Watching Sunrise with a Bear

Each morning I persisted.  Getting up out of my sleeping bag before sunrise with hopes of photographing a bear backlit by dawn’s first rays.  Up north in Katmai the sunrises early in the summer, and so it was rise and shine at 4:30 AM.  No breakfast, and each passing morning I cared less about how I looked since I did not see any humans at this time.

Most mornings my plan did not come to fruition.  It was a tall order, I needed a bear between me and sun as it just started to rise on the horizon.  The sunrise timing and position I could figure out, the presence of a bear in between me and the sunrise was driven mostly by luck.

On mornings when the bears were sleeping in, I resorted to photographing beautiful wildflowers. This was done using a tripod low to the ground, and me lying in a prone position.

My morning became routine.  Hike to a good location, look for a bear in the river, move so the sunrise would be behind the bear.  If no bear, then find an interesting foreground subject and capture the predawn light.

On this particular morning, there were no bears in sight.  I opted to lay down and photograph the morning sun backlighting some wildflowers.  I became lost, distracted, in getting the settings correct trying to focus the wildflowers and expose correctly for the backlight.

My attention suddenly switched to a scratching sound on the gravel close to my legs.  I rolled over to look up at a very big male brown bear.  His scratching and the look in his eyes indicated that he was cautious of me, and wanted to walk past me.  He was being cautious, while at the same indicating he was not about to find another route.   As I laid on the ground looking up at him, in a very vulnerable position, I quietly said, “Hey Bear, It’s Ok, It’s Ok”.

I slowly, and purposively, grabbed my tripod and stood up.  Although I probably should have “stood my ground”, I realized that he wanted to go past me, but would not do so with me in this spot.  I walked away, perpendicular to his path, and looked away as I did so.  Perhaps wishfully thinking “If I look the other way, then he won’t really exist so close to me”.

When the large boar walked past me he gave me a look of “You are so in trouble!  I am going to tell the ranger on you!”.

The early bird gets the worm, or in this case, the early bear gets the salmon at sunrise.

Soon I will be back up there.

It is time to finish stuffing all that damn gear into duffel bags and close off those checklists.  I leave for Katmai, Alaska in five days.  The hardest part of the entire trip is shuffling kayaks, backpacks, lenses and cameras, and clothes through all the airports en route.   Each year I aim to prune down what I bring in a “less is best” strategy.

This year the focus will be more on landscape photography than on wildlife (in theory).  Recently I discovered gigabytes of bear photos from years ago that I had not even looked at!  The bears are great, however, there is also a lot of other natural beauty in the expansive Katmai National Park.

The plan is to hire a second float plane to drop us off at a remote lake in Katmai and then packraft a whitewater river, traverse across some large lakes, backpack to another big lake, paddle some more and get picked up by another float plane 10 days later.

Of course, if I see bear cubs along the journey I will photograph them.  Too cute to pass up!

For some reason, I am not as excited about visiting Katmai this year.  It is puzzling to me.  I am looking forward to exploring some new areas of Katmai and sharing that journey with a couple of good friends. That does motivate me!

I think the resistance relates to being away from home for an extended period, again.  Thinking about all those chores and projects at home that will still be there when I get home.   Squirt, a wonderful Vizsla, is now about 21 years old.  There is no denying that I worry what might happen to him when I am away.   A couple of years ago while in Alaska, I had to suddenly fly home and say my last goodbye to Vizzy, the best dog ever.

Squirt is doing as best as one can ask for a dog this age.  He is happy and smiles each day, and goes on walks with Penny and Berton, his vizsla sister and brother.  As I prepare for this trip I make sure to give him lots of extra love.

Squirt enjoying a walk along the river.

The world would be a nicer place if everyone had the ability to love as unconditionally as a dog.”
— M.K. Clinton

17 replies
  1. dougo
    dougo says:

    Have a great trip Ed and don’t become to complacent…..that’s when wildlife can become an issue, but you already know that….

  2. Mario
    Mario says:

    Ed im staying in Santa fe this week where i have internet . So i have time to scroll through your stories and pictures . Have fun in Alaska . Mario

  3. David T
    David T says:

    Hard to believe it has been just a year since I met you on the plane between Seattle and anchorage and we spoke of your adventurers. I have enjoyed visiting your web site and also sharing it with my daughter who also loves photography. Best of luck on this years adventures and happy picture taking. Be safe.

    • Ed MacKerrow
      Ed MacKerrow says:

      Hi David, wow, that year sure did go by fast! Thanks, glad you and your daughter are enjoying the photographs. Looking forward to some more time in Alaska. Hope our paths cross again and that your summer is a fun one. Ed

  4. David Bryant
    David Bryant says:

    Ed, hard to believe it will be three years next month since we met you at Brooks Lodge in Katmai! You were so kind to offer tips to this amateur photographer. We’ve loved following your adventures! Have a great and safe trip! We’re more than a bit jealous!!

    • Ed MacKerrow
      Ed MacKerrow says:

      Hi David, thanks for remembering me and staying in touch! Time sure does go by fast, especially in beautiful Katmai. Although it sneaks up on me each year, and I dread packing ALL the gear for a month, I look forward to being in that green paradise. I hope you are able to visit it again. This time I am exploring some different parts of the park, American Creek, Hammersley Lake, Coleville Lake, and hopefully climbing some of the big peaks between the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and the coast. We will see, the weather is sometimes an issue up there. Perhaps our paths will cross again out in some beautiful place, I hope so! Take care, Ed

  5. Roberta stolpestad
    Roberta stolpestad says:

    We enjoyed meeting a fellow New Mexican while in katmi. Your photography is stunning. Will enjoy looking at your web site in more detail
    Missing alaska in “ the land of enchantment”
    Bert & Robert

    • Ed MacKerrow
      Ed MacKerrow says:

      Hello Bert and Robert,
      Thank you for finding my website. It was a real pleasure to meet you in Katmai. It is always hard to leave Katmai, although New Mexico is a great place to come home to, especially in the fall. I hope our paths cross again, please let me know if you are up in the Santa Fe area and we can meet up. Take care, Ed


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