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An Alaskan brown bear plunges into a swarm of salmon. For coastal brown bears, fish make up a significant portion of their diet, as they consume thousands of pounds each per year. PHOTO BY ROBERT HAWTHORNE

Bozeman photographer documents Alaskan bears


BIG SKY – It was too late for retreat when Robert Hawthorne, a Montana native raised in the landlocked Rocky Mountains, realized he had misjudged the tide. After spending 10 hours in the tidal mudflats off the west coast of Alaska photographing brown bears digging for razor clams, he rushed to make a futile attempt to return to his boat, which was anchored a half mile away.

Hauling a 60-pound backpack, he waged an unbalanced war against thrashing 3-foot waves. Eventually he threw in the towel, retiring to a small island in the bay. Without another person within 80 miles, an exhausted Hawthorne emptied his soggy waders, ensured his camera equipment was intact and pulled out a book to pass the time before another attempt toward his boat. Hawthorne soon discovered that he wasn’t the only inhabitant on the island: A mother brown bear and her cub passed by non-threateningly. Hawthorne grabbed a camera, aimed and clicked the shutter.

As a child raised in the mountains, Hawthorne often delighted in exploring the great depths of his backyard just south of Bozeman. Never with a destination in mind, he would meander through woods and connect ridges, hoping to witness one of nature’s magical productions. He took to chasing wildlife, pushing boundaries and discovering the ways he could be nearest to them without putting either party in danger. Hawthorne would return home with fantastic tales of animal sightings, often to the disbelief of his family and friends. He decided if he were to continue on his wild adventures, he would need a way to deliver proof.

In 2015, at 16 years old, he bought his first camera: a Nikon D-7200. Hawthorne sought informal but meticulous training to further develop his photography skills. YouTube videos gave him a kickstart and continue to provide him tips and tricks, but pure practice proved to be his greatest tutor.

A mother brown bear and her three cubs sit in front of a classic Alaskan landscape. Photographer Robert Hawthorne spent three months photographing brown bears, often within very close proximity to the animals.

The budding photographer took his camera with him everywhere, shooting a variety of scenes and subjects that would later be discarded. He learned early on that what he needed to master was capturing fleeting moments without fail. He knew his intended subjects wouldn’t wait for the perfect light or frame in the ideal composition; it would be up to him to navigate the forces working against his perfect shot.

Of all the animals that passed by Hawthorne’s lens, he took a particular liking to the famed brown bear, of which grizzlies like those found in Montana are a subspecies. Brown bears claim the classification of grizzly when they live more inland and their diet isn’t primarily fish.  

In May, Hawthorne nabbed a gig guiding photographers in the rugged wildlands of Alaska—a state that is home to 98 percent of all the brown bears in the U.S., according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The northernmost U.S. state boasts rivers rich with salmon, creating a feeding oasis for brown bears that each eat thousands of pounds of fish per year. “Alaska is truly special,” Hawthorne said. “Nowhere else on this planet can you experience the magnificent brown bear as you can there.”

From the base lodge on Lake Iliamna, Hawthorne was flown by bush and float planes beyond Alaska’s sparse civilization into some of the most untouched landscapes in the region, including Katmai National Park and Preserve. After setting up camp, he would await the arrival of clients. His days were spent guiding photographers through the Alaskan wilderness in search of bears to capture. Over his guiding tenure, he spent a total of around eight weeks camped out.

Brown bears and grizzlies are often revered among the deadliest forces in the West, but after sharing a home with them for a summer, Hawthorne has rethought this stigma. “I valued being that close to the animals and seeing how strewn the common perceptions of them are,” he said. “They are defensive, yes, but not man-hunting.” The photographer was often within 10-20 yards of the bears and sometimes, incidentally, much closer. He credits the security in such proximity to a mutual respect.

Hawthorne said it was imperative to know when the comfort level of the animal had been breached, and when it was time to back away. “To the animals, we are never more than tolerated guests in their home, and as long as we take into careful consideration what it means to be a guest, we will always be welcome back.”

Hawthorne currently resides back in Bozeman, where he is sorting through nearly 40,000 photos of Alaskan brown bears fishing, playing and existing in the foreground of snow-dotted Alaskan peak backdrops. He will split his time this winter between the slopes of his home mountain, Bridger Bowl, and shooting timeless images of Montana wildlife.

Visit to see more of Robert Hawthorne’s photography.

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