with my wader , and the bear below turned around to look at the group over his shoulder – he didn’t see us below, thankfully.) It took him a good long while to realize where he was and what was happening – and man was he pissed off when he walked away. 1DSC_8808DSC_8808

Legs swinging way out to the sides as he walked – an unmistakable sign that says, “I’m annoyed.”I don’t think this is the same bear we woke up, but here’s a great example of the John Wayne cowboy leg swing thing. (right)

Anyway, he was huge in every way and I’m glad that ended with a funny story. It really did take him a while to wake up and figure out what was going on, it was like waking up your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving when it’s time to go home. He’d probably been gorging on whale all day.

We also met this guy on our way back from the dead whale. We were on the same little trail and guess which one of us moved to the left? Not him.

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People asked me how I could stand and take a shot like the one above without crapping my pants. I shot the above with a 300mm lens, but make no mistake, that bear was 20 yards and closing fast (even with their slow pace, they cover ground quickly.) The thing is, and you learn this quickly (and it helps to have an incredible guide with you) that the bears don’t really give a shit about you. You’re just another animal out there – and you need to know the rules.

There’s unmistakable signs  (staring is a big one, jaws lacking/snapping, legs swinging) that you can’t miss if you’re paying attention. And the mental focus it takes to constantly be aware out there is very real, and very exhausting. We were lucky to have a guide that was constantly aware for us so that we could concentrate on shooting. When the bear above was coming right toward us, I was on the outer edge of the group and with every step, it became more and more unnerving before I simply just stopped shooting and put the camera down to slowly make my way to the right so he could pass by. And he passed by incredibly close to us and he was enormous.

Almost as big as this one.

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In part 2 I’ll post all my baby bear pictures and talk about the mothers we were lucky enough to get to know while we were camping. The babies. The babies are so cute it hurts and I miss them terribly.

The full gallery is below.

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