Alaska, Land Of The Ggagga

This is the incredible backdrop while on location photographing Alaskan Brown Bears in Lake Clark National Park. The top of Iliamna Volcano, shrouded in clouds here in this photo, towers 10,016 feet above the park and is covered by snow year round.

Lake Clark National Park and Preserve protects more than 4 million acres of diverse habitats ranging in elevation from sea level to over 10,000 feet. The first record of the native people building permanent settlements on the shores of Lake Clark are estimated to have arrived around 1000AD. Known as Dena’ina Athabascans, these people came to this land for the fishing opportunities. Lake Clark (known to the Dena’ina as Qizhjeh Vena – or ‘The lake where people gathered ‘) was named after John W. Clark of Nushagak, Alaska in 1891. Long before the Dena’ina came to this place or John W. Clark discovered it, this region belonged to the bears. The Dena’ina word for Bear is Ggagga… Welcome to the Land of the Ggagga!

ALASKA’S BEST KEPT SECRET

A few years ago I began to explore the possibility of leading a workshop in the wilds of Alaska to photograph the majestic Brown Bears. After a lot of research I determined the ideal location was at a remote Lodge along the shores of Cook Inlet in Lake Clark National Park. The Lodge is situated on 40 acres of private land in Lake Clark National Park. The owners have deep roots in Alaska combined with a sincere love for the land and its wildlife. This is an exceptionally unique location offers an unrivaled opportunity to photograph these incredible animals. Over the past 30 plus years the Lodge and its caretakers have carefully established their presence so as to limit the impact on the bears way of life. The Lodge requires compliance of their staff and guests to certain guidelines that ensure the bears and people continue to live together here in harmony. Since starting to lead groups to the area nearly half a century ago, the they have achieved an impeccable safety record with zero bear related injuries or attacks. The Lodge has been named “One of the 10 great places for a North American Safari” and boasts a 50% guest return rate.  Their experienced, professional staff attended to all the needs of their guests with the greatest enthusiasm and care. Due to the immense popularity of this destination there was a multiple year wait to even be able to book space for my workshop participants. Finally after a lot of planning the day of our departure finally arrived.

The view from the skies approaching Seattle.

THEN AND NOW…

Before you even reach Alaska the anticipation begins to build. My flight routed through Seattle and then continued on to Anchorage. As our plane dropped below the clouds the view of the lush rainforest below was overwhelming. Stands of deep green forests covered the mountain range as far as the eye could see, dotted by vast, blue lakes. After a brief transfer we took off for Alaska! Upon arrival we checked into the historic Hotel Captain Cook to rest and relax before our charter flight the next day. The hotel offers views of neighboring Cook Inlet and the Chugach Mountains from any one of their 546 rooms and suites. The Hotel Captain Cook is Alaska’s only member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, making it far beyond the ordinary. It was the perfect resting place for the group on our first night together. The hotel was recently inducted into Historic Hotels of America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This organization founded Historic Hotels of America in 1989 with 32 charter members for historic preservation. Since that time, only 275 hotels and resorts across America have been awarded this prestigious honor for preserving and maintaining their historic integrity, architecture and ambiance. The Hotel Captain Cook being one of those recognized. The hotel offers four distinctive restaurants within the building as well as gifts and unique souvenirs for sale in their 12 shops. After a pleasant evening meal together we all turned in for the night.

The stunning view from one of the hotel’s impressive ‘Crow’s Nest’ suites.

A BIRDS EYE VIEW

The following morning we enjoyed a pleasant breakfast before heading to the airport for our charter flight that transferred us to Lake Clark National Park. We were fortunate to have clear skies, but high winds delayed our departure for a couple hours. While we waited for the winds to subside we spent time chatting about the upcoming adventure, sharing our mutual excitement. Finally the call came through from the Lodge and we were cleared for takeoff. The plane was loaded quickly and we climbed in, eager to reach our intended destination. We took to the skies and headed towards Lake Clark National Park. I have flown over many beautiful landscapes, including Iceland and Africa, but this flight was exceptional! Despite the light mist that we flew through, the views were incredible. A myriad of patterns played out on the forest floor below us. Rivers and streams made fascinating shapes as they chased out to the wide open ocean. Intricate, abstract patterns in the sand could be seen along the shoreline, left behind by the changing tides. As we drew closer to our destination massive waterfalls could be seen flowing off the cliff faces and plugging to the ground beneath… It was magical! Our pilot welcomed us to talk to one another through the headsets during the flight to the Lodge, but it seemed we were all lost in our own thoughts as we passed over this breathtaking landscape. As a result, most of the trip was completed in silence with us staring out in awe at the Alaskan wilderness.

Our chariot awaiting to take us to the remote Alaskan wilderness!

