Walking past fresh bear tracks in Katmai is an exhilarating experience, with each footstep bringing us closer to that once-in-a-lifetime photograph of the bears at close range. The expedition also required us overcoming our innate fear of encountering these apex predators in their natural environment. Our trip leader Brad Josephs explained in detail the bear behavior we would encounter, and more importantly, how to ensure our group’s presence had minimal impact on the bears.

© Mac Mirabile, WWF-US

We spotted a mother with three Spring cubs on our first foray into the sedge meadows of Hallo Bay. We would photograph this family extensively for three days, watching for them as we ventured through the trampled grass trails that we shared with the bears. Wading through streams and walking through mud, we followed Brad who positioned our group for the best combination of bear activity and light angle on an unseasonably warm and sunny evening at 8 p.m.

We sat on stools; our cameras and binoculars trained on the mother and cubs as they crossed a stream and slowly grazed toward us. The cubs meandered towards a patch of low grass near the top of a small hill while their mother grazed nearby, occasionally raising her head to scan for other bears. Earlier we had witnessed this mother retreating with her cubs at the first sign of danger from another bear 500 yards away, but now she was grazing calmly just 30-50 yards from our group. The cubs’ playing started innocently enough — an innocuous nibble of one cub’s shoulder escalated to a raised paw which grew into an awkward standoff as the two cubs stood on their hind legs and pushed and pawed at one another.  Their playful sparring lasted just 10 minutes, which flew by as I alternated between taking photographs and videos. No nature documentary can do justice to the show those two cubs put on for us that evening.

© Mac Mirabile, WWF-US

Putting the camera down, exhaling deeply, and taking everything in after those memorable moments, I heard the songs of Savannah sparrows, wind blowing the tall grasses and the surprisingly loud sound of the mother bear grazing nearby.  Looking up, I saw more bears were now visible, too — a blonde mother with second year cubs was walking towards us, and a single male bear was following another female in the distance. We had dozens of equally captivating moments on those early morning and evening excursions from our home aboard the Ursus.

Each picture I took helped cement a memory of a place where bears have no fear of humans. (Indeed, the bears are so well habituated to the respectful presence of bear watchers that at several times throughout the trip we were closer to cubs than their own mother.) Walking off the beach that last time, I thought about all the other wildlife experiences from my life and realized that nothing could compare to Katmai.

By Mac Mirabile, WWF