Fishing Bears

One of my goals for this Alaskan trip was to photograph a bear fishing. That’s an easy thought to have from the comfort of my chair at home: “Hey, I’d like to photograph fishing bears!” But turning that thought into reality, in Alaska, in the wild, is quite a different story. Luckily, I had a plan. Whether or not this plan would work remained an open question, but there is only one way to find out. It was time to set forth and find my fishing bears.

The first step of the plan was getting to Alaska and getting myself in a position to locate bears in the first place. I did this by sailing in the inner passage, and you can read about that part of the adventure in Humpback Whales. Once I was satisfied with my efforts with the whales, it was time to head to Admiralty Island, which has an exceptionally dense brown bear population. This island was my best bet to find a bear and, perhaps, the best opportunity for fishing bears.

Admiralty Island is an enormous island and is as big as the island of Hawaii’s O’ahu. There is only one small native village on it, with just a few hundred people living there. Beyond that, the island is pristine wilderness, untouched and unworked by humans. In other words, a perfect place for me to find bears, with the bear density estimated at one bear per square mile. Since the salmon were running, the easiest way to locate a bear was to find a stream, then walk up it looking for where the bears fish, then wait for them to come again. My plan was coming together. I sailed to the east side of the island, as far away from any established facilities, trails, or other human signs as possible.

Admiralty Island: Hopefully, there are bears to be found here!

When it comes to finding the right stream, one is as good as any other to start. Because I was out in the wilderness, there were no guides, no books, no reference, and no information whatsoever. I anchored in a small, sheltered cove and took a zodiac to the shore, landing near a small stream. I made my way to the mouth of the creek, watching for salmon. There were a few, to be sure, but not enough, so I headed back out in the zodiac to another nearby stream. It took a couple of tries, but eventually, I found one that had a decent amount of fish. Now it was time to see if the bears were here.

I was exceptionally cautious because I was in the wilderness with an unknown number of bears with unknown temperaments. I bushwacked my way upstream, which was both easy and complicated. It was easy because all I had to do was head upstream. It was complicated because although I could wade in parts of the stream, in other places, deep water and fallen trees blocked my progress. In these cases, I had to go around, and where the banks were steep, this was not easy. All the while, I needed to be extraordinarily quiet and careful, lest I encounter a bear before I was ready. There was a lot of stopping, listening, and looking very carefully all around me.

A stream where I thought I might find bears.
The spot where I made Gone Fishing

Eventually, I found a place I thought would work out. There were quite a bit of recent fish remains, so I knew the fishing bears were here. I found plenty of cover for me, too, and I had an excellent vantage point behind a fallen log a short distance away. There weren’t any bears, though, so that was not so good. Since it was now later in the day than I cared for, I marked the spot for tomorrow.

The next day dawned bright and clear and was a perfect day to photograph fishing bears! I got up early and repeated yesterday’s trek to my chosen location. I set up, settled in, and waited. And waited. Then I waited some more. The woods around me were both at once quiet and noisy, but as the day went by, I became more accustomed to the sounds, and all became normal. The wait continued. Eventually, planning and patience paid off!

A baby brown bear crossing the stream

I almost didn’t see them at first; they came so silently. Before I knew it, a bear was crossing the stream right toward the fishing spot I was watching! And right behind the bear were three small cubs. Not only did I encounter a bear, but I encountered Momma and her cubs, too. Momma bear was aware of me, but I was far enough away that she was not concerned with me at all. She waded into the water, and before I knew what was happening, she had successfully taken a salmon! She brought it back to the shore for her cubs, who devoured the meal in moments.

This process repeated several times, and after Momma Bear satisfied the cubs, she had a meal herself. As quietly as they arrived, they disappeared into the woods, although I continued to wait. After all, fishing bears is what I came to photograph. I was impressed at the skill and speed the bear caught a fish. I didn’t know what to expect. The bear would walk into the stream, and a couple of moments later would splash out with a fish. The skill of the bear was terrific to watch, and she made it look incredibly easy. It isn’t, that’s for sure.

The bears came and went several times throughout the day, and I watched and photographed them each time. This photograph, Gone Fishing, is the one I am most proud of from that entire time, even though it showcases only one of the cubs. Its expression is priceless, and you can see the anticipation of another meal in its eyes.

