Alaska Journal 1998

Intro

The following is from the journal of Mark Hardgrave and is the story of him and Kevin Ferris's trip to Alaska on August of 1998. The journal covers our trip to Denali National Park as well as our lucky trip to the world famous McNeil River. I am not much of a writer, so please forgive the grammar and spellings if you find any mistakes. Please enjoy the story and I hope if you are reading this and plan a trip to Alaska it will help you make some plans. As time permits, I will add links as well as pictures to this journal. Enjoy....Mark Hardgrave


Saturday Aug 8 1998 -- Becky and Natalia (my wife and daughter) took me to the airport this morning to see me off to Alaska. Natalia was wired and in a good mood because her and Becky were going shopping after my plane left. I had two large duffel bags with my camping gear and clothes in them, my backpack with camera gear and another small bag with my film in it. The airlines only allow three bags and I had four, so I had to pay a $50 fuel fee for the extra baggage. I'll know next time!

 I had a long day ahead of me, I would leave Little Rock, fly into DFW then onto Seattle and onto Anchorage. This would put me into Anchorage at 9:30 PM. Kevin's flight would arrive at around 6:30 PM and would allow him to get checked into the hotel and get some provisions for our trip to Denali. The trip so far on the airplane was good. I had made all my flight stops and was on my way to Anchorage, which would be about a 3-½ hour flight from Seattle. I flew in with a kid from Alaska and he was quite informative about the area where I was going.

The flight arrived at Anchorage airport at 9:30 PM and boy was I tired! Wandering down to the luggage pick up I was amazed to se so many people flying into Alaska. There were hunters, bikers, hikers, campers, fishermen, and a few other tourists and strange folks there hanging around to pick up their luggage. After about a 30 minute wait.....there was my luggage at last. It was all there and looked like it survived the flight without any damage. I had attached some neon colored tags on my bags so that I would be able to spot them. I am glad I did because they all looked alike.

Kevin was to meet me here at the airport, but he was late. He was most likely out shopping or sitting out on the steps smoking his cigar. I gave the hotel a call and he was there, but not in the room. No sooner than I hung up the phone, there was Kevin walking into the airport. Our hotel was only five minutes from the airport, so we didn't waste much time getting back. I looked through my bags to get ready for tomorrow's trip to Denali National Park. After sorting and packing and re-arranging my bags I was ready to hit the sack. It was midnight and there was still some light outside (this was strange). I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow and my sleep would end quickly with the 5 AM sound of the alarm clock.

Sunday Aug 9, 1998 -- The alarm went off too soon for my liking. I was awake in a hurry because I was excited about the trip to Denali and hit the shower to get ready to go. I wanted to enjoy my shower, because it would be my last for about four days. We left Anchorage at 7:30 AM and headed up Highway One to Denali National Park. Kevin had felt that we would not need our rain pants at Denali, so we both left them in the bags that we checked at the hotel. Guess what? It started raining on us as we drove towards Denali. I was thinking to myself " we will need those rainpants! D'oh! " but maybe it would stop raining soon. The more we drove the harder it rained. Would we spend four lovely days in Denali in the rain? Only time would tell, but I figured it would be a wet camping trip.

As we drove toward our destination the rain kept pouring down. I suggested to Kevin that we should try to find a place where we can buy some rain pants because I think we will need them. At the Denali Park entrance there were several stores with outrages prices, but it's not like you can do anything about it. We forgot our rain pants....D'oh!!!! We will pay the price. We looked around and found a little store that sold camping supplies and went in for a look. What luck! We found some Columbia rain pants for under $20 that were nice and looked like they would do the job. We gave our money to the owner who was talking and talking and talking to everyone he could. I think he was either lonely or just loved to talk, but anyway we paid and got the hell out. We had to be back at the park entrance by 2:00 PM to catch the camper bus to Wonder Lake and did not want to miss that.

We took a hard look at all our gear and wondered if they would allow us to bring all of our camping stuff. Not only did we have this huge amount of camping gear and food, we had large backpacks jam packed with our camera equipment. We took a few things out and lightened the load and we were still not sure it would all fit. Gathering at the bus stop we noticed that we did not have near the gear as some of the backcountry campers had. (Most of the backcountry campers stay for a week or so in the backcountry) The bus picked us up and we gave the driver our tickets and loaded our gear. Each camper must have a ticket as well as all of your gear must be loaded and packed in the back of the bus. Each camper must sit in a seat on the bus because no standing is allowed. Since we had bought our rain pants it stopped raining. I hope this would be a good sign for the rest of the trip.

The bus was rolling and we were headed to Wonder Lake, woooohooo! The bus would stop about every hour and half for a rest stop. The driver would stop along the way for wildlife or for any other picture taking opportunities that came along. There is only about 8 or 10 miles of paved road before it turns into a dirt road. The road has lots of curves and it is fairly rough, but not to bad for a dirt road. The views through Denali park are incredible. We saw bears, moose, and caribou along the way on the bus to Wonder lake. The Wonder Lake campground was 86 miles from the visitor center...so we had a long ride ahead of us. Six hours later we arrived at Wonder Lake Campground. It was 8:30 PM, I was tired and we still had to set up camp and fix some dinner. Guess what? It is now starting to sprinkle rain. Kevin and I hurry to find a camp spot. We found a spot but it was for wheelchair access only. We looked at each other and said "what in the hell". It was odd and the busses were setup for carrying mobile challenged people. At the time it seamed strange to have two-wheelchair access camp sites 85 miles out into the wilderness and about a 1/4 mile uphill from where the bus drops off the campers. Oh well! They are all first come first serve even though you have to have reservations to camp there. We finally find a spot and start setting up camp. I had set the Eureka tent up once, to test it, but we have some problems getting it set up. My head is killing me and I am in real pain. I am thinking the altitude is causing this (along with the stress) but I hurry along to get the tent set up. Damn it! I guess we will have to read the instructions! The tent finally gets up and we get our gear loaded into the tent. Now it starts raining a little harder just as we get the tent up.

