Few animals reign a landscape like the grizzly bear does the tundra, in my opinion. Grizzlies are absolutely awesome, in every sense of the word. Seeing one can be an amazing experience, even for those of us who’ve been fortunate enough to see quite a number of bears in our lives. Photographing in Katmai National Park is beyond words. I took my parents there this September; though reluctant to make that trip part of their journey, I was finally able to talk them into it. They both say how glad they are that we went, and how that was probably the highlight of their trip. We were also fortunate enough to see a few grizzlies in Denali National Park, even up relatively close (when we were in a shuttle bus, not hiking on the ground). This grizzly bear photo I shot on my earlier trip to Denali, with my buddy Doug from Atlanta. Doug’s an old country boy from Georgia (“born ‘n raised!”), so seeing a grizzly bear was quite a thrill for him.
Denali National Park can be a frustrating experience for the serious photographer, for sure; to be so close to so many wonderful opportunities, yet so often unable to shoot what you want because the buses don’t really accommodate photographers very well has led a number of photographers to not return. On the other hand, it’s precisely because of those opportunities that makes Denali so appealing. There are not too many other places you can see grizzly bears roaming the tundra like you can in Denali National Park. Especially if you're backpacking in Denali National Park.
Generally, when I’m hiking and backpacking in places like Denali or the Wrangells, I don’t try to photograph grizzly bears. It’s simply not worth it. I don’t know the individual bears well enough, and bears, being bears, can often be unpredictable anyway. Even with a long telephoto lens, I still need to get reasonably close to a bear for decent photographs. 60 or 70 yards is about as far away as I can shoot from – MAYBE a little further if everything’s just right. The regulations for Denali National Park state that all hikers, backpackers, photographers, etc MUST be 300 yards away from bears, and maintain that distance, even if the bear approaches. 300 yards is too far away for photos. It’s still a huge thrill to see one, and I do get excited whenever a grizzly comes over the horizon.
A few years ago I was hiking with some friends, coming down off a high ridge where we’d camped the night before. We stopped for a bite, and had just broken out some food when one of my friends says “uh oh — uhhhmmm, Carl?”
His tone said everything. Even as I turned around I was reaching for my bear spray, and simultaneously putting food back into the bear-resistant food canisters we carry in the backcountry. Looking up the hill behind me, I saw probably the largest grizzly bear I’ve seen outside of Katmai coming over the ridge. The wind was blowing a gale (the reason we came down off the ridge was that it was too windy up high, the wind totally destroyed 2 brand-new tents), and the bear hadn’t yet heard or smelled us. I stood up, held my arms above my head, and called out the standard “hey yogi, hey boo boo – whass up wid chu”. The old bear looked down at us all, with a kind of tired comical look, as if to say ‘oh my Lord, do you have ANY idea how ridiculous you all look?” He didn’t however, back away. He turned slightly, quartered up the hill, then continued on, to go around us. Well within the regulatory 300 yards. Probably about 50 yards away. We packed up, and moved on down the valley, unknowingly right where he wanted to go. We stop about 30 minutes later, out of sight, and sure enough, within about 10 minutes time, this same old bear comes walking over another ridge, right toward us. My friends were fairly panicking, thinking he was stalking us. I played along, and said, ‘well yeah, possibly, he might be doing that. Maybe we should stalk HIM, instead.”
Brad and Don weren’t real impressed. Unsure of exactly what to do, I decided we best get up high again, and let the bear decide where he wants to go, and we’ll change our plans accordingly.
We did, but it took maybe an hour or so of climbing and walking and hiking and watching and changing direction before we finally left him behind. It didn’t appear to me that the bear was particularly interested at all is us, or our food, rather he was just on a route that took him in a similar direction to ours. The expressions he gave us were beautiful; nothing untoward, simply a quirky wise old bear, knowingly in charge, yet willing to let us go on our way. I didn’t take a single picture of him.