Gone Fishing

Alas, it was eventually time to move on. I did explore several other streams and locations, but this one was the best. And there was more of Alaska to explore, too, which we will do in the next story.

Humpback Whales

Hear the whales while you read!

If you would like to hear the whales while you read, just click the play button to the right!

Tap/Click play to hear the whales

There are many different ways to explore Alaska, but the most interesting ones are when you get off the beaten path. And since Alaska is not small, there are many different paths you can leave to explore on your own. I’ve been there a couple of times now, and each time I’ve experienced and photographed incredible sights. This article is the first in a series of posts about our incredible 49th state. The question becomes where to start, but the humpback whales in  Whale’s Morning and the events leading up to that photograph seems like the right place.

One way to explore Alaska would be driving, and indeed, that’s a great start. Alaska doesn’t have an extensive road system, though, so just driving might not be the best way. You could fly over it, of course, and see some incredible scenery from above, but that, too, isn’t the best way. Or, you could sail its waters, and when it comes to the Inner Passage, this is absolutely the best way. I started my sailing adventure in Petersburg and ended many days later in Juneau. In between, I encountered gorgeous places and wild animals. Those we’ll chat about soon, but for now, we’ll talk about the humpback whales.

The Inner Passage is perfect for the humpback whales. Its waters are pristine and deep, offering prosperous hunting. Whales are, quite literally, surrounding you as you ply the waters, although one area, Stephens Passage, is home to several large, stable pods. I stayed quite a while here and was sad when it was time to weigh anchor and head to other waters. I spent most of my time near the Five Fingers Lighthouse, which is still operational, but also the part-time home to whale watching organizations. It makes the ideal base, and using a lighthouse to watch the humpback whales allows the researchers to keep watch over the entire range. 

For me, mornings were my favorite time. I’d wake early, well before the sun did, and wander up on deck. There, in the stillness of the pre-dawn, I could hear the whales breathing. It is a slow, deep sound, almost human-sounding. In and out, slow and steady, the whales would breathe, surrounding me. It wasn’t easy to count them, but I would estimate forty or fifty were in the waters around me. The crispness of the air froze their breath for just a moment, allowing me to make some surreal photographs. 

Vaporous Whales

Vaporous Whales is one of those photographs. Their breath would rise in the crisp morning air and hang there for the longest time. Each whale would rest on the surface for a bit then dive back down, only to be replaced by another. The process repeated over and over, eventually leaving a myriad of vapor trails from their breath.

The humpback whale routine is fascinating to watch. Each one rests quietly on the surface, slowly moving toward whatever destination it has selected. Without warning, the whale rises ever so slightly from the water, then slides beneath the waves. Their tail lifts behind them, pointing toward the sky, then follows the whale into the murky depths. Headed Down is the decisive moment of their dive.

Headed Down

I made Whale’s Morning on a still and calm morning. The horizon was cloudy, though, which dashed my hopes for a bright and colorful sunrise. I was up early with the whales and had my fingers crossed, but alas, the skies were cloudy. As dawn approached, I kept hoping conditions would improve, but they did not. The sun began its daily trek, and although the whales were nearby, a stunning photograph did not appear to be in the cards. Yet, much to my surprise, the sky did light up. Not in the pinks and reds I was expecting, but warm, soft yellows! The moment was even better than I had hoped. Whale’s Morning was the result of this spectacular dawn, thanks to a humpback whale who chose the perfect moment to dive deep.

Whale's Morning

We’ll continue our Alaska adventure in Fishing Bears.

Departure: Everglades

If you’re joining this adventure with this post, you can quickly catch up in Arrival: Everglades. Let’s continue our where we left off and continue to explore Flordia’s Everglades National Park.

As you remember I was just making my way back to shore after my harrowing sea excursion. We were lost at sea, captured by pirates, and weathering the fiercest ocean storms. Nah, not at all. The day was calm and serene, our small boat a pleasure to be in, and we drifted into the dock without even a bump. I thanked the captain and was off to see more of the Everglades. Being back on terra-firma was great!

