Tom Schonhoff, of Seattle, visited Katmai National Park via float plane and brought home the winning image in The Seattle Times’ national-park photo contest.

Share story

We celebrate special things in America’s national parks: wedding anniversaries, birthdays, reunions with friends, father-daughter backpacking retreats. All such occasions took Seattle Times readers to the great outdoors to bring home this collection of images of nature’s wonders.

In a gallery here are 10 favorite entries from our national-parks photo contest, selected by Times editors and photojournalists from more than 850 submissions. (Thanks to all of you; the choices were tough.)

The grand prize — a $100 REI gift card — goes to Tom Schonhoff, of Seattle, for his photo of a bear fishing in a park in Alaska. Keep reading to learn how he got the shot.

Honorable Mention winners, included in this gallery, each get a $25 Starbucks card.

Because we celebrate so many of life’s milestones in parks, these images seem an appropriate commemoration of the Aug. 25 centennial of the National Park Service, whose men and women work to keep these places special.

How he got that winning shot

It’s hard to look away: A mammoth brown bear, splashing in a cold Alaska stream, is poised to swat at blush-red migrating salmon visible just beneath the surface.

Your eyes are drawn to the bear’s claws, in perfect focus, like steak knives waving from dinner-plate-sized paws.

“I had some shots with fish above water, but those claws kind of made it for me!” said Schonhoff,  explaining why he entered this particular photo in The Seattle Times’ national-park photo contest.

He captured the image in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Schonhoff, 57, a program manager for Microsoft, took the photo Aug. 9, 2012, after he and about 20 other visitors flew into Katmai on two float planes with a guide service from Homer, Alaska.

“It’s a tourist thing; there are so many float planes they have to look around for a pond to land on,” he said. (Such day tours typically cost in the range of $600-$650.)

Once there, it was a marathon photo session.

“We sat on a gravel bar in the middle of Funnel Creek for about three hours with sometimes as many as a dozen bears around us, some with cubs. And the fish were everywhere.”

Happily, the coastal brown bears — Ursus arctos, a close cousin to the grizzly bear, Ursus arctos horribilis — were more interested in munching on salmon than on tourists.

“We minded our business and they minded theirs,” Schonhoff said.

His camera was a Nikon D800E on a tripod, with a Nikon 200-400mm lens. The image was shot at 1/1,000th of a second at f/7.1.

With the bear only about 25 yards away, Schonhoff said, at times it was too close for the focus of his long lens — an unexpected problem in nature photography. He told why he was pleased with the photo.

“First and foremost I enjoy that you see his claws in the sunshine, and it’s very clear he’s about to hit those fish. You see his gaze down into the water. It is a moment. That’s what I like to catch: a moment of transition.”

Schonhoff is no stranger to national parks, though he says he has spent more time photographing wildlife in national parks overseas. He temporarily retired at age 50 and traveled the globe photographing wildlife, from leopards in the Serengeti to emperor penguins in Antarctica. See more of his photos at seattlelight.smugmug.com.

Here’s a look at all the honorable mentions:

HONORABLE MENTION, taken at ARCHES NATIONAL PARK, UTAH: Long exposure of Delicate Arch, showing cloud movement over 2 1/2 minutes. Equipment: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF24-105mm f/4 lens, 10-stop ND filter, tripod + ballhead, remote shutter release. Exposure: 143 sec @ f/11, 35mm, bulb mode.  (Jim Reitz / North Bend )
HONORABLE MENTION, taken at ARCHES NATIONAL PARK, UTAH: Long exposure of Delicate Arch, showing cloud movement over 2 1/2 minutes. Equipment: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF24-105mm f/4 lens, 10-stop ND filter, tripod + ballhead, remote shutter release. Exposure: 143 sec @ f/11, 35mm, bulb mode. (Jim Reitz / North Bend )

HONORABLE MENTION, taken at MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, WASHINGTON: Miniature lupine at higher elevation. Each leaf set was about the size of a dime. Shot with a Nikon F-4 camera and a 200mm f4 macro lens on Fuji Velvia film.  (Dale Anderson / Mountlake Terrace )
HONORABLE MENTION, taken at MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, WASHINGTON: Miniature lupine at higher elevation. Each leaf set was about the size of a dime. Shot with a Nikon F-4 camera and a 200mm f4 macro lens on Fuji Velvia film. (Dale Anderson / Mountlake Terrace )

HONORABLE MENTION, taken at DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA: We were celebrating an anniversary.  Zabriskie Point sandstone rocks were beautiful during this sunrise, as a lone hiker is seen walking. Taken with a Canon SX50.  (Beatrice Salyer / Snohomish)
HONORABLE MENTION, taken at DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA: We were celebrating an anniversary. Zabriskie Point sandstone rocks were beautiful during this sunrise, as a lone hiker is seen walking. Taken with a Canon SX50. (Beatrice Salyer / Snohomish)

