“Hello Bear,” I said.
He looked up.
“I see you,” I said.
And he saw me. I felt him look into my eyes. Not scared, not worried, not concerned, just curious. The same way I felt. The words “I see you” echoed back.
Then… he simply looked away and went back to eating grass.
How often do these simple but profound things happen in life? Not so often that a person doesn’t remember each and every one of them.
It was this profound experience I wanted and I got it within 20 minutes of stepping foot on the small zodiac that would take me into grizzly bear territory.
The experience is more important to me than the photos. It’s also necessary, in my opinion, to have this kind of experience before you can convey emotion in an image. So I decided on the way in that I would resist the urge to hold up my camera and photograph the first bear I saw.
I waited. I talked to the bear. I sat in the silent space and watched. And learned.
My first grizzly bear was in Khutzeymateen Provincial Park in northern British Columbia. This grizzly bear sanctuary was the first area in Canada to be protected specifically for grizzly bears and their habitat. It includes over 45,000 hectares of rugged peaks, a valley of wetlands, old growth temperate rainforest and a large river estuary.
The bears are different here. No bear has been hunted here for 23 years. No bear has been collared or tranquillized and no bear has found food that belonged to a human. No human has gone ashore. For these reasons, the grizzlies here do not see humans as a threat.
Land access is prohibited, as is unguided access to the estuary. There are only a small handful of outfitters that are licensed to enter the estuary, which means that fewer than 200 people per year have the privilege of being here and witnessing the secret life of grizzly bears.
This year I was one of them.
I arrived by float plane from Prince Rupert and a zodiac transferred me to the majestic 70 foot ketch-rigged sailboat called the “Ocean Light II” that would be my home for the next 6 days. The trips are usually just 3 days long, but I decided to do two back-to-back trips to maximize my bear viewing opportunities. And I’m really glad I did!
After getting settled, my fellow guests and I got back on board the zodiac and our bear guide took us up into the estuary for a life changing experience. One that would be repeated a number of times each day during my stay; each outing bringing a different experience and different photo opportunities.
Back on board the mothership at dinner time, we enjoyed feasts of halibut and crab followed by decadent deserts. After bear-viewing time had passed, the guests would all sit in the dining area and exchange stories, look at photos, and even sing songs. And for people like me who appreciate their alone time, there’s lots of space on deck to sit in silence and marvel at the scenery (being summer-time in BC, it doesn’t get dark until about 9:30 PM).
I bought a new camera for this trip! My old Canon 7D has been well used and loved during it’s life, but it was time for an upgrade, so I bought the Canon 7D Mark II. It has a much improved auto-focus system with many more features that are useful for wildlife photographers. I’m planning a whole post on how to set up your camera for wildlife photography soon, so be on the look-out for that.
While I had a new camera, I had a lens conundrum. My 70-300mm lens was proving to be utterly hooped. I don’t know what happened to it, but it suddenly became pretty unreliable and it wasn’t worth fixing.
There was also the issue of weight because there is a severe weight restriction on the float planes.
I decided that the best option was to go with a 2 lens 2 camera body system so I wouldn’t have to worry about switching lenses in the field. I took my 24-105L and I rented a 100-400L. That gave me a great range with only 2 lenses.
I have rented the 100-400L lens a number of times and it is a thing of beauty. But it’s heavy. And I know I just said I was trying to limit the weight, but the versatile focal length of that lens meant that ultimately my bag was lighter with fewer lenses in it. The only problem was that I wondered whether I would be able to hold that lens up for 6 days of shooting. I rented it once for a day at the zoo and my arms where like wet noodles by the end of the day! So at the last minute I decided to pick up a monopod. Best decision ever!!! I don’t know what I would have done without it.
Also at the last minute I decided to throw in my tiny little 50mm f/1.8 lens, which turned out to be a lifesaver.
Why? Because my 24-105L ended up having a broken weather seal and it fogged up inside!!!!! The worst time ever to loose a lens. So here I was on this super expensive trip, with photographers that had WAAAAAY better equipment than me (that always happens), and I’m shooting with a $100 lens!! Haha.
Overall, the trip was outstanding. The ship was gorgeous, my cabin was small but comfortable, the food was excellent, and the bear guide and skipper was knowledgable, experienced, and alot of fun too.
The bears were obviously A-MAZING!!!
I met some really nice people and some that were … well … you know. I have found that on these kinds of trips there is always someone with an ego that is too big for the room – or the ship in this case. Hence my desire for alone time on deck!
The only negative I found was that shooting out of the zodiac was very uncomfortable. It’s one of those zodiacs where you sit along the edge. So when you come up to a bear, half the people are on the bear side and half the people are on the other side. In order for everyone to shoot, the people on the bear side have to go low by kneeling or squating, or you can sit on the edge and twist around. Being on the bear side is awesome because you can get a low angle with water in the foreground. But for someone like me who cannot kneel, it is extremely challenging. When you are on the other side of the boat, you get to stand.
Knee pads make no difference, I cannot do the kneeling position even if I kneel on the couch! So that meant long periods of uncomfortable squatting.
The trip was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back (or knees in this case) because after I got home my knee problems got significantly worse resulting in my not being able to walk for more than 5 minutes for a whole month. Now it is 3 months later, and I still am unable to walk more than about 20 minutes and that’s with my knees taped and tons of physical therapy behind me. It’s a problem with my kneecaps not tracking properly resulting in the underside of my kneecap rubbing on the thigh bone. It’s not pleasant. But this is a situation that has taken years to develop and is ultimately caused by a muscle imbalance due to my old back injury.
So the bear trip didn’t cause the problem, but exacerbated an existing knee problem.
I would caution anyone who has knee problems about this kind of shooting arrangement. Because there are only a few outfitters that are permitted in the park, there are not a lot of options. I believe that they all shoot out of similar types of zodiacs.
Still, I think it was worth it for the experience and the photos 🙂
As a final note, I’ll tell you something you probably wont believe.
I made all of the photos in this post on the first day.
Yes, you read that right. After this remarkable day, I had 5 more and each day was different. Those photos will be coming up soon on the blog.
I hope you don’t get sick of bear photos 🙂