Nikon D700 F/7.1 1/250 sec 200 mm ISO 1400
The Khutzeymateen grizzly bear sanctuary is a very special place to me. After two years of preparation for this photo adventure, it started late in May, from Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia, Canada. I boarded a float plane early in the morning with heavy, low altitude fog that fortunately cleared as we gained altitude.
The mountains were still covered in the deep winter snow. The valleys were magnificent sites with waterfalls of snow melt cascading down the slopes. The winds were turbulent at times on our mountainous route. For one startling moment the plane dropped suddenly for several seconds, like a free falling elevator. The pilot was not fazed by this, seemingly routine, occurrence and we continued on without incident.
As we approached the Khutzeymateen we could see the Alaska Mountains about twenty-five miles further north. As we approached the Khutzeymateen Estuary for landing, we saw the sailboat that would be our home for the duration of our adventure. She was a large, beautiful seventy-one foot ketch that provided comfortable accommodation.
Near freezing temperatures greeted us in the early mornings and only slightly warmed as the day progressed. Rain was our constant companion with the sun breaking through briefly only one day. Our days began at about five a.m. We transferred to a Zodiac boat that would take us up the Estuary as the tide allowed. The Estuary is about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Ocean and only accessible at the furthest end at full tide. As the twenty-five foot tide fluctuated during the next twelve hours, the shoreline changed dramatically.
The Grizzly bears, on the coast of British Columbia, are reported to be very large and may be the largest strain known. The abundance of food here allows them to grow large and endure the harsh winters. In late May and early June bears have just emerged from their winter dormancy and need to replenish their bodies with much needed nutrients.
Sedge grass here is rich in protein and readily available for them at lower tide, but largely sub-merged at high tide.
Our guide has been in this area for over twenty-four years and knows these Grizzlies intimately and said the honey-coloured bear is about five years old. The male bear, who’s wet coat gave of a very strong odour, could be heard snorting and grunting as he tracked her scent. The interaction was amazing to see. Several times another male would appear in the distance and this male would stand up and chase him away. At times they stand up and roar out their warning; an amazing experience to witness. When the female had moved out of site from the male, it was amazing to see him follow her footsteps exactly, even to the point of following her scent through the estuary water where she swam fifteen minutes before. The mountain runoff dilutes the salty ocean waters and in this image the female is drinking the fresh water. Her claws are very evident, as they have grown all winter in hibernation. They will wear down during the summer season when she digs for clams. Bear claws never recede like cats claws.
It is breeding season, at this time of year, and the male bears are seeking out the females. The young female bear was being followed by a male bear, but she kept distance between them. The male bear shadowed her constantly and, as time went by, the honey-coloured female allowed him to get closer.
Rain is constant in this temperate rainforest, but I have prepared myself with camera covers, head-to-toe raingear and dressed in layers to keep warm and dry. The zodiac is safe and quiet to allow stealthy approaches to our subjects. The conditions are not conducive to tripod use, so all images are taken handheld. The slight movement within the boat necessitated utilizing a faster shutter speed at times. The long days in this region allowed us to shoot until ten p.m. most days.
The Khutzeymateen is extremely pristine, with very large trees; Methuselahs beard lichen and the air amazingly pure and high in oxygen. The last day before the float plane would arrive to sweep us away; I rose before dawn and went on deck. I was filled with emotion as I reflected on the magnificent grizzlies I’d come to know and one of the most beautiful, awe inspiring geographic areas on this planet. It was humbling to be in the midst of such greatness and a soulful experience I’ll never forget.