There is little difference between solid ground and swamp in the wetlands, making the term “land” a bit of a misnomer. In general, it’s a swamp, and wet feet are part and parcel of the experience. Now resigned to that, I headed deeper into the wetlands to see what awaits me. My feet “Ker-plopped” with every step, intermingled with a few “splooshes” and now and then a “splash”. Once your feet are soaked, it doesn’t matter, and you forget about the wet feet. Onward I ventured, ever deeper into the swamp. I might have found dry land at one point, but probably not. Who knows.

Everglades Swamp

Scenes like this are common. Small ponds, or perhaps creeks, or, well, let’s just say a heck of a lot of water, surrounds cypress trees and everything else. In and amongst the trees we can find all sorts of creatures, from large to small. The air is full of mystery, for who knows what lies just out of sight, or who might be lurking in the pond? It is best to keep your eyes peeled at all times. Far from being gloomy, the swamp is alive. Sure, there are insects galore, most of which are determined to taste you.

And there are snakes here. Goodness knows, there’s plenty of snakes, most of which are fifty-five feet or longer. Maybe one hundred feet long. Probably longer still. I don’t really know, because at the end of the day I do not care for snakes so I never stuck around long enough to find out how long they really were. I’m confident they are at least two hundred feet, for sure. Aside from the things that slither and slink, and setting aside the eyes attached to alligators, the swamp is a beautiful place. Yes, it is beautiful. It is more of a single organism, perfectly balanced, perfectly in harmony, and a powerful, primeval force. A place with snakes, but every rose has its thorns.

Everglades Swamp

Everglades Dragonfly

Making my way through the swamp, I eventually found an area of taller grasses and ground that was definately dry. A buzzing sound filled the air. Not the kind of buzzing of bees, but subtly different. A closer examination revealed dragonflies–more than I could count. The flitted from here to there, from stem to stem, in no order at all. They didn’t stop on any stalk for long before retaking flight. The mesmerizing scene was chaotic, although calming as well. Luckily, one dragonfly stopped long enough for me to make Everglades Dragonfly before it moved on. My feet were dry here and I was in no hurry at all to move on. There were no snakes that I saw, and no gators that wandered by. It was a small, welcome, reprieve from the swamp I had been in. Did I mention there were no snakes and my feet were dry? I was in heaven. So was the dragonfly.

Everglades Dragonfly

Heading Out

Teaing myself away from the dragonfly fields I trekked on, intent on making my way out of Everglades National Park. As I was doing so, a leaf-filled pond caught my eye, pausing my journey. There is something serene about a quiet pool, and I ended up spending quite a while there, just reflecting and contemplating. The leaves floated, uncaring about little else, moving only when the breeze pushed them this way or that. Small insects hopped from leaf to leaf, never lingering for long. The leaves remained undisturbed and continued their companionable silence. Water drops came and went. The sun played hide and go seek with the clouds. The pond, the zen pond, simply was, allowing me to focus on simply being part of the moment. The spell was complete and time stretched to eternity.

Everglade's Leaf

With a final act of willpower, I broke free of the enchanted pond, stood up, brushed myself off and continued onward. I memory of the pond remains with me, even today as I write this, although I long to be back there.

Everglades Wetlands

Everglades Wetlands

Alas, it finally was time to leave the Everglades, but not before making just one more stop. This vast open expanse is what I expected the Everglades to look like, and this scene does not disappoint. The tall grasses sway gently in the breeze. A lone bird flies overhead, in no hurry to get anywhere in particular. The croak of a bullfrog calls from my right, echoed by a louder croak from my left. The more I look, the more I see. And the more I listen, the more I hear. The more I remain still, the more alive I became. I felt as alive as I have ever been. For far too short of a time the wetlands claimed me as one of its own, and let me into its world. It let me be a part of it, it let me understand it, and it has never quite let me go. That’s OK, and a good thing.

Just as the swamp, the wetlands are a complete organism in complete harmony. They are beautiful and magnificent. They are glorious. This is the Florida Everglades.

We must be aware that these places are unique, where land and water easily comingle into one. It’s our duty, it’s our right, and it’s our privilege to protect these wild places. And so we must. For if not us, then who?

