Homer-Bound

The Russian River Campground is an interesting place to stay when in Cooper Landing, Alaska.  It is home to the notorious “combat fly fishing” for salmon, trout, and other varieties.  It’s also a place where the photographers can find bears also fishing in those rivers.  While we did find brown bears again on this trip, it was only one afternoon, and we really wanted to say our goodbyes to them.  🙂  So we visited the river via the boardwalk for a final walk.  We took our time once we arrived at the confluence of the Russian River and the Kenai River, just down a bit of the ferry.
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It was a stunning morning and once again we were treated to the early morning sunlight peering through the trees along the boardwalk.  It was a bit cold this morning and foggy as well._DSC2970 We patiently sat down for awhile at the stairs and chatted with some of the fishermen.  We received various stories of theories as to where the bears were … none of which were authenticated nor pleasant.  I still hoped that they would return one last time for us.  In the meanwhile, a big group of common mergansers came by.  I was quite fascinated at their “team effort” in chasing down and beaching of some small minnows and smelt for their dining pleasure.  I had never witnessed it before!DSC_6022

The fireweed was still in bloom and had already reached the end of the stalk … meaning winter was simply about 6 weeks away.  It was only August 21st!_DSC3009

Harlequin ducks were also out and about in the Russian River.

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When we decided to make our way back on the boardwalk, we encountered this sighting, which usually means only one thing … bear(s)!  I eagerly made my way to their spotting._DSC3014 But it was for not, as it was simply a bald eagle that had flow in and the fishermen were simply admiring it and taking some cell phone shots as well.  Dang!DSC_6076 On the way towards Homer, we stopped a few times for photographs, but we were equally anxious to get there and check in with Beluga Air and Dave for our Katmai bear viewing the next day._DSC3042 It’s so beautiful to photograph the fireweed standing tall and proud in various fields.IMG_2901 _DSC5946 Once we arrived at our final destination for the evening, Homer, we ventured to the end of the “spit” and took in the beauty of Kachemak Bay and glaciers within the state park across the Cook Inlet waters.DSC_6159 IMG_2914We visited the Beluga Slough area, which is a “must do” annually, though we didn’t see the sandhill cranes like in years past.

_DSC3131 We also visited Bishop’s Beach and built our traditional cairn … in celebration of our upcoming wedding anniversary.  Each year we build this feature containing 1 stone for every year we’ve been together … plus 1 more for good luck … so this year it was a cairn of 19!  It wouldn’t be the same to not do it, though I’m wondering how much more stable we can make it during the next 5-10 years!  LOL_DSC3124

We then checked in for our bear trip which initiates the next day … weather permitting, as always.  Let’s hope for it to be a good morning.  🙂

Next up:  Katmai or bust ….

© 2015  TNWA Photography / Debbie Tubridy

 

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In Search of Bears

OK, so on our way to Homer, Alaska, we ALWAYS have to stop off at the Russian River Campground for a few nights and as usual, we hope to find some brown bears fishing for salmon on the river, amongst the fishermen.

Used to be that the bears were plentiful … but we’ve noticed that their numbers seem to be dropping off on recent years.  For the last 2 years and this year as well, we were told that the bear sightings had been very limited.  Last few years, we were lucky though and bears showed up – last year on my birthday!  Would our luck continue?  When we arrived to the boardwalk along the river and worked our way down the first stairs that accessed the river, we didn’t see any bears, just the gleaming of the suns rays through the trees.

IMG_2889 First thing … the salmon were running … that’s a good sign.IMG_2896

The 2nd set of stairs leading to the river someone asked us if we wanted to find bears.  Of course!  He said that there were 2 bears playing in the water.  Off I went in a hurry, fighting off the urge to run, then wondering if the guy was simply laughing at us scurrying after them.  I hoped that wasn’t the case.

Then I spotted them … 2 sub-adult brown bears … playing in the river water like two sibling brothers in the tub!  LOL

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Yep, we hit it again!  I couldn’t believe our luck right about this point!  They began playing and “fighting”, to the thrill of myself and all of the other onlookers.

