Katmai July 26 – 31: Coastal Bays

Two Katmai trips in a month??  Yup.  Here we go again with more bears from a different section of the park.

This trip was going to be hosted on-board a large boat that slept 12-ish people. Getting there is a bit of an adventure in itself. Basing out of Kodiak, we took a float plane out to Kukak Bay, the boat’s current location.

But first I had to get to Kodiak. Not wanting to chance any flight delays from getting to the boat, I flew in a couple days early. All the travel went smoothly though, now having some time to explore the island. It was good weather for a day hike – clearing up and then some haze/fog in the evening.

July 25

It was a very wet, low cloud day close to the island, but we thankfully were still able to fly out, and the weather cleared up by the time we made it to the boat, currently in Kukak Bay.

The house boat only moved around a few times throughout the week. Most of the sightseeing was done on the skiff, a smaller boat that can go right up to the shore. The first evening, we stayed on the water and just did a little sightseeing. We found a smaller bear that did not mind our presence as we drifted by.

At dinnertime, the captain pulled anchor and moved over to Hallo Bay, where we would spend the next couple days. We arrived at Hallo Bay late in the evening to see 10ish bears roaming the shoreline – promising of things to come.

July 26: Hallo Bay

We were on shore a bit before 8am. The weather was very overcast, which kept most of the air traffic out. There was only a group of two photographers to share the bay with. I presume they were camping as there were no other boats or planes around. Almost right away, we spotted a pair of wolves way back in the meadows…pretty close to that pair of photographers. I’m sure they had a good photo moment with them.

The bears seemed slow to wake up. The ones that made it out to the tidal flats early were pretty lethargic.

As the morning went on, they became a bit more active. This sow stole the show this morning, being the most determined to land a fish, and her cubs were entertaining.

It took a few attempts, but she landed a couple fish. When a bear catches a fish, sometimes larger males will size them up and maybe give chase, attempting to steal their fish. Nobody messed with this mother though, although you can see this bear in the background was thinking about it.

The mother bear would share with her cubs when a fish was caught. But when she was in the water, the cubs would sit and watch, sleep, or play with each other, depending on the moment.

When the fishing slowed down, we headed back to the boat for lunch. There is quite a bit of downtime between morning and evening shore excursions. Some people fished, but I would just sort photos and take a nap.

Which is what the bears did during the day. As we headed back to shore for the evening, they were still in food comas. Using the skiff created some unique opportunities to silently drift past resting bears.

Not much more happened that evening. Even at low tide, little fishing went on, so it was mainly just sleeping bears.

July 27: Hallo/Geographic Bay

Hallo Bay for the morning…the same sow family stealing the show again, for now just by being adorable.

But soon the fishing picked up and more bears showed up. The younger bears would seem to be more charismatic, sometimes wondering right by our group while others would give us a wider distance. Not all bears welcome this though. A young bear got too close to this sow, and a chase exploded.

There is a lot of motion blur here because the shutter speed was only 1/250th of a second. Action like this should be 1/1250th or higher. A definite fail on my part, but my defense is that I was shooting stationary bears before this chase started.

At the end of the morning, we floated around an island with some interesting birds, including this oystercatcher.

Then it was time for lunch and move to Geographic Bay. Along the way, there was a brief moment to fish, and a group of doll’s porpoises joined in.

I was having a fantastic time attempting to get pictures during their brief surfaces, although the fishermen were a little annoyed with them scaring away the fish.

As we arrived at the mooring spot, we spotted multiple bears and a couple wolves on shore.

July 28: Geographic Bay

Geographic Bay is a much tighter location compared to Hallo. We would frequently park by the river mouth and waited for bears to pass by. Take this one for example, shot at 33mm. Also note the low cloud ceiling – it was a damp morning.

I must say that being in this close proximity wasn’t really all that intimidating. We were in a pretty large group – 10 people. And I think that large of a group size was more than enough to discourage any aggressiveness from approaching bears. I say more than enough because I feel that our group size was too large, to the point where bears avoided the area entirely because of our presence. More on that in the conclusion.

The rest of the morning was unusually quiet. Not that I know what usual is – just going off the reaction of the group and what they told us to prepare for.

