A Bear is Eating My Camera

A Bear is Eating My Camera

Short Essays

A Bear Is Eating My Camera

 

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 while the mercury reached an unseasonable eighty degrees Fahrenheit. There were no deciduous trees in sight to offer any clue that it was, in fact, mid September yet the subtle hints of yellow, orange, and red hues in the meadow grasses and huckleberry bushes betrayed the undeniable and irresistible pull 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 with the province of 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 while admiring the scenery and stopping every so often to unfold and refold the map until driving yet again with no particular destination. Everyone plays the clueless tourist at some point whether any of us wants to admit it or not.

I didn’t mind that I was unlikely to do any meaningful photography. I was too busy processing a flood of pleasant memories from another trip fourteen years earlier when I arrived with just a film camera and a fly rod. The Elk River runs through the middle of the park and 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 swift, glacier-fed currents from the river cobbles they would inhale a dry fly from the water’s surface with such dumb innocence, it would almost break your heart.

Considering the weather, I briefly considered leaving the camera packed away and renting a fly rod, buying a few dry flies, and wetting a line – just to re-experience those warm angling memories and getting yet another glimpse of those gorgeous cutts. But I realized that doing so would only be a letdown no matter how good the fishing turned out to be. The passing of time only enhances good memories and elevates some to near mythological status, a difficult act for any performance to follow. Besides, it wouldn’t be the same Elk River of fourteen years ago. You never really wade into the same river twice.

It was during that previous visit that I also laid eyes on my first honest-to-goodness wild grizzly bear. It was at a safe enough distance – at least 200 yards – and we were separated by a particularly deep and broad section of the Elk River. The old boar stalked the meadow’s edge with the purposeful gait and confidence that only an apex predator could get away with. When his head spun around on its massive set of shoulders and our eyes met, the coldest shiver ran down my spine and my toes tingled. I was flying.

If you travel to enough of North America’s great wilderness areas, you will eventually have to deal with bears – either the real ones or the phantom bears of your all too vivid imagination. Which of the two is worse is a matter for debate. Still, a good piece of advice to follow when walking or hiking in bear country is making as much noise as possible, not necessarily to scare any of the bears away, but to create an awareness of your presence, since startling or surprising one at close range is certain disaster for both the hiker and the bear. Some examples would be wearing bear bells, intermittent clapping or yelling, and talking loudly – either within a group or just to yourself if you happen to be alone.

I’ve always preferred the method of 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. Having a heated argument, however, is probably a bad sign.

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 for its own sake, but I was in a particularly beautiful part of the Canadian Rockies on an otherwise glorious September afternoon so what the hell? At worst, I’ll have had an invigorating walk through some incredibly scenic country and maybe even take a photograph or two.

The trail rose from the valley floor, cutting a steep and rocky path through a fragrant forest of alpine firs, Engelmann spruce, and lodge pole pine. The hot sun and thin air conspired to make the hiking slow and burdensome but I was in no hurry. I would stop every so often to rest while small animals and birds would suddenly reveal themselves once I settled down and sat for a while: a few chipmunks, a pika, and one blue grouse that nearly came within an arm’s length of the rock on which I was sitting. I attempted a few photos, glanced at the LCD display, shrugged, and started walking again.

After a couple of hours, I stopped for yet another breather and an opportunity to heed the call of nature, once I found an acceptable 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 some privacy, as if I really needed it. Almost immediately upon entering the thickets, I heard a loud crashing noise, breaking branches, and a grunting and growling that seemed to be getting closer in a hurry. I made a hastily arranged, undignified retreat back to the meadow and was closely followed by a visibly agitated black bear. I kept my distance and did my best to talk it down in soft, reassuring tones.

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

This clearly didn’t work. Perhaps it was my patronizing words or that I was trespassing and about to use the loo in its personal living space. Or maybe it was the undignified visage of me standing in a lovely alpine meadow with my shorts down around my hiking boots. The bear then projected its displeasure on my tripod and camera – with considerable flair, too – by swatting it to the ground with a sickening thud.

After performing a perfunctory inspection of the wreckage and concluding the alliance of applied force and gravity didn’t create enough damage, the bear took the camera in its massive jaws and began doing its best great white shark impression. I watched helplessly as shards of black plastic exploded from the exquisite piece of technology formerly known as my Canon DSLR. It occurred to me that if the bear was desperate and hungry 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 extremely rare but are nearly always fatal since the motivation is usually food, not temporarily neutralizing a perceived threat.

