Good action spotted on a Grizzly Safaris trip. (Courtesy Photo / Grizzly Safaris)

Pride of Bristol Bay: A Conversation with Jerry and Caleb Jacques about their grizzly family

It’s a family grizz-ness.

By Bjorn Dihle

When Jerry Jacques was 17, he ran away from California and hitchhiked to Alaska. He had heard stories of his great-grandfather and grandfather prospecting, trapping and living in the far north and intended to follow in their footsteps. He spent the summer in Talkeetna guiding raft trips but, that fall, since he was still a minor, the State Troopers sent him back to California. A year later, after graduating from high school, Jerry was back in Alaska. His dream was to guide rivers in the summer and photograph wildlife in the winter. He had heard his grandfather had built a cabin near the headwaters of the Iliamna River, so he got together a light kit and hired a pilot to fly him in to spend the winter in the wilderness.

“I damn near starved to death that winter. I made so many mistakes,” Jerry said.

Caleb Jacques, Art Wolfe and Jerry Jacques take a break from photographing bears. (Courtesy Photo / Grizzly Safaris)

Today, Jerry and his family own and operate Grizzly Safaris, based out of Jacques Adventure Lodge in the village of Iliamna. They specialize in guiding photographers after the region’s incredible population of brown bears. Going from a teenager nearly starving to death in the wilds to having a successful ecotourism business has been a long, interesting and lucky journey for Jerry. After surviving that first winter, Jerry was in a desperate state. The river broke up in May and, not long after, a Dena’ina man named Kevin Jensen appeared outside the cabin. Kevin had taken his boat as far up the Iliamna River as he could, seen the smoke from Jerry’s cabin and gone to investigate. Kevin promptly took Jerry home to Pedro Bay, a village on the eastern edge of Lake Iliamna where Kevin and his family lived.

“Kevin brought me in to his parents’ home and said, ‘I found a stray gussak. Can we keep him?’ The Jensen family saved me, brought me in and taught me everything I know. I was so lucky to be brought in and taught the Native way,” Jerry said.

The Jensen’s ancestors had lived in Iliamna Lake country since time immemorial. Carl Jensen, Kevin’s dad, suggested that Jerry join him in guiding sport hunters after the regions’ brown bears and Dall sheep. There was good money in it, and Jerry’s dream of being a wildlife photographer hadn’t penciled out, so he signed on. Carl was a man of many trades. Besides being a hunting guide, he fished Bristol Bay during the sail-boat era, worked as a mechanic and ran the Pedro Bay post office with his wife Marjorie. Shortly before Carl passed on in 2016 at age 87, he was awarded Elder of the Year by the Bristol Bay Native Corporation.

Guiding hunters was lucrative but, after a while, Jerry couldn’t stomach it.

“I have no problem with hunting if the animal is being fully utilized, but I found myself rooting for the bears and not my hunters. I just got tired of seeing bears die. I shut down my business and didn’t know what I was going to do next,” Jerry said.

Cross species viewing with Grizzly Safaris. (Courtesy Photo / Grizzly Safaris)

One thing that Jerry did know was that the Bristol Bay watershed — between the incredible runs of salmon, population of brown bear and other wildlife — is one of most incredible ecologically spectacular places on Earth.

“I’ve traveled all over. Nothing compares,” Jerry said.

In the early 2000s, Jerry called up renowned wildlife photographer Art Wolfe to see if he was interested in coming out to photograph bears. There was not much of a market for bear viewing back then, but Jerry and Art hit it off. Soon other photographers began booking trips.

Today, bear photo trips account for 95% of Grizzly Safari’s business, with catch and release sport fishing making up the remainder. They specialize in flying small groups from their lodge to a variety of locations in Katmai National Park and the nearby wilderness. Around 90% of their clients are repeat customers.

Jerry enlisted the bears to help raise his son, Caleb, and it has paid off. Caleb might give Davy Crockett a run for his coon-skin-cap—by 12, he was guiding bear viewing clients on his own. Now 21, Caleb is the lead guide for Grizzly Safaris.

The Jacques Adventure Lodge in the village of Iliamna. (Courtesy Photo / Grizzly Safaris)

“Growing up, it was always one adventure after another. Brown bears are the most unique top predators on Earth. It’s amazing to see one in person. It’s awesome to see the joy on our clients’ faces and help them have that experience,” Caleb said.

Grizzly Safaris also offers trips to photograph walruses, wolves and birds. When asked if they’d ever consider offering a trip for cryptozoological photographers who want a picture of the famed Iliamna Lake monster, Caleb just laughed.

“I’ve spent every day staring out at the lake hoping to see it. It is a huge disappointment. I can’t call myself a true Alaskan until I see it,” Caleb said.

Learn more about Grizzly Safaris at alaska-grizzlies.com and follow them on Instagram @alaska-grizzlies.

• Pride of Bristol Bay is a free column written by Bjorn Dihle and provided by its namesake, a fisherman direct seafood marketer that specializes in delivering the highest quality of sustainably caught wild salmon from Bristol Bay to your doorstep.

More in News

A Princess Cruise Line ship is docked in Juneau on Aug. 25, 2021. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for the week of Sept. 25

Here’s what to expect this week.

Police vehicles gather Wednesday evening near Kaxdigoowu Héen Dei, also known as ]]Brotherhood Bridge Trail, while investigating a homicide. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Police: Woman was walking dogs when she was killed

JPD said officers are working “around the clock” on the criminal investigation.

In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, a Coast Guard Cutter Kimball crew-member observes a foreign vessel in the Bering Sea, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter on routine patrol in the Bering Sea came across the guided missile cruiser from the People's Republic of China, officials said Monday, Sept. 26.  (U.S. Coast Guard District 17 via AP)
Patrol spots Chinese, Russian naval ships off Alaska island

This wasn’t the first time Chinese naval ships have sailed near Alaska waters.

An Alaska judge has ruled that a state lawmaker affiliated with the Oath Keepers, Rep. David Eastman, shown in this February 2022 photo, may stay on the general election ballot in November even though he's likely ineligible to hold public office  (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Judge keeps Oath Keepers lawmaker on November ballot

Judge ordered delaying certifying the result of the race until a trial scheduled for December.

Water rushes down Front Street, just a half block from the Bering Sea, in Nome, Alaska, on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 as the remnants of Typhoon Merbok moved into the region. It was a massive storm system — big enough to cover the mainland U.S. from the Pacific Ocean to Nebraska and from Canada to Texas. It influenced weather systems as far away as California, where a rare late-summer storm dropped rain on the northern part of the state, offering a measure of relief to wildfire crews but also complicating fire suppression efforts because of mud and loosened earth. (AP Photo / Peggy Fagerstrom)
Repair work begins in some Alaska towns slammed by storm

ANCHORAGE — There’s been significant damage to some roads and homes in… Continue reading

j
Sniffen indicted on sexual abuse counts

Sniffen will be arraigned Monday.

In this undated file photo the Trans-Alaska pipeline and pump station north of Fairbanks, Alaska is shown. (AP Photo / Al Grillo)
Oil price drop endangers plan to fund Alaska schools a year early

If oil prices fall, amount is automatically reduced to an amount the state can afford. At

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Juneau Police Department announces technology and reporting updates

Emergeny services and direct reporting will not be interrupted

The hoverfly can perceive electrical fields around the edges of the petals, the big white stigma, and the stamens. (Courtesy Photo / Bob Armstrong)
On the Trails: Electric flowers and platform plants

You cannot see it, it’s electric.

Most Read