Up Close with Brown Bears

Before our 2007 trip to Alaska, my wife Barb and I had been there together on two other occasions. We saw lots of wildlife, including black and brown bears, but never really up close. With our 100-passenger cruise ship anchored in a sheltered bay in Katmai National Park, we formed into small groups and boarded Zodiac inflatable boats with outboard motor, and with a guide at the tiller, off we went to see what we could find over several hours of riding slowly and as silently as we could along the shoreline with lots of undersea vegetation exposed. We were, in my opinion lucky to have an extremely capable guide who knew where to look. And what we saw caused our jaws to drop open in awe, and camera shutters began clicking excitedly. We were required to stay about fifty yards away from any bears we saw, and to be as inconspicuous as possible. Some like me had 300mm telephoto lens attached so we were able to get in much closer visually than the fifty yard limit. Our guide told us about a passenger he had on another cruise who had a habit of whistling to get a bear’s attention so it would look into the camera lens. After he did it twice, the guide told him once more and he’d be banned from further excursions. So, we were being exceptionally quiet.

As we floated along we began to see bear after bear, feeding and otherwise browsing around the intertidal zone. There were two mother bears with cub and I was able to capture several very nice images of them. Then there was the “sleeping bear” we snuck up on. What a scene! In fact it was so good, I had the photo enlarged professionally and framed and it is now hanging over the head of my bed. While the photo opportunities came one after another, we eventually began to find fewer bears. But we did spot an Eagle sitting along the shoreline. And then I spotted a young brown bear walking down the shoreline toward the Eagle. My heart raced and I prayed the Eagle would not fly away. Thankfully, the majestic bird sat solidly as the large brown bear walked by. It was an incredible photo opportunity and something I will always remember.

In summary, that day seeing so many brown bears in Katmai was a distinct highlight of our two week trip But, there’s more to show you so stay tuned for the next installment.

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Shoreline Beauty in Katmai

Katmai National Park and Preserve is a United States National Park and Preserve in southern Alaska, notable for its brown bears. In 2007, my wife Barb and I were visitors there aboard a small, approximately 100 passenger cruise ship and were simply overcome by the beauty we saw from the deck of our ship as we cruised along the shoreline, getting ready to anchor in a sheltered cove, where we were to load in small groups of six into Zodiac rubber inflatable boats, to quietly ride along large sections of the shore, seeking to find as many brown bears as we could, and whatever else came our way. I will save the “bear story” to my follow-on post, but here I wanted to give you a feel for the beautiful landscape which spread before our eyes. The day did not begin on a hopeful note, for when I stepped onto the small patio outside our cabin right after I got up from my bed I saw low, gray clouds and dull-colored water. But, as we got closer to shore, and the sun began to rise, it all turned perfect. Simply perfect! As the day began, a float plane landed and tied up next to the ship, with a National Park representative who would serve as the ship’s guide and “pilot” to escort us through the pristine and protected region. I was lucky to have my camera ready when the plane made a low pass overhead.

Note: You can see the tan colored remains of volcanic ash covering large sections of the open slopes of many high mountains. There are numerous dormant volcanoes in this area, thus its name “The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.”

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Clouds and Sun on Kodiak Island

To continue my photoblog series of photographs taken during our 2007 trip to Alaska, the Bering Sea and Eastern Siberia, I’d like to focus on a location where we had always wanted to visit … a spot where most tourists never get to because of its remote location in the Gulf of Alaska. The night before our arrival my excitement level rose and I started to pray for good weather in order to provide for some nice photography. We woke up early, ate breakfast and then went on deck to watch as the ship began to slowly sail toward the harbor, Not only was it not sunny, but there was a low fog bank covering much of the island’s coast and high mountains. My heart sunk, until from nowhere my prayers were answered and a ray of sunshine poked through, illuminating a beautiful expanse of the island. From that point on during the day, it was “sun out, sun in” and we even had a few light rain showers. However, it seemed that every time I found a great photo opportunity, the sun came out, or the light was really nice even when it was a bit cloudy. We first toured the center part of the City of Kodiak with its Russian Orthodox Churches, and then boarded a bus which took us off into the interior of the island where we could hike through rain forests and stand on high cliffs overlooking a portion of the rugged shoreline. The wild flowers we saw were beautiful, especially seeing and photographing a rare Chocolate Iris. It was a great day!