 Time for a hot meal and something for my head. After three advil and a drink of water, my headache goes away. Kevin and I get the food out and cook up a batch of jambalaya and chicken. A warm meal hits the spot and I am feeling much better now. Kevin breaks out the brandy and we have a sip to celebrate. The mosquitoes were really bad already and the temp was in the 50's and it was getting colder. It was raining harder now and it didn't look like it was going to stop anytime soon. Kevin and I went for a little walk in the rain to scout out some possible places to shoot if Mt. McKinley was visible in the morning. Did I mention the mosquitoes were bad? They are REAL bad! I think I ate one every time I talked or opened my mouth. If you have heard about how bad the bugs are in Alaska, they are telling the truth. Hit the sack early and were in bed by 11 PM. It was still light out, which I thought was really strange. Kevin was asleep as soon as his head hit his pillow. I tossed and turned for an hour before I finally went off to sleep. The temp dropped down in the low 40's during the night and I slept cold throughout the night. I slept with my clothes on to stay warm. My sleeping bag was not quite made for this kind of cold, it was like a summer bag. You really need a good 3-season sleeping bag to camp in Denali. The rain continued throughout the rest of the night.

 Monday Aug. 10, 1998 -- Set my alarm to get up at 5:00 AM to catch a sunrise (wishful thinking) in Denali. Got up at 5:00 AM and got around to get out of the tent and guess what? It was raining again. I am thinking that I might as well get used to it. Thank goodness I brought my North Face Gore-Tex jacket. We are going to get good use of our new rain pants today! We headed out to the road by the camp to take a walk down to Wonder Lake and check out some possible photo sites. Since it was raining, we made the best of the time before we caught the bus to Elison Visitors Center. We chose to go hang out at the Elison Visitors Center because it was the only place that had a roof and we could just kinda hang out and wait for the weather to clear.

 After the walk to Wonder Lake, it was time for some breakfast. A good old pop tart and bagel to start the day off along with some hot chocolate to warm me up. Kevin made the mistake of filling the stove on the picnic table and spilling some fuel on the table and the stove. We thought it was all evaporated and Kevin started up the stove in hopes of warming some water for hot chocolate and some hot cereal. The stove started just fine, but a few minutes into the boiling of the water the stove and table caught on fire. We looked silly trying to put it out. There was a couple from Canada who saved us from a fiery disaster. After the fire was put out, it was on with the cooking. The stove suffered some melted components, but was still working. After we got some hot chocolate in our system we were ready to catch the bus to Elison Visitors Center.

 Loaded up our packs with lunch and snacks for the day and headed out to catch the bus to Elison Visitors center. There were only a few campers that got on the bus. The bus took a scenic route that went by Wonder Lake and then went by the old gold mining town of Kantishna. It was one of the boomtowns that was made overnight by the gold rush of years past. There are still some miners here today at Kantishna. There are several lodges out here that you can spend $300 a night if you want, but it is expensive. The only advantage to staying there is the fact that, some of the lodges can take their busses anywhere in the park and their use of the Denali Park road is not restricted.

We arrived at the Elison Visitors Center after about an hour and a half and it was still raining. Waiting around the visitor's center we noticed the rain started to let up and the clouds started to lift around noon. We photographed from the canopy at the visitors center, photographing what we could of the clouds and the mountains around the center. While waiting for the rain to let up, we found some friendly arctic ground squirrels to photograph. They were real friendly and would come right up to you and beg for food. Giving food to the animals is strictly prohibited and carries a big fine and ejection from the park if caught. I got out my flash and put on my Nikkor 105-macro lens and started to chase the ground squirrels to see how close I could get to them. I got as close as I wanted and they did not seem to mind. One sign at the visitors center read "Ground squirrels please don't take food from humans. The food will make you fat and slow and you will end up as bear food!". I found this humorous as if the ground squirrels could read. However, it was for the stupid humans at the park.

As the busses would pull into the visitor's center (about every 20 -- 30 minutes) the squirrels would come out of their holes and run over to the picnic area to see if they could steal a morsel of food from some tourist. At one point I was photographing one and it was actually on a ladies shoe trying to get something out of her purse. Often you would see the little sneaks getting into a hiker's backpack and attempting to steal a granola bar or something to snack on.  

