Bear Camp – Behind the Scenes

Planes. Planes. Planes.

Bears! Bears! Bears!

The Travel

This camp isn’t easy to get to, and that’s a substantial part of the appeal. I flew a commercial airliner to Anchorage. The following morning, I took a cab to Merrill Field and boarded a nine-seat Cessna Caravan. This wheeled plane took us to Lake Iliamna, where a van transported us to the lake. I donned hip waders and boarded a six-seat DeHavilland Beaver float plane to take me to the tundra and camp for a week.

Cessna trip from Anchorage to Iliamna (photo by Amy Gerber)
  • Three planes
  • 1912 miles flown (to get there)
  • 51 miles hiked (in chest waders!)
  • Six nights of remote camping
  • Six gourmet dinners
  • 30-70 bears every day!

Departing Anchorage, it was raining and socked in with clouds. Not long after we left, airplanes were grounded due to the weather. As our Cessna crossed Cook Inlet, I left all the clouds behind…for a whole week! The scene that came into view is unbelievably beautiful. Craggy mountain tops and glaciers as far as I could see. Silty, braided rivers and glacial lakes accented the mountainscape.

The flight from Lake Iliamna to camp was dotted with small lakes and more rivers. We flew over a bear on our approach to a lake that seemed too small to accommodate our float plane. Our camp hosts and guides waded out to greet our plane, help us navigate the cobbly lake bottom, and haul our luggage and all the gear and supplies for a week to the tundra.

The Camp

Jami and Julie, our chef and camp host, respectively, and Adam and Sean, our guides, arrived yesterday to set up camp. An electric bear fence surrounds nine tents: six 2-person sleeping tents with cots, a gear tent with solar battery chargers and a bear box to lock our toiletries in, a cook tent, and the “circus tent” – a place to gather when the winds came. Across the rolling tundra, a mostly spongey surface pocked with one to two-foot-wide rocky holes of water, nestled in among some bushes was our restroom. The privy is also surrounded by electric fencing more to protect the gear from becoming bear toys than anything else. It has the best view of any toilet I’ve ever sat upon.

My days would start around 8 am, waking to the crisp morning air nestled snuggly in a warm sleeping bag. Jami had steaming hot French Press coffee and breakfast waiting. After lingering around the breakfast area, chatting and eating, we geared up and loaded up. Our “snack box” was a full 36″ x 24″ x 18″ bear-proof aluminum cooler-type contraption meeting the US Forest Service criteria for bear-proof containers: “(a) resist a direct force of 200-pounds; and (b) contain no cracks, external hinges, gaps, etc. by which a bear can force the container open using claws or teeth.” It contained cookies, trail mix, nuts, Cliff bars, Belvita biscuits, dried fruit, jerky, fruit gummies, crackers, and tins of smoked oysters. Our guides had water filters so we could refill our water bottles from the river while we were out. It seems like Julie spent all her time filtering water from our lake for our use at camp. Twelve people go through a lot of water when it’s all there is to drink. (Well, that and an astonishing assortment of Whiskey. There were four full-size bottles!) She was like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up a hill. The task was never done.

The Terrain

We followed a well-worn trail created by years of anglers and wildlife passing the same way, three-quarters of a mile to the river. Sockeye salmon return to this river each summer to spawn. The fish draw the bears, birds, and scavengers.

Each day, we walked the river watching bears. An insane number of bears. You wouldn’t believe the numbers if I told you. Luckily, I took pictures, so I will show you! Here is just a small taste.

Twice, we came back to camp midafternoon for a break and a big meal before going back out. The other four days, we stayed out until dusk, eating the snacks and wraps Jami had packed for us. We would return to camp around sundown at 10:30 pm or so at night, depending on how many bears we had to stop for on the way in. With the full moon and twilight lasting a few hours, it never got dark enough to need my headlamp, even in the middle of the night. On the days we were out all day, dinner was ready when we returned.

Photo by Chef Jami Laya making dinner at midnight

Dinners

  • Carnitas soft tacos
  • Tiki Marsala
  • Halibut with crispy potatoes
  • Penne with Shrimp
  • Steak with mashed potatoes and green beans
  • Burrito Bowls

We hiked seven-and-a-half to fifteen miles per day through rivers, up bluffs, and over rolling hills. At the end of the first day, my hip flexors were sore from pushing my legs against the rushing waters. I wasn’t sure I was in shape for a full week of this. Sleep came quickly every night.

We had crazy, beautiful weather. It was hot! Seventy degrees under a cloudless sky wearing chest waders feels like 90° anywhere else. I felt like I was hiking in my own personal sauna. One day, we all stripped off waders, boots, and socks and rested atop a bluff until we ran out of water. Another day, I brought my flip-flops to wear riverside. Those with waders that didn’t leak (that would not be me) simply sitting in the cold river was the refreshment they needed. For a place that’s usually 55-60°, grey and windy, if not raining, this was exceptional. It was a very wet summer throughout Alaska. This might’ve been the only sunny week they had.

Weather Change

On the last full day, the wind started to blow, and the temperature dropped. I wore all of my cold-weather gear. Camp took a beating but held firm. It made it a little bit easier to leave this paradise.

A word about the waders: Rob and I rented our waders and boots from a place in Anchorage. They are expensive to buy, and I’m not sure I would ever use them again. The waders themselves are made of “waterproof, breathable” material with a bib pocket, suspenders, and a belt. It’s essential to keep the belt secure. This will prevent the waders from filling with water and weighing you down if you fall. Waders full of water are anchors. The feet are waterproof neoprene. It’s best to wear them with socks to minimize rubbing and to help keep feet warm in the cold water. The boots are made to be submersed and are not waterproof. They are meant to let the water flow through. Because we had so much sunshine, the waders and boots were usually dry by the next day. This is one of the blessings of the unusual weather. Under gray skies, they would have stayed cold and wet all week.

Behind the Scenes of Photography

Departure

It took a lot of work and planning to make a trip to the tundra so accessible to me. Thanks to Fish and Float Alaska, Jami, Julie, Sean Sharp Photography, and KAR Photography for making this trip fun and easy!

If you’re interested in purchasing or licensing any images you see here, please email me at SNewenham at exploringnaturephotos.com, and I’ll make it happen.

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