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.
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:
I’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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 back 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.
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:
Sitting in the Alaskan sun waiting on other eagles:
But the payoff, when it’s big, it’s big. It’s like Vegas-blackjack-on-a-double-down-bet big:
And I did finally got my eagle shot:
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The fifth and last morning at camp we set out on a hike down to the far side of the bigger island in search of the elusive Sunshine Gang, three 3-year-old female bears who were hanging out together. It seemed the two days before, the big aggressive males had dominated the meadows after probably gorging themselves on the dead whale for a couple of weeks and the females weren’t really around in the meadows. It was kind of disappointing that we hadn’t seen more babies – we hadn’t seen much in the way of spring cubs that week other than that one mother and cub way far out on our first night. But the sun was finally shining with clear blue skies so we at least, for the first time all trip, had weather on our side.
After wading across the slick low tide channel inlet (I took a spill when I got stuck but managed to save the lens from going right into the mud thankfully) we got to a sandstone rock formation and it was clear that a mama and her babies had been staying around that area – there were beds dug out of the hillside on the far side of the rock, lots of poop, and flattened grasses and footprints in the sand. But no bears. It was also around the time for the bears to start making their way to the river a few miles away, as the salmon were starting to run upstream for their annual trek to spawn at their birthplace.
Our awesome guide, Brian:
But then, emerging right out of the shrubbery that we had just walked by not 10 minutes prior was a mother and three spring cubs. BABIES! Headed our way. We all scrambled up the rock structure to a perfect flattened out view of the low-tide streams where mom was walking. She kept her distance out in the middle of the mud flats but did stop directly in front of us to clam.
We stayed there for probably two hours, and she must have eaten about 100+ clams during that time – big, fat clams bigger than the size of my entire outstretched palm. One of the babies was “helping” (and Michele has an amazing photo of one of the little stupids figuring out what to do with a clam he got from his mother, I’ll post it once she’s done editing her photos.) The other two decided clamming was boring and not for them, so they settled down for a nap. It was windy as hell, so they cuddled right up to sleep piled on top of each other, the third eventually joining in.
From the north, a massive adult male emerged onto the beach from the far side of the island. He started making his way toward us down the beach in that slow, deliberate pace that looks so sluggish but covers a surprising amount of ground in not a lot of time. A sandbar prevented him from seeing the mother bear, and vice versa.
My stomach knotted up: would she smell him in time? Would he attack the cubs? Literally the last thing I wanted on my last day was to finally spend time with babies only to see them mauled because nature is a cruel existence that I will never fully understand. Thankfully, for whatever reason, by the time she smelled him and he saw her it was enough of a distance for her to move away safely – and the babies clinging to her the whole time. He ignored them, making his way over past us to the west meadow – but not before he saw us ahead of him on a direct collision course. We had the high ground, but no where to go past that.
He sniffed the air, clacked his jaws once (a warning), and stared at us (another warning.) I was so intent on getting “the shot” I wanted while I was there I didn’t realize he was so close until he was *so* close. I stopped shooting and just like one of the baby bears went to scramble for higher ground – he was 15-20 feet away, and I was the lowest on the rock of the group. Had he charged, I’d have been screwed. But everyone remained calm, I may have peed a little, and he passed by us on his way to the meadow.
But I got my shot:
He was a big bear. After that, mom moved further north to clam with the babies and we had to start making our way back to camp to pack up and wait for our plane. We had the big male in front of us by a couple hundred yards, but when he went into these shrubs and started standing up and rubbing himself on them and shaking the branches and snapping them – a sure sign telling us, “Hey, stop following me. I’m a big bear, okay?” Brian had us hang back a bit more and give him even more space.
Overall it was the perfect end to the trip – I got all the shots I had come for and left a very happy camper. These bears are now all for the most part a few miles away over at the river catching salmon – and you can see the Grizzlies on the other side of the mountain range fishing on Explore.org’s Bear Cam: http://explore.org/live-cams/player/brown-bear-salmon-cam-brooks-falls
Donate a few bucks to them if you can – it’s a great service and a wonderful way to experience nature from afar.
