A Favorite Photograph: Alaskan Brown Bears

Back to the stories behind some favorite images!

It’s probably obvious why I love this Alaska image: grizzly bears are so closely associated with the North American wilderness, and Alaska in particular. But brown bears fishing for salmon are almost an Alaska cliché, so in our time in the Great Land we wanted to capture images that were interesting photographically as well as for their impressive animal subject.

(Quick note: brown bears and grizzly bears are the same animal. These bears are called “grizzly” in the interior of the continent but are called “brown” on the coast. Kodiak bears are actually also brown bears, who happen to live on Kodiak Island.)

I like this image for a lot of reasons. First, of course, is that it brings back great memories of the week or so that we spent in this particular spot – a nearly land-locked bay on the remote Alaska Peninsula – watching these brown bears fattening up for their winter hibernation. All of the bears in the bay had distinct personalities and it wasn’t long before we could tell them apart by both appearance and behavior. Some were rambunctious juveniles, some were protective mothers, some were alpha males, and others just minded their own business and got on with the fishing.

Photographing two bears together like this is hard to do anywhere but a salmon stream at the height of the spawning. Brown bears are usually solitary and territorial; normally they don’t tolerate other bears in close proximity. But during the salmon run, they congregate in certain prime fishing areas without apparent problems. There seems to be enough food for everyone. Indeed, there’s so much fish that the bears will often eat only their favorite part – the head – and not bother with the rest. I love how this image portrays that, how it shows two bears concentrated on the stream and utterly unconcerned with each other.

It’s also rare to be able to get such clear, close-up, head-on photos of bears. But again, the bears are so well-fed, and so focused on the salmon, that they seemed hardly to notice the humans in the bay with them. This bay is actually a destination for a number of “photo safaris”; at first, we were wary of going ashore at all given the number of bears on the beach, but after a couple of days, one of the wildlife guides accompanying a photo safari invited us to join their group seated beside the stream and we were amazed at how thoroughly the bears ignored us. (Everyone is careful to take precautions, of course, for the good of both people and bears – no one brings food ashore; no one gets overly close (this image was taken with a 400mm zoom lens); and everyone stays grouped together – and so far as I’m aware, it’s worked out so far.) I love how you can see the intensity in this bear’s eyes, like he’s about to pounce on a fish (which he probably was!).

As well as the bear’s intense gaze, I love the movement and depth in this photo. I love the bow wave that the front bear’s left paw is making as he pushes upstream through the water, and how that movement is echoed by the water pushing around the bear in the background as he stands facing upstream. Then there’s the depth of field, with the focus on the foreground bear. My eye then goes to the out-of-focus background bear, and then follows the horizontal lines of alternating yellow-green grass and gray water to the blurry – almost translucent – sailboat in the top right. Of course I love that the boat is Celeste! The dark green alder bushes make a nice contrasting border at the back of the shot.

And finally, what are all those little dots?? Well, an Alaska summer photograph wouldn’t be complete without a few mosquitoes!

16 thoughts on “A Favorite Photograph: Alaskan Brown Bears

  1. For some head twisting insight into bears I suggest reading “Talking with Bears conversations with Charlie Russell”

    By G A Bradshaw. Mind blowing. The publisher is Rocky Mountain Books.

    I had the privilege of listening to Charlie a year before he passed, fascinated man.

    1. Thank you! I’ll certainly check it out – sounds fascinating! Wonderful that you met the author – that’s always special!

    2. Just realized you met Charlie Russell, not the author, sorry I didn’t read your comment more closely. Thanks again for the recommendation – I’ll look for the book!

      1. My apologies for that, it crossed my mind. And also for the double post, I thought I hadn’t hit submit!! oops

        1. No worries! I think your first comment didn’t make it to my inbox because you included the link to the book, but I’ve found it now and appreciate the link – looks like a fascinating book! I’ll have to get it!

    1. Ellen, I thoroughly enjoyed your article, Cruising the Avian Artic, in Cruising World. Birds give life such vitality. And you were able to experience some few people see. I love the ones in our back yard. Life would be dull with out them. Thanks a lot!!


      1. Thanks so much, Don! So glad you enjoyed that article. I loved the birds up north. And everywhere – birds bring such magic to life!

  2. Nice article! I don’t know which would be worse, the bears or the mosquitoes!

  3. Nice images, Ellen. Are you guys headed back to Alaska anytime soon? Or the PNW? We’d love to see you back here.


    1. Thank you! It would be fantastic to get back there and it will definitely happen at some point. Probably not for another year, though, realistically. I’ll be sure to let you know!

  4. Great photo with a great description from both the adventurer/tourist point-of-view as well as the photographic point-of-view! Photographing ‘Browns’ is still on our bucket list. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you! You should definitely go see the bears and photograph them – they’re such beautiful animals and it’s so much fun to realize what individuals they are as you watch them over time. Hope you two are doing well! xoxo

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