The Coastal Brown Bear images you see in the gallery above were all taken on my trip to Alaska’s Katmai National Park in August 2012. Katmai National Park has the world’s highest concentration of brown bears per square mile so it affords some excellent bear viewing and bear photography. Brown bears found inland and in mountainous habitats are called “grizzlies” while brown bears living in coastal areas are called coastal brown bears. The Kodiak brown bear is isolated to Kodiak Island in Alaska. In comparison, the grizzly is considerably smaller than the coastal brown bear due to the abundance of food available in coastal areas.
I booked my trip through John Rogers at Katmai Coastal Bear Tours. Our guide was Buck Wilde and he was absolutely fantastic, his over 20 years of experience with these brown bears is evident the moment you hit the scene. On day two we were five feet away from an 800 lbs male, his choice to come to us, and the experience was surreal. Buck managed the bear and those of us soiling ourselves with all the wisdom and calm of a buddhist monk. Over the course of the six days we visited Kukak Bay, Hallo Bay and Kooliak Bay and I will say the scenery at every bay we visited is spectacular so be prepared to do some landscape photography while you’re out there.
Facts About Brown Bears, Tips For Getting Great Brown Bear Pictures, Bear Tours and Brown Bear Conservation.
Facts About Coastal Brown Bears
The brown bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), also known as the North American brown bear, lives in the forests and mountains of northern North America, Europe, and Asia. It is the most widely distributed bear in the world.
When people think of Brown Bears there are generally two questions most people want answered. How big are brown bears and are they dangerous? From a size perspective the male (boar) is larger than the female (sow). Males weigh in on average from 400-800 lbs where females average 300-450 lbs. Along the Katmai Coast of Alaska the Coastal Brown Bears are amongst the largest anywhere in the world weighing up to 1500 lbs and beyond. On average a brown bear will stand 3-3.5 feet at the shoulders and is 6-7 feet in length with an average life span of 20-25 years. Keeping those height and weight stats in mind let’s now move on to the second question which is are they dangerous?
I did a lot of reading on the subject in preparation for my Alaska trip, at my wife’s insistence I might add, and my conclusion is that there is no simple answer to this question. In a recent book by Howard Smith he cited that in Alaska 19 people were killed by dogs during 1975-85, whereas only 20 people were killed by bears from 1900-85. So are dogs more dangerous? No we simply encounter them more often and as a result the odds of injury are far greater. I’m no rocket scientist however I think it is safe to conclude that if an individual were attacked by a grizzly bear vs a dog the likelihood of sustaining life threatening injuries is far greater from that of the brown bear. So the short answer to are they dangerous is they certainly can be so it is always best to maintain a healthy respect and learn as much as you can about the species so you are familiar with their threat signals, moods and motives.
Brown Bears live for space, food and breeding so if you don’t crowd a Brown Bear or come upon it unexpectedly, act like food or compete for a food source, or give the impression that you are competing for a mate you are off to a good start. And of course traveling in the company of an experienced bear guide if you are intentionally heading out to view brown bears is preferred. You’ll also learn a lot about brown bears along the way as most bear guides are eager to answer any questions you might have.
Brown Bears are solitary with the exception of females with cubs which on average remain with their mothers for three years. Female Brown Bears also known as sows produce one to four young, most commonly two and she is extremely protective of her offspring and will fight to the death to defend them. While primarily solitary in nature there are coastal areas like the Katmai Coast of Alaska where you’ll find brown bears congregating in lush meadows in Spring and along streams and rivers in great numbers during the salmon spawn in late Summer. The salmon are critical to the survival of these bears as they provide the much needed fat stores required to get these brown bears through their next winter hibernation.
I mentioned above that I have been doing a lot of reading. There’s a series of books from Stephen F. Stringham who has a Masters Degree in wildlife management and a PhD in behavioral and population Ecology. I know what you’re thinking those books are probably about as exciting as watching paint dry given the scholastic credentials however you’d be wrong. Stringham draws on the thousands of hours he has spent with Brown Bears since he began studying them in 1969 so the books read from real world experience rather than text book anecdotes. If you want to know more about Brown Bears or are planning a trip to view or photograph them the books I list below will truly educate and help you get the most from any bear tour:
Brown Bear / Grizzly Bear Tours
There are hosts of Grizzly Bear (Brown Bear) tour offerings out there however I will only speak to those that I or fellow photographers have been on and speak highly of so you at least know the experience from these grizzly bear tours will be top notch.
