Win A Trip To Antarctica With Omaze

Win A Trip To Antarctica With Omaze

Short Essays

There are some places on this magnificent planet that have attained mythological status in the imaginations of adventure travelers. When one finally encounters their idyllic location in real life, there’s often mild disappointment since nothing could ever compete with an imagination-enhanced legend. Antarctica, however, is one place where the actual experience exceeds even the most fervent imagination. It’s epic on every level!

How would you like the opportunity to take an epic 14-day adventure to Antarctica on a National Geographic expedition ship? With Omaze, you have the very opportunity!

For as little as a $10 donation, you can win the chance to experience the magic of Antarctica for yourself. All you do is donate to a worthy cause. Each donation you make supports providing life-changing outdoor adventures for young adults impacted by cancer. That’s all you need to do to be entered for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit the White Continent!

If selected, you and a friend will…

• Embark on a two-week-long adventure to Antarctica aboard a National Geographic expedition ship
• Enjoy your choice of day activities—including kayak trips, Zodiac boat rides and hikes
• Discover the White Continent alongside a team of expert travel guides, naturalists and photographers
• Get up close and personal with penguins and other wildlife, and go home with the best photos ever
• Be flown out and put up in a 4-star hotel for one night

In addition to the world-class wildlife photography and viewing on this expedition – you can see several species of penguins, seals, whales, and other bird life – there is also scenery that will take your breath away. During my December 2017 expedition, my biggest problem was that I never wanted to sleep. The endless mountains, glaciers, icebergs, and scenic shorelines combined with the extended 20 hours of sunlight during the summer conspired to keep me awake and out on the ship’s deck at the strangest hours with my camera, so afraid I might miss something.

Omaze is a global charitable giving platform that works with celebrities, influencers, and personalities to help world changers – those people on the ground doing good – raise money to make a difference and give those who donate the opportunity to have experiences of a lifetime. Since its founding, Omaze has had people from 170 countries donate over $100 million to over 150 charities all over the world.

Are you interested? Here’s how to get started. Click here and visit their website. Click the ENTER NOW button, and choose how much money to donate to the. The more you donate the more chances you’ll have to win the Antarctica expedition with National Geographic with Omaze. $10 will give you 100 entries for your chance to win! Enter promo code: BERNABE100 at check out and get 100 additional entries. Entries can be made until March 21, 2019.

All of the money raised goes to First Descents providers of life-changing, outdoor adventures for young adults impacted by cancer. First Descents’ participants experience free outdoor adventure programs that empower them to climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis, reclaim their lives, and connect with others doing the same. Through outdoor adventures, skills development and local adventure communities, First Descents improves the long-term survivorship of its participants.

To see more photos from my 2017 trip to Antarctica, see my Terra Incognita post.

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

Lost Is Just a Four Letter Word

Lost Is Just a Four Letter Word

Short Essays

“Not until we are lost do we begin to find ourselves” – Henry David Thoreau

Havana is an eclectic, neurotic city of more than two million people, pulsing with multi layered rhythms, colors, moods, and energy. It’s been called an exhausting nightmaresublimely tawdry, and the most romantic city in the world while all possibly being true simultaneously. Winston Churchill called Havana “a place where anything can happen” and on that count, it rarely failed to disappoint. This little slice of Caribbean chaos can be just about anything except boring.

As a casual visitor, you might be led to places like Revolution Square and other obsequious homages to Castro, Guevara, and Marti. Finca La Vigía, an estate set high along the city’s perimeter, is where Ernest Hemingway called home from 1939 to 1960. Then of course there’s La Habana Vieja – The Old City – with its colorfully-painted paladares, festive open-air cantinas, and gaggles of sunburnt Canadian tourists wearily shuffling through the cobbled alleys.

I’m not one to complain about tourists while pretending I’m not actually one of them myself, so for two days I dutifully imbibed the scene’s contrived nostalgia with the same combination of enthusiasm and irony that I applied to its famously overrated mojitos. Yet I was gaining a thirst for something more than just the same tired tourist circuit. Authentic and gritty is what I sought, a furtive peek behind the superficial facade. I wanted to experience, if only for a day, “the poorer quarters where the ragged people go,” borrowing a phrase from Simon and Garfunkel’s imperishable The Boxer; the crumbling buildings, the working markets, the suffocating poverty, the real lives of real people. I wished to go native.

