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Brown Bears and Banter - 10 days in Alaska with my son


pomkiwi
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Introduction

 

In July I spent 10 days in Alaska with my son who flew in from Australia. We rented a double cab truck and spent 10 days or so exploring a small portion of south central Alaska, specifically the Kenai peninsular and Lake Clark National Park.  We drove a few hundred miles, compared the effect of 9 hour time differences from opposite directions, enjoyed the transition from heatwave to three days of pouring rain, tried a bit of fishing, saw some serious scenery, caught up with each others lives and drank some beer.

 

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We also saw some birds

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And a lot of bears (or more accurately a small number of bears a lot)

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I will share some of the highlights and in the next post try and outline some of the practicalities.

Edited by pomkiwi
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Practicalities

 

I flew from London to Seattle with British Airways and Matt caught a direct flight with Qantas to Los Angeles (arriving at 6am on the same day he had left at 10am) and got a connecting flight to Seattle arriving an hour after I did. We chose to spend a night in Seattle in case of any flight problems and chose the Cedarbrook Lodge which is only 5 minutes by free shuttle from the airport and surrounded by woodland - definitely the most relaxing 'airport' hotel I've ever stayed at - and the food and beer was good as well.

 

After a good sleep we got up early and headed back to the airport for our flight up to Anchorage. This is a scenic flight in its own right - choose the right hand side of the plane flying north and the left hand flying back. It was largely cloudy on the way up but coming south we had some excellent views of the fjords and inside passage of Canada:

 

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As well as the ice fields  and glaciers south of Anchorage:

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The main hint I will give if you are planning a trip to Alaska is plan ahead. A years probably the minimum time you need if you are looking for specific dates or locations.  The tourist season is only about 4 months long (late May until late September) - choice decreases and prices increase the later you leave booking. Car hire is very expensive - for some reason we ended up with a double cab truck for less than 30% of the cost of any car. We got it suitable dirty:

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In Anchorage we stayed at the Alaska House of Jade for our first and last nights as recommended by @urologysteve (and TripAdvisor). It was great with helpful hosts, excellent breakfasts, the loan of a canister of bear spray for the week and insisting we pay the bill after we returned from our week touring.

 

We spent three nights in Seward in another B&B called the Bell in the Woods which was close to Bear Lake and had options to walk from the house (if it stopped raining). Again very comfortable and excellent breakfasts and afternoon cakes.

 

We ate out at restaurants every evening and had generally OK meals without any being memorable. Overall I would recommend the widely available brewery options as they serve good quantities of reasonable food with interesting beers inn informal setting (watch the alcohol content of beers as many are much stronger than usual in the UK or Australia)

 

Our main objective was bear photography and we shared a room at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge in Lake Clark National Park. I will describe it in detail later on but suffice to say it was very good indeed. Transport there and back was by light plane from Soldotna although it is possible to fly from Anchorage if you prefer (at greater cost).

 

After Silver Salmon Creek Lodge we drove back to Anchorage with a few hours hiking up to the Russian River Falls. A good steak in Anchorage and a comfortable night before we flew down to Seattle for a final beer together before Matt and I went our separate ways.

 

 

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offshorebirder

Thanks @pomkiwi - I am looking forward to following along.

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Looking forward to your  report. I'm also finding the car hire cost surprisingly high. Thanks for the tip about seat selection in the plane. 

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Aww @pomkiwi fabulous already. I get Misty-eyed about Alaska. I went 22 years ago, didn’t see a single bear or moose but did see a pod of beluga whales swimming up the Turnigan Arm at sunset. It’s still one of my top wildlife moments of all time. Must get back there one day. Reallly looking forward to this report! 

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Anchorage, Turnagain Arm and driving to Seward

A lot of the reading I did about Alsaka was a bit rude about Anchorage - mainly that any visitor needs to get into the wilds, etc. As a newcomer however I was very impressed by our short stay. I guess this was probably because it doesn't feel like a town as there are parks and streams everywhere you go. Getting around was easy and within 30 minutes of stepping off of our flight we had picked up our truck and got to Walmart for the boy to buy his fishing rod. We settled into the House of Jade, borrowed some bear spray and headed out to take a hike along a path above the Turnagain Arm. This was a 20 minutes drive and we passed an area of wetland with a boardwalk that would have provided some opportunities for bird photography had we not been fixated on a walk.

