Alaskan Eagles

One of my goals for Alaska was to find and photograph bald eagles. I didn’t think this would be too much of a problem since Alaskan eagles are common. Or, rather, I hoped they were easy to find. In the end, finding them wasn’t difficult, but photographing them, and photographing them well, was a different story entirely.

If I had to characterize the most common place to spot a bald eagle, it would be at the top of a tree. My neck still isn’t quite right because I spent all my time walking while looking up. I tripped over a good number of things along the way, but that didn’t dissuade me. I continued scanning the tops of trees. To be sure, I saw a lot of eagles, too. But just because they were in a faraway treetop didn’t mean it would make a good, or delightful, or even reasonable photograph. I needed a different approach.

Now I started to look at mid-level in the trees, and lo and behold, I found them. There weren’t as many, but the ones that I did see made for better photographs. I was on to something here. I just had to keep searching. 

Eventually, outside of Juneau, I found a perfect, secluded location. There was a small stream that fed a pond, which in turn emptied into the ocean. There was a solid treeline for the Alaskan eagles to perch in, and there were plenty of places for me to set up and wait. I did just that. I readily spotted several eagles, and now it was a matter of waiting for the right opportunity.

Intense Eagle

Here, I learned my second lesson about eagles. Once they are sitting, they are in no hurry at all to move. Once they settled in on a branch, they were likely to stay put for an hour or more. Oh, they would move around a bit, but as to the actual flying part, not so much. But that was OK. It gave me plenty of time to work on the perfect photograph, and eventually, I made Intense Eagle. The lighting was excellent, the sun was ideal, and the pose was flawless. I couldn’t have been happier!

Intense Eagle

Intense Eagle was not the only eagle photograph I made, of course. While I was out on the sailboat (Humpback Whales details that part of the adventure), I saw quite a few eagles, mostly in trees, and occasionally on the distant shore. But now and then, an exciting opportunity presented itself.

Icy Eagle

While sailing toward the LeConte Glacier I began to encounter small icebergs floating in the ocean. These icebergs completely enchanted me. Most were little, but there were larger ones as well. But amazingly, as I sailed by one of the medium-sized ones, I spied a bald eagle perched on it! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. What a fabulous perch it was! If offered a commanding view of the nearby ocean, and it even moved, providing an ever-changing viewpoint. I sailed the boat around the iceberg, looking for the perfect angle. The eagle watched me but wasn’t alarmed, which allowed me to make Icy Eagle. Icy Eagle just makes me smile every time I look at it and reminds me that you find eagles almost anywhere.

Eagle Post

Not every eagle photograph came about because I waited for hours on end. A few came about by happenstance, as is the case with Eagle Perch. I had been outside of Petersberg for the better part of the day, chasing the Alaskan eagles along a beach. I was positive the beach would work out, but after a day I realized it wasn’t going to. There were several eagles, but they were all high in the trees, away from the beach, and far from me.

Despite my patience, they were onto me and didn’t allow me to make any good photographs. With a sigh, I packed up, started up the car, and headed back into town. As I drove, I wasn’t thinking about much, except perhaps what sounded yummy for dinner. I drove into the outskirts of town, now paying attention to where I was. Next, I motored past a quaint neighborhood. I drove past an eagle hanging out on a post. I then headed into the central part of town and wait a minute! It finally dawned on me what I had just driven past. 

I turned around as fast as I could and sped back up the road. And there, sitting on an old post in the water, was a bald eagle watching me. I couldn’t believe it! The eagle was as calm as could be, enjoying the last rays of the day’s sun. 

Quietly, and slowly, I exited the car and picked up my camera. I sauntered nonchalantly in the eagle’s general direction, being careful not to let it know I was interested in it. It ignored me. Good! I prepared my camera, and feigning complete and utter disinterest in the eagle raised my camera, composed the photograph, and before the eagle knew what I was doing, made Eagle Post. I don’t think the eagle ever quite realized what I was doing. And in the end, Eagle Post has become one of my favorite eagle photographs as well.

Eagle Post

Sometimes, you have to be in the right place at the right time. Being in Alaska is a marvelous start. It was such a joy to bring these Alaskan Eagles to you, just as it was awesome to create Humpback Whales and Fishing Bears for you. I’ll be back in Alaska soon!

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.