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I couldn’t help but wonder if these weren’t the same two who were here last year with their momma, but now they were perhaps big enough to be kicked out and therefore hanging together for companionship and safety.  They sure seemed to have a level of comfort with each other and the fighting was more like fun than anything else more serious. DSC_5905-2

They each began walking over in our direction …

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It was such a thrill to photograph them as they were coming closer.  Understand that we’re on a boardwalk with a rocky shoreline, thick shrubs, plastic netting, and trees between us and the bears.  They’re also very habituated towards people, so I really didn’t think anything of it.

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All of a sudden, the larger of the two grabs one of the tree branches and lifts itself over the netting barrier and begins to climb … the tree!

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Now, I’ve seen black bears climbing trees regularly, and even brown bear cubs climbing, but these guys were sub-adults and quite big to be climbing the trees!

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It was having the best time jumping around in the tree and began to shimmy its way back down the tree.  I was shocked, fascinated, and thrilled to watch it all unfolding before me.  Finally, it turned to us and gave us this priceless glance …. How could anyone NOT LOVE that face?!DSC_5919-2 Once back on the ground, which was right next to the boardwalk, we saw it feasting its eyes on approaching the walk, so we retreated.  Sure enough, when it had plenty of distance between any of the onlookers, it did in fact take the boardwalk for a bit.DSC_5951

Eventually, it dipped into the thick brush and wilderness and we never saw it … or its buddy, who we had lost contact with when the larger was on the boardwalk … again.  We were there several more days, but never saw it again … or any signs of its presence.  Wished we would have, but we were quite thrilled to have shared that limited time together.  I do worry about those, and other bears in the area.  Though photographers love to see them active and mingling around, not everyone shares that love.  Of course, humans have, and will always unfortunately, do stupid things in their presence, thus perhaps teaching them bad habits.  I would just love to share their home in the wild, in a respectful way, and continue to observe their awesomeness.  🙂_DSC2915Next up:  Finally reaching our destination of Homer.

© 2015  Debbie Tubridy / TNWA Photography

http://www.tnwaphotography.com

My Birthday Present :-)

Continuing on with images from our 4-day stay on the Russian River, our 2nd day (which was perfectly timed for my birthday) was filled with lots of brown bear activity as well.  This time we saw a total of 6 different brown bears and I really couldn’t believe that we had been so lucky.

Almost immediately when we got down to the river we were greeted by the 2 cubs from yesterday.  They were already out fishing in the river and succeeding in making the fishermen scatter…. and the wildlife watchers spring into action.  Early in the morning, most days it’s usually just the “hard core” photographers who are on the river banks, since the mornings are cold, damp, foggy, and strangely, a bit eerie and isolated.DSC_1404

When waiting for the bears, it’s weird because sometimes you have no idea where they might be coming from.  I remember one year a black bear was eating a salmon under an elevated section of the boardwalk as people walked by looking for them.  Of course, to keep the hysteria limited, we pretended to not know where it was either.  LOL.

As the bears entered the river from the opposite river bank, we set up for a day full of activity.  Of course, they didn’t disappoint us.

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Before long they were chasing down the salmon and thrashing them about, ultimately leaving the river for the nearby bank and off into the wilderness, while they ate their prized catch.

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DSC_8017 This day, even mama bear came down to visit us … I think she was telling me “Happy Birthday”… LOL.  She was a big sow too and a bit grumpy at times.  No one on the river wanted to mess with her that’s for sure.

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She joined 2 of her cubs on the river for some fishing.  Eventually her 3rd cub came down to join the party, but didn’t stay very long.  As they made their way down the river, we scurried along as well.  For as much as I utilize the services of “my sherpa” Tom, when the bears are on the move…. I can manage by myself just fine.  🙂

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Both cubs began to fish out of the same hole and I sensed that something was about to happen.  Look at how cute this cub is as it glanced over to see its sibling with a nice salmon.

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Up onto its hind legs it went, as it struggled with that poor salmon.  I was so excited as it stood there, giving some different takes on their day of fun.

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I kept observing them and noticed that they approached each other again near that fishing hole.  I said to everyone in my immediate vicinity … they’re going to play fight … and sure enough they did!