 

Bears are a big topic in Alaska and in Anchorage. We were on a well used trail but most people we saw had a can of bear spray within easy reach, we certainly saw lots of signs of bear activity although no bears. It is easy to think that they will avoid such an urbanised area and human contact until you read stories of the bear that broke into a car near where we staying two days earlier: http://www.ktuu.com/content/news/breakfast-turns-deadly-for-Glen-Alps-black-bear-487536631.html

 

We saw no bears but had some lovely views on the last day of the Alaskan heatwave:

 

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No beluga whales unfortunately (I think you generally have to get the tide just right to see them) and only a few large gulls at a distance. After a few miles out and back we headed to the Moose's Tooth Brewery for pizza and beer (both good) and a good sleep.

 

The next morning we drove to Seward. The weather was coming in rapidly:

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It was very windy which made getting out to the vantage point of choice a little interesting:

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The Turnagain Arm has a very large tidal range which exposes huge mud flats at low tide. The mud is many metres deep in places and fatalities from attempting to walk on it are not rare:

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We moved on and spent a couple of hours at the Wildlife Conservation Centre which takes in injured animals or those kept as pets as well as keeping small breeding groups of caribou, reindeer and musk-ox. We saw our first bears here as well as wolves but at the moment I 've decided not to show pictures of animals in zoos or similar.  There were some bald eagles that flew over however:

 

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As we headed towards Seward the weather deteriorated and the scenery was largely hidden by cloud so no pictures worth sharing (there will a lot of rain soaked images to come). Matt did some fishing without luck; we got to Seward and our lovely B&B; went for a 4 mile walk to test our waterproofs and had fish and beer for dinner.

Edited by pomkiwi
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Sightseeing Cruise from Seward

 

In which we get very wet and write off two cameras.....

 

The weather was very, very wet. All day.

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We had booked a full day sightseeing cruise from Seward with Alaska Saltwater Tours and given that we only had one free day to follow and the forecast was much the same for the next few days we felt we should head out anyway.  It was an interesting day as will become apparent and despite the weather we would go again - preferably with better weather. The tour is on a small boat and there were only 12 passengers looked after by Tanya and Cathy who did a good job of keeping a close eye on everyone on a slippery and bouncing boat whilst maintaining a lot of informative chat and a good sense of humour. We wore a full set of waterproofs and boots and needed them.

 

I apologise now for the quality of the photos. The light was really poor and I was shooting from under a camera cover through driving rain and sometimes spray. We did have some noce sightings through the murk.

 

Leaving harbour we saw some storm petrels

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A few puffins were floating around

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We also saw some rhinocerous awks which have a bizarre 'horn' at the base of the beak:

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A Stellar sea-lion lazed on a rock

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A small pod of orca passed close to the boat and were hunting close to the shore

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We then made our way to the Holgate glacier where we stayed for 45 minutes to have lunch.The scale is difficult to convey in a photo but the boat helpd here:

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During lunch we saw some active calving and caught some on camera

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Heading back it got increasingly rough and ethe rain got heavier. It was at this point that the second camera (the D7200 I was giving to Matt) started paying up with the focus assist lamp coming on at random. Matt had done a poor job of keeping it under a cover and rain had saoked it from above and salt spray from all sides. There was salt water in the battery compartment and evidence of water in the viewfinder. We did dry it out and it did survive for the rest of our trip but unsurprisingly I learnt today that it has ceased functioning (Matt's camera - his D7000 stopped working just as we left harbour and hopefully it was not water related and can be repaired).

 

On the way back it got very wet and rough - see the videos at the end.

 

We did see a couple of humpback whales from a distance but both of us agreed we preferred seeing them off of the beach at Matt's place in the summer

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Gulls and storm petrels provided some entertainment:

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Finally we entered the harbour and saw a sea-otter having dinner:

 

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It was a good day but such a shame we didn't have better weather.

 

The videos show the conditions on the way back:

 

 

 

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offshorebirder
On 8/8/2018 at 1:32 PM, pomkiwi said:

Car hire is very expensive

 

Everything in Alaska is expensive!

 

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1 hour ago, offshorebirder said:

 

Everything in Alaska is expensive!

 

Not if you rent a double cab :P

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Scenic Seward - rainforest, beach and salmon

 

The next day was grey and damp but the rain and wind had eased down. We decided to go for a hike towards Lowell Point which was about 5km each way given the state of the tide but you can get further along at low tide.

