Anan bears photographer wins national award

Juneau photographer Mark Kelley has been to Anan Wildlife Observatory 13 times, which turned out to be a lucky number for his portfolio of bear photos. A collection of his 10 favorite Anan photos took first place in the portfolio category of the National Wildlife Federation annual contest.

"He captures something magical and mystical about the place," Lisa Moore, editorial director of the National Wildlife magazine, said last Friday.

After so many years watching the bears, "he knows their behavior" and has the patience to wait for the photograph that will help tell the story of Anan, she said.

Kelley "really wants the public to connect" with Alaska and its wildlife, Moore said. "He's very passionate about Alaska, Alaska wildlife and their habitat."

Kelley's winning portfolio features the story of bears at Anan Creek, about 30 miles south of Wrangell on the mainland. The site has gained in popularity over the years, with visitors coming from around the world to see bears feed on abundant pink salmon - one of few locations where black and brown bears dine so close to each other.

"It's a real honor," Kelley said. "I was blown away - I think for a wildlife photographer it's the world's highest compliment."

The 2022 competition drew more than 30,000 photos from 3,100 photographers around the world.

In addition to the story the photos tell, Moore said judges also look at technical skills, lighting and composition of the images.

Kelley is no stranger to award-winning shots - he's won dozens over the decades he has lived and worked as a photographer in Southeast Alaska. The Wrangell Sentinel's annual visitor guide has featured his Anan photos on the cover the past two years.

Although he's originally from Buffalo, New York, Kelley said he considers himself a "Southeast guy."

He always thought his love for photography growing up was just a hobby, not something he could turn into a career. That changed when he began taking photography classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks after leaving the Lower 48 and coming to Alaska in 1974.

"I left for Alaska with a pickup truck and a couple of thousand dollars with no great plan," he said.

After graduating, Kelley was able to land a photographer job at the Juneau Empire newspaper. After moving there in 1979, he never looked back. In addition to producing an annual calendar of his photographs, he sells photo note cards and books of his work.

"I fell in love with Juneau," he said.

Kelley said he was drawn to Anan Creek because the location is distinctly Southeast Alaska. He said each photo depicts the constant rain, towering trees and flourishing green of the forest that makes the region unlike other parts of Alaska. But, beyond the location, he said what brings the area to life is the abundant range of wildlife that lives among the torrential rainforest.

"I go to Anan because it's so much fun - forget the picture - it's so much fun watching these bears and how they interact with each other, they show all the emotions of a human being. I just never wanted to miss anything," he said.

For those 13 years he spent capturing photos at the location, Kelley estimated that for each one of the 10 photos he chose for the contest he took thousands to find those exact moments. Along with that, each time he visited the area, he spent three to four days standing on a viewing platform for eight to 10 hours with no food in hopes to catch those special moments.

"I learned to be really patient," he said.

Kelley's winning photos can be viewed on the National Wildlife Federation website at: Pulse of the Planet (

This news story includes reporting by Clarise Larson of the Juneau Empire.


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