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.

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA – SEPTEMBER 2014

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 is 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.

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.

For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

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, 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, baseball caps, handbags, boots, eyeglass and phone cases, one eye patch, and a tee shirt emblazoned in 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 across a vast ocean to kill the same beautiful animals 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. Grainy black and white photographs of a bespeckled Teddy Roosevelt, rifle in hand grinning over the corpse of some poor Cape buffalo, come immediately to mind.

While casting no judgments on legal hunting in general – for sustenance (if and when necessary) and as a governmental management tool with oversight by the appropriate authorities (for the benefit of wildlife or a specific species) – I must confess that killing for sport, trophy, or ego sickens me, particularly our 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 than a kill shot. With photography, the human predatory instinct is still propitiated except without the blood, guts, and guilt. It’s is also more of what I would consider to be a sporting proposition, in that both characters in the drama are able to walk away from the encounter alive.

Still, in many ways, photography and firearms are inextricably married, with language being the most common bond. For example, 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 telephoto lenses 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 long ago, if for no other reason it’s breathtakingly stale and unoriginal. If they go on to say 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 the culture of 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’ obvious violent undertones but instead I find them to be rather inelegant and crude. As a substitute for shot, I prefer the terms image or photo.

Image is snazzy and modern, fully appropriate for smartphones and the digital age – digital imagery. Stretching photo all the way out into photograph feels too old fashioned and implies, at least to me, a tangible print that you can hold in your hands. The same goes for picture. The slang pic should always be avoided if you are older than 25 years old 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 steadily gaining in popularity among photographers but has never fully caught on with me. Epic capture or I captured a raging sunset last night 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 development.

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

“Yeah, you could say that.”

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

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – JUNE 2015

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 is 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.