The Bear Truth and Other Musings

I’m back in Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon Territory, recharging my batteries, cleaning my equipment, doing laundry and running assorted errands before leaving for the Dempster Highway again to photograph the Fall colors and Northern Lights (hopefully). I thought it would be good to review with you the past week’s photo shoot and some things I learned from the experience.

For those of you following my progress on my interactive SPOT geo-tracking page, it will be inactive for the next two days. On Tuesday, my fellow photographer, Richard Hartmier and I will leave for historic Dawson City. Just before we go I’ll re-post the link to my SPOT site.

The first thing I re-learned from my week with Richard is how much fun it can be photographing with another passionate professional. Perhaps 90% of the time I prefer to photograph alone, communing with nature as much as photographing. But when I find someone who I can share my passion and dedication with, it is rewarding in itself. Richard and I banter and tease throughout our shoots, but underlying it all is a respect for each other’s body of work. In fact, one amateur photographer we met over the three days summed up our friendship after hearing us razz each other.

“You two are friends… aren’t you?”

Frankly, I struggled to get decent results with my new Nikon 200-400mm VR lens. My first day’s shots lacked crystal clarity, something that other photographers have reported. I finally took a colleague’s (Thom Hogan) recommendation and removed the protective clear glass from the front of the lens and that made a difference. That’s a risky practice with a $7,500 lens, but if I can’t get the results I need, that investment immediately becomes a doorstop.

I also tried a Nikon 500mm, manual focus lens, but had difficulty adjusting to its quirks, after just having used my 200-400. That was entirely my fault. The lens is capable of giving tack sharp results. I told myself that I needed to practice with the controls the night before in my motel room, but I had too many other things to do and never got around to it. Bad mistake. On our final morning the bear cubs were very active, wrestling and sparring with each other. I missed the entire sequence as I battled with the settings on the lens and camera. Yes, pros do such knuckle-headed things, too. Making matters much, much worse was the fact that Richard got some great images. Ouch!

Other musings include the fact that most of the bears in this park were tagged, a good thing for biologists studying them, but bad for wildlife photographers. We also put some of our down time to good use, photographing small waterfalls and beach scenes.

People often ask me what it’s like photographing wildlife. There is always a balancing act between getting the shot and risking life and limb. Bears are unpredictable creatures that can do horrific damage with one swipe of their paws. We had watched this family for two days, so I somewhat felt I had a handle on their behavior. As soon as this shot was taken by Rick Price, a Canadian pro wedding photographer and amateur wildlife shooter, I backed off. However, please note the can of bear spray in my right hand. Even after I backed off, these cubs came on land toward me. Cubs are even more unpredictable than their mothers. When they were too close for my comfort level, I raised the can of spray at them and yelled and they turned and went back into the water. Bears and humans need to have a healthy fear and respect for each other. Thanks, Rick, for those pictures.

But, the best thing of all is this: There is no such thing as a bad day for a nature photographer. Veteran photographer George Lepp said that and I concur. I was out there in the rain and cold, standing next to pristine glacial streams that helped carve out the majestic snow-capped mountains in the park. Perhaps I didn’t get all the images I wanted, but I felt blessed to be able to watch such magnificent animals interact with their environment as their species has done for thousands of years. It just doesn’t get much better than that.

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