On the morning of day three, I flagged down a taxi in front of the hotel, a flaking blue ‘53 Chevy, and set out solo into the heart of the steamy inner city. After forty exhilarating minutes of walking and exploration, I had not the faintest idea where I was or how I had gotten there. I was lost.

“No Left Turn Unstoned” Lost in the heart of Havana or just contrived nostalgia? Canon EOS R Mirrorless camera with Canon RF 24-105mm f/4L is USM Lens @ 42mm. 1/500 second @ f/8, ISO 1000.

Being lost is often cited as one the four most crippling human fears. And while technological progress has made little headway with death, heights, and public speaking, it has nearly succeeded in reducing the art of getting lost into a lost art. GPS devices, smart phones, and navigation apps with talking virtual assistants can get us from Point A to Point B with ruthless efficiency while offering little about where we are in the world, figuratively speaking.

According to cognitive scientists, getting lost is an essential part of how we grow and develop as humans. Whether it’s in a big, sprawling city like Havana, a forest, or a good book or movie, losing oneself, even for the briefest of moments, is good for the mind and the soul. Aside from the state of being lost, there’s the added benefit of getting unlost at some point, a practice that draws on exercising one’s intuition, reasoning skills, and memory recall. Making mental maps and establishing spatial awareness using landmarks and physical cues – instead of relying solely on technology’s cold, clinical instructions – are important cognitive functions that are quickly becoming lost, for lack of a better word, in today’s digital age.

Having spent much of my childhood in the foothills of rural North Carolina, I was given an extraordinary amount of freedom as a young boy to get lost at will, which I often happily did. A typical journey began on a bicycle, continued on foot through unfamiliar tracts of woods, fields, and dusty dirt roads until I became lost, or at least unsure of my location. I would then instinctively seek out the most familiar feature of the local landscape, the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains at Roaring Gap. I knew this piece of splendid scenery like the back of my hand and it was my navigational and emotional North Star. With this guidepost in sight, I could calibrate my bearings with respect to east, west, north and south and the direction that would take me from the Land of the Lost back home to Possum Trot.

The fear probably has very little to do with the condition of actually being lost, which is pretty harmless itself, but rather the psychologically unsettling disconnection from the familiar and the consequences that can arise from it. In a wilderness situation, it would certainly be irresponsible not to carry a GPS device, if only for an emergency, but just as irresponsible if it became a preoccupation and distraction from what was most important – the experience. In an urban environment, the fear is focused on being harmed in some way by another person; a stranger. But if you’re ever the unfortunate victim of assault or physical violence, the statistics point to overwhelming odds that you will know your attacker personally, probably intimately. Strangers are regularly disparaged in the abstract, but the kindness and generosity offered as individuals have saved me from more than just a few moronic decisions while traveling. By averting our gazes to the flickering screens of our phones and tablets while avoiding interaction with others, we only miss out on much of life’s rich banquet. And do we really want these devices raising an entire generation of young men who grow up never knowing what it’s like to refuse to ask for directions?

And what exactly is lost anyway? Well for starters, it’s relative and subjective. Everyone and everything are always somewhere since nowhere doesn’t exist as a real place. If you’ve ever lost your car keys or the TV remote, they are only lost to you. If the remote could talk and was asked to comment on your little crisis, it would have to admit that being lost wasn’t all that bad, thankyouverymuch. Being lost can be a place of cosmic bliss and a buzz of creative inspiration for us humans too, if we’d only give it a chance. For others, lost is an unhappy place of doubt and uncertainty and might very well be Dante’s forgotten tenth circle of hell. The mild epithet, “Get Lost” is a G-rated simulacrum of the vulgar, three-word directive with the aforementioned four-letter destination. Maybe hell, after all, is an eternity spent wandering the vast, empty corners of the universe, helplessly and hopelessly lost. And maybe some of us actually find comfort in that notion and a glimmer of bliss too. All in all, it’s possible that hell can be one person’s bliss just as bliss another’s version of hell. And lost? It’s just a four-letter word. It’s all about how you look at it.


Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

Travel Photography: It’s About The Destination

Travel Photography: It’s About The Destination

Short Essays

As a photographer, chances are you’ve thought about doing some traveling, if you haven’t done so already. The journey might start out as a simple weekend getaway after a few rough days at the office. It might be an extended road trip through several states and time zones; car packed with camera and lenses, the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, nothing but freedom and the open road stretching out to the horizon. Over time these journeys might involve airplanes, travel agents, passports, guides, and epic expeditions to the other side of the planet. Photographers, it seems, are particularly vulnerable to the lure of the exotic.

You might live within eyesight of a premier national park with hundreds of square miles of mountain wilderness, waterfalls, charismatic wildlife, pristine beaches, wildflowers in the spring, blazing foliage in the fall – this is the cosmic photo destination we’re talking about after all – and you would still feel as if you were missing out on something else somewhere else. It would be far too easy to dismiss this urge as a naive grass-is-always-greener impulse since the grass might really be greener on the other side of the proverbial fence. Maybe the other grass over there isn’t even green at all, but some other color you’ve never seen or even considered. Or maybe the other grass is wild and untamed, unlike the neatly manicured turf in your tidy neighborhood with which you’re accustomed. Then again, sticking with the working metaphor here, maybe it’s not really about the grass at all but the journey in getting there.

Or maybe not. You see, I personally consider the whole “it’s the journey not the destination” sentiment as just another feel-good, pop-culture pseudo-profundity that’s too easily taken at face value. For the weary traveler, the journey – despite the cheery saccharin-infused romanticism it conjures – actually sucks. If I could close my eyes, snap my fingers, and magically teleport myself to my destination while skipping the whole journey thing, I’d be happy as a clam. I’m guessing whoever penned this particular piece of bumper sticker philosophy never had their precious little journey take them through a major 21st century airport on a Friday afternoon. And yes, I do realize the phrase is a derivative of Emerson’s and a well-intentioned metaphor for how to negotiate life. Yet all too often it’s used literally as a marketing tool by slick travel brochures and hucksterish cruise operators. I, for one, am weary of the so-called virtues of the journey.

I do find it ironic that the most heavenly photogenic destinations in the world require you to first travel through Hell on Earth to get there; over-crowded airports, cancelled and delayed flights, missed connections, lost luggage, fees for checked bags, lines at the check-in counter, security, passport control and customs, surly customer service representatives, invasive TSA agents, full-body x-rays, pat downs, no liquids or gels, removed shoes, cramped airplanes with no leg room, and truly tasteless airline food are just some of the indignities to be endured in order to reach our desired destination. And I’ve not even mentioned the repulsive edifices themselves. The English writer and humorist, Douglas Adams mused that there is no language that has ever produced the phrase as pretty as an airport.

But all the agony and pulverizing boredom of travel soon fade from memory once the destination is reached. So why do we bother to travel anyway? I suppose everyone has their personal reasons: capturing and seeing something new, exploration, adventure, enlightenment, different cultures and food, or running from the law, just to name a few. And while all of the preceding could apply to me as well – aside from the running from the law part – I should mention that it also happens to be my job. I haven’t quite mastered the art of keeping a straight face as I explain to friends and loved ones that I’m “going to work” as I pack my bags for some far-flung, exotic photography excursion. I should at least deserve a modicum of credit for not employing the smug rejoinder, “but somebody’s gotta do it” or something to that effect.

And while I understand “getting away from it all” is one justification for travel, it’s one that’s never resonated with me. I just don’t see my life or my work as anything from which I need, or want, to escape. But travel does take me away from everything that’s easy and familiar while razing the personal comfort zone to which I – and all of us – try to cling. I like that. I sometimes absolutely need that. Travel writer, Freyda Stark observed, “to awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world” and I could not agree more. When applied to photography, these strange new places and experiences act as powerful catalysts to help get my creative juices going and force me to see differently. After all, if I’ve never seen something before, what other choice do I have?

