At almost every presentation, someone from the audience asks if I’ve ever had a close call or a dangerous situation occur when photographing animals. Until recently, I could easily reply, “No.” But that answer changed when photographing these playful grizzly cubs you see at the far-right of this screen. Knowing the mother (sow) would be close by, I felt relatively safe at over a hundred yards away from them—well outside Katmai National Park’s mandatory separation rule of fifty yards. The moral of this story is you can get into trouble no matter how far you are from a mama’s babies.
How I Got Into Trouble
From the Katmai National Park Visitors’ Center, it’s 1.2 miles to the Brooks Falls Platform, my destination, where the real action of bears catching salmon occurs. Click on the map inset below to understand the geography. Along the path to the platform is a narrow isthmus between two lakes where, if a bear is there, you’re stuck. The strip is so narrow, you can’t pass the bear and maintain the mandatory fifty-yard separation. With the bear on that isthmus, you are forced by Katmai rules and common sense to wait for the bear to move. It could be hours.
An Idle Photographer’s Mind…
Just my luck, upon arrival, there was a bear at this choke point and I was forced to wait. Watching this bear through my camera’s optics, it dawned on me this bear was a sow with cubs. Cute cubs make great photographs. She was several hundred yards away so, in my ignorance, I wasn’t too concerned. Cautiously poking around the water’s edge, I found the babies romping and playing. Fortunately, they were at the perfect distance for my longest telephoto lens. I sat down and composed the shot.
Where Did She Come From?
With time to kill and images to make, I was enjoying the cubs too much. I’m not sure what alerted me to the sow’s presence behind me. She didn’t make a sound emerging from the shoulder-high grass. One moment there was nothing but vegetation and the next there was a 500-pound bear in front of it. Without me hearing a single rustle or foot step, like a ghost, she literally appeared fifty feet away. That’s two good strides for a protective mama. I now found myself in the between a sow and her cubs. Any way you cut it, that’s unfortunate.
Thank God for a Bear’s Limitations
Luckily, I had some things in my favor. First, I was sitting behind a tripod, which broke my outline and didn’t advertise my presence. Second, bears can’t see very well. Smell is their primary sense along with acute hearing. Third, and most important, I was down wind. The breeze was blowing from her towards me. She couldn’t smell me but, still, I was very afraid. How could she not hear my heart exploding in my chest? How could she not see the bold whites of my bulging eyes? Even upwind, how could she not smell the bodily function I’m sure that had gone awry in my underwear?
My Only Course of Action
Intellectually, I knew the only defense was to remain motionless. She was too close, too fast and too big to deal with directly. But there’s a huge gap between “intellect” and “instinct.” Instinctually, every fiber of my being was screaming to abandon the camera and run. I wish I could tell you it was superior intellect and self-discipline that kept me still. Not so. The problem with running was twofold. First, I’ve clocked bears from an airplane running at over 35 mph. She was so close, I wouldn’t get started before she’d be on me. Second, and most importantly, she was blocking the only land route. Everywhere left to run was water. In the end, it was practicality not intellect that kept me rooted behind that tripod.
The Bear’s Course of Action
I’ve never made it a secret that I’m a praying man. Let me assure you, our Lord never heard more fervent prayers than were silently offered that July afternoon. That tripod could have been an altar for all the pleading and petitioning offered over it. I confessed sins, I prayed for enemies, made promises and begged for deliverance. I was sure my time was up.
Epilog…I Didn’t Die
Due to the bear’s physiologic impairments (poor eyesight), due to the climatic conditions (favorable wind direction), due to the fervency of my prayers, and, probably most of all, due to the burst of bawling from one of the cubs, the sow’s attention was diverted. Anticlimactically, she stepped back in the grass, silently disappearing as suddenly as she appeared. Afraid to look up and create any movement, I had no idea how far she had moved. Was she still there just inside the grass? I remained still as if I were frozen in place. It seemed like ages before I heard noises behind me. “Oh God, here it comes!”
It was my guide. “Are you planning on staying here all day? The bear has moved. Let’s go make some images.” To this day, he still doesn’t understand the ferocity of the neck hug I gave him.