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They were exchanging punches to the head, shoulders, and face … with the mouths open and growling.  I was so excited, I was hardly able to continue shooting.  You know, you get to that point when you question – should I shoot or should I simply watch.  Of course, my shutter finger won out, as it usually does.  LOL

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After 2-3 minutes of playing, they quickly gave themselves a time out.  Funny, it was pretty unanimous too.  Like boxers retreating to their corners, the action stopped and I feared that it was over.

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Then the bell rang again for Round 2!

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Eventually they tired of all of that playing around and they went on to fishing in the river.  Play time though is essential to their learning process and survival later in life.  Bears live in a dominance and hierarchy-based structure and even at this young age, you can tell who is already the dominant bear.

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Another sow and her solo cub were in the area and the cub came down to greet us also.

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It wanted so badly to enter and fish in the river, but mom was having nothing to do with allowing that!  So it sat down right in front of us …

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… and began to scratch itself and seemingly have a chat with us.  🙂  OK, I know that I’ve used a bit of imagination there, but it was quite the thrill for me and I believe that my heart melted with our encounter.

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Then the “Party Police”, aka the 1st mama bear, showed up on the scene again and I think she had lost sight of her 2 renegade cubs.  She was clearly upset and began huffing, stamping, and slobbering with a frothy saliva.  She eventually realized that they had gone quite a bit down the river, as young cubs love to test their boundaries.  Funny, how parents and their young, whether human or any wildlife, tend to be the same in that respect.

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I think that this guy, when he was spotted by the sow, knew it was it trouble.  LOL

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Of course, the more dominant cub hid behind a boulder in the river.  Not really, but it did seem to be engaging in a peek-a-boo behavior, doesn’t it?

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Eventually they returned to the area where they originally accessed the river earlier.

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Now that other sow, with the solo cub, came down to the river and though it wouldn’t let the cub, it didn’t hesitate to do a quick “dine & dash”.

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Though we saw the bears again very briefly the next morning, their appearances were limited and usually in the darker hours.  As sad as I was to depart the Russian River without a formal good-bye, I was so thankful of the present they shared with me … especially on my birthday.  I will always remember that joy I experienced that day.

Stay tuned for more bears … Katmai NP!

© 2014  TNWA Photography

8’s a Charm!

Yes, 8’s a charm … our 8th trip to Alaska for our photographic journey into the wilderness and all of the fabulous wildlife, landscapes, and adventures that it holds.  Each year, we try something different … perhaps a new geography, a new drive, a new activity … whatever it may be.  Almost immediately we realized that we left our camera-carrying backpack at home, so first of all, there was a trip to Stewart’s in Anchorage to remedy that.  On our way back to the RV, I spotted a totem pole, which sported 3 definite sightings that were high on my wildlife list … a good omen, I reasoned.

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After getting some necessities at the local Fred-Meyer, off we started on our journey, headed to the Russian River on the Kenai Peninsula for 4 days of bears, we hoped.  As we checked in at the campground, the attendant told me that for the first time in seemingly weeks, there were bears sighted on the river that morning.  EXCITED didn’t even begin to summarize how I felt.  In less than 30 minutes, we were on the boardwalk in search of bears.

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Before long we encountered fishermen telling us the whereabouts of the bears … a sow and her three 2nd year cubs.  The anticipation was mounting.  Once we reached the gravel bar area, we caught our first glimpse of one of the cubs.

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The action on the river was varied … whether they were simply traveling along the gravel bar checking out their surroundings …

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… or they were emerging from the hillside and entering the river …

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… or chasing down salmon …

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… and leaping into the air and pouncing onto the schools of salmon, as they were swimming upstream for the spawning, many of which had already reached that red & green, spawned out salmon look.

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Though spawned out salmon are beautiful to look at, being all colorful and impressive looking, they are not fit for human consumption.  The bears, however, seem not to mind.  Once they grab the salmon they then prepare to consume it, or in some occasions, simply seem to “play” with it, seemingly tormenting the poor thing.

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Of course, it’s also fun to see them moving about the shoreline and across the fallen logs that they encounter along the way.  I’m always impressed with the way that they can maneuver the landscape so gracefully.  This is the bigger of the three young ones … quite big in my book!

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The 3rd and larger cub tended to stay more with its mama.  The other two cubs tended to hang out together quite a bit, fishing together along the banks of the shore, reaching into the fishing holes and under the ledge shelves of the banks.