The hike took us through some beautiful temperate rainforest with moss and lichen hanging from every branch:

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The beach was deserted and beautiful

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Although we would have shared it with a bear had we been a bit earlier:

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Bald eagles were sitting and waiting but no salmon just yet

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One of the hanging glaciers on the other side of the bay made a brief appearance

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In the afternoon Matt caught his only fish of the tripDSC_6289.jpg.ab7a91be255cae49b453096698ab1dfd.jpg

 

It was carefully reintroduced to the lake and swam happily off.

 

We the spent a fun (if daft) hour at the fish weir trying to catch pictures of the salmon leaping upstream. The technique that worked best was using a focal length that allowed a reasonably wide arc of view with a fairly narrow aperture (for depth of field) and then proping ourselves against the railing (yes a tripod might have been helpful here). As soon as a fish jumped the shutter was pressed with a high frame rate selected. After this varient of 'spay and pray' most shots were delted but a few were OK to crop and serve as a record of how hard salmon work to get upstream and breed.

 

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All in all a good day of relaxed hiking and better weather than we had feared.

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offshorebirder

Nice work on the leaping salmon photos @pomkiwi!

Edited by offshorebirder
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@offshorebirder Thanks! It was good practice for when we went to the Russian River Falls at the end of our trip :)

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Thank God you hadn't booked a kayaking trip for your outing that day.  I have not seen more miserable looking bald eagles.
Just one small query. You said that you had booked a whole day trip with Tanya. I thought for whole day trip the boats usually go a bit far beyond Aillak or Holgate galcier , exploring  Northwestern or Pederson glacier.  Was it the weather which prevented the skipper from going too far out ? 

Thanks 

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@Chakra Alaska Saltwater Tours uses a small boat (maximum 16 guests) and was certainly much smaller than others we saw.  As a result it is slower. They emphasize the ability to stop for wildlife as often and long as possible and reviews on TA confirm this. So I think they often only go as far as the Holgate Arm but spend longer on diversions than the bigger boats that can power on - I knew this when we booked and was very happy as I prefer wildlife to multiple glaciers (and the Holgate was impressive even in the murk).

Our day out started at 8am and finished around 4.30. It is often around 6pm but I got the impression that as the weather worsened and the seas rose in the afternoon a decision was made to get back for the comfort of all involved - a decision I was very happy with. It was certainly difficult to stop in the swells without it being very uncomfortable and a lot of effort was made to find sightings in relative calm on the way out. I think we were all pretty tired when we got back.

 

In summary - I don't think we would have gone to further glaciers even if the weather had been better unless we had gone on a bigger boat. If the weather had been better on our trip I think we would have had more time with the wildlife we saw briefly through the rain and the swell. As I said above though I would go with the same company again if I get back to Seward - but on a nicer day :)

Edited by pomkiwi
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Yes totally understandable. I'd anyday prefer to go out in a small boat with fewer people. Shame about the weather. Hope you had better luck at silver salmon. 

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To Lake Clarke NP

 

In which we see our first bear in the wild.

Matt and I left our B&B just after 6am to drive through to Soldotna on the northern side of the Kenai Peninsular. It would have been a lovely drive in good weather and was interesting even in the mist. We had hoped to see a moose in the early morning despite lots of warning signs none were around. Soldotna is a small town but with lots of outdoor and fishing stores. There is a small airport with 50 or 60 light planes tied down against the wind. We checked in with one and were soon on our way over the town and across Cook Inlet:

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We enjoyed some wonderful views of Mount Redoubt, an active volcano that caused a 747 to make an emergency landing in Anchorage in 1989 when ash stopped the engines. No such problems today:

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We flew over the Johnson River just to the north of the lodge which drains another active volcano, Illiama (off to the left of the range pictured below):

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The lodge itself sits across a tidal meadow on a samll track beside a small number of other lodges that were empty most of the time we were there (Silver Salmon Creek Lodge is further to the left)

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We saw our first bear from the plane, searching for clams on the beach (second image is cropped from the first):

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Planes generally land and take off on the beach

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Sometimes they use the driveway in front of the lodge when the tide is high:

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At high tide the opportunity is taken to resupply the lodge by boat that comes at some speed up the tiny creek (that we walked across at low tide):

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Edited by pomkiwi
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Silver Salmon Creek Lodge

 

The lodge sits in Lake Clark NP which is south west of Anchorage and only accessible by air or boat.  It is set on the edge of a flood meadow on a small track with another lodge and some private cabins (none of which were occupied).

