You Won’t See the Quicksand Until It’s Too Late – Behind the Scenes Photographing of the Kodiak Bears

People see a shot like this and go “Wow!” and they might think for a few seconds about being that close to a grizzly bear and then they move on with their life.

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What they don’t see is how wet your clothes are, or how much your leg is bleeding from the waders digging into the side of your calf after the second mile. They don’t know how far you walked, what time that morning you got up to set out and they don’t care how hungry you were.

Now that I’ve posted all my bear shots from our glorious camping experience with Sasquatch Alaska  I wanted to take some time to talk a little behind the scenes action of what went into getting some of these shots.

What most people don’t realize is that most of the time, whether it’s out in the desert, up in the Sierras, or on the high plans of Arizona, I look like this. This is me:

20164256 x 2832DSC_0316I’m either layering up, or down, or tying my shoe, or switching the lens, or blowing dust off the lens, or wiping the ice off the lens because it’s -29 out and I just blew on the lens, getting something to eat, putting a wrapper away, applying sunblock, wiping sunblock out of my eyes because I put it to close to my eyeball, getting a filter, putting a filter away, dicking around with the tripod, readjusting the 35 lb gear pack, checking my map, checking my compass, crying because I am lost and don’t know if my map and compass reads are correct, or [enter *ANYTHING* here.]

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It’s what time in the morning?

And all of that is happening in a race against time because time = light. And light doesn’t stay the same for very long.

And you are only as good as you are prepared. And no matter how hard you try, no matter how hard you’ve prepared, no matter how many miles you have hiked, something. always. happens. So you have to be prepared or you’re fucked.

To be the most prepared, in addition to the 10 essentials in our packs we needed gear. And we needed GOOD gear. We had two rentals: a 500mm Nikon fixed / prime lens that stayed in camp. The one we hiked with was the new Nikon 200-500mm – slower, lesser clarity but lighter and more compact. And it wasn’t $8,000 dollars like the prime we rented, so if we broke it or dropped it off a cliff, so be it. 

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Muddy and wet and bleeding from a gash in my leg (but happy!)

And when we were hiking, the fixed lens was out and attached to a tripod which we carried over our shoulders, taking turns for the most part as we covered 15-20 muddy, sandy, loose-rock-y, spongy, wet miles. This way, we were prepared to deploy our gear quickly since many times you only have less than 1 second to get a shot off. So, you’d better be prepared.

Except nothing prepares you for quicksand.

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The shot above was taken while we were *actually* stranded for a short while in almost the exact spot I was when I took this photo. It was our fourth day and we (Michele and I) were beatdown so physically nothing was helping. Not the extra coffee we had. Not the extra water we were drinking. Not the sugar. And certainly not the rain that was relentless in its consistency. In fairness, we signed up for this trip to kick our ass, and on that fourth day, our asses were kicked.

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We had hiked to the “small” island near our camp to see bald eagles nesting (the shot above are different bald eagles because it was raining that morning.) It was low tide, and the tide went out for miles every day for about 5 hours before coming screaming back in. After checking out the nest, we hiked up onto the island, which you can see in the photo above was sort of a raised plateau. Trekking across the spongiest ground consisting of a carpet of wild berries, seeds and other flowers we came across some remains:

Sadly, these were the remains of a baby bear. Wolves in the area have been known to nip a baby bear until it can no longer walk.

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Baby wolves gotta eat too.

We got to the other side of the island and began to scale down. When we climbed down back onto the beach we started following a set of bear tracks (one big, one small, one huge) that all lead off to the south around the DSC_4036back of the island. It was soft sand, so the going was slower than it would have been. We started to zig zag around the tidal sand puddles leftover from that morning’s tide.

That’s when Marcus got stuck. And then Michele got stuck. And then I started sinking. I jumped quickly to my left as Ann Marie then called out that she was stuck. Our guide raced over to help Marcus out, who was now almost up to his knees. He in turn helped Ann Marie. Michele managed to free herself but the three of them were left on a tiny patch of sand unable to move, unsure which direction was perilous.

I was walking at the tail end of the group, and I had fortunately managed to free myself backwards up on to drier land, and I watched as our guide spent a good 10 or more minutes instructing them not to move while he found a path out of the sand swamps that wouldn’t eat us. I was exhausted and drained and I can’t remember how long it was exactly but I remember having enough time to get my camera out and tripod set up, get some shots off like the one of the island above and then put it all back again so I was more stable on such unstable ground.

So it was a while and a couple people got stuck a couple more times.

At some point Ann Marie, from her small island of solid sand, sighed and said poignantly, “This is why photographs are so expensive.” And I laughed to myself as I watched Marcus drop his heavy pack to the ground after unsticking himself from an area he stepped into and our guide Brian ducking into quicksand patches and back out again, figuring out the safest way to get us back across the channel. And I realized she had a really  good point:

Here we were, stranded (almost, for a short time) in a minefield of quicksand with the tide on its way in in about another hour, after trudging, all day, in the rain, in search of the lone baby cub and her mother that we saw on the first day.

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Down in the mud after actually falling down in the mud.

Again, I’m certainly not complaining, I’d have done it all over again just to see the vivid greens of the island meadows and views from above but at that moment I knew this blog post was coming – all the things you DON’T see in photographs. All the stories you don’t hear. All the miles, all the pre-dawn alarm clocks, the blisters, all the hours sitting at waiting for eagles that don’t show up even though you’re temping them with flounder fish you placed on the bank of the harbor that stink to hell:

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Sitting in the Alaskan sun waiting on other eagles:

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But the payoff, when it’s big, it’s big. It’s like Vegas-blackjack-on-a-double-down-bet big:

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Down in the mud, but got what I wanted.

And I did finally got my eagle shot:

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