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Sometimes they would play for fun along the way.

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Sometimes it was more personal and the encounter would be a bit more testy, if you will.  See, the smaller cub was the better fisherman as far as I could tell, or at least the most determined to go out and catch the salmon.  Problem was that the other cub would know when it caught one and would venture on over and assert it’s dominance over the other one and ultimately would end up with its salmon.  You can see it doing so in the next image.

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To me, there’s something about a bear’s eyes.  When you’re able to see them and capture the catchlight in their eyes, it’s an amazing moment.  You feel “connected”, or at least, we do.

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Funny thing about the river, bears, and salmon … there are always gulls around ready to pick up the scraps left behind.  Most times they loiter in the background, though sometimes, they get in the way, especially for the photographer.  So many times, I found that my images captured were photo-bombed by the gulls.  Even the bear seems to agree.  LOL

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It really gets exciting though when you’re sitting on the bottom of the river access stairs, photographing the bears, and one turns and heads directly at you.  Now some might be a bit nervous about that, but by now we know and are pretty confident that the bears aren’t interested in us with so many salmon around…. but it still makes your adrenaline peak and your heart race, as well as the endorphins release secondary to the joy of sharing this adventure with the bears.

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We absolutely love “visiting” with them, in their natural environment, as they go about their day.  Most visitors to the river feel the same, whether there for photography or fishing, though once in awhile you get that person who doesn’t feel the same.  I’d like to think that they would feel differently if they saw bears the way that we do.  It’s all about being educated about their behaviors, reading their signs, and giving them the respect that they deserve.

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Until the next blog post …. this will be the end!  🙂

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Stay tuned to more bears on the Russian River!

© 2014  TNWA Photography

Special Moments on the Russian River

Have you ever awaken in the morning and got that feeling that the day was going to be a special one?  Well, for me, it was just that kind of day.  By 6:00 am, we were off to the Russian River boardwalk to begin our “bear stroll”.  We walked to the confluence, where the Russian & Kenai rivers merge, and we were treated to early morning heavy fog and mist, with the early morning light beginning to emerge.

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We sat down to enjoy the view and wait for the sun to rise – or at least the bears to emerge.  There was an wonderful sense of tranquility on the river, so quiet, nothing but the sound of the gulls and eagles calling out in the distance.  Each year on the river, we meet great people, some from the far stretches of the world, some local.  All have their reasons for being there – wildlife, fishing, adventure, seeking peace and enjoyment of the wilderness of Alaska.

The seagulls were the only ones around

The seagulls were the only ones around

This year, we met some new friends from Anchorage – Renee and Alton – and we were there for the same reasons, which included photographing the bears.  We walked along the path alongside the river, but the bears were in hiding.  After some time, we felt that they were going to be no-shows.  We turned around and this is what we saw …

It was truly a magical moment!

It was truly a magical moment!

See, I always say that things happen for a reason … and if you’re open to it, you’ll be treated to something even more special.  It was such an amazing moment and our equipment was changed out accordingly to be able to capture it.  The sunlight rays were simply beaming through the trees and the misty atmosphere simply added to the view.

Sunbeams and rays - doesn't get any better than this

Sunbeams and rays – doesn’t get any better than this

Before long – all lost in the magical moment – we hear Tom interrupting with … “we have bears!”.  What????  I have to laugh at how quickly our reflective moment turned into pursuit.

Backlit bear crosses the river not far from us

Backlit bear crosses the river not far from us

What a encounter we were treated to that morning!  The air was cooler that morning and I remember that the boardwalk was actually covered with a thin layer of ice in spots.  I think that the bears really enjoyed the colder weather, especially with the sunlight out.

Lots of action on the river

Lots of action on the river

Catching, then ultimately eating, the salmon was the favorite activity of these amazing bears.

Those poor salmon never stood a chance!

Those poor salmon never stood a chance!

Yum, Yum, Yum ... a bear's sushi bar!

Yum, Yum, Yum … a bear’s sushi bar!

During their break from fishing, they would interact with each other through sniffing, soft pawing, and gentle biting.  Nothing like watching sub-adult bears – not quite adult behavior and still open to playful encounters.

Gentle encounter between young sub-adult bears

Gentle encounter between young sub-adult bears

To get the best angles on these bears, one must get low to be on their level.  The position of the sunlight is also a consideration.