 

The bear took the camera in its massive jaws and began doing its best great white shark impression. I watched helplessly as shards of black plastic exploded from the exquisite piece of technology formerly known as my Canon DSLR.

I’ve actually had the terrifying experience of being charged by an Alaskan brown bear at close range a couple years earlier, before it changed its mind (or felt sorry for me) and stopped a mere ten yards or so before hello darkness my old friend, I could now only presume. As it was happening, time sped up – or maybe it slowed down – I can’t really remember as most of the details are now lost to the fog of terror and adrenaline. But I’m proud to say I did everything right as it was taking place. For one thing, I didn’t run, which is the cowardly half of the primal flight-or-fight response and an instinctual impulse that’s almost too difficult to resist. I stood my ground with my hands raised over my head, avoiding direct eye contact while waiting for fatal impact. I also resisted screaming like an eight-year-old girl, another impulse that seemed all too appropriate at the time.

But no amount of screaming, pleading, or begging was going dissuade this clearly psychotic creature from performing a crude camera lobotomy before my very eyes. For obvious reasons, none of this episode was captured on camera since, short of whipping out my iPhone and snapping the most epic of selfies (which only occurred to me in hindsight), all I could do was stand there feeling dumb and helpless, which is probably how I looked as well.

When the bear finally grew bored of this truly tasteless encounter, it casually ambled back into the thickets, probably to find some real food. While my wide-angle zoom lens and tripod survived the encounter relatively unscathed, the same could not be said of the camera itself. Surprisingly, I wasn’t a bit angry or upset. I didn’t harbor any feelings of vengeance or retribution. Violence, real or imagined, never even entered my mind. I was, instead, a bit dumbstruck. It was bizarre. It was surreal. It might have actually been funny had it been someone else’s camera.

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

Then there’s the one about how it’s not necessary to outrun a bear, only the luckless partner of the joke’s narrator. Despite the ridiculous notion of running from a bear to begin with, I guess it was funny enough the first time I heard it. But after subsequent recitations, the joke quickly began to pall. At Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park in Alaska during a recent visit to this magnificent bear sanctuary, there were five or six of us 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 the line all over again – this time 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.

As daylight evaporated and a cold wind barreled down the valley from the Great Divide, a stark reminder that autumn really was on the way, I collected my broken gear and started down the dusky trail to the car, talking to myself, of course, the entire way.

All preceding text © Richard Bernabe

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The Battered Strand: North Carolina’s Outer Banks

The Battered Strand: North Carolina’s Outer Banks

Short Essays

The Battered Strand: North Carolina’s Outer Banks

North Carolina’s Outer Banks is a land both infinitely brutal and beautiful. For 125 miles, this narrow ribbon of barrier islands stretches from the Virginia state line south to Ocracoke Island, giving protection to the mainland from the raging Atlantic. In return for this natural amenity, the islands are the recipient of a safe harbor as well, by way of the establishment of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, America’s first such designation.

The most extensive stretch of undeveloped beach on the eastern seaboard, this wild and untamed verge of tidal forces and nomadic sand is at the mercy of nature’s primal forces – wind and water. When viewed on a map or from above, these islands display a stunning composition of coastal geography, boldly protruding into the Atlantic like the chin of a cocky prizefighter, daring each passing storm to give it their best punch. Its best defense is clever passivity, dodging and weaving, bending yet never quite breaking to the will of nature. This reality is a boon to the landscape photographer, as each new visit reveals yet a new wrinkle to the landscape. It’s never the same place twice.

(Above left) Surf fisherman gather at Cape Point under stormy skies. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-105mm lens, 1/13 second @ f/13, 320 ISO. (Above right) “Moonrise at Rodanthe” A touch of snow on the dunes as a full moon rises over the Atlantic at dusk. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm lens, 1/5 second @ f/11, ISO 100.

Cape Point at Hatteras Island is the physical confluence of several divergent ocean currents, creating a nutrient-rich habitat for sea life and a haven for pelagic birds and mammals. It’s also responsible for the infamous Diamond Shoals, also known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” for the many dozens of shipwrecks in this area. Dramatic seascapes, particularly at sunrise, are well worth the mile-long drive over the beach to photograph. This drive, however, should only be attempted with a 4WD vehicle with plenty of clearance.

