During late summer, a large number of brown bears congregate on the shores of Lake Clark National Park to catch salmon, eat sedges and nap in the sunshine. It’s one of the prime bear viewing spots in south-central Alaska, but like much of the state, it’s only accessible by plane. This past August, I took advantage of some rare sunshine and headed down there for a day trip to photograph bears and try out the new Photo Hatchback AW.
I’m finding the Photo Hatchback AW to be perfect for excursions like this. It’s got enough room for a moderate selection of camera gear, as well as a top compartment that fits lunch, some warm clothing and a spare telephoto lens. Two side pockets fit a water bottle on one side and a can of bear spray on the other. It’s streamlined enough that it doesn’t get bulky on your back, it’s compact enough to stash easily in bush planes or as carry-on luggage, rugged enough for the outdoors, and comfortable to wear all afternoon. In addition, the zipper flap camera compartment gives you quick access to your gear when you need it.
For this particular bear-watching trip, I packed a Nikon D300, a couple of lenses, my compact Fujifilm X10 and a couple of spare batteries. In the top lid went sandwiches, cookies, the big 80-200mm f/2.8 lens, fleece jacket and windbreaker.
Flying down the west side of the Cook Inlet in my little yellow Cessna, we could see bears as soon as we turned the corner at Tuxedni Bay. Looking down at all the brown bumps grazing in the grasslands just back from the shore, my wife Amy joked that they looked like cows. We dropped down for our beach landing, and just before my bush wheels touched down on the sand, a curious young brown poked his head up out of the grass, about 30 feet to the right, and watched us whiz by.
Once down, we unloaded our gear, walked over to the mouth of the creek and watched a female bear splash around in the water as she tried to catch silver salmon as they swam upstream from the ocean. She put on quite a sight for the cameras, while further down the beach, a larger male sat napping after snacking on the two big silvers that he’d caught earlier. Eventually, a bald eagle showed up, hoping to snare some scraps. Talk about postcard view!
Since the bears in this area are relatively used to human visitors, you can actually get pretty close to them. Sometimes they’ll walk right by you, usually paying little or no attention; after all, you’re not fish. Being a national park, there are a couple of rangers onsite who make sure that everyone is following the safety guidelines.
After a few hours of tromping around on the sand and grass, we loaded up the little Cessna and headed home. A few weeks later, when the buckle on Amy’s work pack broke, I removed the camera divider pouch from my Photo Hatchback AW, undid the hook/loop flap, which turns it into a full-sized daypack, and let her borrow it for a week of bike commuting. She found it so comfortable, that I had a hard time getting it back!
When I remarked that I was still missing a couple of my extra X10 batteries, she and her detail-oriented mind took one look at the pack and immediately found them. They were still stuffed into the small elastic memory card/battery pocket that sits just inside the camera compartment flap. Don’t even ask what I owe her for that one.
– Dan Bailey
Editor’s note: Adventure, travel and location photographer Dan Bailey is passionate about his craft. So much so, he never hesitates to hunker down in the snow, ski down a steep slope or trail run with a full pack of gear to capture imagery for his clients. And his home base of Anchorage, Alaska provides him with plentiful opportunities to create his particular style of dynamic and stunning photography. You can read more about Dan and see his galleries on his web site and check out the latest adventures on his blog. Dan also teaches online courses through The Compelling Image.