Tag Archives: Alaska

A Bear is Eating My Camera

No marshmallow filling?

It was a brilliant Indian summer afternoon in Elk Lakes Provincial Park in Canada’s eastern British Columbia. Blue skies reigned over pale grey granite mountains and the mercury reached an unseasonable eighty degrees Fahrenheit. There were no deciduous trees in sight to offer any clues that it was, in fact, mid September yet the subtle yellow, orange, and red hues in the meadow grasses and huckleberry bushes betrayed the undeniable and irresistible approach of autumn. Bull moose wading the far shores of the marsh ponds had long disposed of their antler velvet and a fresh dusting of snow from the last passing front adorned the serrated peaks of the Continental Divide, the conspicuous border separating the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.

Elkford’s Chamber of Commerce might have billed this afternoon as “idyllic” but the bright sunlight and robin-egg blue skies reduced this photographer to just another tourist, squinting through the windshield to admire the stunning scenery while stopping every so often to unfold and refold the map before driving yet again with no particular destination in mind. Everyone plays the clueless tourist at some point in their life whether any of us wants to admit it or not.

I didn’t really mind that I was unlikely to do any meaningful photography on this day. I was too busy processing a flood of pleasant memories from a previous trip fourteen years ago when I visited here first time with just a film camera and fly rod. Through the middle of the park flows the Elk River that just happens to host the prettiest, most naive cutthroat trout whose acquaintance I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Toward no dry fly did these fish seem to pass any judgment or discrimination. Rising through milky, glacier-fed currents from the river bottom’s cobbles they would inhale a dry fly from the surface with such dumb innocence, it would almost break your heart.

It’s during the same trip that I also saw my first honest to goodness wild grizzly bear. It was at a safe enough distance, at least 100 yards, and we were separated by a particularly deep and broad section of the Elk River. It stalked the meadow’s edge with the purposeful gait and confidence that only an apex predator of the wild could get away with. When its head spun around on those massive shoulders and our eyes met, the coldest shiver ran down my spine and my toes tingled. I was flying.

If you do enough traveling to North America’s great wilderness areas, you will eventually have to deal with bears – either real ones or the phantom bears of your all too vivid imagination. A good piece of advice to follow when walking or hiking in bear country is to make as much noise as possible, not necessarily to scare any of them away, but to at least make your presence known since startling or surprising a bear at close range would spell certain disaster. Some examples would be wearing bear bells, intermittent clapping or yelling, and talking loudly – either within a group or just to yourself.

I’ve always preferred talking to myself since I tend to do it anyway: politics, religion, the use or overuse of HDR – you know, the usual topics to avoid in polite company. In fact, hiking through bear country is one of the few occasions when talking to oneself is a perfectly sane and reasonable thing to do.

Despite the lousy photography weather (photographers hate bright sunshine and clear, blue skies, unlike your typical tourist) I decided to take an afternoon hike to a small alpine lake for sunset. It was likely to be an exercise in futility – if not merely good old fashioned exercise period – but I was in a particularly beautiful part of the Canadian Rockies on an otherwise glorious September afternoon, so what the hell, right? At the very least, I will have had an invigorating hike through some incredibly scenic country and maybe I’d even take a photo or two.

The trail started out by winding through a fragrant forest of firs, Engelmann spruce, and lodge pole pine and quickly started gaining elevation. The hot sun and thin air conspired to make the hiking slow and burdensome but I was in no particular hurry after all. At each stop I made to catch my breath, small animals and birds would emerge from the forest once I settled down and sat quiet: a few chipmunks, a pika, and one brazen blue grouse that nearly came within an arm’s length of the rock on which I was resting. I’d attempt a few photos of the critters, glance at the results on the LCD display, shrug, and start walking again.

After an hour or so on the trail, I stopped yet again for a breather and an opportunity to answer the call of nature, once I found an appropriate powder room. I set my tripod firmly on the ground, with camera and lens attached, and ducked into a dense labyrinth of scrub birch and willows for a veil of privacy, as if I really needed it. Almost immediately, I heard a loud crash, breaking branches, and a grunting and growling that seemed to be getting alarmingly close. I made a hasty, ungraceful retreat back to the meadow and was closely tailed – a bit too close – by a visibly agitated black bear. I kept a respectable distance and did my best to calm it down by talking in a soft, reassuring voice.

Eeeeasy there big fella. You’re a good bear, aren’t you? We don’t want any trouble now, do we?

