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.