Arrival: Everglades

The day had been long, and predictably for the time of year, rainy. Since I was in southern Florida, the wet part was not wholly unexpected. Rain it did, and at times, it seemed as if it wanted to remind just what rain could be. I continued, intent on my destination: Everglades National Park.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I arrived. Maybe a grand entrance, replete with a soaring archway, and perhaps a multi-lane highway leading on. Instead, the entrance is a small sign, a narrow two-lane road and another sign that said “Visitor Center: 1,000 miles” Maybe it was less than one thousand miles, but it sure seemed that way. In any event, it didn’t matter because I probably would be distracted long before then.

That distraction occurred quickly enough in the form of a small, one lane, dirt track that seemed like it led…somewhere. I was heading down that one track before anyone could blink. The tall grasses thickened and rose above me, and then gave way to small trees and dense shrubs. Before you knew it, I couldn’t see anything except straight ahead of me. There might have been a road behind me, but the option of retreating didn’t cross my mind.

Alligator Eyes in the Everglades

An alligator lurks in the swamp in Everglades National Park

Before long I came to a small pond. Like a moth to a candle, I was all about that pond and was standing beside it in no time. The air was oppressive: still and quiet. The atmosphere in the Everglades is like the air nowhere else, and it holds a sense of anticipation as much as anything. Slowly, almost too slowly, it dawned on me that I was not alone at the pond, for there, staring back at me were two large eyes. The kind of eyes that were sizing me up for a snack. The type of eyes that were liking what they were seeing and were attached to an alligator of unknown size, and worse still, of unknown temperament. Alligator Eyes remains one of my favorite Everglades photographs.

I slowly retreated, for now, retreat was indeed an option, and continued down the road, a lot more wary of what lurks all around me.

Leaving Shore

Having decided that ponds were more occupied than I first anticipated I decided, perhaps not unwisely, that another way to explore the Everglades is via boat. Not having the foresight to bring one with me, this thought required me to find a vessel, preferably one with an engine and someone to pilot it. After all, it wouldn’t do for me to think I was headed into the park while I was actually pointed toward the open ocean. After a bit of scrounging around, I managed to find both a boat and a captain, and with that, I was on the water. I’ll admit that I was slightly disappointed the captain didn’t have a peg leg nor a parrot, but the boat also didn’t have a plank I could be forced to walk, so all in all, I was content.

A calm day on the water in Everglades National Park

We departed first thing in the morning, well before daybreak. The waters were calm, quiet and utterly serene. We sliced through the water with ease, looking for, well, anything and everything that caught my eye. A small island up ahead held my attention, and we headed for that. Along the way daybreak happened, providing Everglades Calm.

Egret Rookery

The small island hosted snowy egrets and was their current rookery. Here, safe from land-based predators, the egrets care for their young until it is time for them to leave the nest. There is always–always–something happening around the rookery, and today was no exception. The egrets flitted from here to there and back to here again, all without any order I could see. I made Egret Rookery to reflect the joy of watching the egrets.

Egrets flit about their rookery in Everglades National Park

Alas, it was time to head back to shore and leave the egrets behind. We’ll pick up from there in Part 2.

Bring the Adventure Home

You can always stare at Alligator Eyes in your own home. Head on over to the photographs page to purchase a copy for yourself.

Three Nightscapes

As the sun slips past the horizon and night begins its march across the land, many of us head indoors. We turn on the lights without a second thought, and continue our day inside. Should we glance toward a window, we see a square, if you have square windows, of inky blackness. We look away and enjoy the pleasures that light brings us. But what was it like long ago before the advent of electricity? What did our distant ancestors do after dark?

To begin to understand this we have to find truly dark skies. Today, that is not an easy task. You need to be far away from the nearest significant light source, and you might be surprised at just how much light even the tiniest of towns emits. There are places which are still truly dark, though, which is a good thing. Out west, it is a little easier to find dark skies.

From the moment you turn off all light, be that the sun or whatever light you brought with you, your eyes will begin to adjust. This is a gradual, slow adjustment, but a richly rewarding one. The stars slowly come to life, one by one, two by two, dozens by dozens and before you know it you are staring into the depths of space and a sky filled with countless stars. The more you look, the more you find, and the more you find, the more you look. In some locations and at some times of the year, you can see the core of the Milky Way, and that is a completely staggering sight. It can literally leave you speechless.

