DON’T GO CHASING WATERFALLS
I find photographing bears in Alaska both challenging and humbling. There are many reasons for this: unpredictable salmon run; nasty backdrops and the difficulty of being authentic. Alaska may seem a final frontier, but it is a well-trodden path for photographers and there is little merit in taking another down- ward picture of a salmon in a bear’s mouth. My success ratio is low over the last 10 years, but we now know the area well and have had our moments.
The legendary Brooks Falls location in Katmai, Alaska hosts many pho- tographers and even more bears in July. Up by the waterfall, on a busy day, there can be as many as 20 photographers and two dozen bears. Incongruously, in this extremely re- mote outpost, a spectator stand has been built on the bank by the water- fall to accommodate the day visitors who fly in on float planes. Almost all visitors take the path through the woods to the standing terrace.
It is prescriptive and pavlovian, but totally understandable as it is the lo- cation that has made Brooks famous - the bear infested waterfall.
I have never liked the location; it is mainstream and the angle of view is all down, which never works. I always want to look up. The tiered platform gives off the vibe of attend- ing a major golf tournament, not being at the edge of America.
In 2022, we made a new plan for Brooks. If we were prepared to get very wet and come close to bears, we could photograph towards the wa- terfall from the heart of the river and use the feature as a backdrop and not the main event. This is not an easily accessible section of the river and that immediately appealed to me. It offered a whiff of novelty that would never emanate from the stadi- um up stream. The complication was that I needed to compress distance and lying in a river with a heavy lens for a few hours is not much fun.There is more chance of losing your equipment than winning the game.
I also needed a big bear to walk towards me with a bit of attitude - a small bear would not cut it and nor would any angle of any bear that was not head on.
Very little worked for me that day and we did lose some gear. The light was challenging and it was not warm. But we came away with one shot that is different and that is more than I would have had from the stand. Better to have returned wet than chased waterfalls and this big bear has a swagger to him for sure.