DAY 5 — Pack Creek
Today is another momentous day on the trip — Grizzly Day! We leave our private whispy fog enshrouded harbor and cross west to Admiralty Island and the Pack Creek Bear Viewing Wilderness Area. On our transit, I read a book about how the area came to be established. Too long to cover here, it comes down to a couple that homesteaded here and got along rather well with their grizzly neighbors. Over generations the bears taught their young they did not have to avoid people.
The reserve is essentially the area near the original floating cabin. It is managed jointly between the Forest Service and the state Fish and Game. Access is by boat or float plane, with permit only. There is a maximum of 24 visitors allowed per day. You walk a single route to one of two viewing areas. And the bears go about their business — knowing that the two-legs stay in an area roughly 20×40 feet and bounded by large logs. From that viewing area you could watch bears out on the marsh digging for clams, or as we would, watch them fishing for spawning salmon amidst the clouds of seagulls doing the same.
But I get ahead of myself slightly. At 0900, just after another excellent breakfast, Jeffrey calls from the pilot house, “Whales!” A mass exodus ensues. I capture a fin of one on my phone. Then, just as Christine is ready to call us to lunch, we hear the shout again. We see the spouts of several Humpback whales near the shore — the plumes of spray white against the dark forest.
I found the whales as challenging to photograph as the speedy salmon. Trying to predict their course and speed in anticipation of where the next spout would be was anything but easy. I think I was trying to capture the plumes because these whales seemed to be logging – or resting near the surface. So we only glimpsed a fin or a plume of breath. Eventually, we thought they had moved on. To our shock and delight, we discover that they had come to us for a closer look! I think Margaret and Hilary captured great video with their phones. I made the mistake of trying to zoom for details and my worm’s eye view made it harder to see the bigger picture. Still, I will never forget looking down into the water and seeing the white of barnacles outlining a Humpback whale’s body in the blue-green water. Nor the side of its face as it rolled in the water to look up at us, leaning over the railing to admire it. What a day!
At 1600 we drop anchor at Pack Creek and eagerly line up for the skiff ride to shore. Christine and Matt are joining us, so it’ll be two trips for the skiff. The rules are that we have to stay in a tight group, not go anywhere until a ranger says we can, and we only walk where they walk, at a slow, easy pace. We walk on the edge of the tidal flat, about thirty feet from the tree line, “to give the bears room to walk past us if they want” explains the forest service ranger. Christine points out a disturbance in the gravel bank under the trees which is a grizzly bear’s day bed. Wow.
About 200 yards out we see a brown dot in motion. Our first grizzly! It is hard not to just stand there and watch, afraid to lose sight of the bear. But we proceed on to the viewing area, which as it turns out does not lose the bear at all. In fact we discover it has cubs! We stay, taking photos until we begin to lose the light, just over two hours. One of my last photos is one of my favorite from the trip — one of the cubs, waking up from his milk induced coma and rolling around to get to its feet.
We saw two grizzly families: a sow with a single cub, and her daughter with two cubs. Random single bears passed through, tried to catch a few salmon, and moved on. Six or seven total.
Dave’s favorite photos:
Tonight we are close to the Super Blue Moon. I have no idea how to photograph a moon — I should have asked the instructors. I tried to figure it out on my own. The results did not match what I saw in my minds eye (or later saw another student achieve) but the results were interesting enough to keep a few.
Oh what a beautiful morning! After breakfast we are going back to watch the bears again!
The weather has shifted into more typical Alaskan weather — overcast and cooler. But as I tip-toe, not to wake the instructors sleeping on the couches in the lounge as I open the door to walk outside to the galley, I see a grizzly Mom with cub digging for clams on the shore closest to the boat. Now to find my camera!
This bear is 28 years old, old to be having a cub. (a grizzly in our ecosystem set a local record this year for being the oldest mother at 27) Her little COY (Cub of the Year) is paying very close attention — for awhile. If Mom uses her right claw to dig, the little one mirrored her. When Mom switched to the left, so did the cub. Mom shared breakfast, sometimes walking away to leave the find to the cub, and sometimes the cub darted beneath Mom’s chin to steal scraps from Mom’s breakfast. The cub tended to wander off on its own adventures.
The most fun was trying to catch the bear’s technique for opening a clam. These shells are at least the size of my hand. The grizzly would put her paws on the shell and then pump up and down as if performing CPR to break it open.
Dave and I swap lenses, and he tries his hand using the 800 mm to get portrait shots of the grizzlies. I use my 100-500 telephoto for a wider view. Today I took one of my favorite environmental photos of the bears fishing for salmon under white clouds of gulls swirling as thick as flies at a picnic overhead.
Dave enjoyed speaking with the rangers that were there to keep an eye on things. He even convinced them to have their photo taken with us yesterday. I think they were very interested in hearing how bears (and visitors) are managed in Grand Teton, where we have more than 24 visitors a day.
I think we could have stayed longer to watch the bears, but wet weather moved in and so we reluctantly said goodbye to the Pack Creek Grizzlies. Jeffrey brought us to the southern end of Admiralty Island for the night.