“All those dots – are they all bears?!” Sailing our little boat through a crack in the rocks towards the remote and uninhabited Geographic Harbor in Alaska, we could already count half a dozen dark blobs marauding around on the shore. Through binoculars we could see them clearly: brown bears – huge big boars as well as sows and little spring cubs – all splashing around together in the tidal river delta catching salmon! Inexplicably though, right beside them, we could also now see a tiny huddle of half a dozen people sitting on camping chairs watching them! We couldn’t believe it.
Having just sailed through the Northwest Passage over the top of Canada and Alaska in the arctic the year before, my wife Jess and I were used to Polar Bears and carried our healthy respect (and quite frankly, fear) for those predators with us into these warmer climates. Taking a few months off from running our photography tours around the world, we were just sailing our little 29-foot junk-rigged sailboat ‘Teleport’ down through the Aleutian Islands and along the Alaskan coastline looking for things to photograph. It looked like we’d hit the jackpot.
Anchoring up, we quickly grabbed our camera gear and rowed our little inflatable dingy as close as we dared and snapped some awesome photos – but the idea of actually stepping out amongst all these bears seemed a little suicidal. Yet somehow, that little group of onlookers didn’t seem to care, and to our amazement, neither did the bears! We watched as one bear strode right past in front of the group – passing less than five meters from them – without so much as a glance in their direction.
There was only one other boat in the bay – a fancy-looking powerboat – and in the evening, we saw a launch head ashore to collect the bear-viewers. Curious to learn how they did it, we rowed out to intercept them and they invited us to join them ashore the next morning.
That next day was one of the most incredible photography and wildlife experiences of my life – in fact, one of the best experiences in my life full-stop.
Being able to quietly sit there all day, surrounded by a dozen brown bears catching salmon, playing and interacting with each other all around us was just extraordinary. Several times, bears running down fish in the shallows body-slammed into the river to emerge with a salmon so close to us that we almost got splashed! We got back-lit photos of bears shaking water from their coat, others with surprised-looking salmon in their mouths, bears standing up and fighting each other, panning shots, full frame face shots and more.
Too close for my telephoto lens at times I sometimes swapped to my wide angle lens, which made me appreciate the stunning scenery around us including the purple flowers of the fireweed and multicolored, ash-draped mountains from an epic eruption back in 1912. I nestled my GoPro camera on a rock in the river, and two little cubs wandered right up to it and licked it! With a bald eagles nest in the area too, every time one flew over, all the seagulls would hang around for salmon scraps. Along with this we even saw a wolf! Photography heaven.
It turned out that the operator – a bit of a local legend – has been running these incredible exclusive, private bear viewing holidays around Geographic Harbor for about twenty years and thanks to his comprehensive briefings, he has never once had an incident with a bear.
Usually booked out years in advance, he flies guests in by float plane who then stay onboard for several days enjoying this wonderfully unhurried experience, complete with a private chef and almost no one else around. Compared to the overcrowded, bureaucratic and tightly scheduled viewing-platform experience of the more popular bear-viewing places like Brooks Falls, this place is simply magical.
Not surprisingly, ever since we found this place back in 2013, we’ve been running sold-out photography tours to Alaska every August, ending the two-week experience that includes puffins, whales, glaciers seals and more, with 3 unforgettable days here with the bears, right in the middle of their salmon catching season. We love it, and every year as we step ashore amongst the bears with our little group of eight guests, we still have to pinch ourselves to make sure we’re not dreaming.
Here is a video Chris and his friends made during his recent trip to Alaska, check it out for amazing scenery and surreal footage of the Alaskan wildlife:
For more adventures and interesting photography stories, check out some more of Chris’ work featured below.
Chris Bray grew up sailing around the world then leading arctic expeditions before becoming an award-winning photographer running photography tours all around the world. He’s work’s been on National Geographic and Discovery Channel, he’s written a successful book and is the founder of Conservation United.