Wednesday, August 3, 2011

PHOTOGRAPHING THE GRIZZLY BEAR IN ALASKA

The grizzly bear also known as the North American brown bear is a subspecies of the brown bear that generally lives in the uplands of western North America. They are thought to descend from the Ussuri Brown Bear which crossed to Alaska from eastern Russia 100,000 years ago, though they did not move south until 13,000 years ago. 


Grizzlies are normally solitary, active animals, but in coastal areas, the grizzly congregates alongside streams, lakes, rivers and ponds during the salmon spawn. Every other year the females (sows) produce one to four young (commonly two) which are small and weigh only 1 lb. (500 grams) A sow is very protective of her offspring and will attack if she thinks she or her cubs are threatened.


Most grizzly attacks happen for just that reason, a person will be hiking and inadvertently come between a sow and her cubs. The sow then attacks and the person will be very lucky if they survive.  Mothers protecting their children are responsible for 70% of all grizzly attacks. Grizzly bears normally avoid contact with people. 


In spite of their obvious physical advantages and many opportunities, they almost never view humans as prey; bears rarely actively hunt humans. Other than protecting their children, most other attacks result from the grizzly being surprised (although who is more surprised the bear or the person is pretty clear in my mind)  at very close range, especially if it has a supply of food to protect. In such situations, property may be damaged and the bear may physically harm the person.


Phyllis and I knew all this before the trip as we had read up on grizzlies and Chris and Ken also went over all this before we took off in their plane. As we were hiking, I did think about all of this and the fact that the only defensive weapons anyone had was bear spray. Chris' reputation and her demeanor really put me at ease. I just trusted her and her twenty years of experience.


After we hiked away from our first grizzly, we did not see another for awhile and I was left with appreciating the beauty of this place. When I am somewhere walking, in what I call a raw natural environment, everything seems to go quiet. I really am not aware of anyone speaking or for that matter even the sound of the wind. I just see the beauty of the land and smell the cleanliness of unsullied air. A feeling of serenity overcomes me and I rejoice in the wonder of our planet. This place was the rawest of anywhere I had ever been and I am sure my head looked like it was on a swivel as I looked everywhere taking it all in.


Chris and I were the last two in line as we hiked single file along a narrow path. After a while Ken held up his hand and to stop. He pointed down hill to a river we could just see on our left side. Between us and the river were lush green shrubs and bushes. Ken informed us that we would be following a path down to that river but would need to wait a minute. As he said that, he pointed down into the shrubs.


As I looked down trying to find what he was pointing at, I saw a large brown head stick up out of the green and understood why we would need to wait our turn.


  As we waited, we saw that it was not just one bear but a sow with   
  the first cub showing!



   Then another cub appeared out of the brush. The grizzly never 
  looked our way again, just continued on her way to the river.




Chris told us that the cubs were about a year old and she had seen them the previous year, a few days after they were born.


After a while we continued our hike down to the river. As we hiked along the river, we saw another sow with her cubs following the river on the other side.




It was amazing to see the relationship between the mother and her children, even at this distance. You could see that she seemed to always be looking in their direction, keeping a motherly eye out for danger.


We finally arrived at a point on the river where we were about two hundred feet from the opposite shore and on that shore were grizzlies. This older grizzly had a fresh wound on it side, probably from a fight with another grizzly over territory. It could also have been with a younger grizzly fighting for dominance over their brood, especially the females. 


If you click on this image you will be able to see the fresh wound. He kept watching us from across the river for awhile. Personally, I think he was trying to tell us that we should see what the other grizzly looked like after the fight!!!



It was amazing standing across the river from the bears knowing they were allowing us to be there. At any point, they could attack us, a grizzly can run at a top speed of 38 miles per hour. At their size to be able to generate that much speed is unbelievable. It is the reason you are told never to turn and run from a grizzly, it just puts them in a chase mode. In this race, the human will loose almost every time!


We saw more sows and their cubs across the river. The mother would go into the river, catch a salmon and bring it back to shore for all of them to eat. 






Chris told us that the year before, a sow walked over with two very small cubs, left them about four feet from her and went into the river. It was almost as if the mother bear was saying, "Here, mind the kids for a moment." Chris and Ken have been doing this for about twenty years and have witnessed the grizzlies grow from cubs to adults. They have a relationship with the bears but Chris said that she can never forget they are wild animals. They can attack at anytime, if provoked. 


At one point as I was photographing the bears, I heard one member of our group say, "Chris, quick there's a grizzly on this side walking towards us." That really caught my attention!! I turned and saw this grizzly lumbering towards us, occasionally looking up at us but mostly looking down at the shallow water he was walking in. Chris told us not to worry and not to run or even back up. 


At this point, the bear was about twenty yards from us. She said that when she told us to, we should all stand shoulder to shoulder which the bear would see as a very large body. It seems bears can not  distinguish between six or seven people standing together from one large body and would not attack such a large opponent. 


I'll be honest with you, at this point, I am having my doubts and looking around to see if there were at least two other people in our group that Phyllis and I could outrun. After all, do you need to outrun the bear or just some of the other people lol?? I'm guessing the bear will attack the first one he catches, right?? I saw at least three or four that we could outrun, especially with a grizzly running after us and especially if a few would trip, totally by accident as I was running by them.