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Alaska via Small Ship

In my last post I wrote about a 2007 vacation trip my wife Barb and I made to Alaska, the Bering Sea and Eastern Siberia. On each of our three trips there together we were passengers on a small ship, with around 100 or less passengers. THere are several reasons why visiting Alaska this way is (in our opinion) the only way to go. First and very important is the informal and very friendly atmosphere on the ship such that you really get to know your fellow travelers. The second and perhaps even more important reason is that you are able to get really close to the scenery, the glaciers, and especially the varied wildlife.

This trip was essentially an exploration cruise, following the routes of early explorers to this region of the world, to several locations where few if any humans have set foot before. The Spirit of Oceanus was the flag ship of Cruise West Lines. Sadly, the company stopped operating a few years after we made this trip … the poor economy being partially responsible. Anyway, even though the ship was quite spacious, having so few passengers made it possible to do and see many things as we traveled along the Alaska Sea coast headed to the Aleutian Islands and destinations in the Bering Sea.

It was on day three of the cruise when we experienced for the first time what would become a normal activity throughout the trip. Those who elected to go, were loaded and unloaded into Zodiac rubber inflatable boats off the stern of the ship, and with a crew member at the motor, and another acting as a guide, off we went, boat-by-boat, to explore and see what we could find. Scenery was spectacular with steep snow-capped mountains all around, and our boat was lucky enough to be able to get rather close to a very large and intimidating Gray Whale. We also saw many more species of wildlife, which made for some interesting photographs.

After several hours bouncing up and down in the boat, making photo after photo, we returned to the Oceanus cold, a bit damp, but totally happy with what we’d experienced. After supper that evening, we returned to our cabin and stood on its outside deck to view close up, one of many glaciers we would visit over the time we were at sea. I trust the following photos I made then will give you an overall impression of the joy we had while on this trip. We were very lucky to be able to do this together.

Note: I plan to continue this series in following posts, so check back later to see lots more.

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One Happy Day in Alaska

My wife Barb and I have been fortunate enough to be able to take three vacation trips to our favorite location to visit — the great State of Alaska. Our first trip involved an Inside Passage journey via a small 100 passenger cruise ship, departing from Seattle and winding up in Juneau. From there we flew to Anchorage and traveled as a part of a land tour, afterwards we flew back home. That trip was great and it served as an incentive to make us want to return. So, we made a second trip up north for another small cruise ship and land tour, this time with Barb’s brother and his wife. Again, we loved every minute of it and I went through over 20 rolls of film (no digital then). But, just like before, we wanted more. So, in 2007 we splurged and signed up for a Voyage to the Bering Sea and Eastern Siberia. Two weeks on another cruise ship, less than 150 passengers, but the vessel was much larger and more luxurious than the ships we’d been on before.The trip was scheduled to depart from Whittier, a short road trip south of Anchorage. But, we set our plans to give us a few days before the ship’s departure, so we could rent a car and drive to some of the locations south of Anchorage we’d seen before, but mostly from bus windows, hardly stopping.

I must say that the first day of our unplanned rental car road trip was pretty special, because Barb was about as excited as I’d ever seen her, being free to roam where we might and stop when we wanted. As we drove south from Anchorage toward Seward we passed an Alaska Rail train traveling on the track parallel to the highway. We recalled that on our last trip to Alaska we rode one of those trains. After we got a bit further down the highway I saw a pull-off that was very close to the train tracks. I told Barb we could get our cameras out and take a couple of photos (this time digital…hooray!) as the train approached. Barb has one of the photos I made that day of the train as her computer “desktop” image, and for whatever reason she can’t find anything better. I think she likes it so much because of what then followed.

Driving further south we drove on a side road which was to take us to Portage Glacier, another location we’d visited before, but the day we were there it was cloudy and rainy with hardly any suitable views. This day, the weather was much better, albeit a bit overcast at times; but hey, this was Alaska and that’s what you get. As I drove along, with Barb looking out her window, she shouted for me to stop. “I see a glacier up there!” she said excitedly. So, we stopped and got out to see what we could see. The views were spectacular from where we were, and we had found a glacier we never before knew existed. Not only did we see and photograph that glacier, but we found a couple of others up in the mountains along the road. To top it all off, by the time we arrived at our destination, the famous and much visited Portage Glacier, Barb and I were literally jumping for joy. To say it was happy day in Alaska is a gross understatement. The photos below show a portion of what we saw that day.

