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Grizzly bear confrontation

My blogging has been slim due to a 12 day river trip in the arctic, and now with time in the office I can play catch up on a few stories and photos worth sharing of my recent ventures….

Utukok Uplands, National Petroleum Reserve Alaska.

While treading the homeland of grizzly bears, a shrewd and methodical behavior is advised. This is all the more true if you are alone, as the statistics for human/bear encounters are considerably decreased when group size exceeds the solitary wanderer. For these reasons, and the fact that I like my life, made my senses keen to the heavily grizzly bear populated area of the Utukok uplands on my June photo trip.

Utukok uplands, National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska. Canon 5D Mark II, 16-35mm (16mm), 1/80 sec. @ f/ 6.3, ISO 100, polarizing filter.

I was fortunate to catch the tail end of the western arctic caribou migration, and watched a group of a few thousand animals pass through my camp.

Western arctic caribou migration, National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. Canon 1Ds Mark III, 500mm f/4L IS, 1/500 sec @ f/5.0, ISO 200

On the following evening, I hiked about 7 miles west in search for the group, which I found grazing on the tundra slopes in the shadows of evening summer sunshine. But I was not the only creature looking for caribou. The bears and wolves are also keen on finding the animals, in particular the young calves, which were approximately one week old at the time. While watching the group from about 3/4 mile away, they appeared startled and began to run. With a closer look, I noticed two grizzly bears chasing them at the lower end of the valley. Good news and bad news. Good news because moving caribou are more interesting to photograph,  bad news because they were moving away from me and the presence of bears made me nervous. They ran quickly leaving the sow grizzly and her two year cub alone on the tundra.  I began running up to the ridge and after the caribou, with hopes of getting closer if they chose to crest the top. They moved quite some distance, across to the next valley, and while I have been training to run a portion of an autumn marathon in Fairbanks, I’m no match for caribou cruising the tundra. They finally slowed down and began grazing again and I was able to gain some distance on them, keeping myself out of sight by walking just on the opposite side of the ridge in which they were approaching. All of a sudden I saw an ear and heard the grunts of a cow and calf, and immediately crouched low on the ground. The herd was cresting the hill right in front of me. I froze while the first few animals crossed and stared at me, but continued walking. I started clicking frames off. The shots were nothing to compare with the experience-see below.

Western arctic caribou (cows with young calves) migrate over a ridge in the Utukok uplands, National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. Canon 5D Mark II, 24-105 f/4L IS, (105mm), 1/400 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 400, 12:44 AM.

When they were about 30 feet away, one spooked, and the whole herd bolted, like herd animals do when one sounds the alarm. Back they went on the other side of the ridge, and ran off to the west. I stood up to photograph their departure. That’s when I realized why they suddenly decided to crest the hill. A lone grizzly bear was loping right at me, the only one left standing after a herd of caribou dashed away speedily. The bear probably thought about his good fortune of one injured one left behind. The bear was in the golden light of evening, and I was fraught with the duplicitous mind of oh sh#!, and that would be a great shot! I had two cameras around my neck, a full backpack, and hands quickly retrieving the pepper spray in the side pouch of my camera bag. The thing to do in a situation like this, besides wondering what your eulogy would be, is not to run–as if I had anywhere to go anyway, and hold the ground. The bear came to about 30 feet from me and stopped, turned broadside, drooled, and I took a few shots one handed with my pepper spray in the other hand.

Grizzly bear, Utukok uplands, National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, 12:50AM, summer solstice. Canon 1Ds Mark III, 100-400 f/5.6L IS, (200mm), 1/800 sec @ f/5, ISO 800. I took this shot one handed, and it was the only frame out of 4 that was sharp. My other hand was holding a can of pepper spray. I can't quite remember, but there is a good likelihood that my hands were shaking a bit!

I noticed it was a relatively young bear, thankfully–they just seem a little less threatening than the big old scarred ones. After a brief moment, the bear realized I was not on his dinner palate and ran off along the ridge. I was left standing in the golden arctic sunshine at 1:50 AM on summer solstice, overlooking the vast arctic domain in 360 degrees, saying to myself with a healthy dose of relief, “wow”. It seemed like a good time to head back to camp, which was in the opposite direction, and I photographed along the way, crawling in my sleeping bag about 5:00 AM, after sipping lightly on a special flask laying by my pillow.

