Face-to-Face with Scarface
IT Editor Janelle Nanos is just back from an assignment in Alaska, and is posting some of the highlights from her trip. Check out her photo gallery after the jump.
No visit to Alaska can really be called complete unless you come face-to-face with a bear. Or at least that’s how I rationalized my response to coming up close and personal with Scarface, a beat-up old brown bear who came lumbering toward me during my visit to Katmai National Park. While the rest of my group stood up to make themselves appear bigger and clapped their hands to make noise, I did exactly what my guide told us not to do: I froze. Then, I instinctively grabbed my camera, right as another, smaller bear ran past me, four feet to my right. Obscured by my viewfinder, I barely saw him. My father nearly had a heart attack.
Thankfully, Dad and I were in good hands: We’d signed up for a bear-viewing trip out of Kodiak, Alaska, with Sea Hawk Air. Our pilot, Roland Ruoss, is the owner of the company and has been flying his seaplane for over 20 years; his wife Jo Murphy, a Kodiak native, was our bear-viewing guide. We left the idyllic Trident Basin, just outside of downtown Kodiak (if you can call it such a thing) and within moments we were soaring over the island in the de Havilland Beaver floatplane. I was in the co-pilot seat.
Roland and Jo keep track of where the bears are most active throughout the season (the park has some nice guidelines as well), so on the day we visited, we actually left Kodiak to head to Geographic Harbor. In a very cool coincidence, it’s a spot along Amalik Bay in Katmai National Park named for the site where National Geographic explorers first visited after a massive volcanic eruption in June, 1912. Over six expeditions, the explorers documented the creation of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes; the series of articles led to the eventual designation of Katmai as a National Monument (it’s since been named a National Park and Preserve, and has two sites within it considered National Historic Landmarks). In the article “Our Greatest National Monument,” from the September 1921 issue of National Geographic, author Robert F. Griggs described the creation of the volcanic range: “Some time before the beginning of the terrific explosions whose sounds first announced to the world that an eruption was in progress, a host of small volcanoes burst open in the floor of the green valley through which ran the Katmai Trail.” He writes that the resulting eruptions could be heard for over 750 miles, blanketing all of Kodiak in a foot of ash, and “diminsh[ing] the sunlight for many months throughout in the entire Northern Hemisphere.”
Thankfully, we had perfect weather on the day we visited, which worked out well for both the flight and the bear-viewing. We were each given a pair of wader-style boots, which allowed us to stay dry while disembarking the flight, and then we found a sandy stretch along the creekbed where the bears were busy fishing. The pink salmon were running strong, and the bears were busy enough not to be bothered by our presence. Jo noted that since visitors have been coming to Geographic Harbor for a long time, the bears have become accustomed enough to being around people that they’re not apt to feel threatened. In the instance of my Scarface encounter, he was much busier chasing a cub from his fishing hole than he was in a human sandwich. Or at least that’s what I told myself in an effort to get my heart rate back to normal.
That’s my boot in the photo, in my attempt to help gauge perspective. We were about 40 feet away from the bears, though they definitely got closer at times.
Each bear has its own fishing technique. Some of them swat at the fish, others clamor on top of them with their paws, while a few go head first, snapping at them with their teeth. Jo, our guide, said she had once seen one bear wait patiently in the creek watching as the fish passed, until she reached down and snagged a king salmon. It was all she’d eat; she obviously has good taste.
A bunch of professional nature photographers was also with us at the site; their boat can be seen in the distance. The grey dust along the mountain peak is not dirty snow, it’s leftover ash from the volcanic eruption in 1912.
This would be my pal Scarface. Jo also said that they don’t typically assign names to the bears, so as to avoid people becoming too comfortable around them. Scarface’s disposition left you with little desire to cuddle.
Our guides, Jo and Roland.
Every once in a while, the bears would stop and look at you, as if to say, “Ok, I know, you want that postcard shot.”
Though I’m partial to the boot shot, here’s a slightly better perspective of how close our group was to the bears (that’s me in the brown fleece). Believe me, it was close enough.
Photo and video: Janelle Nanos
- Nat Geo Expeditions