That didn’t work. Maybe it was my patronizing tone of voice. Maybe I was trespassing and about to use the loo in its personal living space. Or maybe it had something to do with the undignified visage of me standing in the middle of a lovely alpine meadow with pants dangling around my hiking boots. Whatever the reason, my amateur bear psychology and I were not being taken seriously, if at all. The bear then projected its displeasure on my tripod and camera, with admirable style and flair had it been any other circumstance, by spiking it to the ground like a post-touchdown celebration.

After performing an inspection and concluding that the combination of applied force and gravity didn’t do enough damage to be satisfied, the bear took the camera in its considerable jaws and began doing its best great white shark impersonation. I watched helplessly as shards of black plastic exploded from the exquisite piece of digital technology formerly known as my Canon DSLR. It occurred to me at some point that if the bear was desperate enough to try and extract nutrition from a digital camera, who’s to say that it wouldn’t be as equally desperate to try to take a pound or two of flesh from me? Black bear attacks on humans are rare but nearly always fatal since the motivation is usually food, instead of temporarily immobilizing a perceived threat.

I’ve actually had the unnerving experience of being charged by an brown bear – a coastal variation of Ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly – a few years ago in Alaska. The bear changed its mind in mid-charge (or felt sorry for me) and stopped a mere ten yards before hello darkness my old friend I could now only presume. Time sped up – or maybe it slowed down – I can’t really be sure since most of the details were lost to the fog of fear and surge of adrenaline. It was only a convincing bluff, but I’m proud to say I did everything right as this apparent attack was actually taking place. For one thing, I didn’t run, which is the cowardly half of the primal flight-or-fight response and an impulse that’s difficult to resist. I stood my ground with arms held over my head, avoiding any eye contact while waiting for the fatal impact. I also resisted screaming like an eight-year-old girl, which is another impulse that seemed all too appropriate at the time.

But no amount of screaming, pleading, or outright begging was going dissuade this clearly psychotic black bear from performing a crude camera lobotomy right before my eyes. For obvious reasons, no part of this episode was captured on camera since, short of whipping out my smartphone and snapping the most epic of selfies (which only occurred to me in hindsight), all I could do was stand empty-handed feeling dumb and helpless, which is probably how I looked as well. The humiliation only added insult to the injury.

When the bear finally discovered that my camera did not contain any marshmallow filling, it casually ambled back into the thickets, presumably to find some real food. While my zoom lens and tripod survived the encounter pretty much unscathed, the same couldn’t be said of the camera body. While taking inventory of the damage, I found that I wasn’t angry or upset. I didn’t harbor any feelings of vengeance or retribution. Violence, real or imagined, never even crossed my mind. Instead, I was dumbstruck. It was bizarre. It was surreal. It might have actually been funny had it been someone else’s camera.

And I did try to laugh about it, I really did. But like most attempted humor involving real bears, I just couldn’t find anything funny about it. Bear jokes told by those not accustomed to spending time in bear country usually fail with those of us who do since it either contains too little truth or too much. Punch lines involving bells in bear scat might provoke some nervous laughter from the fervent backpacker or hiker because of the implied irony, but it still overreaches and ultimately misses the mark.

Then there’s the one about not needing to actually outrun the bear, just the luckless partner of the joke’s narrator. Despite the ridiculous notion of running from a bear to begin with, I thought it was funny enough the first time, yet had quickly begun to pall after subsequent recitations. At Brooks Lodge in Alaska during a recent visit to this bear sanctuary, five or six of us guys were talking and loitering in the dining hall after supper one evening when one of the older sports needed to regale us with this particularly stale one-liner. The response, not surprisingly, was almost no response at all, save for the feeblest of laughs I feigned out of face-saving politeness. The gesture apparently went unnoticed since he insisted on repeating it all over again – this time even louder and with more enthusiasm, in case we all missed the point the first time. I excused myself from the table to get another beer.

The remaining daylight soon evaporated and the meadow fell into deep shadow. A cold wind barreled down the valley from the high mountains as a stern reminder that summer really was over after all. I threw on a light jacket I had kept stowed in my pack, gathered my broken gear, and started down the winding trail to the car, talking to myself once again.

*          *          *          *          *          *

The preceding essay is part of an upcoming book, A Bear is Eating My Camera: Misadventures of a Travel Photographer, which will be released later in 2015. In the meantime, my collection of essays from the Great Smoky Mountains, The Great Smoky Mountains: Behind the Lens, is now available for download.

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Five Unconventional Pro Wildlife Photography Tips

A significant portion of the work I did during my recent trip to Namibia was wildlife photography, a favorite genre of mine. While doing some research on the wildlife of Africa, and Namibia in particular, I was struck by how boring most of images really were – apathetic, dumb-looking animal staring blankly into the camera, bird on a stick, etc.  As a result, I strived to come up with unique interpretations of these species we’ve all seen so many times and know so well. I came up with five unconventional tips – some less conventional than others but still concepts to keep my images from being boring like the others. Now I’m sharing them with you.