The view from the skies just outside of Anchorage.

Amazing patterns in the sand where large rivers flow into the open ocean.

Fascinating shapes in the tidal rivers below us.

One of the guides from the Lodge greets the incoming plane and the new guests as they arrive on the beach against the backdrop of a dramatic sunrise.

WALKING IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS

We were greeted by the friendly faces of the Lodge staff as we touched down on the beach. Landing on a sand beach is one of the most incredible experiences and only added to the amazing journey we were on. Stepping out of the charter plane signs of the bears were evident if you looked closely. Scanning the sand you could see their gigantic footprints along the shore. The smell of the salt air mixed with the strong aroma of the conifer forest surrounding us was a welcome greeting. We were quickly shuttled up to our accommodations and given an opportunity to settle in before meeting at the Lodge for a warm mid-day meal.

The Lodge here in Lake Clark National Park affords photographers a completely unique experience with bears, allowing us to photograph them free of viewing platforms and crowds of noisy tourists. All the guests visiting this Lodge are there to view the bears and they do so in a respectful, considerate manner. As the bears walked we would stay back, always giving them their space. The guides from the Lodge do an amazing job ensuring that the guests never restrict the bear’s movements or encroach on them. Our first session shooting the bears was very memorable and set high expectations for the group! We started off photographing a couple of bear cubs with their mother on the beach. Eventually we followed them back into one of the expansive meadows for more photo opportunities of them grazing. The bears, though certainly aware of our presence, behaved as though we didn’t exist and passed by our group as we hunkered down behind our lenses. Listening to their grunts as they communicated with one another was unforgettable. At times we were close enough to hear them munching on the grass. One of the local raptors perched in a nearby tree repeatedly put on a show for us, flying out over the field and hovering in place as it hunted for its next meal. A light rain was falling on and off, giving the bears great texture in their fur. Every so often one of the bear cubs would shake, sending a shower of spray everywhere. The expression on their faces are priceless as their bodies wiggle in three different directions!

A first year cub shaking the water from its fur after a rain shower.

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A BEAR CUB

Over the next five days my workshop group would experience and photograph incredible scenes and unforgettable moments beyond their greatest expectations. The Lodge is situated along a river that flows into the ocean and provides the perfect feeding opportunity for the bears and their cubs. They fish for salmon in the river mouth, dig for clams at low tide on the mud flats and graze in the meadows on the grasses. During the workshop there were about half a dozen mother bears with cubs. Watching the young cubs interacting with their mother and each other is very entertaining! The cubs would often try to hunt for fish in the river without success. However, when one of them was lucky enough to catch a salmon that was spawned out or a morsel of one left behind by their mother they would become rabidly aggressive in protecting the fish from towards their sibling and mother. This was when you’d really see the personality differences between the cubs, it was fascinating to watch. When a cub did manage to catch a fish or secure a stray piece you almost wanted to stand up and cheer for them!

An experienced mother bear showing her two small cubs how to hunt for salmon at the river mouth.

A yearling cub races off frantically from its mother and sibling with a chunk of salmon in order to eat it without sharing. These moments were hilarious!

The smaller of the two siblings sits dejected in the surf after missing out on the last fish caught. Its larger counterpart affectionately approaches and comforts junior bear.

Apparently forgiven, the junior bear cub returns the affection of its larger sibling with kisses on the end of the nose.

One of the favorite places for the mother bears to feed their young cubs was on the tender clover blossoms that grew thick on the mowed lawns of the Lodge. Getting down low offered an excellent perspective to capture these images.

About half way through the workshop we got to witness and photograph a mother bear nursing her two cubs. This was one of the many highlights on the trip and a memory that we all will treasure. There were a few times when we were photographing the mother with her cubs that we anticipated this happening, but it never did. When we finally got to witness this behavior it made it extra special for my group. The mother bear purrs to her cubs as they nurse, sounding like an overgrown cat!

After fishing all their bellies were full and they would settle down into a giant heap of bears and dose off in the warm sunlight.

Photographing the sleeping bears from the shoreline of Cook Inlet.

The weather wasn’t sunny all of the time, but the mists and rain provided whole different look and feel to the surrounding landscape. I loved these days.

FISHING LESSONS

Perhaps the most exciting part of the workshop is witnessing the bears hunting for salmon in the river. This is an adrenalin filled experience as these apex predators charge through the surf at top speed, tracking a fish as it swims. You realize the incredible strength and power of these animals and it leaves you in awe. The bear’s sense of smell is exceptionally keen, aiding them in locating and capturing the fish. The average dog is said to have a sense of smell 100 times better than humans. The bloodhound is in exclusive company with a sensitivity 300 times better than that of humans. Estimates of the sensitivity of a bear’s nose vary widely, but many say bears beat all the competition boasting the ability to smell 7 times better than a bloodhound. I’ll do the math for you, if true, that means a bear can smell 2,100 times better than you and I can! When you watch them fishing you easily accept that as fact, despite how crazy it sounds.