The rain stopped and we headed east of the Elison Visitor's Center to photograph some mountains, tundra, and some flowers. The light was not all that great, but we photographed anyway. I didn't fly 2000 miles to not get any photographs of Denali. After several hours the rain started in again. It is essential to have good rain gear as well as a rain cover for your pack while hiking in Denali. Kevin and I headed back to Elison Visitor's Center to catch a bus back to Wonder Lake campground. While at the visitor's center, we opened up our camera packs and let our gear (as well as ourselves) dry out. The visitor's center sells books and things like that, but no food or drinks. Once you enter the park, if you left something behind you are out of luck. The center also has HOT running water, which is nice to give yourself a little cleaning if you need one. Caught the camper bus to Wonder Lake and we arrived there in about 1 1/2 hours.

Back at camp it was still raining and we were ready for a hot meal and a little brandy to warm us up. We got out the cooking equipment and our stove that looked like it survived the TMI melt down. After a little repair to the stove with our two leathermen tools, it was ready for action. Kevin cooked up some delicious spaghetti and we sipped on a little brandy to end the day. It was time for bed and we were very tired from the day's trip.

It rained all night Monday night and it seamed a little colder tonight than last night. I was tired and was asleep in no time. I don't know if I slept cold last night because I was too tired to notice. I had hoped we would be blessed with a nice morning tomorrow, one can only hope.

Tuesday Aug 11, 1998 -- Woke at the usual 5:00 AM alarm clock to the sound of rain on the tent. Nothing was wet in the tent, so that was a good sign. It was cold and raining and it was hard to get out of that warm sleeping bag and go out in the rain. Fired up the camp stove and started to cook some breakfast. Looking out into the cold rain I was wondering.....where the hell was McKinley? I am thinking that this trip to Alaska will not yield the much-wanted photos of Mt. McKinley from the reflection ponds near Wonder Lake. Since it was raining again, there was not much choice but to go back to Elison and wait out the weather.

After breakfast we packed lunch and our gear and headed to catch the bus to Elison and wait for a break in the weather. My new boots were causing me some pain around the ankle area, which is most likely due to them being new. I will tolerate the pain because my feet are warm and I'm not going to complain too much. Yesterday I managed to burn 3 rolls of film and a few shots on the medium format camera. If the weather is good I will burn lots more today. Again I am reminded of how essential good rain gear is in Alaska. They get most of the years rain during the summer months and I am hating that. The weather is also cold even though it is summer (lots of tourist get caught with their pants down out here). I should have dressed a little warmer for the trip, but I am not so cold that I can't handle it. Did I mention the mosquitos are bad here?

Rain stopped about 9:30 AM today long enough to go do some photographs. Kevin and I hiked to the west of Elison today to get a different view of the mountains. Spent most of the day doing macro work as well as some landscapes. The light was heavy overcast and not the best for landscapes, but great for the macro work we were doing. The weather is so strange in Denali, one minute it's raining and you are cold and an hour later it may stop raining and the sun will be out. Then the temperature heats up and you start shedding your layers of clothes. An hour later it will cloud up and you will be putting layers back on.

After photographing landscapes and macro stuff for several hours, the weather changed and we headed back to Elison Visitors Center. We spent about two hours photographing the little arctic ground squirrels while waiting for the weather to clear. As we were photographing the critters, Kevin spotted a suburban and a van and recognized the license plates. We said "that's Lenorad Lee Rue"! Sure enough it was. He had his girlfriend, his son and another person with him as they entered the visitor's center and we said "Hi". Later, I talked to Lenoard Lee Rue and I mentioned to him that I was glad to see that the pro's get bad weather too. He laughed and started talking about how hard it was to get a permit for Denali. We mentioned we were heading to McNeil to photograph the bears. He said" It had been years since he had been there" and keeps trying year after year to get to go back. He thinks it's rigged and they won't let him back. I don't know about that, but I got lucky the first time I put in for it. We continued to talk about some other issues facing professional photographers in Yellowstone. He gave us a catalog and wished us the best of luck.

We hung around the visitors center another hour or two because it was raining. We caught a camper bus and headed back to Wonder Lake campground. About halfway to Wonder Lake, Kevin noted a clearing in the clouds. He said he thought he could see the peak of Mt. McKinley. Sure enough there it was it almost looked like a cloud, but if you looked close you could tell it was the "mountain". I told Kevin that the way the clouds were we would see it for a brief moment and, it would be gone. I'll be damn! There it was in all it's beauty! For about five minutes the sky opened up just for us to take a view. Only a handful of people in the park could see the site. Ourselves and those at Wonder Lake and the area around there could see it. I got a few photos when the bus driver stopped. I got about 7 frames before she started the buss rolling again. I wish I could get out, I know I could burn two rolls in a matter of a few minutes. This would be all of Denali I would get on the whole trip. The "mountain" never showed its face again while we were there. What a sight! This inspired me to make another trip to Denali in the future to try to photograph the mountain.

When McKinley went behind the clouds it started raining again. When we arrived at Wonder Lake the rain increased in intensity and it was back to the same old Denali I was used too. Back at camp we started the stove and started to fix dinner. The sun came out for a few minutes and we were blessed with a double rainbow over the camp. I was able to get the whole rainbow in the frame with my 20mm lens. It was quite a site and I shot several frames before it went away. After dinner we started packing things up so we could catch the 7:00 AM bus in the morning. We headed to bed early so we could get up early at 5:00 AM to tear down camp. It had started raining again and it was getting colder. Did I mention mosquitoes? They are really bad. It rained through the night and it was another cold night.