I’ll be making one more “total bear” gallery that’s shareable and talking a little about the actual experience from day to day of shooting and techniques, etc. for anyone who’s curious about what I learned in terms of gear (what I brought, how it worked, etc.) It seems from the bear photos that it was all just so easy, but what you don’t see in the past three blogs are the hikes in the rain, the mud, getting stuck in quicksand (actual low tide quicksand), the back aches, the foot aches, the waders cutting into the sides of your calves, pooping on a beach as fast as you can so you’re not caught by a bear in a compromising position, having your shots interrupted by bears, and middle of the night wolf encounters when you wake up to go pee.
Still, I loved every minute of it and there’s more soon – I haven’t even posted about the whales yet. ❤ The full gallery is below.
The first baby bear I ever saw was way out at low tide crossing from one of the small islands off the coast of our cove to another one. It was tiny. Mother Bear (like most bears) moved slow and deliberately with long purposeful steps, and baby bear had to do these little skip-jumps to keep up. I was instantly in inescapable love.
Far from being an expert, it seemed that the tiny first year bears will stay close to their mother and listen very closely to everything she tells them to do. They’re adorable in their vulnerabilities, irresistible in their play, and they instantly crawl deep into your chest area and maybe you tear up a little remembering watching that first baby bear sticking so close to mom, seeing humans for the first time in its life and having its tiny little bear brain explode at the idea of such strange-looking creatures.
LOOK AT THESE TINY BABY FEET.
These fuckers on the other hand, were in their second summer.
Teenagers, in most of the ways humans understand teenagers. They’re experienced enough to know when they don’t need to listen and often will just wander off on their own and mom will have to follow them. Our guide Brian said these were dangerous bears because during their second and third summer, they’re testing everything and will pick fights because they know mom will back them up. That’s a bad situation if they’re picking a fight with a human (Brian didn’t have any examples of that happening though, thankfully.)
We watched this family more than any other set during our five day adventure, and on the first evening’s walk down the beach around the point we met them for the first time when they popped out of the west meadow, directly above where Michele had been sitting just two minutes prior.
The teenagers will bray incessantly to feed, even though they’re also eating a steady diet of clams and grasses and dead whales if available or anything else. They get aggressive with mom’s nipples and she’s not too keen to let them nurse for long at this stage. One night Michele shook me awake in our tent to the sound of them braying (like donkeys, almost) nearby, and all of the birds chirping in the sunny middle of the night. Suddenly a groar (a growl-roar! I just totally made that word up) and the braying stopped, and the birds were quiet. Mom laid the smackdown and that was that.
Mom has the added responsibility of looking after the cubs but also being aware of other bears in the area, males, who will attack and kill cubs so that the female goes into heat again. We spotted this male (above) crossing into the west meadow and once mom saw him she and the cubs ran a solid distance to the other end of the meadow. This time the cubs listened to her, but then instantly sat down and started chewing their feet and lolling around again once they were far enough away.
Shooting these guys was the same as shooting the other bears: set up, stay put. As long as mom is aware you’re there, it’s a safe bet she’s uninterested in you. One afternoon during a small rain shower, the four others went back to the tents to nap and I stayed awake to watch the family of three across the river for a couple of hours. It was raining slightly, making most of the shots I took grainy and unfocused, but when they decided to cross the sand bar to head to clam during low tide it had stopped raining and I managed to snag a couple of great shots of the teenagers.
The full gallery is below, and at the risk of this going another 1,000 words, more baby bears still to post in Part 3.
There’s so much I want to say about this experience because camping with these amazing animals was thrilling and epic in every way: the dramatic and sprawling landscape, the vivid colors and contrast of grey and blue sky to the bright greens of the meadows, the animals themselves and their silent social dynamic, the engulfing remoteness, the sharpness of the snow-covered peaks we woke up to every morning, the busy tide that washed in and back out for miles twice a day, exposing a vast, brown area to explore for six hours – all of it. Epic.
So many starts and deletes on this blog post. I’ll keep this one to just the bears, or at least, try to. Our camp is below:
Okay so the first thing to know is that not all brown bears are grizzly bears, but all grizzly bears are brown bears. For the sake of confusion, I had to spell that out. The brown bears in this gallery are all Kodiak bears, also referred to as Alaskan Coastal Brown bears – they are the generrralllyyyy (I think) the same as Grizzly bears except for location and diet.