One startling thing about the night sky is that it isn’t quite as dark as you might first think. If there is even a sliver of the moon you will be able to find your way around. If it is a full moon it might as well be broad daylight and you will know it is night, but it won’t slow you down. Conversely, if you find truly dark skies on a moonless night, well, it is dark. Such nights are perfect making photographs of the night sky.

These three nightscapes are some of my favorites, and represent how different the Milky Way can look.

 

Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah’s Night was made in the badlands of New Mexico in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area. This area is little known and well off the beaten path. Few people venture out here, but that is their loss for it has some amazing rock formations, and some of its hoodoos are beyond the imagination. On this moonless night it was dark as dark can be. Even with my eyes fully adjusted I never could see my hand in front of my face. However, that was to my advantage because I was able to create the entire scene. I lit up the hoodoos that I liked, and positioned the Milky Way where I wanted it, making this beautiful photograph. As a completely unplanned bonus a meteor streaking through the frame (you can see it as a small vertical line jus above the hoodoos in the back). The wish I made certainly came true!

Abo Night is the last of the three nightscapes and showcases the mission and pueblo in the Abo unit of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico. Although unoccupied since the 1600s, the mission still stands and makes an imposing foreground to the New Mexico night sky. Although not quite as pitch-black as the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness, it is still dark and the stars shine exceptionally bright. As with the Grand Canyon, however, modern civilization intrudes, with the cities of Socorro and Albuquerque contributing their glow to the scene. Still, it is not hard to imagine how this scene must have looked more than four hundred years ago.

When you get a chance, turn off your lights and step outside. Take a few moments looking up at the sky and let your imagination wander and roam. The stars above will be your guide. If you are in a city and you find yourself in the country, take a moment there to look up.

In the meantime, let these nightscapes inspire you!

Virgin River

There are always those places that hold your attention and draw you back time and time again. For me, one of these places is Zion National Park in southwestern Utah. The park is world-renown for its awe-inspiring beauty, from soaring, majestic mountains, to red rock formations that defy conventional description, to its tree-filled main canyon, an oasis in the desert that makes you feel as if you walked onto a different realm altogether.

I’ve been in the park more than a few times, and I’ve been known to drive a few hundred, or more, miles out of my way just to drive through it. There is, however, one feature of the park that draws me back: the Virgin River.

The Virgin River is not, by any means, the mightiest river around. Far, far from it, and most days, it is quiet and unassuming and you can walk though it without getting the tops of your shoes wet. However, when the flash floods come, and they do, this small river becomes a torrent in its own right, and it has cut through and down into Zion National Park, leaving impossibly high and sheer canyon walls and small hidden treasures.

For this small adventure, we’ll work our way from north to south along the Virgin River.

Our first stop is called The Subway. Here, the river has cut a near-tunnel through the solid rock. It’s not a true tunnel, as there is an opening, perhaps just a couple of feet wide, at the top. The walls are gently curved and rounded, however, and it resembles more than anything else its namesake: a subway. The river seems to be so gentle here; a thin film of water, not even an inch high, covers the entire floor. And yes, as you might expect, it is exceptionally slick, too, and you need to be mindful of where you put your feet. The highlight, though, are a few emerald green pools of water. The pools are a few feet deep, deep enough that you don’t want to fall in them, and just deep enough for the emerald green color to appear. In any event, The Subway is a highly photogenic location.

Just downriver from The Subway is a small, gentle series of cascades known as Archangel Falls, or sometimes, Arch Angel Cascades. To me, this is one of the most beautiful locations in the entire park, if not this entire area of Utah. The river still isn’t very large at this point, but what water there is cascades over a long series of sandstone shelves. The water flows every which way here, and when viewed from the bottom, the cascades really show their beauty. With the high canyon walls behind it, and the characteristic glow of reflected light on sandstone, the scene is absolutely breathtaking. A small stand of foliage at the top completes the tableau.