Wednesday Aug 12, 1998 - Woke up and it was raining as usual, no surprise to me! Tore down the camp and had to tear down the tent in the rain. The tent was wet and we would need to dry it out when we returned to Anchorage. Cooked a little breakfast and loaded everything and put it on the camper bus. At 7:00 AM the bus was ready to take us back to the park entrance. It would be a 5 hour trip and I was ready to get back and take a shower. I am sure we smelled bad, but every one else did too. As we drove back to the park entrance we would pick up hikers and campers wanting a ride back. I overheard someone ask a group how long they had been in the backcountry. He said 4 weeks! He mentioned it had rained on him 3 of the 4 weeks. Sounds like par for the course.

We started with 4 on the bus and every hour we were adding new people along the way. By the time we made it to Tecklinika the bus was full to capacity. At technalika we spotted a bear eating berries. I could not get a photo of him because he was liking those berries. We saw a grizzly with cubs on the side of sable mountain. They call them tolkat grizzly's, because they are blond in color and they don't eat much meat. Therefore they are much smaller than the bears we will see at McNeil. Another fact is they usually have three cubs and they stay with mom for about three years. We also saw two big moose in velvet near the park exit. They were too far away, but I was able to get some nice scenic shots with my 300 2.8 and a beanbag.

We were back at the park entrance visitor's center at 2:00 PM and we decided to skip the shower and wait till we got back to the hotel in Anchorage. After loading all out gear back into the rental car, we were ready for an ice cold drink and a snack at the local food mart. After a refreshing snack it was off to Anchorage. The sun was out and there was no more rain for the rest of the day. On the way back we stopped off at the famous Gorilla Fireworks Stand near Wasalla, Alaska. We each got our picture with the Bat Mobile. It was one of those tourist things we just had to do. There was also an idiot in a gorilla suit dancing to music and waving at everyone. I figured Kevin being from New York had seen everything. But he even got a big kick out of the idiot dancing in the gorilla suit. We laughed and laughed about the gorilla and wondered what kind of person was in the suit. Did the boss convince this guy that it was the best job in the world? I would love to know the story.

On the way back we stopped at Wasalla and ate at Subway and did a little shopping at the local Wal-Mart. We needed some cold weather stuff for McNeil. McNeil would be much colder than Denali. After a little shopping spree it was homeward bound to Anchorage. We arrived at Anchorage at 6:30 PM. The first thing on the agenda was a shower and shit. Wow were we stinking. I washed my hair twice to try to get all the grease out of it. Ah, clean at last! The sun was out and we had a nice breeze blowing outside, so I took the tent out and let it dry out on the balcony of the hotel. While I was out there I meet a native Alaskan by the name of Dave. Dave had got thrown off the barge he was working on because he had a bad attitude. He went on to say they said take three weeks off or get fired. So Dave was taking three weeks off. He was already drinking and I think that's probably why they threw him off. It took me forever to get away from him because he wanted to talk. Kevin came over and rescued me from him and I was glad to go. After an hour or so the tent was dried and ready to be packed up.

I phoned home to talk to Becky and Talia and really enjoyed hearing from them. I was missing my family and could not wait to see them in about 6 days. Later for dinner we ate at a place down the street called Gwennies. They had some awesome barbecue and it was great. A nice hot meal was just the ticket I needed. We headed back to the hotel to do some last minute packing and cleaning of our camera equipment for our trip to McNeil.

Thursday Aug. 13, 1998 -- Woke up to some great weather (no rain) for a change. Ate breakfast at the restaurant at the hotel. After checking some of our stuff at the hotel desk, we were off to Homer after buying some supplies for the trip to McNeil. Headed out of Anchorage along the Keni peninsula along Highway One. What a beautiful place! I wish I had a few days to photograph around this area. It would be about a 4 hour drive to Homer and the weather was great. The scenery was breath-taking along Alaska Highway One.

Made it into Homer around noon and stopped by the local "shopping mall" to pick up some fishing stuff for Kevin. Kevin was determined to do a little fishing while we were there. Stopped by a local book store to ask where was a good place to eat. After hearing a few names, one kind of sounded good, the Neon Coyote. We drove around the block and found the place and headed in for a hot meal. I was looking forward to another hot meal. Kevin and I both had the chicken sandwich and a beverage. It was a cool place and if you are in Homer, stop by the Neon Coyote the food is great. The chicken sandwich was great and the service was just as good. Kevin and I talked about our trip so far and the one in which we were about to embark on. We were about 3 hours early and we had some time to kick back and relax for a while. After about an hour of lounging at the Neon Coyote, we went looking for Kachemak Air Service owned and operated by Bill and Barbara de Creeft. They have been doing this for over 25 years and they are a top-notch service.

After missing the road, we turned around and headed back to look for it. We were told "first road past the bridge", Kevin was not used to people referring to a dirt road as a "road". Kevin, being from New York City was not used to the idea of a dirt road as being a "road". Any way, we found the place and went inside to take care of the business of getting to McNeil. Kachemak Air is a family run business and they are really nice people. They had a photo album they showed us of McNeil and the camp area there. I had already seen pics of the place from the Book "River of Bears", but any photos from McNeil were neat to look at. I was reminded by looking at the photos of just how close we would be to the bears. After weighing in our equipment and taking care of the bill, we were ready to go back to town and look around till it was time to go.

