Todd Amacker – Bears Of Katmai Alaska – Art Wolfe Next Generation Grant Winner

There exist two kinds of scientists. The first go into science in order to make a living. The second does the reverse: they find a way to make a living in order to go into science. Virtually all scientific naturalists of my acquaintance belong to the second group.”
Edward O. Wilson in Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life

By Todd Amacker

Publishers Note: I am away in Antarctica with Art Wolfe on a Rockhopper Workshop.  During this trip, I wanted to share an article by a young photographer who won the Art Wolfe Grant.  This is a grant made by a private contributor to Art Wolfe to allow a number of young photographers to experience The Bears Of Katmai Alaska. I’ll share a few more of these soon. Kevin Raber

bear in storem

The feeling I get when I visit a new ecosystem (filled with species that I’ve never seen before) is that of a kid in a candy store. My heart skips a beat when I see something new. Species are legends, and each one has a story that is many millennia old. For that reason, simply being in its presence and observing it in its habitat brings me more satisfaction than any other pastime. This is why I disappeared from the group for some time as I searched for new forms of life that I was almost guaranteed to have never seen before.

fish head

The goal wasn’t to be manly and venture as far away as possible in search of bears and then use my expert navigation skills (non-existent in my case) to find my way back to the group. In fact, my goal was quite the opposite. I never even saw a bear on my long walk, and I instead became intent on finding other forms of life that I could stop and observe at my own (slow) pace. I found dead Sockeye salmon that had sacrificed themselves to allow their offspring to live on. Some were only skulls that were the remainders of a bear feast, and some were only recently dead, yet to be detected. And some were still alive, slowly moving upstream with the rest of the school.


I also found and observed organisms that I hadn’t really given the time of day yet; like a large cluster of boulders that were covered with a variety of different lichen. It made me think of how the classification of these organisms had been causing quite a stir in the scientific community, thanks to a recent discovery that all three symbiotic organisms that comprise lichen are from different taxonomic kingdoms. And yet here I was in the remote backcountry of Katmai National Park & Preserve, and what are the chances that a lichenologist has ever laid eyes on these fascinating organisms before?

At this point, I had made an effort to add motion to my photographs in order to push myself artistically (thanks for the inspiration, Art!), and I was pleased with how well my images were turning out, despite the fact that other photographers had photographed the same subjects thousands of times. Having had good luck with the dead salmon and the map lichen, I decided to try the same technique on a passing flock of female Harlequin ducks.

bear shaking

And yet I must admit, even as a naturalist who enjoys observing smaller organisms, watching brown bears hunt for salmon in a flowing stream had to be the most thrilling experience of the trip. An interesting observation that I made was that, while large male bears lumbering dramatically after Sockeye salmon made for great photographs, it was actually the females that made the lightest work of hunting. They were often to skillful to have to chase after the salmon, and would instead wait for one to come close enough and then gracefully pin it down against the stream bottom and then scoop it up into their mouths. But the younger bears were also fun to watch, like the ‘teenager’ pictured above who daintily shook its head after every attempt at “bobbing for salmon.”

I extend the warmest regards to Art Wolfe and his staff and the generous private donor who made this trip possible.

February 2020
Article Type: Columns, MISC

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