Further downriver, many miles in fact, the Virgin River is more of a river. Small side streams and springs along the way feed into the river, and it slowly begins to build. Along with that is the power to cut through canyon walls. The Narrows is a section where the walls are staggeringly high, almost one thousand feet, and the river runs from edge to edge. The effect is, well, dramatic, to say the least. This small river is now a quiet powerhouse. For me, I love the feel of the blue-green waters of the river and the high sandstone walls; the color combination just cannot be beat and again it feels like you are walking through a different time and a different place.


We’ll leave the Virgin River with one more view of the Subway. This view is at the beginning of the Subway, looking up into it. I really like how the small waterfalls are formed between the pools, all flowing into a fault on the river’s bottom. This scene, perhaps, is my favorite one of the Subway.

The Virgin River cuts through Zion National Park, leaving us a myriad of wonders to enjoy.

Teton Winter

Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is one of our more impressive National Parks. Dominated by the soaring Teton Range, the park stretches the length of it, encompassing and protecting this environment. In addition to the mountains, the Snake River flows through the park, and there are numerous lakes, making for a wide and diverse ecosystem. For me, that means opportunity, regardless of the time of year.

This year I made the journey there in the winter months. Much, if not most, of the park is closed to vehicles in the winter. The snow depth is not trivial, and measured in feet, not inches. An average snowfall can add a foot or more to that depth, and clearing the roads which are seldom used in the winter just doesn’t make sense. They keep one main road open as best as they can and the rest is left to nature. This is exactly how I prefer it.

Teton's Winter

This panorama, Teton’s Winter, shows the mighty Teton range as I encountered it. The fresh, unbroken snow started at my feet, creating the perfect foreground, and ended at the top of Grand Teton (which is the tallest peak in the center of the image; it has a slight crook to the right). As I stood there, absorbing the vista before me, letting it all soak in before I made this image, I was struck by how massive these mountains are. Moreover, they do not have foothills to speak of, and they start unexpectedly from the flat plains. The Snake River runs from right to left in this scene, and is in the line of trees.

Speaking of the Snake River, this scene, Teton Afternoon, also called to me.

Teton Afternoon

As Mary Beth and I were driving through the park I looked out the window and saw this. I was immediately, and I mean instantly, transfixed by it. The way the Snake River flowed in front of the mountains, and the frost still covering the trees spoke volumes to me. Unfortunately for Mary Beth there was no viable place to stop and photograph. Remember above when I was talking about how deep the snow was? It applied here, as well. I stopped our vehicle in the middle of highway, much to her consternation and considerable alarm, grabbed the camera gear I thought I might need, and suggested that she might keep driving and come back for me in a bit. She took this advice, luckily, before any other car came along. Unfortunately for me, I was so caught up in the scene that I completely forgot about small things like a coat. At least I had my camera.

As I stood there on the side of a highway in the snowbank, camera in hand, in just a T-Shirt, I made this photograph, one of my favorites. A few cars whizzed by–I couldn’t help but wonder what they were thinking. At last Mary Beth came along, too, and retrieved me, which was good since my teeth were really chattering by that moment. Still, the result was well worth it.

Grand Teton National Park held something else for me as well–a couple of red foxes!

I had been looking for a red fox in the snow for quite some time, and my patience, such as it was, was finally rewarded. I encountered this beautiful female deep in the park and was able to spend some quality time with her. She was skittish, as is to be expected with any wild animal, but she also tolerated my presence. As I stood there, still as a statue, she finally relaxed and went about her day. She walked across the snow ever so lightly! Even though the snow was fresh, she barely left any tracks, and I spent the longest time just watching her. Fox Stride was made during this encounter. I love the way she is looking ahead, staring at a spot where perhaps, just perhaps, a meal awaits below the snow.

Fox Stride

I saved the best for last, however.

I also encountered this beautiful male red fox, curled up on the snow, just looking at me. For me, this photograph, Fox Curl, is destined to become one of my all-time favorite photographs. We looked at each other for the longest while. He was comfortable, and not bothered by me in the least, although I was quite a ways away so as to pose no threat. He was enjoying the sun while it lasted, and I was enjoying him. All in all, it was a very good moment for the both of us.

Grand Teton National Park is winter is a magical place.