Close Encounters of the Bear Kind

Close Encounters of the Bear Kind

There are good days and there are bad days. And then there are days like today.

The day started out poorly, as inclement weather kept us grounded until just before lunch. The skies began to clear and we sailed north along the Dempster Highway, tracking reports of grizzly bear sightings near the border with North West Territory. Along the way we stopped for some landscape images right at the Arctic Circle (click on the images to enlarge).

Proceeding north from there, we didn’t have to wait long before we sighted a gorgeous grizzly specimen. This was one well-fed brute, but his markings were also particularly beautiful, with a striking black stripe down his spine, light fur and a pronounced hump. We stopped and began to photograph him, even though he was quite a distance away. Our hope was that he would continue to graze on berries and dig up roots and work his way closer to us. It took two hours before he came close enough to us for some great images.

Inquisitive, at one point he warily stood up to sniff us, not more than 25 feet from us. At this point he was considerably taller than either of us.

Now I was getting a bit anxious. Bears usually have a goodly fear of humans, especially when they see us in advance. But this bear was getting a bit too close. I got my bear spray out of the holder, just to be on the safe side.

Just then a passing RV spooked him and he ran away and crossed the road about 50 yards from us. He resumed his feast, all the while ambling closer and closer to us. By now Richard Hartmier, a fellow pro photographer, and I were shooting frantically. Still he came, creeping closer, head bowed and shoulders down, as would a large feline.

Finally, we could wait no longer. We backed away, but he kept on advancing to within ten feet and we were forced to leave our tripods, cameras and long lenses and jump into the car.

My heart sank to my stomach as I watched him tip over my tripod with one little swat of his huge paws. He sniffed at it, totally ignoring us as we screamed at him. I pointed my bear spray, but did not press the trigger. After all, the damage had already been done and now he was doing what bears do and that is to explore.

He dragged my $10,000 rig to the side of the road and began to eat the foam on my tripod legs. I suspected my brand new Nikon lens was now a doorstop and the camera a paperweight, but he would not leave, so I gave a quick spritz of the pepper spray. He sniffed the air and when he sensed the sting in his nostrils, he left immediately.

In the meantime, Richard had also gotten out of the vehicle and very, very carefully took some shots of the bear near my photo rig. The bear wandered away nonchalantly.

With much trepidation, I examined my gear. The lens was in perfect working order, even after having survived a 6-foot fall onto the hard-packed gravel road. My camera had a minor injury; the battery compartment door had snapped off from the impact. A little duct tape later and it worked just fine.

With that established we did what any other self-respecting photographer would do, and that was to continue to photograph this magnificent animal, which we did for another hour or so.

Just a couple of final remarks. First, Richard and I never felt in danger and we continuously checked with each other to be sure we were in agreement on that score. The bear did not appear to be aggressive at any point and after tracking it for three hours, we felt that we saw enough of its natural behavior to be alerted if it became aggressive. In fact, right after it chewed on my tripod, it immediately began to dig roots from the roadbed. Richard has lived in the Yukon most of his life and is experienced photographing bear. Besides, he’s slower than I, so I probably felt more secure than he did.

Finally, hats off to Nikon. Their pro line is durable, that’s for sure. Also, a big nod to the folks at Really Right Stuff. The tripod ball head they make is widely considered the best in the industry. It held the camera fast, which is a major reason I feel the camera and lens did not shatter. Add “bear-proof” to your list of features, guys.

Oh, one more thing… bear spray works! Plus, it teaches the bear a valuable lesson that may very well save its life.