Stephen and Pam Brkich gave an excellent presentation on photographing bears on Alaska. This presentation was at the regular “3rd Thursday” NAPfS meeting on October 17, 2019. This recap contains some of Stephen’s fascinating stories, but doesn’t do them justice. To hear his entire presentation, scroll to the bottom of this page. The four photos of bears below are examples of his work.
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Stephen just returned from a trip to photograph bears in Katmai National Park in Alaska. He mentioned a quote given by a volunteer park ranger, Dr. Lynn Rogers, in the park speaking at an Austin library: “The problem for bears is that we don’t know, but what we think we know that isn’t true.” After being around bears for many years, he has never had any trouble with the bears, much less having them attack him.
Grizzly bears and brown bears are all part of the same family (Grizzly bears are brown bears). However, grizzly bears tend to live in more interior locations such as Yellowstone and Denali, and they are a smaller than brown bears because don’t have different food. Brown bears in Katmai can routinely weigh over 1,000 pounds. Grizzly bears in Yellowstone weigh far less; there with none weighing over 900 pounds. Stephen showed a 3-D scan of a brown bear in Katmai numbered “747” which was estimated to weigh 1,406 pounds, which amazed many biologists. And 747 wasn’t done eating.
In the fall, which is when Stephen visits, they are usually in the hyperphagia stage. According to bear.org, hyperphagia is a period of excessive eating and drinking to fatten for hibernation. When Stephen visits the bears, they are just interested in eating (but not humans). Grizzly bears react to humans at a greater distance than brown bears. That’s why the Yosemite rule is that people cannot get closer than 100 yards from a grizzly; whereas the rule in Katmai is 50 yards. However, sometimes the bears don’t follow these rules. Stephen has had experiences where he was just a few feet from a bear.
There are bear cams in Katmai Park, at the same falls where Stephen was, where people can watch the bears via the Internet. The bears’ names are well-known to many people, and Stephen said its exciting to go there and see the bears which you actually recognize.
The park rangers normally don’t interfere with the bears’ lives; the bears live and die naturally. However, there was one instance where they interfered with a bear named Divot. Divot was observed with a wolf snare around her neck. The rangers tranquilized Divot and removed the snare.
Stephen first went to Yellowstone in 2011 to see the a grizzly bear and a bald eagle in the wild. He met his wife, Pam, just before this trip so they both went. He took an 18-200 mm zoom lens. His first photo of a grizzly bear was taken at 200 mm but the bear is just a small dot in the center of the photo.
Stephen and Pam went back again in 2012; this time he had purchased a more powerful Sigma 150-500 mm lens. Although the bears were still far away, their images were larger, but he needed to crop photos a lot.
Stephen decided to go places where he could photograph bears up close and came up with Katmai National Park and Brooks Lodge. Although the trip was expensive, he went to Brooks Lodge in late July, 2013. Unlike the grizzlies in Yellowstone, the brown bears in Katmai don’t mind being around other bears. He showed us a photo which had about 30 bears in a river!
There are no roads to Katmai National Park; the only way to get there is via float plane. When Stephen flew the first time, he freaked out because they put his expensive camera equipment into the pontoon.
Katmai National Park has approximately 2,200 brown bears. When you arrive at Katmai, the first thing you are required to do is go to “bear school” to learn how to be safe around the bears.
Besides rooms in Brooks Lodge, there is also a camping area which Stephen and Pam tried. Brooks Lodge is so popular that they conduct a lottery for reservations. Reservations must be made about two years in advance and sell out quickly within minutes after the lottery opens. But the fenced in camping area is reserved first-come-first-served. Some people are brave enough to camp out in the wilderness outside the camp grounds.
Brooks Lodge is the only place serving meals like daily breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets. Camping is about $13 per person per night; whereas the lodge charges about $600 per person per night. However, the lodge fee includes the float plane air fare. Food is not included in the room price so budget about $100/day more for meals.
Stephen and Pam were surprised to learn the lodge’s rooms have very little privacy; you can hear what is going on in other rooms!
The camp ground has an electric fence around it to keep the bears out. However, Stephen says that at least twice when he was there, the electric fence wasn’t working. Pam calls the trail from the camp ground to the lodge the “Trail of Horrors!”
The bears don’t see humans as food since the salmon are so plentiful. But you are told never run near a bear. Stephen told a story of a woman who panicked and started running; fortunately someone stopped her from running before something bad happened. People are also safe on several viewing stands by the falls. If anyone brings small children, they are told to keep the children very close. There was a woman with children who were evicted from the park because she let them run around. Still, there has been only one human death due to a bear: Timothy Treadwell.
On their 2015 trip, Stephen and Pam experienced non-stop rain during their week’s visit. They stayed in the lodge in 2016 and also they camped out. Stephen went back with his brother in 2018 and 2019.
Stephen told the story of a time when he was taking photos when a bear came by him and came within about 5 feet. The bear kept going and Stephen kept taking photos. He says that the bears stink. He also doesn’t eat salmon after smelling all the rotting salmon carcasses. The reason that Stephen likes going in the fall is that the bears are larger. In the summer, they’re shedding their coats and are a lot skinnier.
Stephen’s photo gear includes a Canon 5D Mark III (full frame) camera, a 7D Mark II (cropped sensor) camera, a Sigma 150-600 mm contemporary lens, a Sigma 70-200 mm 2.8 lens, a Tokina wide angle, f2.8 lens, an old Canon 28-105 mm lens, an Obin carbon fiber tripod with a Leofoto ball head, and a Trek backpack. He has 8 batteries, but rarely uses more than one battery per day. He charges his batteries in the lodge.
My recap does not include all of Stephen’s “unbearable” stories. To hear his entire recorded audio-only presentation, click the player below.