We talked to the car rental at the Homer airport and decided to turn in our car to avoid all those charges of rental while we were at McNeil. It saved us only about $100, because they were going to stick us for a one way rental to Anchorage. They get their money no mater what. Oh well, win some, loose some and we had lost. D'oh! Called for a taxi ride back to Kachemak Air to catch or ride to McNeil. Back at Kachemak Air we meet the rest of the campers going to McNeil, Ron Wayne from Fairbanks, Jennifer Back from Fairbanks, and Mel and Sheila Leskinen from Anchorage Alaska. Every one was as excited as we were about going to McNeil and we all waited for the OK to climb aboard the "otter". We were to fly to McNeil on the "otter", a plane made in Canada around 1943 is said to be the "limousine" of float planes. Bright red, shinny and clean best describe the "otter". The "otter" will hall six campers along with all their gear. Ken, the pilot of the "otter" was a nice guy, but did not say a lot. He had a stern voice and when he spoke, it was with authority. You would not question him, because I know he could kick all our asses if he wanted to. Under all that seriousness, you would see him crack a smile every once in a while. Ken read us the required safety information to all passengers as required by the FAA and we were on out way to McNeil.

We left Homer around 5:00 PM and headed out to or destination, the world famous McNeil River. The plane ride was about an hour and a half to McNeil and the weather was good. After a comfortable flight across to the McNeil river, we spotted land ahead. It was the McNeil River Camp where we were headed. Ken made a turn and circled around the McNeil Falls where we saw several bears fishing. My heart was pounding, and to think we would be at the falls tomorrow. We landed in front of the camp at high tide. We all had our hip waders on and we would need them just to get off the plane. The rangers at McNeil meet us on the beach. We all made a line and handed our gear off the plane to waiting campers on the beach. We in turn loaded their gear for the trip back to Homer. Polly took us all up to the front of the cooking shack and gave us all a little information and rules for us to obey while at McNeil. After that we had permission to set up camp.

The wind started to pick up as we set up camp. It was difficult to put up the tent by myself and had to have Kevin help out. We placed some big rocks on the corners of the tent to secure it down incase we had a big wind during the night. Kevin brought some extra tent stakes along to secure down the tent. I was glad of that, because it was needed the way the wind was blowing. After camp was set up we headed to the cook cabin to meet the other campers as well as to do some cooking. The cook cabin was the only place we could store our food, cook and eat while at McNeil. This would keep the bears from becoming interested in us as well as to help keep them out of our tents. Following the safety rules insured all campers would have a safe time while at McNeil. The last thing you want is having your tent, and even worse, you being tore up by a bear looking for some food. After dinner, I went down to the spit to brush my teeth. While I was there the bears were walking by. WOW! What a rush! It was so strange being so damn close to the bears. After brushing my teeth it was time for bed, 5:00 AM comes early.

Friday August 14, 1998 -- An attempt to lighten the load in my pack was made this morning. I did not exactly know what I needed, but I had to make a decision to leave some items back because it was a two-mile hike to the falls. I took my spare F4s body, my 50mm lens, the SB-24, and a few other items out to lighten the load. Tomorrow would tell whether I had made a mistake or if I would need to lighten it some more. Kevin and I made a water run to get some water for the cook cabin. We talked loud so if any bears were around they would hear us. They had warned us that the bears also drink out of the same creek and it was not unusual to see one at the water hole. As we would approach a blind spot in the trail we would say "hello bear" so we would not surprise them. We reached the water hole and no bears were around. I was glad, because I have not had enough bear training to know what to do if I see one. We each carried back 10 gallons of water and they were getting heavier by the minute. It was about a ¼ of a mile from camp and it was a heavy load. I was glad to make it back to camp and I had worked up a little sweat hauling back the water. We waited around the camp shack for Polly to come by and get us for the hike to the falls. We had to wait for low tide to hike across the tide flats to make it over to the falls.

It was time to go. The moment we had all been waiting for, to make that trip across the tide flats to the McNeil River. We headed out to the falls and Polly had instructed us to walk together as a group and not to stray from the group. As we walked across the tide flats we would see huge bear tracks in the mud. As we looked at the tracks, we were reminded in the back of our minds that these tracks are fresh. Most of the tracks were not more than a few hours old. After about an hour of walking we pulled up our hip waders and walked across the last section of water to get to dry land. The mud was slick and some had difficulties walking in the water and mud. If you slip, too bad you are going down and not much to grab onto to break your fall. We made it to the other side of the Mikfik creek and we were headed towards dry land. We climbed up the bluff and we were nearing our destination. As we walked through the tall grass and brush, Polly would yell out "hey bear" frequently so the bears would not be surprised by our presence. The last thing you wanted was a surprised bear running at you. We reached our viewing area down stream of the McNeil falls, which was a small island about 30 yards from the bank of the river. Some one was in our spot (a bear) so we had to wait till the bear was finished with what ever it was doing. We waited about 5 minutes and the bear went on down stream to do some more fishing. As we approached the viewing pad we spotted 4 bears already in front of us fishing. WOW! What a trip! We slowly set up our equipment and began to photograph the bears. Polly instructed us to not make any sudden moves and to move about very slowly around the pad. She also told us that the more we moved around and the more spread out we were, it would make the bears nervous and they may go away. Polly was strict with us and watched us carefully to make sure we did what we were supposed to. Of course she was looking out for all of our safety as well as the bears. Polly was very knowledgeable about the bears and had been doing this for several years.