(Okay, the last few thoughts are said with tongue firmly planted in cheek). You really don't think I would trip someone else to allow Phyllis and I to escape? Do You? :)


At this point the bear was about twenty feet from us but to be honest I was not really worried. First, because Chris did not seem worried  and she really inspired confidence. Also, the grizzly did not seem that interested in us. 




The bear did get to about twenty feet from us and stopped to smell the flowers! I kid you not, that is what it did, it stopped and putting its nose down, seemingly sniffed the wildflowers. Being that close, it was hard not to admire and appreciate its beauty, they really are such magnificent creatures. With their thick coat and puppy dog eyes, it could be easy to think of them as teddy bears. Until of course, they start walking in your direction!!



He stepped back into the river giving one last look back at us.



He then started running towards the other shore. He seemed to be having a wonderful time splashing and running, much like a big kid running at the beach!!



When he reached the other side, he stopped and shook himself getting rid of the river water.



 I was really excited I had been as close to a grizzly as I thought I ever would be. What an experience!! BUT, I was wrong! That would not be the closest I would get and it was not the most scary moment by a long shot. My next post will be about a charging grizzly and how he was charging in my direction, straight at me. 
Check in Friday to see if I survived my charging grizzly!!!

22 comments:

Moonlight and Magnolias said...

Absolutely awesome images! For many years I had been completely taken by the bear and these images serve them well! Beautiful!~Mitzi

Ann said...

Fabulous photos!

Alpana Jaiswal said...

This is so fascinating..I can't believe you all were there "live"...I am totally taken aback..it must have been a great experience..the pictures are fabulous,Jim..keep going.

Bec Owen said...

Words don't really do these images justice, Jim! Really, really stunning!

I love visiting all the different places you and Phyllis have been...even though it is vicariously!

Your photos are a feast!

Alfandi said...

beautiful..and the bears are so cute..a great effort..

Aaron said...

I am so jealous....I have always wanted to just see a bear in real life, let alone photgraph it.
Especially grizzlies, they are so magestic, beautiful and nothing exudes such raw power.

I love your photos as always :)
Aaron
http://streetogroffy.blogspot.com/2011/08/reflections.html

Ravenmyth said...

Jim these are amazing photo's..and to get that close. I would have been a little nervous...especially because of the cubs. I loved your commentary on what was taking place and the history of the origins of the Grizzly. They are beautiful creatures and we have them here in B.C. and of course the Rockies and I have had the priviledge of seeing them in their natural habitat. I also really liked the photo's you took showing movement...as you captured them. Through your photography..you gave us a close glimpse into their lives...what a special thing that is...thank you for sharing this amazing Travel Log of the Grizzly...look forward to the post on the Charging Grizzly!

sheril benedict said...

Fabolus pics jim !!

alejandro guzman said...

Yogi? where's my Bubu?

A

Nelieta said...

Those baby cubs are so cute! You are lucky to have snapped them. I watched a BBC program the other night about these amazing animals...it was fascinating!

forjenssake said...

We had black and brown bears in the woods when I was growing up, never had a second thought about them being around all the time. I guess when you see them all the time and know their patterns you get use to it. Amazing images as per usual.

pamanner said...

Whoa! Awesome yet must have been a little scary!

JIM said...

Thank You everyone. It was an amazing experience . They are such a mixture of being majestic and being cuddly that it is easy to forget how dangerous they can be. I would love another opportunity to photograph them in the future. But Italy is first Lol





Jim

Mari Sterling Wilbur said...

You make a terrific wildlife photographer - not everyone has the ability to capture scenes like this. I love the first photo best - curious bear :D

Amy said...

Super, super fabulous shots...wow! You really captured the moment. I especially like the last shot and the one with purple flowers!

lakwatsera de primera said...

I could imagine your thrill and excitement of being this close to a wild animal. Photographing the grizzlies and polar bears in their habitat is one of my ultimate dreams next to the penguins in Antarctica.

Jim said...

You now know the thrill of being up close to dangerous animals and it is feeling you will never forget and you will look back upon it as a great moment in life.

JIM said...

Thank you Mari,JIm, Amy and Lakwatsera It was something I'll never forget and hope to duplicate someday.
I have had the opportunity to meet very large Moose and Elk out in the wild and have stood next to sea lions but the grizzly was a special moment!!

BlogNostics said...

Fantastic shots Jim! You've proven yourself as a brave photographer.

melissa said...

You've answered most of my queries Jim...and you did come as close as you could. I admire you but at the same time I truly worry that you're taking all the risks to take great shots.

I've seen how the bears charge towards their victims...hmmm...I think I'll see that in your next post.

I like the first image of the bear sticking its head out...

How cute the little cubs are! And how lovely seeing their mother with them...

I also liked the image when the grizzly bear took its last look at you... I liked the whole scene...it makes for a great story :)

I do love the splashing it did on the water... I like movement in the photos...especially the last image...I wish I were near :P

You had a great adventure out there...

Bronzilla said...

Jim the photos are beautiful. I too have been close to a brown bear and it is amazing as it is frightening. My great grandma owns a farm in virgia and we were in the fields picking corn and we heard some noice and be for we knew it, it was the bear standing up. He was beautiful. Yet, grams said, "softly don't" move and I didn't. He then walked away and this is a site I will never forget. This was an amazing post Jim.

JIM said...

Thank You Melissa and Bronzilla.
Melissa I really don't take risk. Besides my first marriage was may more dangerous then these bears lol!!!!
Bronzilla when you face to face in the wild it is something that you never forget, it is a soul,mind and heart lifting experience!!!