Standing guard is the iconic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse with its distinctive “barber pole” design. Compositions with both the lighthouse and the Atlantic Ocean are no longer possible since the structure was moved 3000 feet inland in 1999, but dramatic landscapes with the wild dunes are still possible at both sunrise and sunset.

“The Guardian” The famed Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Outer Banks, North Carolina. At a staggering 208 feet in height, it’s the tallest brick lighthouse in the world and one of the most recognizable symbols of the Outer Banks.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-105mm lens, 30 seconds @ f/16, ISO 100

It should be noted that the raw elements that helped shape the Outer Banks can also wreak havoc on your camera equipment and tripod. Wind, water, sand, and salt spray are ever-present realities of nature on these islands and great care should be taken to protect your equipment. Clean your camera and lenses after each day of shooting and wipe down your tripod with fresh water. These same destructive elements make the Outer Banks brutally beautiful and a must-visit location for all landscape photographers.

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Shoot To Thrill

Shoot To Thrill

Short Essays

“When this is in your hands, you are the center of the universe. Not that anything else exists, it certainly does. You are important, this thing empowers you to do whatever the hell you want.” – Mel DiGiacomo, photojournalist

 “On the barrel, pretty white letters spelled out PARTY STARTER.” – Ilona Andrews, Gunmetal Magic

On the tediously long flight from Washington D.C. to Johannesburg, South Africa, I was seated among a small group of middle-aged white men decked out in the latest camouflaged fashions. They were, as they say, all in. The affected clothing items and accruements included, but were not limited to, jackets, ball caps, handbags, boots, eyeglass and phone cases, one eye patch, and a tee shirt emblazoned with block letters:

GUN CONTROL IS BEING ABLE TO HIT YOUR TARGET

A hunting party, no doubt.

At this realization, I was for the briefest of moments shocked that these grown men were traveling a great distance to kill the same creatures I was planning to photograph. I was also somewhat shocked at my own naïveté since African hunting safaris have a much longer history and steeper tradition than wildlife photography after all. Grainy black and white photographs of the bespeckled Teddy Roosevelt, rifle in hand grinning over the corpse of some poor Cape buffalo, come immediately to mind.

While casting no judgments on hunting in general – for sustenance (if and when necessary) and as a management tool with oversight by the appropriate authorities (for the benefit of wildlife or a specific species) – I must confess that killing for sport or trophy sickens me, especially African mega fauna which has been in precipitous decline in recent years.

Either way, for better or worse, I have zero interest in participating myself. I’ve spoken to many wildlife photographers who are former hunters and they’ve all intimated that the primal “thrill of the kill” is the same, only a good wildlife image is much more of a challenge. The human predatory instinct is propitiated but without the blood, guts, and guilt. Photography is also more of what I would consider to be a sporting proposition, in that both characters in the drama are able to safely walk away.

Still, in many ways, photography and firearms are inextricably married, with language being the most common bond. For instance, a camera is still said to be fired and so is a flash gun. A collection of lenses is often referred to as an arsenal and all lenses of course have a barrel. Super telephotos are big guns while small fully automatic, pocket-sized cameras are point-and-shoot. So without even having to mention headshot you should already be getting my drift here.

The primary complication lies with the ambiguity of the words shoot and shot. A portrait photographer’s Twitter bio might include “I shoot people,” a joke that ceased being funny a long time ago, if for no other reason it’s breathtakingly unoriginal and old. If they mention that they can legally cut people’s heads off, well, then that makes it at least fractionally funnier.

Shot is a cute, amputated form of the word snapshot, borrowed yet again from weaponry and born in the early 19th century meaning, “a quick shot with a gun, without aim, at a fast-moving target.” Some photographers, I fear, might feel this definition hits a bit too close to home.

I use the words shoot or shot from time to time, but I try to do so as infrequently as possible. It’s not because of the words’ possibly violent undertones but instead I find them to be rather inelegant and crude. As a substitute for shot, I prefer image or photo.

Image is snazzy and modern, fully appropriate for the age of digital cameras and smartphones – digital imagery. Stretching photo all the way out into photograph sounds too old fashioned and implies, at least to me, a tangible print. The same goes for picture. The slang pic should always be avoided if you are older than 25 or if used outside the context of an online chat or text. Under no circumstances should it ever be verbalized. Capture, used as either a noun or verb, is gaining in popularity among photographers but has never fully caught on with me. Epic capture or I captured the sunset tonight is either too disconnected from photography or far too hip for its own good.