HONORABLE MENTION, taken at YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK: Fox in Yellowstone.  (Rich Birmingham / Seattle)
HONORABLE MENTION, taken at YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK: Fox in Yellowstone. (Rich Birmingham / Seattle)

HONORABLE MENTION, taken at OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, WASHINGTON: Although this photo is not recent, I believe it is timeless in its imagery and has been given to many of my closest friends. 
Olympic National Park is my church and I have been going there for spiritual renewal for 40 years .
I was with my best friend. We walked our favorite trail from the visitor center to the Hoh River, remembering her loving husband who had recently suffered an untimely death from pancreatic cancer at the age of  54.
As we were wading in the river reflecting on his memory, we gazed down upon the water and the river blessed us with this image.  (Karen Huntsberger / Duvall)
HONORABLE MENTION, taken at OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, WASHINGTON: Although this photo is not recent, I believe it is timeless in its imagery and has been given to many of my closest friends. Olympic National Park is my church and I have been going there for spiritual renewal for 40 years . I was with my best friend. We walked our favorite trail from the visitor center to the Hoh River, remembering her loving husband who had recently suffered an untimely death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 54. As we were wading in the river reflecting on his memory, we gazed down upon the water and the river blessed us with this image. (Karen Huntsberger / Duvall)

HONORABLE MENTION, taken at NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK, WASHINGTON:  This photo was taken on a family backcountry backpack trip to Easy Ridge, a place my dad has wanted to go since he was a teenager. Hiking is a gift my dad has passed on to his daughters, and now that we are grown this was a special time to come together again. This photo captures my sister taking in the grandeur as the sun goes down behind the Cascades. Camera is a Nikon D3300 with an 18-55mm lens.  (Sarah Van Etten / Mount Vernon)
HONORABLE MENTION, taken at NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK, WASHINGTON: This photo was taken on a family backcountry backpack trip to Easy Ridge, a place my dad has wanted to go since he was a teenager. Hiking is a gift my dad has passed on to his daughters, and now that we are grown this was a special time to come together again. This photo captures my sister taking in the grandeur as the sun goes down behind the Cascades. Camera is a Nikon D3300 with an 18-55mm lens. (Sarah Van Etten / Mount Vernon)

HONORABLE MENTION, taken at CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK, OREGON:  It was incredibly clear with a beautiful sky full of stars. I waited until the Milky Way ran diagonally in my composition and the old wood was below it in  the foreground. I used a fabric-covered incandescent flashlight for ‘light painting’ the  tree. Taken with a Nikon D4 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens, f/2.8 at 14 mm; 30-second exposure.  (Yoshiki Nakamura / Seattle)
HONORABLE MENTION, taken at CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK, OREGON: It was incredibly clear with a beautiful sky full of stars. I waited until the Milky Way ran diagonally in my composition and the old wood was below it in the foreground. I used a fabric-covered incandescent flashlight for ‘light painting’ the tree. Taken with a Nikon D4 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens, f/2.8 at 14 mm; 30-second exposure. (Yoshiki Nakamura / Seattle)

HONORABLE MENTION, taken at YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA: I camp in Yosemite annually with a group of family friends and on this day we had just hiked from McGurk Meadow down to Tunnel View. I was waiting for sunset at the viewpoint and took this photo of Bridalveil Fall in the soft light using my Nikon DSLR 5300.  (Rhiannon Holmes / Seattle)
HONORABLE MENTION, taken at YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA: I camp in Yosemite annually with a group of family friends and on this day we had just hiked from McGurk Meadow down to Tunnel View. I was waiting for sunset at the viewpoint and took this photo of Bridalveil Fall in the soft light using my Nikon DSLR 5300. (Rhiannon Holmes / Seattle)

HONORABLE MENTION, taken at GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, ARIZONA: These are the amazing Nankoweap Granaries high above the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. My wife and I were on a private 3 week raft trip through the Grand Canyon with friends who were former river guides there. Photo taken with Nikon D80 using a Tokina 12-14mm lens, shot at 12mm, 1/100 sec, F9.0, ISO 125.  (Mark Dale / Seattle )
HONORABLE MENTION, taken at GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, ARIZONA: These are the amazing Nankoweap Granaries high above the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. My wife and I were on a private 3 week raft trip through the Grand Canyon with friends who were former river guides there. Photo taken with Nikon D80 using a Tokina 12-14mm lens, shot at 12mm, 1/100 sec, F9.0, ISO 125. (Mark Dale / Seattle )

More on national parks: