Photographing Alaska's Coastal Grizzly Bear
Reprint from Nov ’99 BT Journal
Note: You should not take the information here and then go find a grizzly bear to photograph. This information is provided so when you go with a guide such as myself, you are photographically prepared to capture the image.
Alaska has a number of big mammal species that I want to get to know better (and photograph) with the Grizzly Bear definitely at the top of that list. While science categorizes grizzlies into just a couple of species, with my limited exposure to them, I like to think of the grizzly a little differently than science does. This B News article is about the group of Alaskan Grizzlies that I think of as the coastal grizzly. These are the grizzlies that make their home in the coastal stretches along the Alaskan Range, the west side of Cook Inlet.
Now by no means am I going to pass myself off as a Grizzly Bear expert, having thousands of hours of observation time under my belt. What I have to offer you are insights that I’ve gathered after a couple of weeks of daily observation and photography of coastal grizzly bears. I was amongst two dozen individual Grizzly Bears and at times just feet away from them. I went on my adventure with all sorts of thoughts, stories and myths about grizzlies in my head, many the same ones you might have. But the experiences I had dashed the myths surrounding these magnificent creatures. It’s my hope to enlighten you about these gentle giants, enticing you to come to Alaska and experience for yourself the coastal grizzlies!
The “myth” I went to Alaska with that I think a lot of others have is that getting physically close to a grizzly is like courting death. When another photographer told me that his headshot of a grizzly was taken with an 80-200f2.8 lens, I was in awe, thinking that getting that close was living on the edge to say the least. Photographing grizzlies in socially uptight locales like Brooks Camp or McNeil River where there are lots of grizzlies in a small space, getting physically close is probably not a wise thing to do. There are too many “bear things” going on that we humans just can’t see or know about all the time. But in situations where grizzlies are doing grizzly things in wide open spaces without other “bear pressures”, getting physically close is not life threatening. In fact, being just a few feet from an 800lb sow and three cubs is one of the most exciting wildlife experiences this old photographer has ever done in his life!
Like all articles I’ve written where I’ve stressed understanding basic biology, photographing grizzlies more than any other species, depends on basic biological knowledge. Much of what I have to share with you I first read in biological reports, having the biology lessons reinforced by personal observation. I had a 900lb male griz run at me from more than one hundred yards out. He ended up passing by me still in a run by less than ten feet (yes, I was shooting the entire time). Being able to experience and distinguish that bear’s behavior as running and not charging was personally and photographically rewarding! But it’s that kind of basic biological understandings I’m stressing folks have so they experience the rewards of Grizzly Bear photography. (Please understand that photographers are seemingly killed each year by grizzly attacks, yet most of the time the fatalities are because of the photographer’s ignorance and not grizzly aggression.)
Coastal grizzlies have two main foraging strategies, grazing and fishing. Both of these strategies offer great bear viewing and photography. Understanding what you’re seeing and being able to capture the best possible photograph relies directly, in my opinion, on your knowledge of what you’re seeing in the viewfinder. Let this be the start of your bear lessons.
Grizzly Bears emerge from their winter dens hungry. They have been living off their fat reserves for many months as they slept and they emerge in a mode to replace the fat they lost plus more. But they typically have at least forty-five days to wait until the first big salmon runs begin. While they might find carrion like a winter moose kill or washed up seal or possibly whale carcass, it’s not enough to sustain one grizzly let alone a whole population of grizzlies and their hungers for long. And if we’re talking about a sow nursing spring or second year cubs, there is an even more pressing need for immediate food. The grizzly has evolved amazingly to succeed through the eons not on these seemingly bare pickings but by foraging on the sedges of the sloughs and coastline until the salmon run (and still eating sedges after the runs have started). What boggles my mind is these gentle giants become giants on grass!
The sea of green sedges, covering many coastal beachhead stretches attracts bears from all over the region. The lush, new growth of these grasses, believe it or not, sustains the coastal grizzly (or as the locals call them, brown bears where as the interior bears they call grizzlies). In fact, they are even able to start putting on fat from this forage. At one of my favorite locales to photograph griz, Silver Salmon Creek, the grizzlies are like cattle on the flats, grazing on the grass as a treasured delicacy!
The spring light bathes the ocean of grass as the bears come out of the trees to graze. The scene is seemingly tranquil to us humans with the bears spaced out over the landscape, feeding. But there is an unspoken law of the land where the bears live, and survive by, that needs to be understood by us humans before we go further on in this story.
There is a hierarchy on the fields of sedge much the same as on the stream or slope. It can be summed up basically as the largest has the right of way. But there are a few caveats to this basic “king of the hill” structure that you, the bear observer and photographer, need to understand. While the biggest griz is most likely a large male or boar, there are times when it could be a female or sow. And when a sow shows up with cubs, even the biggest boars give them space. So a female with cubs sometimes supercedes the largest in size. The pecking order basically goes from the largest to the smallest with size typically being directly related to age, the older the bigger. And you know what they say about age, the older the wiser. I think this truly relates to the grizzly.
I bet you’ve heard the warning, “never get between a sow and her cubs.” This is generally a very good rule to go by. But getting in between them is not a guaranteed death sentence. I have a good friend who has been in this situation many times, and still walks to tell the tales. The little caveat to this myth is, if you’re between the sow and cubs and the cubs bawl, communicating that they feel threatened, the sow will crash through anything in the way to reach her cubs and make them feel safe. If you’re in the way, well, you’ll be flattened. But if the cubs go about their business and never bawl or express that they feel threatened, the sow will go about her business.
And there are times when you’re so close to a family group that the cubs will come right up to you. Cubs are naturally curious about the world around them, just as they are when they become full size bears. You need to understand that this curiosity is how bears survive, learning and finding new food sources amongst other things. When those cubs walk up to you, you need to avoid panicking! You must keep your wits about you, trying to keep from being placed between the curious cubs and their mom. You must keep the cubs from feeling menaced even though they approached you! Moving away from the cubs while talking to them softly as you move is what has been suggested to me as the best course of action when in this situation.
The sedges is one of the best places to first see and photograph spring cubs, which are without a doubt, the cutest and most entertaining creatures on this earth! Photographing the cubs takes a quick hand and sense of humor I think. A quick hand is necessary because cubs are busy little bundles of fur, bouncing about while learning about their world. The cubs that I got to watch were characters! One time while I was fly fishing, a sow with two cubs walked by on the creek bank. (I was fishing in the main channel of the creek.) The family was walking by, watching me while looking for salmon. The family led by the sow crossed a small creek flowing into the one I was fishing. The sow walked across first, followed by the first cub and then the second. As the second cub reached the center of the creek, a salmon must have hit it in the foot because that little cub jumped into the air, bawled and then flew the rest of the distance across the creek to the safety of its mother’s side! Oh, I wish I had a camera that moment! I was laughing so hard I lost the salmon I had on my line!
Typically it’s the dominant male cub that’s the most active it seems, off exploring a squirrel’s hole, playing with a salmon carcass or bouncing off the side of mom. That’s why I say you need to be quick at hand and have a sense of humor. Being quick, you’ll be able to follow the action. Having a sense of humor, you’ll be able to anticipate the action, sort of. While we camped in Denali Nat’l Park on another trip this year, we had to sleep in our vehicle one night and not in our tents because we were told that two cubs had taken a liking to bouncing off the sides of tents. They weren’t hurting anything, just bouncing off tents like they were trampolines!
When photographing the bears grazing, getting a tack sharp image can be a challenge. For one thing, they are tearing at the sedges like pulling out weeds, more than biting the sedges off at the roots like typical grazers. This action means their heads are constantly in motion. When you focus on the eye, as you should, the jaws and their powerful muscles are right below and in motion. Just after they tear the grass they have a mouthful of sedge, which they seem to then grind slightly in their jaws before swallowing. This causes their facial muscles to tremble as they chew. Photographing the bears while they’re eating and capturing a sharp image on a sunny morn or afternoon is a no brainer, but in typical low light situations in Alaska, this can be a real difficult scenario.
This is the reason I bought the 400f2.8 AFS. Being able to work in lower light is a whole lot easier with f2.8 not necessarily because of a faster shutter speed because as in the scenario I just described, in low light there isn’t a faster speed fast enough to stop the action. No, rather the “fast” lens permits me to be quick to follow the action as the lens can focus in the lower light and I can see more in the viewfinder. I did note though that in some situations with some of the bears with a near even coat, no lights or darks but all the same shade of color, in lower light situations, the F5 sometimes had a hard time finding focus. The lack of contrast was the problem.
When photographing the grazing bears, first you want to check the wind direction. Not that you have to make any adjustments, but you want to be aware of it because of the bears incredible smelling ability. We watched one bear perhaps half a mile away, down wind of us, run the entire half mile to a salmon carcass lying fifty yards in front of us. There is no way the bear could see the carcass, just us standing there, but it smelled the carcass at that distance and came running (honest, I showered that day!).
The grizzly bear depends on their noses to tell them when other bears, potentially bigger and badder bears are in the area. They use their noses to find food as well as provide them with ideas of where and where not to look. Watching their noses and being aware of the wind, you can have some idea what they are doing and know when to worry about your own back. When shooting bears, I always keep checking behind me every few minutes. I’m not worried about some surprise attack harming me. However, I want to stay aware of a situation where I might all of a sudden be between bears that aren’t happy to see each other or a sow just emerging from the forest with her cubs, wanting to fight the big boar that I’m photographing. By shooting with the wind on your back when facing a bear, you can rely on their nose to help tell you when other bears are coming.
I’m sure you’ve all seen the image of the grizzly either at McNeil River or Brooks Camp where the griz is standing in a waterfall, catching leaping salmon. This is definitely the most commonly thought of way how grizzlies catch salmon. But if you ask any Alaskan what other waterfalls in Alaska where this occurs, you might hear a list that’s mighty short. While it’s the most commonly photographed, catching salmon at waterfalls appears to be the least common way that grizzlies fish.
The more common method of fishing for grizzlies is simply along the many thousands of creeks, which salmon migrate up each summer to perpetuate their kind. Salmon can be so thick that they are crammed side by side, tail to head in a creek! The run I saw come in from the ocean this September was a dark cloud in the water, tails and jaws teaming, squirming, fighting and pushing to get upstream. For the fisherman and grizzly alike, this is a sight before eyes!
When it comes to catching the salmon, the grizzlies can use any one of a hundred tactics to catch a salmon. You won’t know the tactic the bears you’re watching will use until they actually start fishing. They might just jump in, sending salmon and water flying! They might stand on the side of the stream and snare a salmon as it goes by with the delicate touch of the claw of their paw. They might have a favorite rock or small island in the middle of the creek they prefer to stand on like Snoopy on his doghouse, hunched over waiting for a salmon they can grab. They might take a plunge and “swim” about with their heads underwater, looking for salmon to snatch. They might run through the shallows of a creek, chasing salmon in hopes of pinning one under their paw. I even saw one bear in a deep portion of a creek, wade in and fish like a ballerina, nose just above the water line as it felt for salmon with it hind legs. Another tried the same thing, but used its front legs to pin a salmon in its own grasp.
Like I said, there are a lot of different ways that the grizzly bears on these creeks have evolved to catch salmon. A lot of times, they are methods taught to youngsters by their mother and passed down generation to generation. Even fishing sites, holes, times and strategies are passed on by the sow to the cubs! So it only follows that if you want to photograph grizzlies fishing, you’ve got to find salmon!
The same basic rule of the largest gets their way applies to the fishing holes as well. The best holes are garnered by the biggest and baddest except for the exceptions as mentioned earlier. The difference here is the bears tend to get fuller faster, and so go sleep off their meal, allowing other bears to come and make use of the great hole until the big boys wake up and want to feed some more. Finding the great holes where bears like to hang out is really easy, just look at the tracks in the mud. You’ll see where the big boys like to be as their big tracks are really easy to see!
Photographing the fishing bear takes more skill than that of the grazing bear. The reason is the action that’s occurring, the bear actively in one form or another, trying to catch a fish. You’re also going to have to deal with the water, where all this action is going on. For example, on an overcast day, which is my favorite light to photograph the bears, the water can look rather drab to say the least. And when the griz has that squirmy salmon in its jaw, you’d best have a lot of light for a fast shutter speed to get the eye sharp!
The one technique you ought to be really good at when photographing the fishing bear is panning. They are on the move it seems quite a lot. You’ve got to be able to pan and fire to capture the really killer images of the bears in action. I would also strongly suggest you have an 80-200f2.8 or similar focal length-f/stop combo hanging on a second body on your shoulder. There are times that they are so close you’ll need this focal length to capture the action.
A Thought on Bear Light
The Grizzly Bear got its name because the first ones seen by white man had a “grizzled” look about them. I wouldn’t say no two look alike, but they are as different in pelt color as a photographer might desire. And it would seem everyone has his or her favorites. I personally like the slightly darker ones with the grizzled tinge to their coat. But you can have them as dark as sin or so light that they look almost white with every shade and combo in between that your imagination can conjure up. And depending on the pelt, different lighting can make a real difference.
Photographically, I think overcast days in general is the best light for bears the majority of the time. This permits one to take advantage of the natural color contrast inherent in the coat of the griz. All the subtleties can be captured by film, which is the real trick here. As always, I dial in +1/3 stop to brighten up the scene and then go about shooting as normal. The griz has a small eye and in a lighter pelted individual, it’s a whole lot easier to see that eye, which is very important so the viewer of the image can make contact. But with darker individuals, those little dark beady eyes can get lost without some sort of directional light striking them. But don’t think for a moment that if the sun comes out, I wouldn’t photograph the bears.
When the sun is out, you just have to work the bears and the situation to make the most of it. For example, a dark colored bear in the fresh green of spring, on a full sunlit day can be a little contrasty. The same bear in the same grasses but in fall when they have turned tan can be real contrasty. You either look for a lighter colored griz to photograph, hope for a cloud to come by to diffuse the sun, or realize that your film might not be able to hold all the detail. One saving grace is that these bears are in Alaska where the morning and evening light lasts for such a long time. This is one creature that truly looks its best in the light of these times of day.
One of the cool things about the griz is being able to photograph it side or back lit. Their hairs just tend to naturally glow when lit either of these ways, making all sorts of other photographic possibilities possible. You just have to remember that with dark individual bears when lit this way, it will be hard to see their small dark eyes. And seeing the eyes is very important to the success of your image!
Now by no means would I walk up to a griz that I hadn’t photographed before and just start firing away! Sharon and I spent hours watching grizzlies in Denali for example, learning their individual behavior and characteristics, watching outside pressures and waiting for them to get close on their own terms before I started to photograph them. I also talked with another photographer who I greatly trust and learned from his experiences as well before taking on these gentle giants. Understanding their basic biology not only kept me safe and permitted the bears to do their thing, but also helped capture the images I desired. You can do the same thing with the same rewards by following these words of advice I’ve offered here.
I found photographing coastal grizzly bears to be one of the greatest challenges I’ve faced as a photographer. Capturing great images of the bear eating, running or foraging isn’t the challenge. Capturing the size, power, strength of the bear and the grandeur of the grizzly bear’s home is the monumental challenge. When you spend any time in its home and walk its path, you get an insight into this creature that I generally don’t see in photographs of the griz. After getting over the “wow” factor (and that takes along time when you’re so close to these magnificent creatures) and getting down to communicating, this challenge kept me awake at night. That challenge will keep me thinking all winter until I venture to Alaska again, to photograph the coastal grizzly bear!
Want to get in on the challenge? Where I photograph these coastal grizzly bears is open to anyone wanting to take up the challenge! You can’t drive there, but must fly in by a small plane and land on a beach. The folks at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge are there waiting when you land to share their incredible slice of Alaska with you. David Corey, the owner and host, is a native with a big smile and desire to share this piece of Alaska with you. Arne, photographer and bear guide expert, will get you safely so close to these bears, you will come back a changed person. You can contact the folks at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge at 907.262.4839. I hope to see you there!