It’s the only place in Southeast Alaska where the eagles fly under you

Jessica Pickett heads to the wilds of Alaska to snap one of nature’s wildest phenomenons

Alaska… In the language of the Aleut people it means “Great Land”. The name alone conjures up visions of windswept ice fields, brilliant Northern Lights dancing across the night sky, and hidden fjords carved by the slow passage of glaciers. A photographer’s dream and an adventurer’s temptress. John Muir, the father of our national park system, once mused, “To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.” And I am a lover of wilderness.

The mirror-like surfaces of Southeast Alaska’s Eastern Passage reflected back the gunmetal gray of the morning sky. Mists clung to the vast rainforest on either side of the boat, struggling to lift beyond the treetops of the Tongass National Forest. “It’s the only place in Southeast Alaska where the eagles fly under you”, shouted Denny Strom, retired U.S. Wildlife and Fisheries Director and my guide, over the steady drone of the 30-foot jet boat engines.

As we sped along the waterway I checked my lens, spare batteries, and memory cards for the fourth time. The morning’s midsummer rain couldn’t dampen my excitement as we drifted to a stop inside the mouth of Anan Creek, home to Southeast Alaska’s largest salmon run. Each July, the normally bright waters of Anan Creek churn black as thousands of pink salmon, Chinook, sockeye, and cutthroat trout converged on the creek to spawn. And this year seemed no different.

A light breeze carried the heady scent of lichen-covered spruce and hemlock trees while the light patter of falling rain muffled the guttural croaks of nearby ravens. Denny shouldered his pack and checked his shotgun before stepping out from under the shelter of the covered boat. Gingerly, we shuffled over slick boulders and up a set of stairs leading to what must be one of the world’s prettiest trails. Ancient conifers and lush ferns loomed over the trail skirting the lagoon and fading into the forest.The rigorously maintained half-mile of boardwalk leading to Anan Falls and Wildlife Observatory overlays an active bear trail, requiring us to stick close together. With camera at the ready, we slip into the forest, traversing the rise and fall of the undulating trail while randomly yelling out “Hey, bear!”

Fleeting glimpses of massive ravens scouring the creek bed peeked through the perpetual green of the spongy forest floor whenever the trail drew near the water’s edge. Overhead, eagles perched with wings spread wide, drying theirselves as best they could. Hidden by the low-hanging boughs, I silently positioned myself for a few shoots. The imposing birds stood framed against a backdrop of rising mist and evergreens. Satisfied with my composition, we continued on. The steady roar of the falls intensified as we rounded the last bend in the trail. Perched upon a precipice overlooking a towering cascade, the Anan Wildlife Observatory offered sweeping views of the boulder-strewn creek, torrential falls, and emerald-coloured mountain slope.

Like ghosts, both black and brown bears glided amongst the trees. Awestruck, I stared slack jawed. Silently emerging from the shelter of the woods, bears climbed along fallen trees and giant boulders to the water below. The narrow creek and the waist-high railing of the observation deck remained the only space between us and the bears. I stood frozen in place, squarely in the rain, as I watched a mother black bear lead two young cubs from the woods behind me, over the trail we just left, and down to the creek.

A stunning bald eagle leapt up from below, swept past the deck, and perched on a downed tree across the way. Flying beneath us, just like Denny said. Hearing a chuckle, I turned to find my guide openly laughing at my expression. He beckoned me to the edge where he stood admiring the wilds around him with a keen and affectionate eye. Below us, tucked up against the bank, sat a camouflaged hide hovering inches above the water. There, salmon vied for position at the base of the falls before leaping the relentless rush of the cascades. Across from us another black bear slipped gracefully into the water. Farther downstream, Denny gestured to a young grizzly. “This is his first year at Anan on his own. He’s still clumsy, but he’s getting better.”

Snatching up my camera, I quietly descended the stairs leading to the hide. To my right, the three-year old grizzly dived below the surface and rolled in the current. Unsure if he was playing or hunting, my question was answered when he broke the surface with a flopping salmon in his jaws. To my left, salmon sailed past, leaping up the falls mere inches from the hide’s window. And directly in front of me, almost within arm’s reach, sat a large black bear shoulder-deep in the rushing water, swiping with massive paws as salmon darted by. Steadying my excited hands proved most difficult. I couldn’t hit the shutter button fast enough.

Meaning to return to the upper observation deck, the stunned but curious faces of the young black bear cubs peered at me through the railing when I stepped from the hide. Equally startled, I stood motionless and wide-eyed. Never had I been so close to a bear, much less a cub, in the wild. The earthy scent of their wet fur mingled with the oily aroma of the salmon they ate. I held my breath when the sow sauntered closer, eyed me through the slats, and soundlessly guided her young further down the stream. I shot off one quick photo from the hip before the moment passed. I sent up a brief prayer to the camera gods that I caught it before continuing up the stairs for more batteries.

Hours pasted while Denny and I stood amidst the soft rain, watching silently as bear after bear coalesced and dissolved into the nation’s largest national forest. Once again, John Muir had it right. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

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