Then there are the places and experiences that are simply too beautiful for words, which is fortunate enough since photographers are paid to create photos where mere words alone are inadequate. The first time I laid eyes on the southern Andes of Patagonia or the aurora borealis in Greenland or a herd of mammoth elephants marching ceremoniously across the African plains, my sympathetic nervous system pulsed into overdrive and delivered a dose of chill bumps over my arms and shoulders, making the hair stand straight up on the back of my neck. The very best part of this sensation was that in each instance, I never saw it coming. Each and every time was like a thunderbolt from the blue. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why I travel.

And If I don’t screw things up too badly, I might even create something beautiful or meaningful that invites the viewer of the image to participate in this new experience with me, through the prism of my emotions and the artistic choices I make. I’m interpreting the experience emotionally and artistically and it’s still my experience but the viewer has traveled with me vicariously, without the burdens of modern day travel I described earlier.

Or I could forget to remove the lens cap and everyone will just have to take my word for it. At any rate, if I don’t make the journey in order to witness and photograph the experience, it will have never happened for any of us. So, the journey is necessary after all, if not a necessary evil. With the right attitude – and good set of noise-cancelling headphones – the journey itself might not be so intolerable after all. Just don’t let anyone tell you it’s not about the destination.

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

A Righteous Set of Sticks

A Righteous Set of Sticks

Short Essays

I once lost a tripod in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains several years ago. Okay I should say, for the sake of accuracy, I left it there by accident. Despite having legs, tripods don’t just walk off and get lost on their own.

Returning to the trailhead after an overnight backpacking trek, I tossed my gear into the rental car and drove away, leaving in my wake a perfectly good tripod in full view of the public parking area. I wasn’t even aware of this oversight until four hours and 200 miles later when a wave of intuitive dread fell over me. An inventory was hastily performed and my fears were borne out. The idea of driving back to find it was quickly dismissed and replaced with better one: I went to a bar. The tripod was just as likely to be found under a barstool at the Old Faithful Tavern as it would at a popular trailhead on an Indian summer weekend in mid-September. I was sunk.

For outdoor photographers, having no tripod is almost as bad as having no camera. In other words, it’s essential. Yet for many beginners, a tripod remains the object of an intense love-hate relationship. They love it because they’ve been told they should love it, but they also hate it because they despise carrying and operating the wretched thing. Eventually, that relationship evolves into one of tolerance, soon followed by tepid acceptance, mild appreciation and finally, love.

The benefits of a tripod are obvious to most photographers, nature or otherwise, and will become more obvious with time and experience. Camera stability will always be the primary benefit and can never be overstated.  No matter how steady-handed you are or how good you think your image stabilized lens or camera is, be assured that comparing results on a set of large prints will humble you.

Another often cited benefit of using a tripod is that it slows the photographic process down, forcing the artist to think through their compositions in a more contemplative way. While I believe there is some truth buried in that sentiment, I do have to wonder how any device that forces you to do anything can advance the creative process. Not using a tripod and being contemplative are not necessarily mutually exclusive things.

A tripod can, however, have many other non-conventional and under appreciated benefits that you’ll probably never read on the glossy pages of a snazzy product catalog. For example, a tripod can be used to reach and remove a distracting limb or branch in mid-stream that you otherwise would have to get wet to reach.  Who hasn’t performed this little trick before? I always grasp the tripod firmly near the head, while telescoping a leg (always one) to the desired distance. It sure beats a day’s worth of walking with soggy and squishy boots. It also functions as an adequate wading staff or trekking pole in a pinch. You’re missing out on much of your tripod’s hidden value if it’s never helped steady you while hiking a particularly steep descent or provided additional balance as you rock-hop from one stream bank to another.

There are also dark undertones of blunt-force weaponry incorporated in a tripod’s design, although you hope to never use one in this way. I’ve never had to fend off a crazed backwoods hillbilly yet nor even a rabid squirrel for that matter, but you never know. Perhaps the deterrent of being visibly armed has had something to do with that. But there are two instances where I can recall applying my beloved tripod directly to a wild animal: a lovesick bison in Yellowstone National Park and five-foot timber rattler in the Great Smoky Mountains. The former simply invaded what I would consider my personal space and I used the tripod as a makeshift shield as I turned away each of her (his?) amorous advances. The latter was stretched out across a rocky section of a trail, peacefully soaking up the late summer sun. I carefully lifted and relocated it to a safer location, since the odds of the next hiking party being as charitable as I was not nearly as good. When it comes to dealing with snakes, humans usually kill first and ask questions later.