Sometimes while the bears were fishing they would chase a salmon in the general direction of where our group was set up. Watching this drama unfold through the viewfinder on your camera makes these moments all the more intense, as it can appear that the bear has nearly reached you when looking through a 600mm lens! However their sole focus is on catching as many fish as possible and they rarely even afford us a passing glance while we are out photographing them. The Lodge has been established here so long the bears simply treat the people as part of the landscape.

Full Tilt | Alaskan Brown Bear

Chasing Fish Tails | Alaskan Brown Bear

Missed Opportunities | Alaskan Brown Bear

The Pursuit | Alaskan Brown Bears

The River Of Life | Alaskan Brown Bear

Catch Of The Day | Alaskan Brown Bear

The Plunge | Alaskan Brown Bear

The Trophy | Alaskan Brown Bear

An Alaskan Brown Bear casually strolls past a group of bear watchers as it heads into the river to hunt for salmon.

LAKE CLARK, A HAVEN FOR WILDLIFE

Though the bears in Alaska are one of the biggest attractions, my workshop participants were treated to a wide variety of other subjects. For the past couple seasons a few Wolves have been frequenting the region and they were hanging around while we were there. Regrettably we didn’t get any pictures of the wolves, but we did find some of their giant tracks in the sand on the beach. The presence of these wolves just further lends to the attractiveness of this Lodge for nature photographers. We also spent time photographing Trumpeter Swans, Red Foxes, Sandhill Cranes, Bald Eagles and other Birds of Prey. All of the other subjects were a nice bonus and provided diversity to the images the workshop participants captured for their portfolios. It was an incredibly rewarding trip and my guests all produced exceptional images. We watched the forecast for the aurora borealis each night, but unfortunately it didn’t peak while we were there.

Massive Wolf Tracks In The Sand

The Long Road Home | Sandhill Cranes

Newton’s Law | Gull and Sea Shell

Potential For Mischief | Red Fox

The snow capped top of Iliamna Volcano is an impressive sight on a clear day when you can see the steam rising up from the volcano’s mouth.

Heading South | Trumpeter Swans

A Jellyfish stranded on the sand, waiting for the incoming tide to wash it back out to sea.

Lord Of The Skies | Bald Eagle

Nathaniel offering instruction to the workshop participants in the field.

Paradise Found | Alaskan Brown Bear

FIRST CLASS STAFF AND GOURMET MEALS

My workshop participants enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of life in the wilderness, detached from their own daily schedules and demands. You may not travel to a remote region of Alaska expecting to experience culinary delights, but we looked forward to our meals in the Lodge as much as we did photographing the wildlife each day! The Lodge is world renowned for the delicious food that they serve. The daily, personalized touches by the staff were greatly appreciated. Fern was our own dedicated server at meals, by the completion of the first day at the Lodge she had memorized all of our dietary preferences and ensured everything we desired at our place setting before we walked into the dining room!

The Lodge chef, in his element.

My workshop group posing with Fern, our incredibly competent server. This photo shows the incredible view from the second floor deck outside the dining area.

My workshop group posing with our knowledgeable and friendly guide under the Lodge’s giant bear sculpture.

The best Alaskan Brown Bear photography location in Alaska… Lake Clark National Park.

Our group had a fantastic time sharing this amazing trip together and collectively built memories that we will treasure forever. The fun didn’t stop with the photography either, we spent our spare time relaxing around the outdoor fire pit or editing our images together in the lounge. The time we spent eating meals together were just as special, and the view from the second floor dining room is epic! We often watched bears stroll by while we were up eating our meals and a Red Fox also paid us a visit. There simply is no substitute for this unique location. If you want to truly experience photographing Alaskan Brown Bears the only place to do it is in the Land of the Ggagga!

I’ll be returning to Alaska again this year in September to lead my Wonders Of Alaska Photo Workshop. There are currently only two spots left, you can find more information about the workshop here at this link.

If you’d like to see a collection of images from our recent trip please visit my Alaska Portfolio.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. ~ Nathaniel

Until we meet again…

 

2 thoughts on “Alaska, Land Of The Ggagga

  1. Wonderful recap of our trip Nathaniel. I will treasure the memories always. If anyone wants a recommendation for this year I’d be happy to supply. It really was a very special treat to be there.

    • Thank you very much Jackie, I wish my writing could have done the trip justice! I greatly appreciate your offer to provide a testimonial for this trip. I look forward to making more great images and memories this year in Africa!

      ~ Nathaniel

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