The bears are right in front of us just a few yards from us. A cub wanders near us followed by a worried mom looking for her cub. She was frothing at the mouth, which Polly said was a sign of stress. We backed up and gave her some room. She found her cub and everything was cool. We moved up to the pad and did some serious bear photography. I shot about 3 rolls there at the island and we decided to move up to the upper pad at the falls.

It was a tough hike to the upper falls, which took us about an hour. What made it tough was all the camera and miscellaneous equipment we had to haul with us. I will lighten the load for tomorrow's trip. After the long hike we were at the falls and it was just as I had expected, lots of bears. The view was spectacular! All those bears right in front of my eyes just like in the book. Three big males were at the falls fishing and several females down stream of the males. The males and females keep their distance from each other because of the cubs. It is really cool being this close and watching the bears fish. I wish I had been able to bring my camcorder, but I already had too much equipment to carry.

We split the group, half stayed at the upper pad and the rest of the group went down to the lower viewing pad. Ufter about 4 hours we would trade places so every one got a chance to be at both pads. At the lower pad the bears get really close so you have to be prepared for a close encounter. The 300 mm lens was great, but with the 1.4 converter was better. I used the 300 and the 1.4 converter a lot at the falls. If you just had a 300 mm lens, you could still get some great images. At times a 300 was too much, and you needed a shorter focal length. Bears would catch their fish and bring them right out onto the bank and eat them right in front of us. It was too cool. After about 8 hours of viewing and photographing the bears we headed back to camp. I was not looking forward to the long hike back, but it was part of the McNeil experience.

After a long walk back to camp I was ready for some food and drink to recharge myself from a day at the falls. We made some fresh water with a water filter and made some dinner. Mel put some wood in the sauna and was able to get it warming up. It took about two hours for it to heat up for use. It was really the only luxury at McNeil. After a cold day at the falls, you could warm up and relax in the sauna. You could actually clean up and feel almost human. The sauna was great and it relaxed me and I felt better. At first I was not going to use it, but decided to right before bedtime. It was a little piece of heaven!

Saturday August 15, 1998 - Woke up at 6:30 AM after a great night's sleep. I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. I got up and headed to the cook house to fire up the stove and make me some hot chocolate to warm myself up. It got cold last night, but nothing like at Wonder Lake in Denali. Took some more stuff out of the camera bag to lighten the load. Took a group photo of everyone before we took off to the falls today. At 10:30 AM we made our hike to the falls. It took about an hour to make it to the island viewing area down stream of the falls. We hung out there for several hours and photographed several bears before deciding to head up to the falls where there would be more bear activity.

After another long hike, we were back at the fall's upper viewing pad. There were several bears fishing and we quickly setup our cameras and started photographing the bears. Down at the lower platform a bear came right near us and laid down and took a nap. He was close and we snapped off several rolls while he was there. Got some really nice close-up shots of the bear taking a nap. Today was a real productive day and got lots of close shots of the bears up close eating fish. The weather was great and it was a wonderful day for all. After another 8 hours of photographing the bears, it was time for the dreaded long hike back to camp. When we reached the water, Larry came and picked us up with the boat. It was great to miss that hour hike back to camp.

Back at camp Kevin and I made water for drinking and cooking. We spent about two hours a day making water. Next time I'll bring my water! Cooked a little dinner and socialized with the rest of the campers at the cook shack. Mel fired up the sauna again and everyone was ready for their turn in the sauna. I was too tired and did not get in the sauna today. I spent the last minutes updating my journal. I found a candle and lit it to see by as I wrote in the journal. Every one turned in early and I was still on Arkansas time. It was just getting dark and I was not ready for bed. Although it was 11:00 PM and there was still some light. Most of the nights I sat alone in the cook cabin updating my journal.

Sunday August 16, 1998 - Woke at the usual 6:30 AM to the sound of the alarm clock. It was cold again last night and I slept cold throughout the night. My summer weight sleeping bag was not doing a good job of keeping me warm. Went to the cook shack where everyone was gathering for their morning coffee and breakfast. I made some hot chocolate and munched on a bagel and some sugar pops for breakfast. Next we started making water for the day to take to the falls. This making water two hours a day was getting old in a hurry. I lightened my pack once again to make the trip to the falls a little bit easier.

Larry led us out across the mud flats and we pulled up our hip waders early because the water was higher than it had been before. We tried to cross the water and it was too high. We were just a few feet from the other side, but we had to turn back and take another trail to the pad. We traveled near the bluff and crossed the Mikfik River. It took us an extra hour to make our regular one-hour trip. It was a tough trip and after two hours of walking we were there. My pack was still heavy and my back was hurting, I was glad we finally made it to the pad.

When we arrived at the pad, Mouse and Annette were there fishing. Mouse was young sow and Annette is her cub. They really put on a show for us. They were right in front of us and the motor drives were smoking. I went through 8 rolls of film in a little over two minutes. The action was intense, and they were really close to us. I was getting full frame bear shots with just the 300. My finger was hurting and felt like it was ready to fall off when I got done with that little escapade. The day just keep getting better. The sun was out, the bears were really active and I had lots of film to burn. It looked like today was going to be a very productive day. A young cub walked right onto the pad where we were and got about 10 feet from us. Larry shooed him away with his hat and some loud noise. More bears came by fishing and it was a very productive morning.

