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Walking with Griz
by B. Moose Peterson

When folks visit my home or office and they see the large prints of Grizzly Bears on the walls, they always ask, "Just how close were you?" And no sooner than the words have left their mouth, they look at my arms and hands to see if anything is missing. The myths surrounding Grizzly Bears at the least inflates the truth and at the most, makes it sound like they are designed to devour entire cities. I must admit when I headed out for my first encounter with griz, my mind filled with all I'd read and made me wonder about the wisdom of my trip. But within minutes of my first encounter with a Grizzly Bear, I realized they were not what folks had made them out to be. Walking with griz then became a lifelong passion of mine as well as sharing with others what I have learned.

I will never forget seeing my first sign of a Grizzly Bear shown to me by my good friend. We were out photographing some Bull Moose up in Alaska's interior when he pointed out a track in the dry streambed. I walked over to examine it when he simply said, "griz!" I put my foot next to the track, which was dwarfed by its size. We continued to photograph the Moose and along the way saw recent sign of the griz. We observed where it had been digging up roots and raking the blueberry bushes. It still amazes me that the interior grizzlies of Alaska amass such a huge size by just eating their vegetables! The few ground squirrels they might catch, the rotting carcass they are able to take over don't really add much to their bulk. We never saw the maker of the tracks during that week but the bug had bitten me. I wanted to experience the Alaskan Grizzly Bear up close and personal!

Mama griz

The next summer my wife and I had the opportunity to spend four days in the backcountry of Denali Nat'l Park. While it rained three of the four days, we were able to observe many grizzly bears. It's truly hard to express in writing the feeling when a grizzly comes out of the willows and uses the grill of your rental car to scratch its back! The whole vehicle swayed back and forth for a few minutes until the itch was gone and the bear moved on. I was in the back of the vehicle so there was no way for me to capture any of the experience with the camera, but I can guarantee you that the moment was forever exposed on the thin emulsion of my mind! I was hooked after these all too short days; I had to know the grizzly better!

From that point I began my search for the ultimate bear experience. How do I define the ultimate bear experience? For me, I had to be at point blank range with grizzly bears that were, for all intents and purposes, wild (compared to captive or park bears)! The last three summers I've been living this quest at a very unique and special locale in Alaska, Silver Salmon Creek Lodge on the west side of Cook Inlet. You can't drive there; you can only walk amongst its grizzlies by flying in by bush plane and landing on the beach. Whether I was just wishing it or being nostalgic, on my first flight into this Shangri-la, a grizzly stood up to watch our approach. I've been in love with the place ever since!

The lodge is in the Lake Clark National Park and the folks who run it are the nicest and most knowledgeable folks you'll ever find. I've based the majority of my grizzly work out of the lodge for three summers, starting in mid June and extending all the way until early September. At times I've had grizzly cubs under my tripod with mom eating and watching just forty feet away. At other times the grizzlies have been so close I could pet them (but you don't do that). What makes this all possible? Why haven't I been eaten yet?

The entire concept behind my photography for the past nineteen years is very simple. To be a good photographer you need to know your subject. Understanding basic biology is essential in being successful and this couldn't be any more true or important than when working with grizzlies. It's not that you can read their minds or anything like that, but you understand enough of their "language" to know if you're in trouble or not, to back up, stand still, take a photo or just walk away. This knowledge doesn't require a PhD, but rather just the willingness to approach the subject with an open mind.

It all starts with approaching a grizzly bear. Grizzlies can see but it's not their strong suit. They depend more on their sense of smell and when you see where they live you can understand why they have evolved with such good noses. The dense, thick brush and landscape they call home makes a half-ton bear disappear into thin air! No matter if you had good eyesight, you can't see a thing! But there is always a breeze and with the breeze comes scent that to the trained nose of the griz, tells them more than they could ever detect by vision. 

Mama griz and one of her cubs

We were on the coastal plain one afternoon not far from the lodge, the light mellowed by the incoming rain. Far off in the distance we saw a male grizzly bear grazing on the sedge grasses (what they bulk up on the majority of the summer). He was perhaps a mile and a half to two miles away; we could barely make him out through the 600mm lens. We were on a creek where there were some newly washed up salmon carcasses. I wanted to see what condition they were in so I pushed them around with my foot. We had started to walk away when the direction of the breeze changed, taking the scent of the rotting salmon towards the griz down the beach. Within a matter of moments that griz was running right towards us and in a heartbeat was feasting on the salmon not fifty feet away from us! You couldn't have spotted those salmon with a spotting scope at the distance the bear was at but the bear smelled them without any problem.

