The Story Behind...with John Gilfoyle

3rd March 2020

We always delight in learning the incredible stories behind the books our customers make- the how and the why. In this new series, we meet customers with a story to tell. We spoke with long-term Bob Books user John about his book 'Alaska' documenting a trip to Brooks Falls where bears salmon fish in an extraordinary annual tradition.  

Can you tell us the story behind 'Alaska", when did you first get inspired to document this spectacle?

In 2009 I read a short article about Sir David Attenborough watching bears catching salmon at a place called Brooks Falls which was an annual event. After that I had  thought often about visiting the area, Katmai National Park in Alaska,  so we decided to build a holiday around the date when the salmon would run the falls. The event always happens around the middle of July and there are limitations to how many people can go to the Island and even fewer bunks to stay overnight. We therefore had to book the trip well over a year in advance and  we also included a small boat adventure trip down the Inner Passage of Alaska and various other places between the cruise and Brooks Falls around Alaska. It was one of the most amazing places I have ever been to- being so close to such dangerous wild animals and watching the spectacle. I love nature and wild life and this is one of the wildest places I have ever been.

What was it like being so close to the bears, I imagine it was adrenaline inducing but also quite surreal...

To give you a feel for the visit….when you first arrive on the Island you are given a 20 minute lecture on how to conduct yourself as you move around the area. The camp area is close to where you land and the falls are on a nearby island, a miles walk away. There are bears  all over the area, not just on the falls. Firstly you walk over a floating bridge (which is removed in winter) and then the long walk along a 2m wide track to the falls and all the way you are told to call out “Hey Bear” to ensure they aren't taken by surprise. You are alone- no bear spray and no guns. There are wardens at key points but most of the time you are alone or tagged onto another small group or couple. When you get to the falls you book a time slot at the main viewing platform. One morning, halfway across the bridge, a bear popped its head up and sneezed, at which point I quickened my pace (but under no circumstances can you run!) Once I was over the bridge it was about a 35 min walk to the falls, I shouted out the whole way. I noticed 4 people further up the track who had suddenly stopped and I caught up with them, there was a bear walking down the track towards us and none of our shouting stopped it. So we grouped together and stepped off the track into the grass at the side to allow the fully grown bear to walk slowly past us. He was about 4 meters from us, and gave us a glance as he walked on. Fortunately there is enough food available so they don’t bother with humans (we were told) but it was frightening to come so close especially when none of us were guides or experts, but as we are reminded all the time - this is their home and we are just visiting.

We learnt all sorts about bears …the way they live, the family structure and where they can fish dependent on age, how the young can be killed by seniors if they get too close and steal their fish. This is their place, they even walk round the camp so you have to be on guard the whole time you are there.

Were there any challenges you faced in the process of making this photo book?

When you have limited time in a place, you want to take as many images as you can and make sure you don’t miss anything- without time to review the pictures, you just have to trust you get them right. I think I took about 2500 images at Brooks falls over an afternoon and morning. As Brooks was at the end of our trip you forget everything you did when you first started the adventure. In total I took about 8000 images over the month we were there so it was a big job sorting through them but equally very exciting as you are constantly reminded of small things you had forgotten. I would also notice things in pictures when it was enlarged on my computer screen that I had missed at the time of taking it. It was such a joy putting together all the books but Brooks Falls is special to me because of the place and the spectacle. Although I have been on many safaris this was something very different, maybe because I was treading in the same footprints of Sir David who I admire so greatly.

Why was a photobook the right medium for this project?

In the first instance the book was intended solely for me, my record of what I had seen and the fruits of my efforts and work. But it has since become a book to show those who aren’t as fortunate as I to be able to visit such a place and experience life like that. My friends think all 3 books are great but none of them have said that they fancy the adventure themselves (!), preferring to see bears at a distance. It sits along with my other photo books and I'm proud of what I have produced as an amateur photographer.

Any plans to make another book?

We just returned yesterday from a visit to Panama and Costa Rica so I will make a start on my next book soon..!

Inspired by John's story? Make your own book now and tell your story.