Late in the after noon we headed to the falls to see if we could catch some bears fishing. "RC" one of the BIG male bears, was catching fish like crazy. He would bring them right up too us and eat them. Later some young bears wandered by the viewing pad within 5 feet or so. That was really cool. It is hard to believe how close the bears get to you at McNeil.

After another long day photographing bears we headed back to camp. The bugs were bad today, I guess the nice weather really brought them out. We had to cross the water again and the mud was very hard to walk through. Jeniffer got stuck and lost her balance and fell in. She had her camera out and it took a dive into the water. Rule #1, leave your camera in the pack, unless you have lots of replacements with you! Both her feet stuck and when she fell it sprained both her ankles. It took three of us to pull her out. There was no way she could get out by herself. She only had one camera and it was ruined. Rule #2, always have a back up. It took us a while to get Jeniffer back to camp, she was walking slow and was hurting.

Back at camp Kevin and I made some more drinking water and started dinner. Mel fired up the sauna (I think he and Sheila were hooked on the sauna) again for a nice warm relaxing experience. I used the sauna tonight and it felt great. It was a real lifesaver and a real nice home away from home comfort. The cooking shack was also nice, it was like the camp hang out area. After everyone went to bed, I spent some time alone by candlelight updating my journal. I had done a good job of writing daily in the journal and I hope it will be a neat thing to have. The wind was really blowing hard now. It looks like it may be a rough night tonight. We put some BIG rocks on the corners of the tent in hopes it would keep it from blowing away. During the night wind gusts of 38 mph were recorded by the weather station in the rangers cabin. Jeniffer's tent was blown down about 3:30 last night and had to sleep in Ron's tent. Several weeks back 100 mph winds knocked down and destroyed everyone's tent in camp according to one of the rangers.

Monday August 17, 1998 - The tent is still up! I am shocked, because of the way the wind was blowing last night. The temp is in the low 30's and the wind is about 20 mph it is cold! I have all the clothes I brought on and I am still a little cold. I am not sure what kind of photos we can get today with the wind blowing so badly. The wind will really cause camera shake, even on a tripod on a day like today. We will be praying for good light so we can use some fast shutter speeds today.

Polly came by the camp and asked us what time we wanted to go out. Since it was cold she was concerned about us getting cold because there was nothing to block the wind. The wind would blow right down the falls of the McNeil River and it would be cold. We decided to leave for the falls at noon. In the meantime, we fired up the wood stove to warm up the cook shack. We left at noon and Derek took us to the falls with the boat. Since it was high tide, we could take the boat over there.

We arrived at the island viewing pad and set up our cameras. The wind was blowing hard and it was starting to spit rain. I covered my camera with my nifty rain cover and waited for some bear action. The rain slacked off and I shot about three rolls before we decided to go to the falls for some more action. At the falls we saw Teddy and her cub Tuffy fishing at the falls. This was our first time to see Teddy. Teddy was one of the most photographed bears at McNeil. She had a high tolerance to humans and would often nurse her cubs just feet from the upper viewing pad. Indeed, today she did just that. Just like the photographs in the book "River of Bears", she was right there at the pad just a few feet from us. After fishing a while, she came within 10 feet from us and laid down and took a nap. My motor drive was smoking! She was damn close! I could not believe how close she was. In all this excitement, my heart was not pounding like I thought it would. Maybe I was used to all the excitement of the bears being so close. She then moved even closer to us and was about 2 feet from Polly. Polly warned us not to make any sudden moves, because it might scare her. She was so close I could not even take a picture of her. I could not make it to my bag to get my other lens so I just had to look at her. As a matter of fact, that is what we all did. When I finally got backed up far enough to photograph her, she was still so close that all I could get was part of her head. After about an hour and a half of photographing Teddy and Tuffy, it was time to pack up and head out. As I packed up I was thinking of how Teddy was laying right next to my camera bag as she nursed Tuffy. What a day! This was the highlight of the whole trip. It is an experience I will never forget. My friends won't believe me even though I have the pictures to prove it. I am still buzzing about the experience while I write in my journal.

Today's walk back to the camp was short. Since we all wanted to get back to camp, I guess we walked faster than usual. The other campers could not fly in today due to the weather here and back in Homer. The winds were bad all day long and did not look like the weather was letting up. Back at camp it was time to make dinner and pack up what items we could to make it easier in the morning. The sky was clear and it was getting colder. It was going to be a cold night tonight. I skipped the sauna tonight, because I did not feel like getting out in the cold after the sauna. I slept cold last night and did not have enough clothes to keep me warm.

The wind was kicking up now and I was afraid we were going to have another bad night like last night. I was worried that the weather would cause another delay for the plane coming to pick us up. If the plane cannot get here, we will have to stay an extra day. The "otter" was a big plane and could handle more wind than the normal seaplane. Sometime during the night I heard something walk by. Kevin heard it too. I think it was a bear. They don't make much noise when they walk, so it is only speculation, but it is a good possibility.