The examples here are not all African wildlife, obviously. I’m still trying to wrap up some writing and administrative duties before I can really begin processing most of the images from that trip. In the meantime, enjoy.

Coastal Brown Bear, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

1. Use Back and Side lighting

Most wildlife shooters and photography instructors opt for front lighting when encountering wildlife. “Point your shadow at the subject” is their mantra since they can be sure that in this way, the bird or animal will be evenly illuminated. In other words, it’s easy. I’m not saying that shooting with the sun at your back is a bad thing; I do it all the time. But limiting yourself to only this option certainly is a bad habit.

Side lighting can reveal texture and add depth to an image while backlighting is incredibly dramatic, if not conventional.

Snow Geese, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina, USA

2. Long Exposures

Animals on the move and birds in flight present great opportunities for slow shutter speeds and camera panning. Freezing action shots with fast shutter speeds has its place, but sometimes its better to just go with the flow! Start with 1/15 second and experiment from there.

Elephants in Etosha National Park, Namibia

3. Go wide. Show the environment

When shooting wildlife, the photographer’s initial impulse is to use the longest lens in the bag and go in as tight on the subject as possible. Resist this urge and try a wider perspective instead. Show some of the animal’s environment and surroundings, which helps tell more of a story about the place and species you’re photographing.

Coastal Brown Bear and Sockeye Salmon, Katmai National Park, Alaska, USA

4. Show behavior and interaction

Too many wildlife images show a static image of an animal or bird looking directly into the camera. Boring, boring, boring. Showing how these animals interact with one another, play, mate, or hunt for food is much more interesting. That instant is akin to Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. Don’t be content with a boring wildlife portrait. Wait for something special to happen and then be ready!

Zebras in Etosha National Park, Namibia

5. Use elements of visual design

Employ the same compositional tools for wildlife as you do for other genres of photography. Wildlife photography is sometimes fast-paced and you don’t have time to think things through completely but still try to think abstractly about shapes, lines, balance, and flow and let go of the literal. Your wildlife images will have a much greater visual impact as a result.

Next week I’ll begin sharing many other images from Namibia so stay tuned.

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12 for ’12: The Year’s Best

It’s that time of year, once again, when we look back at the year that was and weigh our accomplishments. Well, you always hope that there are accomplishments worthy of looking back on. If nothing else, there’s always weighing the regrets.

Anyway, last year I posted my favorite images from 2011 – Eleven for ’11. Naturally, this year it’s 12 for ’12. They are all favorites of mine for a reason, although the reasons may not be so obvious to everyone else. Nonetheless, I’ll try to give some insight. So here they are listed in chronological order, starting this past January.

“Paradise Found”
Harrismith Beach, Barbados
January 21, 2012

Just another brutal day in paradise, I posted earlier in the year. I think what I liked best about this image is that it was completely secluded. I didn’t have to clone out a single human.

 

“Ahwahnee Dream”
Yosemite National Park, California, USA
February 15, 2012

One of my favorite things about this image is that it was taken from a very popular vantage point in Yosemite National Park. Still I was able to come away with something unique and original, thanks to the thickening fog in the valley.

 

“Red Patagonia Dawn”
Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
April 6, 2012

The location, the light, and the effort to get there (I led three of my clients who opted for the backcountry extension to the Patagonia workshop up this steep, ice-covered trail to be here by sunrise) were all factors in this image making the cut.

 

“Crowning Glory”
Arches National Park, Utah, USA
May 18, 2012

The low-angled light sweeping over the textured sandstone, the dynamic leading lines, the cloud movement during this 30-second exposure make this a clear favorite of mine. I don’t practice many black and white conversions but I was surprised to find two in my favorites for 2012.

 

“Light Room”
Arches National Park, Utah, USA
May 21, 2012

I love night photography and Arches National Park is one of my favorite places to “do it in the dark.” Ok, shameless plug here: Night photography, Arches National Park, November 6-9, 2013. Thanks for listening.

 

“River of Light”
The Seine, Paris, France
June 24, 2012

Amazing sunset. Paris, France. What else is there to say?

 

“Chasing Magic”
Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland
July 25, 2012

Persistance. I waited four nights in order to get light that I was looking for at this location. I was prepared for a 5th, if necessary.

 

“Blood Sport”
Katmai National Park, Alaska, USA
August 23, 2012

The Decisive Moment, as Henri Cartier-Bresson might describe this image. This is only one image frame in an entire sequence I posted back in September: Life and Death in Katmai.