Sometimes the bears just seem to know, and go, right where you want them

Sometimes the bears just seem to know, and go, right where you want them

Of course, the bears dictate where you can be and if the bear wants to be where you are, you gently relinquish your spot to them.

Bear approaches the stairs where we were sitting

Bear approaches the stairs where we were sitting

Funny how bears will sheepishly walk towards you to get a better look - or sniff.

Funny how bears will sheepishly walk towards you to get a better look – or sniff.

Probably one of my favorite actions exhibited by the bears is what I call “the shake”.

I always wonder what makes them think that they can shed that excess water off of them while they're in the water!  LOL

I always wonder what makes them think that they can shed that excess water off of them while they’re in the water! LOL

This one particular bear was having a ball in the water.  It would find the hole where the salmon were congregating and catch one …

Such skillful fishermen the bears are

Such skillful fishermen the bears are

… then get on its back and begin to devour it, as the river current floated the bear down the river, all feet in the air, grasping its prize …

Lazy day bear

Lazy day bear

… then it would do it all again!  Got to love it!  🙂

What fun these bears have ... just another day in the life of a bear!

What fun these bears have … just another day in the life of a bear!

So we had a great start to our Alaskan adventure during those 3 days spent on the Russian River.  Met some awesome new friends, enjoyed their company, had lots of funny moments, and of course, got to spend some incredible time with the bears.  🙂

Yes, they sure do have the life!  Then again, so does Tom!

By mid-day, Tom takes a well needed rest on the Russian River banks

By mid-day, Tom takes a well needed rest on the Russian River banks

Today is a special day as well … it’s my sherpa’s birthday!  Today’s post is dedicated to my husband and best friend – Tom.  Happy Birthday baby!  Love you!  xoxoxo

Next will be our visit to Katmai National Park & Preserve for more coastal brown bears!

Our 2013 Alaskan Adventure Begins

My passion ... brown bears of Alaska!

My passion … brown bears of Alaska!

It has become a summer tradition … our annual trek to the magnificent wilderness of the US, known as Alaska, or what others might call the “last frontier”.  To us, it is paradise and it seems that we can’t let a year go by without it.  This year was no different, so off we went to spend 26 magnificent days … where my spirit would soar, my energies renew, and my heart would go a-flutter.  🙂  For the next month, I will try to share with my readers our memories from 2013.

This year, our adventure was a very different one.  For one thing, we had more inclement weather (i.e. very drizzly and overcast, especially in the beginning) and lots of concentrated wildlife sightings, with lots of nothing in between.  Let me start with our time on the Kenai, specifically our 3rd and 4th days staying at the Russian River in Cooper Landing… one of the hot spots for brown bears … at least while the salmon is running.

Our first morning at the campground, we ventured down to the boardwalk, in search of bears.  Wasn’t long before we got our first sighting.  See the fisherman were leaving, warning us of the bear ahead, so off we went for some bear photography.

Sub-adult bear seeking privacy to eat its salmon snack

Sub-adult bear seeking privacy to eat its salmon snack

We observed it from a respectable distance, often making eye contact with this magnificent creature.  Before long, it decided to head back to the river, so up the boardwalk it went, as we backed off accordingly.  It took a leisurely stroll to the next stair access to the river.

"Share the Road" - brown bear style ... got to love that paw pad.

“Share the Road” – brown bear style … got to love that paw pad.

The river was a virtual “floating buffet line” of salmon, as they made their way upstream in their ultimate last deed before becoming part of the circle of life.  Problem for the bear was simply which one to grab.

Checking out "What's for Dinner?"

Checking out “What’s for Dinner?”

Ultimately, the chase begins….

Such intensity on their faces during this feeding frenzy period

Such intensity on their faces during this feeding frenzy period

Even during the pursuit, there are many decisions to be made ... like which one!

Even during the pursuit, there are many decisions to be made … like which one!

Once a salmon is successfully caught by the bear, it’s quite a thrill to watch them as they efficiently and skillfully devour it, in a very targeted approach.

What a prize ... can't you just see the pride in the bear?

What a prize … can’t you just see the pride in the bear?