Katmai Coastal Bear Tours. I first learned of this bear tour through Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge show on the Katmai Coast as it was the Katmai Coastal Bear Tours staff that hosted this adventure for Art. This tour is run by John Rogers and he has a number of experienced bear guides that take up to a maximum of six photographers on 4,6 and 8 day trips along the Katmai coast of Alaska. This is the trip that Rob and I will be taking July 31st – August 5th. You fly into Kodiak Alaska and from there catch a float plane out to the boat which will serve as your home base for the duration of your trip. With 21 hours of daylight there’s plenty of time for bear photography along with other wildlife like Puffins, Sea Otters, etc. If you’d like a sneak peak of what you can expect from this tour, Brad Joseph’s one of the bear guides on the tour compiled a nice Grizzly Bear: Grizzlies From Kodiak to Katmai video which highlights some of the scenes from one of their 2010 adventures. If you want to learn more about Grizzly Bears Brad is world renowned so do some Google searching on his videos and you will not be disappointed.
Chilcotin Grizzly Bear Tours. This bear tour takes place in British Columbia’s remote fly-in Chilcotin wilderness. This offering is lead by John Marriot a Canadian Wildlife Photographer and it offers up a great experience for those wildlife photographers wanting to photograph mountain grizzly bears as opposed to the Coastal Grizzlies that you’ll see on the Katmai bear tour. Participants will be staying at a back country lodge in the middle of the Chilcotin Mountains, accessible via a private airstrip (participants will fly in on a one-hour charter plane flight from Vancouver, British Columbia over the spectacular Coast Mountain Range). This lodge has the only guide operator’s license in the area and has several different boats that will be used on the lake and river to access areas that the grizzlies frequent.
Expect the majority of the photography to be done from boats and to be of varying degrees of difficulty, as you will be on a moving river. This is not your typical ‘set up and shoot’ type of tour, rather, it is a unique and exciting photo tour that will challenge every skill you have as a wildlife photographer. You can expect to be shooting hand-held, and with a monopod, beanbag, or tripod off of a boat, as well as potentially with a tripod from beside the boat or from the river’s edge. Expect to be shooting in a variety of weather conditions; while normal temperatures are in the low to mid-teens (approx 50-60 F) at that time of year, there is the potential for heavy winds, rain, or even snow. Morning temperatures can often be at or below freezing. This tour sells out a year in advance so to avoid disappointment I suggest you get in touch with John as soon as you make up your mind so you can secure your spot. If you mention COOLWildlife it just might help your chances.:))
Brown Bear Photography – Tips For Getting Great Brown Bear Pictures.
- Most wildlife photographers I know are after the classic brown bear running through the water after a salmon action shot. Given the window for salmon is short you will want to contact your tour guide and inquire on when the best times are for peak salmon runs which of course fluctuate from year to year so there is never a guarantee.
- Another classic Brown Bear action shots is that of sparring boars standing on their hind legs. If you want sparring boars you want to hit the peak of mating season which is generally May/June. A word of caution, boars and sows can become aggressive during mating season so approach the situation cautiously and I strongly recommend using an experienced bear guide.
- Read a few books about Brown Bears so you are familiar with their habits and mannerisms. This will allow you to anticipate the action before it happens.
- I shoot f/4 for single bear shots when I am cropping in tight on just the bear as I prefer the background to be as out of focus as possible. If there are two bears or more I will jump up to f/8 or f/11. I am usually taking these shots with my Nikon 200-400mm or my Nikon 600mm.
- When the backdrop is a lovely mountain scene I bump up the f stop up to f8 or f/11 to keep the background more in focus. The f/11 in focus shot is what I use when I want to portray the bear in its natural environment and I will typically be using my Nikon 24-70mm or Nikon 70-200mm for that type of shot.
- If things get heated and the boars begin to chase the sows try to keep your shutter speed above 1/800 to freeze the action unless you are intentionally going for the blurred motion image which often turns out very nice result but it takes some practice.