We came back to the boat late in the morning pretty soaked. As much as I like camping, coming back to a warm cabin w/ chili waiting for us can’t be beat.

The evening excursion was about the same. The rainy weather picked up and the ceiling dropped even lower. We drifted around the bay for a while and found some unique wildlife, including a moose (!!). Favorite from that evening is this eagle, where the flat light helps with the high contrast between their heads and body.

July 29: Geographic Bay

It’s another morning of flat dim light and lethargic bears, setting me up for another shutter speed fail. This time, I was shooting a sleeping bear in front of our boat. Since nothing is moving, I want the ISO speed as low as possible, even if that means dropping the shutter to 1/50sec. But then he rolls over with an ever so brief moment to capture it. The result is a blurred face. Oh well.

The rest of the morning was uneventful. We can see salmon in the river, but the bears just aren’t going for them, which was puzzling. Sometimes a bear would be walking up a river and be startled by a surfacing fish, and still miss it! As far as salmon species go, I didn’t really know any better. But after talking to the guides a bit, I learned that the salmon we could see in the river now were pink salmon. Bears will typically go after the chum (or “dog”) salmon. After a quick Wikipedia search, pinks average 4.8 lbs (max 15 lbs), and the dog salmon being much larger at 16 lbs (max 22 lbs). So my theory is that we might have been there at the wrong time…seems that the salmon runs might be running a bit behind.

Another reason for low bear activity can sometimes depend on other available food sources, like wild berries. But the berries are not flourishing this summer, apparently from some harsh late-season frosts. We only saw one pile of bear scat that was primarily berries.

The evening is more of the same. Wondering bears, almost like they are waiting for better fishing.

I’m being picky of course. Any single bear would be a banner weekend in Yellowstone, and we usually had 6 – 10 within view. I’m just continuing to capture tranquil scenes waiting for more charging and fishing moments.

The day finished off with a very unusual sighting, a great horned owl, and a baby at that!

It was unusual in that I’m told they don’t like water very much, and this was was perched right over the bay.

July 30: Geographic Bay

This morning was one of the most active. Upon coming ashore, there was a female wolf in the river. Up until now, we were only taunted with fresh prints every morning. The distance and lighting puts this encounter below some I’ve had in Yellowstone, but I’ll take it.

Later in the morning, we saw a bear catch a fish, and another bear had an “I saw it first!” moment.

The chase ended in the tall grass where we could only hear the intense growls and flying dust/vegetation from the brawl. It was enough to wake up another bear that we couldn’t see and even more came out of the woodwork. It seems that the fight informed others that there was food worth fighting for, and some fishing activity picked up.

The action was slowed in the evening, and I started to recognize the same few bears that were comfortable being close to us.

The weather really cleared up that afternoon creating some good landscape moments and opportunities to capture some scenic memories on where I spent the week.

July 31 (Morning): Geographic Bay / Kodiak

The final morning was spent on-shore with more of the same quiet behavior. Then it was time to start making float-plane trips back to Kodiak. The weather closed in again, too wet to be motivated to do anything outside, so I mostly stayed in the hotel until the flight back home.

Conclusion

Kudos to you for reading all the way through, this was a long write-up.

Now for some final thoughts…this really was a lifetime trip. Even through the bear activity could have been higher, seeing Katmai from this perspective was quite the experience. The access available by boat really opens up the possibilities to always find bears & wildlife, and having a warm bed and cabin to lounge in was more luxury than I’m used to.

So much so that it might be ahead of my time. After all, I should still be young enough to brave the elements, right?? My first thoughts when I saw that pair at Hallo Bay was “how did they stay here overnight, and how do I arrange the same?”

Brooks Camp was cheaper in cost and offered more camera time throughout the day, free of being bound to what the group wants to do. On the Brooks Camp trip, I was shooting pictures as soon as I left camp in the morning and until I returned to camp at almost midnight. It was exhausting and amazing all at the same time (read more on that here).

So the next Katmai trip will be roughing it more than this trip. Maybe Brooks Camp, maybe something more ambitions…with a whole year to figure it out.

After this report we will return to the usual Yellowstone journals, for at least a couple times as autumn gets closer.

Full gallery from this trip available here: http://www.tetonmtnliving.com/Katmai/Coastal-Bays-2017/

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