Tag Archives: Travel

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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Vignettes from Colorful Cartagena

My seat number on the LAN Airlines flight from Bogota to Cartagena was 13C, which made me smile. Most airlines employ the childish practice of omitting the 13th row from their seating charts (as many skyscrapers skip the 13th floor as well) so I felt this was at least an enlightened start to this leg of my Colombia/Brazil photo trip. Honestly, I’ve never seen nor heard of an incident where only the 13th row crashed while every other passenger arrived unharmed and in one piece.

Despite the relatedly short two-hour flight between the two Colombian cities you soon realize upon arriving that they are worlds apart in almost every other way. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Bogota and I’ve found it to be rather cold (elevation 8700 feet) and perpetually cloudy. The city is bathed in somber grey tones and it’s citizens wear dark colors and serious demeanors. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a delightful city. You know I love you, Bogota.

Cartagena is an eye-opening contrast. The weather is hot and sunny. People wander the streets in surf shorts and immodest bikinis while upbeat and cheerful music blares from every street corner. It could be one of the happiest and most colorful cities on Earth.

So here are a few of the outtakes from this trip. The selects are in possession of my client (I was on an assignment) so I hope this helps illustrate the feel and colors of marvelous Cartagena!

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Richard Is Guest Blogger on Scott Kelby’s Photoshop Insider

“Brooks Falls” Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT @ 280mm, 1/13 second @ f/14, ISO 100

Catch my most recent essay, It’s The Destination, on Scott Kelby’s Photoshop Insider.

After a very successful trip to British Columbia and Alaska last month, I am now in the process of preparing to travel to South America – Colombia and Brazil for some teaching, cultural and street photography, and chasing down the elusive jaguar in the Pantanal wetlands! Enjoy your day everyone and I’ll be checking back with you soon.

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New Image Galleries on Website

One of the downsides to all my traveling lately is the lack of updating my website’s image galleries on a timely basis. I get many comments to that effect quite often, both in person and via email. Well now that I’ve had some time to catch my breath as well as some quality time in my home office, I’ve been able to catch up.

You can judge for yourself as to whether or not the effort was worth it: Earth and Light Galleries

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Oh Man, Oman!

I recently spent two weeks in the Sultanate of Oman, a small Arab state on the Southeast coast of the Arabian peninsula. I admit to not knowing much about the place before being invited as part of an international group of photographers on a customized tour. As a young boy, I remember the country having the name Muscat and Oman on my world map but that’s about it.

So I could say that I was overwhelmed by the photo opportunities in Oman – the colorful, friendly people, the mountains (the only country on the Arabian Peninsula with this feature), beaches, and pristine sand deserts – but I won’t. Instead, I’ll let my images tell the story, with only a few editorial comments sprinkled in.

Parched, The Wahiba Sands, Sultanate of Oman

The scene is extremely iconic and a photographic cliché, but would you turn away from the lucsious backlighting and elongated shadows on the rippled sand? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Hide and Seek, Ibra Market, Sultanate of Oman

Yes, this young boy was half heartedly hiding from me and my lens but it was obvious he wasn’t too distressed by the encounter. In fact, by the look of that winning smile of his, I’d say he was enjoying it! One of the best things about Oman was the simple curiosity and innocence of the people, unaccustomed as they are to tourists shoving cameras in their faces.

Circle of Life, Ras al-Jins Turtle Reserve, Sultanate of Oman

Just the two of us crawling around in the sand on our bellies – me grinning behind a wide-angle lens and this green sea turtle wearing a mask of strength and determination as she makes her way back to the waters of the Arabian Sea.

Man of Sur, Sultanate of Oman

This guy was one of my favorite photographic subjects and a new hero of mine. I mean, just look at him. He’s got that badass, I-don’t-give-a-crap aura about him and would you get a load of that beard? I shaved mine shortly thereafter out of shame and humiliation.

Diana’s Point, Jabal al Akhdar, Sultanate of Oman

The late Princess of Wales allegedly frequented this spot to get away from everything, hence the name given by the locals. Now I know all about the blown out sky in the upper right corner  of the image but I really don’t care. I found myself taking more of a photojournalistic approach on this trip and that gives me the excuse to just “let it be.” I feels pretty good, I must say.

The Corneche, Muscat, Sultanate of Oman

My friend Sergio and I talked our way onto the roof of an old hotel in order to get this view of Muscat at twilight.

Of Men and Melons, Nizwa, Sultanate of Oman

Melons and men talking about melons, because that’s what men do – talk about melons.

Sidewinder, Wahiba Sands, Sultanate of Oman

The exquisitely sculpted dunes of the Wahiba Sands with low-angled, warm sunlight of early morning. And for just a few minutes, I was a fine-art landscape photographer again and it too felt good.

Ghosts of Mutrah Souq, Muscat, Sultanate of Oman

The main souq (market) in downtown Muscat provided dozens of prime photo opportunities. For this image, I set up low on a tripod in the middle of the crowd and waited for men to walk by in their white robes, using a longish exposure to create an illusion of motion.

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