Photographing Wild Bears of Alaska at Tuxedni Bay
When the plane left, I’ll admit, there was a sense of aloneness that fell over us. As the buzz of the Bush Hawk faded slowly away, we were indeed isolated. I can’t speak for everyone individually but here, on the north bank of Tuxedni Bay, this is about as far as I’ve ever been from civilization.
Across the Cook Inlet, Russ Nordstrand, Trevor LaClair, and my son Ryan flew out a day in advance to set up our drop camp and prepare the site for three back to back to back guest rotations. The day before we loaded a few thousand pounds of camping gear and provisions that would serve as shelter and sustenance for as many as thirty people to survive in the bush with no promise of a speedy re-supply. Two weeks and largely cut off from the outside world is a long time away from the conveniences of modernity but months of preparation was in order to pull this trip off.
I was on the last plane out and as best I can tell, we flew a big “L” shape to our destination. First, we head west across a skinny neck in the Cook Inlet where the broad finger of water narrows a bit. Then, we turn right and fly down the beach of the Alaskan Peninsula to our remote camp. We fly relatively low and slow but that’s fine. Along the way, I see the Redoubt Volcano, and further down the inlet, Augustine volcano sits and is surrounded by the frigid waters that wedge between the Kenai and Alaska Peninsulas. Along this edge of the peninsula, the Pacific Ring of Fire forms a conduit from the mantle through which red hot magma fuels four active volcanoes in the area.
I look down from the plane and spruce trees create a maze of greenery that’s sliced up by rivers and creeks that are milky with glacial till. The water flows from the still-active sheets of compressed ice that to this day, carve valleys betwixt the mountains and thus influencing the geology of the area on a time scale that’s measured in eons.
As we descend, I see shed moose antlers littering the forest here and there and an occasional brown bear walking along the beach. Soon I see the airstrip. It’s a spartan dirt path that’s been recently carved through the spruce forest. The landing is uneventful as most landings should be and soon, the final guests and I unload our gear and head to the beach to join the others in camp. As soon as we’re clear of the plane, the pilot turns around and leaves. We are officially on uncharted ground.
It’s hard to explain succinctly but the feeling of the experience in totality is a bit surreal: here we all are, some 60 miles from the closest town, the wilderness is all-consuming, and the bears are wild.
Once off the runway and on the beach, guests see that the camp is in two parts. Sleep camp is a smattering of tents where we’ll sleep and about 100 yards down the beach is the cook camp. At the cook camp is where we serve all meals and socialize in between shoots. Each camp is surrounded by an electric fence for safety from curious bears. It is essential to keep food and other odiferous items separate from where we sleep. In the event a wayward bear was to look for food, it’ll be attracted to where the food is located and not in our tents where we slumber.
At the cook camp, we brief the guests on bear safety and protocol while afield. The rules are generally simple: stay in a group, don’t wander off alone, and always pay attention to the bears.
From the camp where we stand the landscape is outstanding. Located on the north beach of the broad Tuxedni Bay, our camp is flanked by low hills to the east, Mount Illiamna (a still active volcano that’s more than 10,000 feet high) to our south, and Cook Inlet to the west. The inlet is sheltered from a clear view by Chisik Island, a fossilized monolith that serves as an important roosting and breeding ground for around 20% of the birdlife that utilizes the waters around it.
Down the beach from where we camp is home to a large concentration of bears. Soon we gather up and head in search of the mammals. As we walk the black sand beach that’s littered with volcanic erratics comprised of pumice and chunks of granite, a broad mudflat extends away to the south. It’s low tide and when the water retreats, thick mudflats are comprised of finely-silted soil from eons of the grinding action of upstream glaciers. Every six hours or so, the water levels wax or wane depending on the position of the moon relative to the earth. When the water comes in, it comes in fast and the tides are immense. While we are here, twenty-foot tides are the norm.
Skirting the line that separates the beach from the mud, we walk in close formation as we snake our way from camp to Squarehead Cove. The cove is flat and tucked into an area that’s flanked mostly by low hills but on the north is an immense rock hill that’s cleaved in a way that’s reminiscent of Yosemite’s Half Dome. We pause on a small knoll that’s covered in fireweed and survey the sedge flats. A trio of bears (a mother and her twin cubs) are feeding mid-cove while a larger male skirts the edge of the cove where the hemlock and alders meet the wetlands. After a moment of regrouping, we head into the meadow.