Tuesday August 18, 1998 - Awake at the usual 6:30 AM time this morning. I quickly got dressed and went out to check the weather. It was cold and there was not much wind. WoooHooo! Maybe the plane could make it in to pick us up. At this point I was beginning to feel like Giligan's Island. I looked across the tide flats to see the mountains glowing red. What a sight! I wanted to get my camera out and photograph it, but nature was calling and I headed to the outhouse. I quickly took care of business, but I was too late to catch the sunrise. After all the sun had been up for about an hour and a half, so no telling what I really missed. I truly missed a "Kodak Moment" in Alaska. Oh well, there will be other visits to Alaska I hope.

I made some hot chocolate to warm me up and ate the last bagel. The bagel was so hard I could have used it to hammer tent stakes in the ground. The others had gathered at the cook shack and we were all ready to start packing. About 9:00 AM Larry came by the camp and let us know the "otter" would be here around 1:00 PM to pick us up. We were all relived that our ride home would be here. At that point we were ready to "officially" tear down the tents and pack up. We thought we may have to stay another day if the weather was bad. It was frustrating packing every thing back in the bags as you are wondering how in the hell did I get it in here in the first place.

After we all packed up we gathered around the cookhouse for some last minute socializing and to relax for a bit. We all exchanged addresses and email addresses so that maybe we could stay in touch with everyone. We also were sharing stories about our trip, problems and cool moments. It was kind of like the week in review. A short story of 8 people in the middle of nowhere, who spent a week of their lives looking at bears. Jennifer had kept up with the names of all the bears we saw and it was a shame she couldn't see Teddy and Tuffy yesterday. Sheila stayed back with Jennifer at the camp to keep her company while she sat back with her swollen ankles. It was a nice jester on Sheila's part and I really think she did not want to risk getting hurt herself.

Larry came by and asked us to start taking our gear down to the spit and wait for the plane. The wind was picking up and the whole group had a worried look in their eyes. The group was getting restless and the last thing I needed was to have to unpack and set my tent back up. I was getting a little nervous about the weather and it looked like the others were thinking the same thing. Not much conversation was going on and every one was a little stressed. The wind had really picked up in the last 10 minutes or so and I was lying back against all my gear to block the cold wind.

It was 1:15 PM and no sign of the "otter". We were all getting a little nervous and Larry mentioned that he tried to get Kachemak Air on the radio but no one answered. Would we be stranded for another day or two? I know that was on everyone's mind. Derek went back to the ranger's cabin and tried to call them again. When he returned he said they would be here in about 10 minutes. After a long 10-minute wait, the "otter" appeared in the blue sky. The expressions on everyone's face were that of a group who had been shipwrecked for years on an island.

The "otter" was a welcomed sight! The winds were picking up and as the plane turned into the wind to land, it was like it was sitting still. The plane landed and taxied to the spit to drop off the next group of campers and to pick us up. We all formed a line and unloaded the next group's gear and then we loaded up our gear. We all said our good-bye's to Larry, Polly and Dereck and off we went into the wild blue. The sky was clear and the wind was making a real bumpy ride. I was starting to get sick, when the plane flew into calm air and it was smooth sailing all the way back to Homer.

We arrived early due to a nice tailwind at about 3:00 PM. Mel and Sheila gave Kevin a ride to the Homer airport to pick up our rental car. We loaded it up and headed to the nearest place to get a shower. There was a laundry matte named the "Washboard" that had hot showers and a towel for $4.00. What a deal! I was stinking real bad and needed to clean up in the worst kind of way. Man did that shower feel great. I don't remember how long I was in there, but it seemed like a long time. After the shower I was ready for a hot meal. Kevin and I went back to the Neon Coyote for a chicken sandwich and a beer. I really needed that! Went over to the Wild Berry gift shop to grab some last minute gifts for Becky and Natalia. We headed back to Anchorage, which would take us about five hours. On the way back we saw a lynx following some fishermen from the creek. We almost hit it as it crossed onto the road. As soon as we checked back into the hotel at Anchorage, we started unpacking and re-packing to try to get everything back in the bags. It took me a couple of hours to re-pack. Kevin ran next door to the 7-11 store and got us some snacks to munch on while we repacked and talked about our trip. I was really tired and was ready for bed.

Wednesday August 19, 1998 - Got up at 4:00 AM so I would have plenty of time to catch the plane. Loaded up everything in the car and went to check out. Off to the airport! We arrived at the airport and unloaded all our gear. Kevin decided to check in early so he could get rid of the rental car and take care of that part of the trip. There were lots of people there already. I was wondering if I would get checked in time to make it to my plane. Kevin reassured me that I had plenty of time to catch the plane. I am one of these early people that think if I am not there 30 minutes early I think I am late.

Airport security hand checked my camera bag without any problems and I was thankful for that. I had 30 minutes to spare and sat back in a chair and relaxed. I took this time to write in my journal and catch up on what had happened yesterday. The plane was packed full and there were no seats available for extra passengers. Had a smooth trip home and spent the whole day writing tips, lessons learned and other information in my journal so I could upload all this new information to my web page. I want to do it like "Travels with Samantha" a story at photo.net I came across. Made it back to Little Rock at 8:00 PM and I was really tired. Waiting for me were Becky and Natalia, and I was really glad to see them. Walked out of the airport to a cool 105 degrees out side. I no longer needed my coat!

 

Mark Hardgrave