Of course, the seagulls are always hanging around to dutifully pick up any scraps left behind by the bears.

Quite the conversation these two are engaging in ... such a racket too!

Quite the conversation these two are engaging in … such a racket too!

Even when the bears aren’t chasing salmon in the river, they are always a thrill for us to observe them as they go about their daily ritual.  Such activities include getting around in the slippery river rocks and over, on and around the trees.

So fun to watch them navigate the fallen tree branches ... not always to perfection though.  LOL

So fun to watch them navigate the fallen tree branches … not always to perfection though. LOL

Such a peaceful creature, as it pauses to assess the "goings on" around it

Such a peaceful creature, as it pauses to assess the “goings on” around it

The morning hours on the Russian River are especially rewarding, even if the bears haven’t arrive yet.  Tom & I don our hip waders and venture out into the river alongside the fishermen.  Not once have we thrown out a line to catch anything, though Tom has been known to catch a few with his bare hands (catch & release, of course).

How many Florida boys own hip waders?  Especially guys who don't even fish!

How many Florida boys own hip waders? Especially guys who don’t even fish!

Over the years, I feel like we’ve gotten to know some of the local bears.  This year there were 2 sub-adult bears hanging out together quite often.  After looking at some shots from last years adventure, I can’t help but feel that these are actually the 2 yearling cubs we photographed last year, but without their mom.  See, the bears usually keep them for 2 years, then kick them out to fend on their own.

Not completely sure, but I believe that these are the siblings that we photographed last year  :-)

Not completely sure, but I believe that these are the siblings that we photographed last year 🙂

It’s fun to see how good of fishermen they have become … yes, mom taught them well.  🙂

Mine!  Mine!  Mine!

Mine! Mine! Mine!

Further down the river, past the confluence, is the Kenai River, which is world renowned for its “combat fishing” – standing shoulder to shoulder, while fishing lines are being tangled, patience wanes, and tempers flare.  Of course, late August is not peak time for salmon fishing for the humans … but for the bears, it’s like a little bit of heaven.

What a life!

What a life!

Signing off for now … be sure to check back next week and beyond for more posts covering our 2013 Alaskan Adventure.  Hope that you enjoy.

Taking a break on the Kenai River on one of the most glorious days we encountered.

Taking a break on the Kenai River on one of the most glorious days we encountered.

2012 Review: PART 3 – Brown Bears of the Kenai Peninsula & Katmai

Of course, our sights were also focused on our return to Alaska – our 6th annual trip!  This time we visited with our good friends, Todd & Susan, who were experiencing Alaska for their first time.  Really made it fun to see and hear their thoughts on a place that has become so near and dear to us over the years.  We spent about a week on the Kenai Peninsula – visiting with the Russian River bears (always a thrill), eagle watching in Homer, walking Bishops Beach near Home Spit,

Hanging on to the prize

Hanging on to the prize

Like a child playing in their bathtub

Like a child playing in their bathtub

Out on the Russian River

Out on the Russian River – photo courtesy of Todd Stein

and of course, spending some time with the coastal brown bears in Katmai NP.  This year, we spent time at Kuliak Bay, where we were treated to numerous bears, including some sows and their adorable cubs.  What a sight these cubs were, as they scurried by us, not sure of what we were or what we were doing in their world.

Spring cub is not too sure about us

Spring cub is not too sure about us

Salmon fishing at the falls

Salmon fishing at the falls

Chasing down the river towards us (after the salmon, of course)

Chasing down the river towards us (after the salmon, of course)

Retreating into the tall grasses to rest

Retreating into the tall grasses to rest

No matter how many times we visit Katmai NP, it’s never the same.  We have been fortunate to visit new locations within the vast Katmai landscape each year and 2012 was no different.  We even got to spend some time with crew members of the BBC film crew shooting a documentary in the area.

... missed ....

… missed ….

The skillful fisherman

The skillful fisherman

The flight over to Katmai is always a treat for the eyes, but this year we were treated to an incredible fly-over of the glacial landscape and mountains of the coastal areas and a bit of the interior of Katmai – on an amazingly beautiful day.  I can’t thank Jon enough for that added bonus thrill for us!

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What an incredible place!  Make it a destination for yourself one day!

Stay tuned for more of the 2012 year in review!