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Bear Viewing with Talon Air - by Judi & Rusty Clarke
Amazing Bear Viewing Opportunities with Talon Air of Soldotna, Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula
As brown bears are emerging from their winter dens, every spring finds my husband and me hitting the road toward some of the most beautiful and wild scenery in the world: Alaska. Rusty is a photographer and also a fishing and bear viewing guide out of Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula. He works with Talon Air, a charter company that flies fishing and hunting charters year-round. In the summer whether you want to fish, see bears, or do both, they offer one of the best half-day excursions out there. A trip with Talon Air begins by stepping up into a float plane and taking off from the lake. Clients are flown over Cook Inlet and marshy land that is frequented by grazing moose or strolling bears. About 35 miles later the pontoons touch down on the Big River Lakes System where fishing boats await. Rusty and other guides then put their clients “on the fish”.  And where the humans fish, so do the bears.
During salmon season, the cove where Wolverine Creek falls gently into the lake is one of the best places to fish. Salmon are on their long journey from the ocean with sights set upstream to the waters where they were born. Quiet waters at the base of challenging waterfalls are filled with salmon resting up before making their charge up the falls. This creates a regular buffet for the bears and is the place where Rusty has taken some of his most amazing bear photos. 
Known in coastal regions as brown bears, Alaska’s grizzlies are on the top of everyone’s list of hopeful sightings, and nothing beats the exhilaration of seeing them in the wild, but Alaska has some beautiful black bears, too. We’ve never seen black bears with shinier, healthier coats. Both brown and black bears frequent these waters and can be seen coming and going all summer. Mother bears bring their cubs to the cove and teach them how to fish. They spend their summer fishing right along with the locals and tourists. Cubs and mothers start the summer looking lean but soon they begin packing on the weight and by summer’s end look like different bears with full faces and bulging mid-sections.
When people see Rusty’s bear photos, they inevitably ask how close he is to them. While a good telephoto lens does wonders for keeping a safe distance from these beautiful but wild creatures, there are times when they’ve gotten pretty close. At Wolverine Creek the bears have been fishing for years with people nearby in boats. They’ve grown accustomed to people and because of very strict respect for the law against feeding them, these bears do not equate humans with the presence of food. The inter-species guidelines seem to be understood. People stay in the boats. Bears get the rest of the space and the right of way. Shore and water, it’s all their “turf”.  
Bears have a number of ways to fish. They may fish the water’s edge, or “snorkel”, or hang out above waterfalls catching tired salmon that have just fought their way up. Then there are some that have an especially interesting technique.  One such bear is known by the guides as Bailey. Bailey perches herself on a big rock where she scouts out the fish swimming below. When she’s ready she lunges after them in a full-out belly flop, hitting the water and sending salmon swimming for their lives. We call this method the original “Alaska Fly Fishing”. Before there were fly rods, there were “fly fishing” bears. We enjoyed the images of these fly fishing bears so much that we even made tee shirts out of them.
When a bear dives in after some lunch, the water turns to a boiling frenzy of salmon darting off in every direction to get away. Fish jump out of the water, change directions, and flip their tails with huge bursts of strength that enable them to escape the jaws of their predator. “One time I watched a bear dive in the water, scattering salmon everywhere,” relays Rusty. “When she came up, she didn’t have one in her mouth but she had one right on top of her head. I couldn’t believe it. This thing was flopping all over her head and she couldn’t figure out what was going on. She was turning her head, looking left and right, trying to get at this fish. It finally flopped its way back into the water. It was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen: a once in a lifetime moment lasting about five seconds. And what did I do? I stood there in my boat, camera in hand, with my mouth open in amazement. I never even raised the camera to shoot.  Talk about the one that got away!  For both of us!”
After hours of fly fishing, Bailey will often climb up on a rock and rest a spell. It was here that she crossed her paws and struck a perfect pose for a portrait we call “Bailey on the Rocks”. She sometimes falls asleep with her cubs nestled in the rocks below her. She always seems to keep her ears open for danger, though, always protective of her cubs even while at rest.
Not only is Bailey a fishing pro, she’s also an excellent teacher. She takes her cubs everywhere she goes and they watch closely as she teaches them how to fish. Her cubs stay mostly on the grassy or rocky banks watching, learning and waiting for her to bring them lunch. At the beginning of summer she may be seen nursing her young cubs in the tall grass of the steep shoreline. As summer progresses, her cubs grow bigger, more active and more vocal every week. One of Bailey’s three cubs was growling and squawking up a storm wanting more of the fresh catch his mom just brought ashore. He went on and on until finally Bailey had enough. All within a split second she turned and let out a huge growl right into his face, then clamped her jaws down on him, pinning him to the ground by his chest with careful, disciplinary firmness. She held him there for about five seconds to ensure he got the message. When she released him, he got to his feet and looked as if to say, ‘Yes, Ma’am’ in a tiny humbled voice. As he ventured back toward their lunch, he was the meekest, most well behaved child on earth.
With 20 years of travels in Alaska, Rusty has fished alongside bears on many rivers, watched them scratching their backs against trees, and seen them swimming in the Kenai River. One time, while hiking down from taking photos of Dall Sheep, he accidentally woke a bear sleeping under a nearby tree. Rusty is respectful of their wild instincts and immense power, never wanting to put a bear in a position where it feels threatened, for his own sake as well as the bear’s. Bears don’t generally like to be around humans and they don’t like to be surprised. Making a lot of noise while you’re out in the wild, giving them ample space to hear you coming is one of the best pieces of advice to help avoid a surprise encounter. Be bear-wise and read some bear safety materials from Fish and Game before you go to the water’s edge or on that hike. Alaska’s bears are beautiful, magnificent animals, deserving of both our informed respect and jaw dropping awe. Seeing them in the wild is forever an amazing thrill and privilege.
Rusty and Judi Clarke fell in love with Alaska twenty years ago when their first trip found them traveling the state on a shoestring budget in a borrowed truck. They now have 20 acres and a cabin on the Kenai Peninsula where Rusty is a fishing and bear viewing guide with Talon Air based in Soldotna. They sell their photography at festivals and on their website www.lifewildphotography.com.
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