As the rushing water whisks the raft downstream, thousands of sockeye salmon streak by in the opposite direction. The opposing flows of water and fish on this remote Alaska river boggle the brain. Floating past chest-high fireweed lining the bank, I spot a brown bear standing upright among the showy fuchsia flowers. We peer at each other as I pass through his domain. Behind me, I hear the steady beat of feathers pumping through the air as a bald eagle, with a wingspan wider than I am tall, overtakes the boat, swoops low and lands on a gravel bar.
“What’s your favorite animal to photograph?” asks my raftmate.
We’ve both traveled a long way to be on this beautiful river. He’s here to fish. I’m here to photograph. I ponder his question. How to choose among so many fantastic creatures, each one unique in its physical appearance, behavior and place in the universe?
“I don’t know—there are just too many,” I answer.
“There has to be one that rises to the top,” he says.
Well, OK, at the top of my list and at the top of the food chain is the mighty brown bear—Ursus arctos—also known as a grizzly. About three decades ago, this big furry bruin lured me to Alaska and helped launch my photographic career. More importantly, that inaugural experience set me on a course to use my images and stories to educate people and advocate for the conservation of nature. I’ve had an appreciation and fascination with this iconic species ever since our paths first crossed, but is it my favorite?
My raftmate ties a feathery purple streamer to his line and casts into the sparkling current.
“What’s your favorite fish to catch?” I ask him.
“Oh, it’s not so much about the fish,” he says. “It’s where the fish take me.”
The fish have taken him to this far-off river in late summer, the time of year when adult salmon return to their birth streams to spawn the next generation. But he is not here for the salmon. He is here because of the salmon.
Rainbow trout grow big and fat feasting on salmon—the eggs of spawning females, the carcasses of spawned-out adults, and the young salmon that emerge in the spring. In just a few casts, my raftmate hooks a 22-inch rainbow and gently reels it in. We both admire the rows of black spots and the iridescent gold, blue and pink hues of this healthy fish. With tender care, he releases this beauty back into the slipstream of its watery world.
We continue our float downstream, round a rocky bend, and see a large brown bear ahead in the middle of the river. Like rainbow trout, bears grow big and fat feasting on salmon. It’s a crucial time of year for bears. They need to pack on as much fat as possible to help them survive winter hibernation. The big male in front of us has picked a prime fishing spot. The narrow and shallow section of the river funnels the fish close to the bear. Fins and tails above the water’s surface wriggle in the riffles. Focused, the bear stands motionless, then lunges forward with a spectacular splash. He comes up empty-pawed. Focus, lunge, splash. A flotilla of mergansers steers clear of the bear, and a gold-crowned sparrow serenades the forest with its three-note croon from high in the surrounding trees. The crimson mass of spawning salmon—the lifeblood of this wondrous wilderness—continues to pulse upstream.
I feel at home here because I am home here. We evolved in places like this, living by the seasons and natural rhythms alongside wild animals and plants. We didn’t evolve to sit in traffic and stare at screens. My raftmate and I came here to fish and photograph, but I think we really came here to connect with our true selves.
The bear darts back and forth in the river as the sleek salmon continue to evade his jaws and claws. Switching tactics, he leaps into the air and bellyflops on top of the fish. I cheer as he rises with a salmon sandwiched between his paws.
“So, is the bear your favorite animal to photograph?” asks my raftmate.
“Oh, it’s not so much about the bear,” I reply. “It’s where the bear takes me.”