 

At high tide the water came up to within a few metres of the lodge (we need an Alaskan sunrise forum):

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The lodge has a central main building with a large lounge, boot room and two bedrooms downstairs with a dining room upstairs.  Food was good and varied, served around communal tables. Despite what the website says it is possible to buy beer and wine although the lodge is happy to ship supplies if you need! There is a separate buiding called the Wheelhouse which acts as a big sitting room and was used by the photographic groups for slideshows and tutorials a lot of the time. Most guest accommodation is in a variety of small cabins arranged around the garden area.

 

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We were greeted by the local fox who was very relaxed around people and made several appearances

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Bears wandered through the lodge grounds on several occasions:

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Hoping (in vain) for scraps from the salmon filleting table:

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Bear viewing involves setting off in trailers towed by ATVs

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The ATVs are not allowed off road (except on the beach) and the bears are approached on foot. The bears check out the trailers for anything that may have been forgotten:

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The bears are habituated to human presence but the guides will take a firm line with any that come too close in some situations:

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Guests are a mixture of independent travellers and those within organised photographic groups. I'd not been exposed to groups like this before and probably best to summarise that I wouldn't rush to join one. The nature of them was different and I felt some leaders were not offering much extra for the additional cost. Some of the guests within these groups were competitive (polite term) and seemed to feel they had priority to disregard our presence, walking across shots etc. Each guide aims to keep the groups separate but if two do converge on one sighting the lodge policy is to combine them to reduce the impact on the animals and allow them as much freedom of movement as possible, such combining of groups didn't happen often but wasn't pleasant when it did.

 

We had a good guide who supervised some amazing encounters but some of our group were concerned that we often left a good moment (bears clamming or feeding) when another arrived and it seemed as though the organised photo groups were left to enjoy the sighting. I did ask whether these groups get preference and was assured not. Some of our group were upset enough to ask me about whether we would be leaving a tip (I was non-plussed to have Americans asking a Brit about tipping). In the end I think that our guide had a particular reason for needing co-operation from the other guides for a project and that this may have influenced some of our withdrawing - really not a huge issue but a little disappointing.

 

I would however have no hesitation in returning despite the above comments :)

 

Groups are free to fly into the area for an hour or two and sometimes do not follow the same rules which led to inappropriate surrounding of the bears on occasions  - the SSCL teams would always withdraw to reduce crowding but there is apparently some debate going on between operators and the Park authorities to establish how to avoid scenes like this (no SSCL groups involved):

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So in summary a lovely place and excellent lodge. Owner and staff were very relaxed and it did feel as though were guests in somebody's home (well at least until settling the bill :o) The atmosphere was very sociable and it was great to sit round the fire pit in the evening and chat. The guiding was of a very high standard (the comments above are a minor moan) as wil be apparent in a some of the moments I will describe later.

 

A bear decides to check out my bedroom...

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Edited by pomkiwi
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offshorebirder

@pomkiwi - thanks very much for the nice photos and especially the details about guiding, photo tour groups, lodge + park policies, etc.
 

Excellent trip report.

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You have hit the nail on the head. The presence of large organised photography groups is one of my biggest concerns. I've experienced that first hand. It's unbelievable how aggressive people become to get "that shot." I'm sure you already know that SSCL has become so popular that people book eighteen months in advance.  I've been in touch with David and can't fault his honest replies but I remain slightly concerned about an independent traveller with a smallish lens in the midst of large group of overenthusiastic snappers with their bazookas.  That is not an issue in Kodiak. The others must have been really annoyed not to consider tipping !!  But you got some very good shots. Looking forward to more. 

 

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@Chakra I would not be worried about the organised photo groups. They will have their own guides and the ‘unattached’ will form their own group. You will only come into contact for occasional sightings at which point my advice is to get your elbows out and hold your space! I think the reason we backed off some sightings was not about organised groups having priority but about our guide wanting something from his fellow guides. Or it might be nothing.

 

You will have a great time and you will have many close sightings so don’t worry about my slight negativity. I did end by saying I would happily return and meant it!