You might learn rather quickly that having a tripod immediately grants you professional status in the presence of certain people. In the vicinity of tourists or non-photographers, be prepared to be asked if you are, in fact, a professional photographer and how can they become one too. This perception will create some complications from time to time. Many parks and authorities require photographers to have a commercial use permit (for a  fee, of course) if one is in possession of a tripod. The inference being, that if you’re determined enough to lug the heavy-looking contraption around there must be a damned good reason to do so and they want their fair share of whatever that reason is.

While leading a tour in Belize several years ago, the guards at a classic Mayan archaeological site, Xunantunich, wouldn’t allow us to enter the property with tripods. It had nothing to do with aesthetics, environmental impact, sacred tradition, or limited working space, but rather it was assumed we were a group of professionals and that was obviously a bad thing. The guards looked threatening and had automatic machine guns so I didn’t feel it was an appropriate time to argue a point of principle. Instead, our group assembled some improvisational tripods from sticks and rocks and that seemed to get the job done well enough. Like my experience in Montana years prior, you learn to appreciate your tripod when you don’t have it.

At this moment, I am looking at several tripods leaning against a corner of my office – each with a specialized purpose. There’s a compact, lightweight model for multi-day backpacking trips, a big, sturdy model for propping up my big telephoto lenses when shooting wildlife, and one that its less than 10 inches tall. My everyday workhorse, however, is carbon fiber beauty that’s at least 8 years old and has been discontinued by the manufacturer. It’s scarred, dinged, dented, taped up, rusted, and getting a little squeaky in the joints – not unlike its owner these days.

But I have no plans for a replacement, at least not until it completely succumbs to gravity and fails to stand on its own three legs. If leading a workshop or tour, having gear that looks seasoned helps perpetuate that “steely-eyed mountain man” persona that citified clients like to project upon me, whether its accurate or not. Guides or workshop leaders who only carry spiffy, brand new gear should be viewed with a healthy dose of suspicion. Either they’re new at this game or you’re being overcharged.

During a recent photography workshop, a bright, personable young man in my group took one look at my tripod and casually stated, “Whoa, that’s one righteous set of sticks, dude.”

I asked permission to steal that phrase for future use, if I gave him proper credit of course. Thanks Darren.

Six Stable Tripod Tips

  1. Try to keep the tripod on firm, dry land for optimal stability and image sharpness. Be careful of wet sand and soggy terrain where your tripod could move slightly during a long exposure.
  2. Always keep the tripod and camera as level as possible. If working on an uneven hillside, extend one of the legs longer than the other two to keep everything level. This may seem too obvious but it’s still worth repeating.
  3. For extra stability, especially in windy conditions, suspend your camera bag (or some other heavy object) to the hook at the bottom of the tripod’s center post, if your tripod has one. This is especially true for the wonderfully light carbon fiber tripods that we’ve all come to love.
  4. Only raise the tripod as high as necessary. Extend the larger diameter tripod leg extensions first before the thinner ones and only extend the thinner legs segments if absolutely necessary. The thinner leg extensions lack the stability and support of the thicker segments.
  5. If your tripod has a center column, only use it as a last resort. The center column is the most vulnerable point on a tripod when it comes to possible movement
  6. When using heavy lenses with a built-in tripod collar, attach the lens to the tripod instead of the camera. Cameras with heavy lenses mounted to the tripod are unstable. The tripod collar built into the lens is there for a reason.

I am a Really Right Stuff sponsored photographer and I proudly use their tripods, heads, plates, and brackets for camera stability when I’m traveling and in the field.

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

A Passion Driven Life

A Passion Driven Life


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 weary head, I drove to the office and promptly terminated a successful corporate career. My own. I fired myself on January 14, 2003 which also happened to be my birthday.

