Bear sightings are fairly common all across Alaska, but seeing them in their natural habitat, just doing what they do, is harder to come by. The McNeil River plays host to the largest congregation of brown bears in Alaska annually, as they fatten themselves all summer long on salmon. We booked our flights four months in advance. You can try to get a seat at the last minute, but there are no guarantees and prices only go up. We went with Bald Mountain Air. The Otter airplane was equipped with pontoons for taking off and landing on lakes. We left Homer on the Kenai Penninsulla about 9AM and were hiking across the tundra about an hour and forty minutes later.
Prepping Your Gear
Every videographer has faced weight restrictions when trying to take their gear on a plane. The Otter is not a large plane and fuel is at a premium so we were limited to 12lbs. each for everything. That meant we had to get all our gear, food & water, any layers of clothes down to a minimum. Each person was weighed prior to flying. We also had to make sure the gear we were taking was going to hold up and that we had enough batteries for the day. Here’s what we ended up taking with us:
- Canon C100 with handle
- Canon 70-200mm IS F4
- Canon 24-105mm IS F4
- BP-975 “Big Brick” Battery (about five hours)
- Manfrotto Carbon Fiber Tripod
- Manfrotto 701 Head
2 x Water bottles
Assortment of dried snacks and fruit.
The weather was great for the day with clear blue skies almost the entire way. We flew over Iliamna which is an active volcano. Coming into the McNeil mountain range you see thousands of clear mountain lakes, fresh water streams, and of course an abundance of wildlife. I managed to get the seat furthest towards the rear of the plane which had two windows and allowed for a good amount of filming. One issue a lot of people had that were further up in the fuselage was the water from the side of the plane streaked across the wings and ran down their windows and so it was impossible for them to get a clear shot. Luckily, by being in the back, all of the water had fallen off and was gone at that point.
We landed at Lake Funnel which was way smaller than Beluga Lake where we took off from. The pilot made a tight left turn, leveled the plane, and quickly brought us in right on the edge of the lake which was mirror smooth. Taking off later was to be just as exciting.
It took about a few minutes to get everyone’s gear out of the plane and start heading out. The planes were kept just off shore so all gear had to be carefully handed from the plane and brought to shore. Everyone is wearing hip-waders so you’re moving a little slower than normal. Thankfully it hadn’t rained for a day or two so the ground was dry and we didn’t have any real issues with sliding around in mud. The trails that we were walking on were game trails made by caribou and of course bears. Small paths across the tundra that were occasionally pot-marked with large holes that the bears would dig when trying to catch marmots for a snack.
As we walked on the trails we noticed thousands of gold and black caterpillars. Apparently these little guys only come out every 12 years or so. There is a legend that says you can tell how long winter’s going to be by counting the dots on their backs.
Finding Bears and Getting Set Up
There are plenty of bears around, but that doesn’t mean that they’re easy to film. Initially you’ll see them off in the distance as you move along the edge of the valley, and of course they are chasing the fish in the streams which doesn’t mean that they’re staying in one place. By the time you hike down to where you saw them, they may have moved up stream or down stream to get more fish. Our guide/pilot JR did a really good job of moving us into where the bears would most likely be found.
Again, it’s not like the bears are in the same place every time, so it took about an hour before we started to see the bears in good numbers and close proximity. This is also good as it eases you into the experience and helps settle the nerves. It’s not a zoo, there is no protection, and there are more of them than there are of you. Also, any medical help is a long, long ways away. You have to just keep calm, focused, and try to relax. After a while, you forget all of these concerns and just start enjoying the scenery and wildlife all around.
Filming in nature is always going to have it’s challenges. You have no control over weather, lighting, timing of when you’ll see animals, pretty much everything. Getting good shots of bears in McNeil requires you to hike down into the river beds which presents you with two options for setting up. You can either position yourself out on the gravel sand bars or go into the thick alderwoods along the rivers edge.
Sandbars allow you to have a greater range of peripheral vision so you can keep track of the bears around you and you generally have a clearer line of sight. However you have to deal with constant smell of rotting carcasses (from previous bear snacking), heat and exposure (it can get hot down in the valleys) and of course the bears can easily see you and that means they might go a different direction or not be totally natural as they’re keeping an eye on whatever you are.
Going into the brush also has it’s plusses and minuses. You are using the same paths that the bears are to get to the river, so there’s a chance you could end up with a bear behind you in a confined space and the only way you can go is into the river. You also don’t have as clear of shots as out on the sandbars, as you’re constantly having to move around branches and leaves since the bears are usually moving to get the fish. The benefit is that it is often cooler in the brush in the shade and that the bears don’t notice you as much so they often just walk right past you or sometimes stop right in front. The shade can also make it much easier to see the viewfinder and determine critical focus consistently.
Using The C100
Anyone who has seen our work knows we’re big fans of the Canon C100 in the field. The ND filters were a god-send for this kind of work because we could quickly make adjustments as sun dipped behind clouds or a bear moved to a position that had more light bouncing off the river rocks. Generally we have the fan turned off on the C100, but since we were doing longer takes (you never know when they’re going to dive for a fish) and it was getting pretty hot in the alderwoods, we decided to turn it on just to ensure that the camera didn’t over heat or create noise in the image. The nice thing about the C100 is the fan is truly quite. In fact I couldn’t even hear it over the sound of the IS motor on the 70-200mm when I was hand-held. It was only when I had the camera on the tri-pod with IS off and was right next to it that I even noticed it was on.
Constraints and Challenges
One thing we quickly discovered that trying to switch lenses during the day was nearly impossible. Normally we have this down to a fine routine and can change lenses like an Indy crew changes tires. However, we had to deal with a tremendous amount of bugs from mosquitos to noseeums which are ultra tiny and can get inside your camera or lens. One thing is blowing out dust and particles, another is chasing down something the s bit bigger than a dust spec that has legs and a desire to explore the inside of your camera body or lens. This meant either doing a quick change inside a bag (for anyone who remembers processing film from a canister in the dark-room this was much the same thing) or just staying with the lens you had on.
We did try using the Canon 2x Extender III for a while, but found that it resulted in an image we weren’t happy with and it was very difficult in getting critical focus on the bears as they moved around a fair amount. It also made the lenses just a bit longer and thus more difficult to maneuver around in the bushes.
Hiking Out and Flying Home
We spent about six hours filming bears and it was truly a memorable experience. Heading back to the plane was both a relief and a disappointment. Our legs were cramped from crouching down for hours on end, we had a decent amount of bites between us, and had worked up a good thirst hiking around. The huge smiles on both our faces told us that we both would have loved to stay longer and kept filming and watching the bears. We learned so much from watching them interact and doing what was in their truest nature to do.
The golden hour doesn’t really come until 10 or 11PM so we still had plenty of light but it was time to go. On the flight home the clouds had settled low over the Cook Inlet. We made a close pass around Iliamna, flying right through the plume of smoke that wafted from the top of this sleeping giant. The view was incredible and we’d love to have a chance to go there sometime to film as well.
After that point in the flight, the rest of the way was quiet. We were a small band of happy adventurers that were either lost in our thoughts of the days trek and bear sightings or just too exhausted to put words together in coherent thought.
All in all it was a wonderful and challenging day of seeing and filming bears. It was a memorable experience and we are happy to be able to share with you, just some of the beautiful bears that we saw that day.
– Einar & Antonella