  • Kenny Chartier - Hey Pat, Great story!! I am enjoying your pics and the jogs down memory lane. Thank you.ReplyCancel

    • Patrick - Ken,
      I still remember our encounter in the Brooks range after midnight when I was photographing the aurora. Lots of crazy stories and memories to go around.ReplyCancel

  • Eli Mitchell - The light is great on these, esp the grizzly. The last caribou shot has a very unique perspective and focal length. BTW, I’ve been enjoying your series on your trip a lot.ReplyCancel

    • Patrick - Eli,
      Thanks for taking a continued interest in my blog and photographic work. The good light in the high arctic makes an extremely late night, and I’m happy to see a little bit of darkness creep into the night sky.ReplyCancel

  • Bear Pepper Spray Essentials » Alaskaphotographyblog - [...] bag (If you have been following this blog, you have read about my reach for that canister during a grizzly bear encounter).  Just before departing camp, I found the view looking through my tent doors interesting and bent [...]ReplyCancel

  • Donna Osborne - On my adventure to Alaska, I went to Hooper Bay on a mission trip and what a remote and wild place. I hope someday to go back there and hike/camp around the area to do photography.ReplyCancel

  • Donna Osborne - WOW! What an amazing solo adventure… you are a brave soul! Thank you for your inspiration! I would love to go on a raft adventure in the Brook Range… in my dreams! I just got back home (Colorado) from my three-week solo adventure to Alaska. Amazingly and wildly Alaska! Many happy memories!ReplyCancel

    • Patrick - Donna,
      Three weeks gave a good sample of Alaska I’m sure. A raft trip in the Brooks range is not too difficult. Keep it on the horizon. I returned from one just recently and will be posting a few photos from that journey soon.ReplyCancel

  • Jim McCann - Patrick,

    As usual, great images of a great adventure! Thanks for sharing with us. Your image of the caribou migration conjured up memories of time spent with my old late friend Charlie Ott who once photographed one of the last really large herds of caribou moving through Denali Park. I have one of his B&W prints of the episode. It was done in 1960s. Alaska is certainly the Last Frontier state as these things are rapidly disappearing. Keep shooting!


    • Patrick - Jim,
      I remember seeing some of Charlie’s work. And, I’ve watched the diminishing presence of the Denali herd, over the last 30 years. I think often, how amazing it would be to see a large migration through that park again. Perhaps some day. On another note, it will take a lot to tame the Brooks Range, which is perhaps one reason I like the area so much. Thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts.ReplyCancel

  • Patrick - Thank you Ron, I’ve been enjoying your posts.ReplyCancel

  • Ron Niebrugge - Great story and wonderful photos Patrick!ReplyCancel

  • Tweets that mention Grizzly bear confrontation » Alaskaphotographyblog -- - [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chris Hall. Chris Hall said: Another outstanding post by @alaskaphoto [...]ReplyCancel

  • Kristopher Brown - Great photos! I remember being up in ANWR in 1991 with a law school buddy during our second summer of law school. On our fourth day we came up a small hill and face to face with a mother Grizzly and her two cubs who were heading straight toward us. I didn’t have time to pull out my bear mace or .357 pistol (which, of course, would only have been useful for shooting myself), but after the two cubs turned tail and ran off, the mother stood on her back legs, snarled at us and then started to charge us, reaching about 25 feet from us before standing up again, snorting, and then turning around to run off and, infect, eventually even out run her own two cubs. We decided to call it quits and spent the next 12 hours or so hiking back to our 1974 Chevy van we’d parked next to the Pipeline. The 12 flat tires we experienced on the drive up from and back to Fairbanks in that van is another story, as is our testing out the .357 along the road and next to (unbeknownst to us) a Pipeline monitoring station, along the way.ReplyCancel

    • Patrick - Kristopher,
      That is an outrageous story and one I can relate too. However, the flat tire experience sounds worse in many respects! The road is much better now days you would be happy to know. Glad you had the chance to experience such a raw and rugged place, and thanks for sharing your story. My pistol was in my tent, by purpose actually, but I’m half tempted to carry it if I return to that place.ReplyCancel

  • Mike - Amazing shots to go with an amazing experience! Definitely my kind of adventure!ReplyCancel

    • Patrick - Mike,
      One thing I love about Alaska, there is no end to adventure, and plenty to go around.ReplyCancel

  • Patrick - Dan, Jon, Andreas & Tad, thanks for perusing the blog and posting comments guys.ReplyCancel

  • Tad - Amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!! What an incredible experience.ReplyCancel

  • Andreas - Hi! What an extraordinary experience. I can imagine the mix of being exited and scared at the same time. I`m a Norwegian nature photographer and just recently found your blog. Lots of great pictures.

    I visited Alaska in 2002, great pleace, I`d love to come back one day :)


  • Jon Cornforth - WOW!!!!!!!!!!!ReplyCancel

  • Daniel H. Bailey - Beautiful shots, Patrick!!ReplyCancel

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