Photography was a serious hobby at the time with occasional financial rewards, but not nearly rewarding enough to pay for my lifestyle. It wasn’t even close. Photography and travel were excellent ways to spend money, not make it (that’s still mostly true, by the way). Still, I was determined to give it a go, even if I really had no idea how to get there exactly. The one 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 a new way of thinking to me. I was a rationally thinking corporate manager 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? Let’s count the ways; no salary; no plan for earning any income in the near future; no benefits; no financial security. On its face, the choice was a no-brainer, yet my intuition and heart told me otherwise.

Wild places, wildlife, and exotic 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 evangelize to others that you should love what you do in order to truly be successful in life – as was my mantra to my employees and anyone who would listen – I would have to commit to it myself lest I be a hypocrite. I was only willing to accept happiness and excellence for myself and I could only achieve it by doing what I loved and was 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. But hey, 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 a good time.”

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

You see, I never considered photography 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 say 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 mere 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 many years ago in a corporate job.

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.

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

A Bear is Eating My Camera

A Bear is Eating My Camera

Short Essays

It was a brilliant Indian summer afternoon at Elk Lakes Provincial Park in Canada’s eastern British Columbia. Blue skies reigned over pale grey granite mountains as 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 sun and robin-egg blue skies reduced this photographer to just another tourist, squinting through the windshield while admiring the scenery and stopping 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 was preoccupied, busy processing a flood of pleasant memories from a trip fourteen years earlier when I arrived with just a film camera and a bamboo fly rod. The Elk River courses through the heart 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 beautiful 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.

I considered leaving the camera packed away and renting a fly rod, buying a few dry flies, and wetting a line just for the sake of nostalgia but ultimately thought better of that idea. The passage of time enhances good memories and elevates epic ones to near mythological status, which could only lead to a letdown. Besides, it wouldn’t be the same Elk River of fourteen years earlier. You never wade into the same river twice.

It was during that 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 river. The old boar stalked the meadow’s edge with the purposeful gait and confidence that only an apex predator of the wild could get away with. When his head spun around on its massive shoulders and our eyes met, the coldest shiver ran down my spine and my toes tingled. I was flying.

If you travel to and spend time in 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. Which of the two is worse is a matter for debate. Still, a solid piece of advice to follow when walking or hiking in bear country is to make as much noise as possible, not necessarily to scare the bears away, but to create an awareness of your presence, since startling or surprising one at close range would spell 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 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 the sane and reasonable thing to do. Having the discussion evolve into 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 particular hurry. I would stop every so often to rest while small animals and birds would reveal themselves once I settled down and sat for a bit: 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 needed it. Almost immediately upon entering the thickets, I heard a crashing noise, the breaking of branches, and a grunting and growling that seemed to be getting close 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? 

Perhaps it was the patronizing tone or the disgraceful visage of a grown man standing in an alpine meadow with his shorts dangling from his hiking boots, but the attempted reasoning only made the situation worse. The bear projected its growing displeasure on my nearby tripod and camera by swatting it to the ground with considerable flair (settling the mystery of whether a falling camera in the forest makes a sound – that would be yes). Then after concluding that the alliance of applied force and gravity didn’t do 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 unsettling experience of being charged by an Alaskan brown bear at close range a couple years earlier, before it 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 don’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 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 a little girl, another impulse that seemed all too appropriate at the time.

But no amount of screaming, pleading, or begging was going dissuade this psychotic creature from performing a crude camera lobotomy before my 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 tasteless encounter, it casually ambled back into the thickets, probably to find some real food. While my wide-angle lens and tripod survived the encounter unscathed, the same could not be said of the camera itself. Surprisingly, I wasn’t angry or upset. I didn’t harbor any feelings of vengeance or retribution. Violence, real or imagined, never even entered my mind. I was, quite simply, 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 truly did. But like most 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 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 joke about how it’s not necessary to actually 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. But after subsequent recitations, it 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 guys talking and loitering in the dining hall after dinner 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 from the crisp Canadian sky, a cold wind barreled down the valley from the Great Divide – a stark reminder that autumn really was imminent. I collected my broken pieces of camera gear and started down the dusky trail to the car, talking and muttering to myself the entire way.


Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.