In approaching a griz then, they will smell you long before they see you (whether you showered or not) if they are down wind. This is a good thing, as you never, never, never want to surprise a grizzly bear, ever! With griz knowing you're around, he will decide long before you are given the option whether he wants to be close to you or not. You always want the griz to have options because it's when he doesn't that you can get into serious trouble!

In three summers I've probably approached around 120 individual grizzlies and out of that 120, I've only been able to photograph 40 and out of that 40, I've only gotten within 50 feet of a handful. The vast majority of the time once the grizzly knows of my presence, it just moves along on its way. That's one thing most folks don't realize about these giants and that's their speed. When they are just simply walking to get from point A to point B, they can cover a lot of ground really quickly. You should see them run, like when they are chasing salmon up a creek! Man, can they haul ass!

Once I have found a griz that I can approach (and at the lodge there are many individuals that we know by sight and know what we can and cannot do) we watch its body language. Grizzlies have a very complicated system of body language to avoid fights with each other. When these thousand pound giants do fight, one or both of the contestants will assuredly be injured. That's the last thing the bears want so they try to "talk" their way out of a fight every time. They might pop their jaws, making an audible noise. They might foam at the mouth, another more aggressive gesture or do what looks like yawning, opening their mouth real wide. If this doesn't work they start to make noises, all in an attempt to avoid a confrontation. 

Whether you're a grizzly bear or a human, the same body language is used to avoid a confrontation. It's true that most victims of grizzly bears are wildlife photographers and from what evidence is available, it would appear that these elementary biological signs had been ignored with deadly consequences! The bear will tell you if you're welcome or not. Pay attention and you won't get into trouble!

A common question from folks hearing my grizzly stories and seeing my photographs is, "have you ever feared for your life?" I've never been bluff charged by a griz (knock on wood) but I was really "dying" of curiosity over the outcome of one encounter. A good friend and I were on this stream up in Alaska, fishing for salmon, which weren't biting. We had our cameras set up on their tripods and not too far away from us. The sun was getting really low on the horizon, as it was fall when I noticed this big male griz upstream a few hundred yards on the other side. Neither of us recognized the individual so we watched him as we continued to fish. All of a sudden the bear started to run right down the stream, right at us!

We reeled in our lines and walked over to our cameras - the proper instinct of a photographer with a grizzly running right at him - and focused on the bear. He was not foaming at the mouth or exhibiting any other signs of distress that we could see, but he was still running right towards us. He kept running towards us, crashing through the stream to be on the same side as we were standing. Man could that animal move! Well, he kept coming to where he was within shooting range so we started to take his photo. He kept on coming to the point that we now wondered what was up because he wasn't stopping! Somehow we knew he wasn't after us. We looked around but didn't see another grizzly that he might be after. He was nearly on top of us yet he still wasn't looking at us. Our fear now wasn't that he was after us but did he even know we were there and would he run us over on his way to wherever he was going?! Like I said, the last thing you want to do is surprise a griz!

This whole incident lasted no more than a few minutes but when you're standing in the middle of a stream with a thousand pound grizzly running in your direction, time seems to hold still. Well, the griz got within 20 feet away when all of a sudden he noticed us, which didn't seem to phase him for a second. He slightly veered to his left and went speeding right passed us, no more than five feet away! Even if I had the forethought there is no way I could shoot at this point, I was way too wrapped up in the moment! What was the bear after? We turned and watched as this big male crashed through the stream once again to the other side where, unknown to us was a salmon carcass, which he feasted on.  What a nose!

All of my encounters with griz have been pretty darn calm and quite often really quite humorous. I know I'm not supposed to connect them with human traits, but it's hard not to when you watch them, especially a family group. Last summer I was fortunate to follow the antics of a couple of grizzly families for a few months and just thinking about it makes me laugh now!

The cubs go out exploring, but they're
never far from their mother.

One family had spring cubs, which are cubs born that winter in a den far up in the mountains. Cubs normally spend two to three years with their mom to learn the ways of the world. To survive, the grizzly has a pretty set routine of where to be when. Their whole motivation is food! This routine develops through the grizzlies' very strong natural curiosity to check out everything new in their territory, which can best be seen in the cubs. This one family was a great example of this basic biology.