On our first morning, we had a close encounter with this guy (above.) This shot was taken later in the week, but we met this young bear on our first morning on the beach. A not-quite mature male brown bear Michele dubbed “Randy.” We were setting off on a day hike to see the dead whale that had washed up on the beach a few miles away and to get some photos of the bears in and around that area. The group had left the camp and we had activated the electrical fence – I stopped just outside of it to fuss with one of my waders (a necessary evil when hiking in wet, tall grass or far out at low tide in the slick muck of the cove) and was about 15 feet from the group when Randy appeared around the corner – and he was moving fast.
Randy was coming around the beach point at the same time we were – and when our guide quietly gestured for us to come together as a group, I scurried to rejoin the group (I should have moved slower and more deliberately, as a bear would, but he was close and I was new. Lesson learned, immediately.) Our encounter lasted a good few minutes, with him swaying back and forth, head low, pacing. In no way did I ever feel threatened. Sure, he was bigger than I was, but he was more ‘testing’ us than acting truly aggressive – even if he was simply “giving us shit” as our guide Brian explained, minutes afterward my heart was still racing. But I never felt ‘un’safe, and somehow even in the moment, I could see he was a younger bear and felt instinctively that he had no real intention of harming us.
Being a young male he is constantly pushed around by the larger males and so he was seeing where we, the humans, were on his totem pole of social hierarchy. Sadly for him we are near the top, and together as a group and lead by our guide, we used proper body language and movement to let him know he wasn’t allowed to mess with us. The oft-repeated, “Hey bear, move along buddy” didn’t hurt. (Surprisingly, it works.)
But damn, what a way to start the camping trip.
We also met Rachel, a blond Kodiak bear who runs everywhere instead of walking. It’s unclear why she does this; bears don’t usually excerpt themselves more than they have to and running is usually reserved for escaping larger or more aggressive bears. Rachel runs simply “because.” It’s pretty funny to witness, because you always expect to see some sort of chase or something but no, it’s just Rachel running to wherever it is she’s going. We think she might be Randy’s sister – we saw them play-fighting way off in a meadow one night, and it made me happy to think they both had a friend in this world.
Each day, depending on weather, was more or less the same: wake up from the perpetual overnight sunshine of Alaskan summer, breakfast, and setting out on a hike in a different direction. I loved every minute of it: exploration, exercise, wildlife, nature. Walking for miles a day in waders on soft rocky beaches or through thick, spongy meadows left me aching at the end of each day, but skipping out on any chance to explore never crossed my mind.
While I was there I wanted to see everything I could see, which meant hiking out in the slick soft mud for miles out when the tide was out, or heading out to one of the various islands off the coast of our beach cove and scrambling to the top meadows, or wading across the tidal river that extended out from our campsite into the meadows.
The bears were everywhere. You didn’t have to go “find them” because you could just see them everywhere – clamming on the beach at low tide, grazing on “goose tongue” grass in the meadows. Or if you were just in camp, one could just simply walk by. They don’t care that you’re there, as long as you understand how to behave. The best chance to see one up close is to go out, perch yourself with a good view and sooner or later one will happen by.
Or, in one case, you might accidentally almost walk right into one sleeping so deeply that he doesn’t hear you until it’s almost too late. Which is why you move slowly, deliberately, and must have solid mental focus the entire time you’re outside of camp.
We woke this guy up (left), and I know now why they say, “Don’t poke the sleeping bear.” He was grumpy AF when he woke up – in a very real, noticeable way. Michele and I happened to be walking below the ridge where the rest of the group was (for just a minute while I once again messed with my wader , and the bear below turned around to look at the group over his shoulder – he didn’t see us below, thankfully.) It took him a good long while to realize where he was and what was happening – and man was he pissed off when he walked away.
Legs swinging way out to the sides as he walked – an unmistakable sign that says, “I’m annoyed.”I don’t think this is the same bear we woke up, but here’s a great example of the John Wayne cowboy leg swing thing. (right)
Anyway, he was huge in every way and I’m glad that ended with a funny story. It really did take him a while to wake up and figure out what was going on, it was like waking up your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving when it’s time to go home. He’d probably been gorging on whale all day.
We also met this guy on our way back from the dead whale. We were on the same little trail and guess which one of us moved to the left? Not him.