 

“The Spine of Time”
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, USA
October 23, 2012

If I had a “home” national park, the Smokies would be it. This image captures the essence of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park perhaps better than any other I have taken in the past dozen years or so.

 

“The Lost City”
Machu Picchu, Peru
November 16, 2012

Rain, rain, and more rain with some impenetrable fog and gloomy skies – but for a brief 40-seconds of optimism. And I was ready.

 

“Winter’s Blush”
Horgardalur Valley, Iceland
December 9, 2012

This is as much sun and light as you will get in northern Iceland in December. But oh what lovely light it is…

 

“Midnight’s Children”
Trollaskagi Peninsula, Iceland
December 12, 2012

I had never seen the northern lights before, despite two previous summer trips to Iceland and two summer trips to Alaska. The aurora is what brought me to Iceland in the depths of winter and I was not disappointed.

Thanks for sharing 2012 with me.

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Cheer Up, It’s Friday

Dejected Bear – Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska

TOP TEN SONGS ABOUT FRIDAY (Feel free to add to the list in the comments section)

1) Friday Im in Love – The Cure

2) Black Friday – Steely Dan

3) Friday on my Mind – David Bowie

4) Friday – Phish

5) Get ‘Em Out by Friday – Genesis

6) It’s Finally Friday – George Jones

7) Good Mourning/Black Friday – Megadeath

8) One February Friday – Frankie Goes to Hollywood

9) Friday Night Fever – George Straight

10) Freaky Friday – Aqua

I began this as a little game and I was shocked at the lack of quality songs about this most celebrated day of the week. I could recall so few, in fact, that I had to Mister Google many of the songs you see listed. I thought country music would make a much better showing with the whole take this job and shove it – weekend’s here – honkey tonk theme that so many songs of this genre espouse. Jimmy Buffet is conspicuously absent as well, unless I’m missing something obvious.

It’s curious that there are many more quality songs about Monday than Friday. I can think of 4 or 5 good tunes right off the top of my head, without even too much thought. It could explain why good art and music often express the artist’s sadness, sorrow, depression, the blues, heartbreak, etc. better than their happy times. We’re a strange mammal indeed.

Happy Friday, everyone!

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Image Roundup from Katmai, Alaska

Well, it’s been just over a week since I’ve arrived home from Alaska and I’ve finally sorted out and edited most of my brown bear images from Katmai National Park and Preserve. Bears are some of my favorite creatures on Earth and I love spending time and photographing them whenever possible. It was a magical five days in Katmai and I certainly need to thank some of those responsible for making it a great success.

First, Katmai Adventure Lodge was a great host and lodge. Please do check them out if you ever plan on visiting the area for bear viewing, photography, or fishing. Second, Chris Omer was a first rate, professional bear guide. We really couldn’t have lucked out any better with KAL assigning Chris to our group. Third, thanks to my students for making this a most enjoyable trip to the Alaskan wilderness. Fourth, a big thanks goes out to LensRentals for the complimentary use of some awesome telephoto lenses, including the new Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM.

Now, on to the photos! In case you missed it, I posted a sequence called Life and Death in Katmai last week. Check it out if you haven’t already seen it. The following are not necessarily the best images from the trip, but they are a good sample of what we experienced in Katmai.

On the last morning of our photography tour, I had our group experiment with longer shutter speeds while panning the camera.

Here is an impressive stare down by a very large, very wet Katmai brown bear. It’s one of my favorites, not only because of the eye-to-eye glare, but the streaming water droplets as he/she just emerges from the river.

At nearly every stop we made, there was a gracious welcoming party. This is the greeting we received after landing near the mouth of Margot Creek.

A challenge? No, probably just trying to get a better look at the group of strange creatures on the opposite side of the river. Despite having a reputation for bad eyesite, a bear’s vision is actually equivalent to that of humans.

These bears possess an impressive array of skills: speed, power, agility, coordination, and dexterity. Catching a wild salmon in a river or stream of any size and depth is much more difficult than it looks. I know. I tried it!

The role that tremendous salmon runs have on Katmai’s entire ecosystem cannot be overstated. Nearly everything, directly or indirectly, depends on their arrival from the sea – and their death – every summer.

As I said earlier, this is harder than it looks. It doesn’t always come off as graceful, but more often than not, they emerge from the water victorious.

Moraine Creek, deep in Katmai’s wilderness, is bear heaven. At one point, I could count 14 bears along the river, at one time, while standing in this very spot.

This is one of biggest bears I saw all week. Despite its immense size and power, his fishing techniques were effortless and carried out with surgical precision. Between shooting the occasional image, I just watched with awe as he caught and ate one salmon after another for hours.

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