One afternoon we watched the mom nurse the cubs, something I had never seen so that was very exciting. After the lunch break the cubs were energized and ready to go again! Mom went back to grazing on the sedges while the cubs went exploring. One started a tug-of-war with a tree root, which it lost. The other two started to wrestle with each other (a favorite pastime). The family was perhaps 90-120 feet away this whole time. The cubs then decided it was time to explore as mom had her attentions elsewhere and they started to walk in our direction.

This little guy learned the
hard way that bee stings 
on the tongue are no fun!

With this we started to back up, both to provide the cubs with some room (they liked to try to get under our tripods) and so we could still take images without them being too close. After a little while of goofing off, one of the cubs found a beehive. This particular hive was underground so the one cub started to dig it out. As you might imagine the bees weren't too thrilled with this invasion and begun to sting the heck out of the cub, which didn't deter it for a second (hard to get through their fur). The other two cubs were just getting interested in their sibling's find when mom stood up to look over the plain. The cubs always tend to mimic mom so two of the three cubs stood up and looked as well. You can imagine which cub didn't stand up and while the other two cubs were standing on their hind legs the hive digger started to fiercely shake its head. It had been stung on the tongue! Well, that was the end of that adventure but the rest of the afternoon that cub went around with its tongue swollen and hanging out its mouth!

I'm sure by now you've asked yourself, "he's with a grizzly family with cubs under his tripod, why didn't the mom kill him?" The stories of grizzly moms defending their cubs with their life if necessary are very true, but the story of never getting between a mom and her cubs is a little over stated. I'm not recommending you do that, but it's not as lethal as you have been led to believe. The mother and cubs communicate in many ways, which includes soft moans and cries. These moans and cries have lots of meanings (lost on us) such as, "mom, he's picking on me," "mom, I'm hungry," "mom, a bee stung me on the tongue and it hurts." They also have a moan/cry that says, "mom I'm scared, please protect me." That's the moan that sets a half-ton muscular creature to killing anything in sight! Since we don't speak griz, we always avoided a situation where a cub would make that moan or cry and mom would come after us. To keep cubs at a distance, we would quietly clap our hands and tell them to move on, which believe it or not would make the cubs move on. I've photographed half a dozen grizzly families up close and personal without even a single incident. 

When a griz is roaming the coastal plain, eating sedges or cruising the interior, munching down bushels of blueberries, they are pretty much loaners and everything I've mentioned is their basic biology. There are exceptions though and this is when understanding basic biology is very important. A good example of an exception is Brooks Camp in the Katmai Nat'l Park. The summer salmon run up the Brooks River attracts lots of grizzly bears. There were over fifty individuals the week I was there last year. When you have that many "loaner" animals crammed within feet of each other, tension among the bears is high and it really can be unsafe for humans just bopping about wanting to get close to them.

What makes Brooks so unique for humans to witness this incredible spectacle is the fact that the bears have an established routine in which humans fit. Visitors to Brooks must stay on certain paths, act in particular ways and have done so for a couple of decades. By doing this, boundaries have been established so the bears can go on and do their thing, eat, and humans can safely watch!

Brooks Falls is not very impressive as waterfalls go, maybe ten feet high at best. But the incredible number of salmon that jump the falls during their migration is impressive and that's why the bears are present. 

There is a definite order to things at the falls, and it all has to do with size, age and balls (for lack of better terms). Some of these bears, feasting on salmon at the falls are close to a ton in weight! These giants basically fish wherever they want (as you might imagine). Some of the soon-to-be giants at times will contest this right and will do so first with the normal body gestures. But there are times when the bears go at it and you can often see the losers of these battles, as they will have huge gashes of fur and skin torn off. All of the big giants have well earned and noticeable scars from years and battles gone by. It's at such locales as Brooks or McNeil where the pressure of so many bears being confined into a small space that normal bear biology wont' get you close on your own, safely!

The magic of experiencing grizzly bears is one that will forever change your life! These magnificent gentle giants live really a simple life that is an incredible struggle to survive. The observation time I've been blessed with over the past three summers has really driven home that point to me. Being close to a live, wild grizzly bear going about its daily routine gives one a unique perspective and appreciation for the wild heritage we've inherited. There are certain grizzly individuals over the summers that I have become particularly attached to and who have shared with me a bond that can't be described in words. This experience is out there waiting for you! Whether you're a wildlife photographer, wildlife observer or wildlife lover, feel the cool Alaskan breeze on your cheek, have the hair on the back of your neck raised and experience the presence of these gentle giants, the grizzly bear!

All the images in this article were taken with a Nikon D1, Nikon 400mm f2.8 AFS using Lexar Digital Film

 

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