Sedges are a group of grasses that grow in moist soil areas. Thin and low growing, the cilantro-smelling plants are a favorite of omnivorous brown bears who supplement their diet of clams and carrion with the easily obtained vegetation. Since the cove is periodically flooded by high tides, the ground is saturated like a sponge. From a distance, the sedge meadow is green, lush, and flat. Once in the meadow, the walking is a bit challenging because of the ever-present mud, potholes, and ditches that are carved through the landscape. Here, the modern world doesn’t seem to exist. Save for a distant airplane, the only sounds you hear is the wind, a distant waterfall cascading from the side of a mountain and cutting through a peat bog, and the occasional bawl of a baby brown bear who’s crying to their mother for food.
We trudge through the ankle-deep mud and position ourselves to gather photos of the bears. For the next two weeks and for all three groups slated to experience this adventure, the script is largely similar: hike out to the sedge meadows each day in search of bears and in between, eat hearty meals and enjoy fellowship at the cook camp. At some point during the outing, the cook camp was renamed Camp Rogue to honor one of the big male bears who frequent the area. More than once during our stay, a bear would amble down the beach within feet of our camp. Largely unfazed by our presence, they would pass us by as if we didn’t exist. These moments were exhilarating for those who experienced it as they gave everyone a chance to see a brown bear relatively close.
During the entire span of the uncharted trip, bears weren’t the only wildlife on the docket. We saw black bears, a red fox, a wolf, moose, porcupine, bald eagles, and a smattering of shorebirds. While no one counted, the number of bear sightings we had was in the dozens for three trips. Each time we’d cast out from Camp Rogue in search of bears, we’d find them.
Since what we experienced on the Uncharted trip is typical of wildlife photography when you pursue truly wild animals who may or may not have ever seen a human before, some of the encounters were, of course, better than others. Occasionally we would see bears a couple of hundred yards away but because of the limitations of topography or the bears weren’t comfortable around us, we’d have to keep our distance. In those instances where the bears would accept our presence and allow us a closer approach, the moment bordered on magical.
Once while on the beach, a female bear approaches from the west. We see her coming so we pick a spot on the beach and photograph her as she feeds in the mudflats. Slowly she makes her way closer. In the meantime, a breeding pair of sandhill cranes feed in the same flat as the bear. Since they were close, many of the guests take advantage of the opportunity and shoot pictures of the birds. While they take pictures, Russ Nordstrand and I watch the bear come closer and closer. Soon, she was a prime photographic range and everyone turns their attention to her.
While the group photographs the middle-aged female, Russ and I choreograph the group in a tenuous dance of shoot-and-move in reaction to how the bear behaves. Our mission as photo guides and bear guards was two-fold: to keep the guests safe and make sure the bear isn’t stressed. For what seemed like an eternity (which in actuality was more like fifteen minutes), the bear fed and the guests took pictures and video. The moment is enthralling. In that tiny slice of time, I estimate that the seven photographers in tow take thousands of images of the single bear.
When you are watching bears, it’s important to watch body language to gauge their comfortability. When the female fed near us at her closest, her ears are perked and she looks at us periodically. From her body language, she was slightly suspicious of us but not alarmed at all. All of a sudden, something changes and she completely relaxes, her ears lay back, she stops looking our way, and she turns her back on us. She’s accepted us in her world.
Throughout the entire trip and with all three groups, the weather changed from unseasonably cool to unseasonably hot to non-stop rain. Each group rallied and reacted positively to the conditions thrown their way. While the weather didn’t always cooperate, the bears were consistent and wild.
At the end of the trip, we pack everything out as we brought it in: using Acton Packer boxes, and bear-proof coolers. In small groups, the planes took the guests away on bush planes. In the end, it was me, Russ, Ryan, and new guide Grant Ordelheide. Trevor flew out with the first group so, in the end, we four are all that’s left. On the beach, there is no sign that we’d ever been there except for some footprints that will soon be washed away by the month’s high tides. Way down in the sedge meadow, I can see bears feeding.
Because of the inclement weather, there was some doubt as to whether we’d fly out today but the cloud ceiling’s lifted just enough to get the planes in. As we sit on the gear and contemplate the trip, I hear the buzz of the plane coming in. When the de Havilland Beaver emerges from the clouds, vortices dance from the wingtips. In short order, the pilot lands and turns the plane towards us. In no time the gear is loaded and we are airborne. As we circle back over our campsite one last time, I take a look out of the plane window and contemplate the adventure we’d just collectively shared. While the popular outdoor mantra advises us all to ‘leave no trace,’ the land doesn’t follow the same ethic. When you’ve spent time in a place and develop a relationship with the land, the land leaves a trace on you.
Tuxedni Bay, Alaska, is forever a part of us.
About the author: Russell Graves is a professional photographer based in Texas. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Graves’ work on his website, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram. This article was also published here.