People asked me how I could stand and take a shot like the one above without crapping my pants. I shot the above with a 300mm lens, but make no mistake, that bear was 20 yards and closing fast (even with their slow pace, they cover ground quickly.) The thing is, and you learn this quickly (and it helps to have an incredible guide with you) that the bears don’t really give a shit about you. You’re just another animal out there – and you need to know the rules.
There’s unmistakable signs (staring is a big one, jaws lacking/snapping, legs swinging) that you can’t miss if you’re paying attention. And the mental focus it takes to constantly be aware out there is very real, and very exhausting. We were lucky to have a guide that was constantly aware for us so that we could concentrate on shooting. When the bear above was coming right toward us, I was on the outer edge of the group and with every step, it became more and more unnerving before I simply just stopped shooting and put the camera down to slowly make my way to the right so he could pass by. And he passed by incredibly close to us and he was enormous.
Almost as big as this one.
In part 2 I’ll post all my baby bear pictures and talk about the mothers we were lucky enough to get to know while we were camping. The babies. The babies are so cute it hurts and I miss them terribly.
The full gallery is below.
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Just got back from 11 days in Alaska, and have thousands of images to sift through. Needless to say, it was epic in every sense of the word: the size of the “small” area we were in for our three-part trip, the enormity of the coastal brown bears (grizzlies, except they’re not called grizzlies because they live at the beach), the sense of adventure and wonder everyone – locals and tourists – share, and our own experiences.
The photo above is one of several I have of a dead Humpback whale that washed up on the beach a couple weeks ago. We counted approximately 15 bears in this area when we arrived – slowly making our way up the beach and staying a careful distance away from such a coveted food source.
On our way back to camp, we crossed a meadow and as we descended from one small ridge, we met this guy as he came over the one in front of us. Almost nothing gets in the way of a bear, including us. We slowly moved to our left and he barely swerved right as he passed by us with a deliberate but unwavering gait. Merely a handful of feet away, he passed us by on his way to the beach.
More pics coming as I develop them.
This was a fun one. Coming out of the western sierras into Fresno, I saw tops on cumulous clouds so high that I thought they must be far off over the hills of the coastal mountain range east of San Luis Obispo. I was wrong – as we made our way down into the San Joaquin valley we saw quickly that there was a storm moving east on the other side of Fresno, and another one north of there. A big ol’ one.
The sun was starting to set and the light was just spectacular – god rays and amazing texture in the sky. We pulled off east of Fresno and I set up both cameras while Michele made herself comfortable on the hood of the Jeep. It was warmish where we were, making it just lovely.
Obligatory iPhone shot:
The clouds were amazing and I got some great timelapses and shots in general. Even though we knew we were going to be delayed getting home until way later than we wanted to, it was perfect just sitting there in a warm swirling wind.
I took a timelapse with my iPhone, which only holds up so well to winds. It’s not great but cool if you’re a cloud fan like me.
We found ourselves in a calm center of the storms – rain to the southwest of us and to the north west of us, but warm, gentle wind where we were. After I had packed up the gear back into the Jeep and we pulled away, a funnel cloud touched down in the horizon just before it was completely dark.
This iPhone shot is about five minutes before it touched down just about above where my camera is in the photo. (Just south of Merced.)
Not sure just yet which timelapse series this will go into, I’m going to have to see how it goes in Tuscon during the monsoon next month.
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Somewhere south along the 8 freeway near the Mexican border is a tiny road off a small town that takes you to Anza Borrego State Park. Off that small road are more, smaller dirt roads that branch off in a variety of directions. Off one of those dirt roads, in a hardly marked area through canyons I wouldn’t feel safe driving through with any weather whatsoever in the forecast, is a small, barely noticeable trailhead.
It goes straight up.
There’s no shade, there’s no trees. Just rocks, you, dirt and the almost-Mexican sun. Two miles up and onto a ridgeline that looks like one of the other literal thousands of ridgelines that extend all the way to the southwestern horizon, is a network of wind caves.
I sat out here for a few hours, enjoying exploring the caves while my cameras caught the clouds moving in to the southwest. Overall I think I got just two timelapses here, and the one above is my favorite of the two.
The timelapse above will appear in my upcoming “Desert” timelapse series.