Encircled by seven massive brown bears, the group's anxiety is palpable. The question is where to point the camera? An 800-pound brown bear is 8 metres away and closing — a not uncommon occurence in Katmai. His curiosity captivates us; some hold their breath. The big bear stares intently into our eyes; we have a moment; he glides away. A deep collective breath is released and utter joy settles upon the group. Sublime.
The 2,000 to 3,000 coastal brown bears in Katmai provide endless hours of inspirational food for the soul and a never-ending source of photographic images. Nowhere else on earth do bears so graciously tolerate one another and extend that tolerance to us.
Katmai is the definition of remote, accessible only by plane and boat. There are no roads except the centuries-worn pathways trodden into the meadow by generation after generation of bears. Each trail links favorite feeding sites to day beds and forested cover.
It's an opportunity to spend time in the world of the bear, to regain our understanding of what's primal — food, mating and sleep. It's a primordial and magical adventure: to fully comprehend our complete and utter insignificance in the natural order, but at the same time, our inextricable connectedness to the web of life. In an instant.
With a backdrop of sweeping glacial valleys and craggy mountain peaks among the lush emerald forests, even photographers with only a point and shoot will have flash cards full of memories to take home. But it's the rich abundance of food that brings an unusually high density of bears to Hallo Bay: sedges, angelika, goose tongue, cow parsnip and lupine roots.
It's always best to pick a place in the meadow, park the group and let the bears come and go. Bear dynamics constantly change all around the group; activity erupts sporadically in all directions.
Scent is a powerful personal ad in the ursine world and especially in mating season. Urine trails and scat mark the female's trajectory. The male patrols the breeze for a hint of her receptiveness. Van, the king of the meadow, focuses his attention on the trail leading to the blonde female. He bites her neck, and Carol responds by rubbing her head on his shoulder. They engage in a short wrestle, but she's tired and gives him the cold shoulder. Van doesn't give up, feeding close by, biding his time, waiting her out. Eventually his persistence is rewarded: he mounts, and the two lock. The interaction lasts plenty long enough for our voyeuristic group to get plenty of photo evidence.
It isn't long before another big male, this one with only one ear and a scarred and slashed forehead, takes interest in Van's girlfriend. Van decides he's accomplished what he set out to do and moves on. Skelitor moves closer to our group, feeding in a zig-zag pattern. The group holds its position, keeping our movements to a minimum and remaining as predictable as possible. But Skelitor is intent on his path. We soon realize his motivation has nothing to do with us, but that he's following the scent trail and marks that Carol left behind. He slowly breathes in her scat scent, lips apart and mouth slightly open. He decides to move off and leave our group with our jaws agape and a thrilling tale to tell.