Note: Over the next week or so, I plan to post more photos I made on this trip to Alaska, the Bering Sea and Eastern Siberia, and will have a brief story to go along for your journalistic interest.

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Things We Keep

There are many items we have inside and outside our home that have special memories attached to them, and as such we keep them no matter where we reside. The following photos I made of two such objects displayed on our front porch are perfect examples.

The first, the faded metal water can, we obtained while assigned with the Army in West Germany in the 1980s. It’s unique more in how we obtained it than the fact it’s fairly old. When we were living in Germany, one aspect of German life that was especially interesting to many Americans, involved the manner in which local people discarded many of their household goods they no longer wanted to keep, by placing them at curbside for pick-up by trash collectors. Some of the items we Americans observed sitting outside German homes as we drove by did not appear at all to be worthy of disposal. For example, there often were items of wooden furniture that looked more than usable to us, with some repair, and given the fact that the item was “foreign” we saw it as a potential treasure, and certainly an antique we desired. So, there developed a popular trend in the American community to go “junking” (at night) to see how many things we could find for free! In our case the faded metal water can was one such item, plus we have two bedside tables with marble tops that were obtained this way. Much, much more might I list but you get my point. We Americans and our “yard sale” mentality fit perfectly into what we saw as a yard sale where everything was free.

The second photo of “Uncle Sam” was a gift from a close military family of ours who brought it to the new home we moved into just after we retired from active service in 1992. It was well appreciated by us, and since that first day we placed it by the front door at our first retirement home and the three others that followed, it’s been greeting visitors and passers-by. Now that we are permanently settled in one place, Uncle Sam stands guard on the front porch, with flag in hand, except during the Christmas holiday season when he is temporary replaced by two wooden-post snowmen.

So you see, there are many things each of us keep all our lives, mainly because there are valued memories attached that make us smile.

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Stone Chimney

I spotted this old farm house off to one side of the Blue Ridge Parkway of Virginia recently, the bright green, metal roof and (especially) the uniqueness of the metal top to the stone chimney getting my attention. No question it deserved a stop and a few snaps of my camera shutter. I wonder what the purpose was for the metal topping on the chimney. I have not seen such a chimney before or after this one and I spend a lot of time driving around searching for old farm houses. Anyway, enjoy if you will.

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Similar Color, Different Background

On a recent photo trip I found two interesting subjects and made these two images. The obvious similarity is the red-orange color of the central object, but what made both special in my view was the contrasting backgrounds in each. Always keep a “photographic eye” out for things you see as you travel about. By the way, the photo with the “leaf” was taken next to a cemetery, and the leaf itself is artificial, apparently having been blown off an arrangement next to a gravesite.

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A Wet and Cold Winter Day

In my opinion, nothing portrays a dreary, wet, cold day in winter better than black and white photos of leaf-less trees backed by a foggy atmosphere. This winter we seem to have had quite a lot of these type days, with many in the country experiencing extreme cold and snow. As I was looking out one of our home windows the other day, I felt compelled to record with my camera what I saw. This is one thing I like most about my photography hobby — being able to share with others what I see around me at any given moment. Making those moments inspiring visually in a photograph, as much as they were in person, is the challenge.

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A Dedicated Mountain Woman

Orelena Puckett known locally as “Aunt” Puckett was born in 1837 and lived near Groundhog Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The home she lived in has been restored and is available for visitors to view while driving by on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Aunt Puckett farmed with her husband and she lived for 102 years. During her lifetime she not only gave birth to 24 children of her own, but served as a midwife for others, assisting in the birth of more than 1000 babies. Ironically, none of her own children lived beyond infancy, although it was not uncommon during those days in the rugged environment of this region for many children to die of a very early age. No matter the weather, she walked or rode on horseback to help with the birth of neighbor children. Her fee for those services was typically one dollar, but when times were good, she charged six dollars. For those who could not pay in dollars, she often received food or other goods. The series of photographs below tell a bit of her story visually. The last image was made at a small family cemetery near her home, which marks the passing of Alfred Bowman who was born in August 1893 and died in May of 1894. It is not known if Aunt Puckett had helped with the birth of this baby. The stone reads at the bottom, “Gone to a better land.”

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