I think it’s time we all joined together to find some new terminology.

On the flight mentioned earlier, I was told of a U.S State Department bulletin, warning travelers to Johannesburg’s Tambo International Airport of thieves and muggers posing as taxi operators, an unsettling possibility.

As I carefully deliberated over my transportation options upon arrival, a friendly young man approached me and offered a ride to my hotel at a reasonable price. I searched for any clues in his appearance – a ridiculous and futile exercise – then followed him out to his car, which had an illuminated “taxi” sign perched on its rooftop, a very good sign indeed.

When he asked about the purpose of my visit, I cryptically replied, “Shooting animals,” just as he reached for my luggage and opened the trunk.

“Ah yes, hunting?”

“You could say that.”

Before the trunk was closed, I reached for my oversized camera pack and said casually, “No thanks, but I’d prefer to keep the guns up front with me.”

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A Passion Driven Life

A Passion Driven Life

Short Essays

You cannot change what you are, only what you do. – Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

In a commencement address to the graduating students of Stanford University in 2005, Steve Jobs recalled a quote he first read when he was 17.

“If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”

He went on to say that the quote stuck with him though most of his adult life and that he would look himself in the mirror each morning and ask himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”

If the answer was “no” for too many consecutive days, he knew it was time for a change.

So after waking up too many mornings with a resounding “no” reverberating through my own groggy and tired head, I drove down to the office and promptly terminated a successful corporate career. My own. It was January 14, 2003, which also happened to be my birthday.

Photography was a serious hobby with occasional financial rewards, but not nearly rewarding enough to pay for my lifestyle at the time – not even close. Photography and travel were excellent ways to spend money, not make it (That’s still almost entirely true, by the way). Still, I was determined to give it a go, even if I really had no idea how to get there. The only thing I knew for certain was that my talent and energy were being atrophied as I counted down the days to each bimonthly paycheck.

This was new to me. I was a rationally thinking organism with an economics degree who always made decisions with cold, hard logic and yet there was nothing rational about this line of thought. In return for a six-figure salary, benefits, and financial security, I was getting what exactly? No salary, no plan for getting any income in the near future, no benefits, no financial security? On its face, it was a no-brainer, yet my intuition and heart told me otherwise.

Wild places, wildlife, and travel were my passions in life. Capturing and sharing my experiences in these places were what inspired me to get up each morning, not my 9-to-5. It was the first thing I thought about each morning and the last thing each night before drifting off to sleep. If I were going to preach that you had to do what you love to truly be successful in life – as was my mantra to my employees – I would have to buy into it myself and not look back. I was only willing to accept excellence in myself and I could only achieve excellence by doing what I loved and was truly passionate about.

Throughout the transition, I received a tremendous amount of emotional support from family and close friends. I’ll always be grateful for that. Some were genuinely concerned and that was certainly understandable. Others thought it was only a phase I was going through – a mid-life crisis, perhaps – that I would eventually outgrow before crawling back to the real world again. At least no one told me to grow up and get a haircut.

“But taking pictures isn’t real work,” many would say. “You’re just running off to pretty places and having fun.

“Right,” I would answer. “So what exactly is your point?”

You see, I never considered being a photographer as an occupation. The word occupation is derived from the same Latin word that spawned the word occupy, essentially meaning, “to take up space.” That little phrase should paint a vivid enough word picture to illustrate precisely what I’m trying to convey here.

Vocation, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word, vocare or “a calling.” If throwing away a “successful” career and financial security – not to mention rationality – in order to chase down one’s dream and passion in life isn’t a calling, then I’m not sure what is. Being a photographer is my vocation. It’s not what I do; it’s what I am. There aren’t very many people who can say the same about their occupation.

So after many years now of traveling the world, chasing down magical light, and capturing as many unrepeatable moments in the wild on film and digital media as possible, I’d like to think that I’ve achieved a modest amount of success as a professional photographer. But what is a “success” anyway? By one yardstick, I already was a success those many years ago.

But if living an inspired, passion driven life doing exactly what I feel I was meant to do – while managing to live financially comfortable as well – is another yardstick with which to measure success, well then I guess I’ve achieved something after all. It’s also the greatest birthday gift I could have ever given myself.

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