- Shutter speeds for panning are always going to depend first on the speed (and distance) you have to move your camera. I’ve found 1/80th gives a nice artistic blur but you’ll need to experiment with every scenario to get a shot you find appealing.
- I’ve mentioned the use of a bear guide several times now for safety sake. The other reason is that they know when and where to find the bears. If I ‘m spending $8,000 on a trip to Alaska I will definitely hire a bear guide to get the most from the experience. I highly recommend bear guide Brad Joseph’s whom many of you may have seen on Art Wolfe’s Travels To The Edge on PBS or Bucke Wilde whom you will be seeing more of on the next BBC bear DVD in production now.
- You’ll hear this repeated over and over in wildlife photography but having sharp focus on the animals eye is a must so make that your focal point. I’ve yet to see an award winning Grizzly Bear picture where the eye was out of focus.
- The very best wildlife photography images are usually taken at the subjects eye level so bring a comfortable stool or sit on the ground if it is safe to do so.
- Pay attention to the backgrounds. Snow covered mountains, lush meadows, fall colours and rock outcroppings all make wonderful backdrops for brown bear photography. Sometimes a good shot could have been great if only you had taken a step to the right or the left so pay close attention when you look through the viewfinder not only at the animal but what is behind it.
- Plan to take a variety of lenses with you. I will shoot everything from 14-24 to 600mm and everything in between. Shooting with different lenses yields varied perspectives and that makes for a more interesting and diversified portfolio.
- Don’t forget to go vertical every once and a while especially with single subjects that are beside tall vertical objects likes rocks or trees. Often the front cover of a magazine or calendar is looking for a vertical shot so mix it up.
Brown Bear / Grizzly Bear Conservation:
The Brown Bear is listed as threatened in the United States and endangered in parts of Canada. Within the United States, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concentrates its effort to restore brown bears in six recovery areas. These are Northern Continental Divide (Montana), Yellowstone (Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho), Cabinet-Yaak (Montana and Idaho), Selway-Bitterroot (Montana and Idaho), Selkirk (Idaho and Washington), and North Cascades (Washington). The grizzly population in these areas is estimated at 750 in the Northern Continental Divide, 550 in Yellowstone, 40 in the Yaak portion of the Cabinet-Yaak, and 15 in the Cabinet portion (in northwestern Montana), 105 in Selkirk region of Idaho, 10–20 in the North Cascades, and none currently in Selway-Bitterroots, although there have been sightings.These are estimates because bears move in and out of these areas, and it is therefore impossible to conduct a precise count. In the recovery areas that adjoin Canada, bears also move back and forth across the international boundary.
All National Parks such as Banff national Park, Yellowstone and Grand Tetonhave laws and regulations in place to protect the Grizzly Bears. Even so, grizzlies are not always safe in parks. In Glacier National Park in Montana and Banff National Park in Alberta grizzlies are regularly killed by trains as the bears scavenge for grain that has leaked from poorly maintained grain cars. Road kills on park roads are another problem. The primary limiting factors for grizzly bears in Alberta and elsewhere are human-caused mortality, unmitigated road access, and habitat loss, alienation, and fragmentation. In the Central Rocky Mountain area, most bears have died within a few hundred meters of roads and trails.
Conservation efforts have become an increasingly vital investment over recent decades, as population numbers have dramatically declined. Establishment of parks and protected areas are one of the main focuses currently being tackled to help reestablish the low grizzly bear population in British Columbia. One example of these efforts is the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary located along the north coast of British Columbia; at 44,300 hectares (109,000 acres) in size, it is composed of key habitat for this threatened species. Regulations such as limited public access, as well as a strict no hunting policy, have enabled this location to be a safe haven for local grizzlies in the area.
John Marriot has long led a movement in Banff National Park in Alberta to help the recovery of the Grizzly Bear populations and I encourage you to give his blog post on the struggles of the Grizzly Bear a read and participate where you see the call to action. Let’s do what we can to make our voices heard.
If you are planning to take a Grizzly Bear Photography tour be sure to watch this very cool BBC video as it will give you a very real sense of what a Grizzly Bear workshop in Alaska is like.
BBC Great Bear Stakeout Episode 2: Follows a mother and her cub and intense scenes with Van, the dominant male, approaching the film crew in a potentially dangerous situation.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNz4FRSGihQ