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Bears at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge

 

If I remember correctly we saw around 14 or 15 different bears at SSCL on a regular basis as well as a couple of other we saw briefly from a distance. Some of the older bears have been named by the guides. In general bears are quite solitary (apart from mothers and cubs) but come into close proximity where food is concentrated. They tend to avoid each other without overt agression - the exception are the large adult males who frequently compete for dominance for mates and food. The bears were generally dispersed over a large area of sedge grass flood meadows which provides the main food source until the salmon run up the creek (generally early August at SSCL).

 

There were at least 3 large males around. This one has an obvious recent scar on his flank:

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A number of young adult females were generally very solitary (but usually very pretty):

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One mother had 2nd year (or about 18 month old) cubs and was the most popular amongst guests as the cubs were very photogeneic:

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Another mother had 3rd year cubs who we were told would be driven away at some point over the summer:

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The were two brothers who spent time together and will separate as they get older:

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Finally there was a single adolescent male who was a little bit more nervous and gave me a hard time one morning:

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Over the next few posts I will say a bit more about each of the groups of bears identified above.

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On 8/16/2018 at 6:36 PM, pomkiwi said:

Some of the guests within these groups were competitive (polite term) and seemed to feel they had priority to disregard our presence, walking across shots etc.

 

Of course! They have paid top dollars to be in a dedicated photo group, so they think they have also bought sightings priorities! BTW, did you tip or not?

 

@Chakra, just buy a bigger lens :D!

Edited by xelas
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@xelas I did as we had enjoyed some excellent sightings and the guide added value in positioning us well and sharing knowledge. He was also a nice guy. The size of the tip was not as large as it wuld have been had we been able to enjoy a few more of the moments we left. I ave no idea what the American group decided to do but they were really rather cross.

 

I was practising my zen approach:

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:):)

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Tha Adult Males

 

There were actually 4 boars around when we were there. Three have been given names by the guides. In general they keep themselves much to themselves and the others move away whenever they catch wind of them being around. There is conflict however as the scars on some of these bears testify. The conflict is either between the large males for dominance or sometimes from a female protecting cubs or resisting advances.

 

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The guides are cautious around the adult males. With females, cubs and adolescents we would approach slowly from the side to within 10m or so, if the bears chose to approach more closely we would generally be directed to stay still and let them come past. With the males we stayed around 20m away and if they came closer we moved slowly away . In general the males completely ignored us.

 

There were two very large boars. The first has been named Mohawk due to the ridge of fur down his spine. He spent a lot time sleeping on his day bed :

DSC_6592.jpg.ff37829e1528a4c2964dc6371391025b.jpg                             This was made by him using moss and leaves heaped up to provide a soft mattress. At night he would disappear off into the forest.

Whenwe first saw him a single female came out of the woods about 10m away from him and unaware of his presence:

DSC_6613.jpg.1f19d35d397fb9eade4662371aebc129.jpg

 

As soon as she smelled him she turned and ran:

DSC_6625.jpg.83925dd95e36c9bde9a22f42d55a8cc9.jpg

 

He lifted his head but couldn't be bothered to get up...

 

The next big bear was called Snaggletooth - for obvious reasons

MFH_0112.jpg.50e68ea986301cc31c4a764c3b7e142a.jpg

 

We saw a lot of him and watched him swimming the creek and shaking himself like a dog afterwards

MFH_0215.jpg.ed7ecb521334699d5ae945887db9aeaa.jpg

MFH_0231.jpg.0d9bafd4740e18373c3d1f74df9159bb.jpg

 

One of the other two boars was smaller and younger. He had a narrow face and was named Wolfie as a result. We often saw him from a distance as he was avoiding the two bigger bears:

 

DSC_7068.jpg.06ae4140fe6256f294fe05ea054c4a82.jpg

DSC_7032.jpg.bab27d3b4efff96ee4a7e5e098b804a2.jpg

 

The final boar wasn't recognised by our guide but was another large animal that we only saw once. He had clearly been in a recent fight:

DSC_7636.jpg.20bbd89f49bd4f3fd489565e5dc19ba3.jpg

 

It is difficult to convey the size in these photos but the three bigger bears stood about 1.5m high on all fours and were at least 2.5m long. I was pleased they tended to avoid close contact!

Edited by pomkiwi
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offshorebirder

Impressive beasts!

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