Alaska Wildlife Photography:
How Close Is Too Close?

The job description, Travel Photographer - sub-paragraph 16g - Alaska - there is a fine print clause that translates to the party of the first part (PHOTO PERSON) recognizes that to fully capture the flavor of life on the last frontier, he/she needs outstanding images of wildlife as a moose, caribou, and grizzly bear. I have had caribou approach me when laying in a photo stand so close I could have done better photographing an eyeball in a zoo. Moose, other than cow/calf combinations (avoid!!!!) are fairly docile beasts. Getting close enough to grizzlies to come back with a photo showing definition in their ruffled hair that is something else. Ask about approaching Ursa horibbilis for a photo in a natural setting in Alaska bear country and experts and agencys with reputations and liabilities to think about usually take the Denali National Park guideline of one quarter mile to be safe. The recommended in tamer Yellowstone, and Canadian parks is 100 yards. Unfortunately, wildlife photographers in Alaska, (especially telephoto challenged travel photographers pressed into service by sub-paragraph 16g, being woefully unprepared) rationalize that this recommendation is just a starting point figure.
Another problem is that semi-pro and gifted amateurs (just about everyone else) follow the lead of professional photographers, following them around to find some action, which usually makes a difficult situation, more difficult. Travel photographers it seems, pro or not, have a reputation to maintain, and a herd instinct for approaching even closer for, just one more shot.
How you do this safely requires a bit of knowledge. It has something to do with attitude. And respect. His, and yours. If you are the type of person that dogs instinctually hate, stay out of bear country. Usually, a bear that sees or smells a human will avoid contact. Photographers, as mentioned, push through boundaries, and will follow their prey in a threatening manner. Don't. When in close proximity to a bear, do exactly what they do constantly access the attitude!
In a situation where the bear actually looks at you instead of sort of ignoring you with a glance to the side then you need to decide if he is just curious, or on the defense.
A defensive bear is a stressed bear. You have entered its personal space and the bear perceives you as a threat. If cubs are present and you hear huff, huff sounds, know that you are being talked about, in unflattering terms. A bear showing little or no stress that deliberately approaches you, is not acting defensively. These bears are curious, human habituated, food conditioned, asserting dominance or possibly predatory. It is important for you to decide what the situation really is. Look for signs as ears, breathing, other body language, just as you would access an encounter with a street person after dark on a lonely city street.
If bear is moving toward you, sort of swaying side to side, cautiously try to increase your distance keeping your eye on the bear. Do not turn totally away keep a side view contact yourself. Usually the bear will calm down as you retreat. At any approach, remain as calm as possible, and talk to the bear in a firm voice. Try to move well away from the bear's path or trail; that may be all it wants you to do. Watch the bear. If it follows with its attention directed at you... STOP! Stand your ground!. I am not that cool of a thinker. This I do know if a defensive bear charges... do not run!
One of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed was a grizzly loping along , his pelt flowing in slow motion waves faster than a horse could run.Standing your ground is an extremely difficult thing not to do, as it is a terrifying experience... but know that physical contact is rare. Most charges stop short. It is sort of a bluff on the bears part. Try to appear non-threatening. This may calm the bear as well as yourself. I think chemistry the odor, or vibes; we give off have something to do with how the scenario unfolds. Do not shout or throw anything at this time. It may provoke an attack. If a defensive attack actually happens, at the last possible moment fall to the ground. Lay on your stomach with your legs spread slightly apart. Lock your fingers behind your head. This position will protect your face and neck. Bears often focus defensive attacks on a person's face if unprotected. If the bear flips you over, continue rolling until once again your stomach and vital organs are protected against the ground. If you've kept your pack on it may provide some protection for your back and neck. Do not struggle or cry out. Typically, a defensive bear will stop attacking once it thinks you are no longer a threat. When the attack stops, remain still. Wait for the bear to leave. If you start moving before the bear is gone, it may resume the attack.
If an attack is prolonged or the bear starts eating you, you may rightly assume it is no longer acting defensively. (Did that statement get a chuckle?) I have never experienced anything remotely close to this level, but enough survivors have shown that your best defense is to also to go on the offensive. Go ballistic and fight back with all you've got! Your life depends on it. A bear that deliberately approaches you, showing little or no stress is not acting defensively. Black bears are the ones that most often act in a predatory manner. I only know of one firsthand experience where a brown has been the antagonist If you have moved well out of the bears territorial space, and he follows, then how you react is different: in this situation you need to be defensive yourself. Let the aggressive bear know you will fight if attacked. The more the bear persists, the more aggressive your response should be. Shout at the bear. Stare it in the eye. Challenge it. Make yourself look as big as possible. If a couple, stand close in a tighter mass. Open an umbrella. Shout, wave your arms. Stamp your feet as you take a step or two toward the bear. Move slowly uphill of it. Stand on a log or a rock.
If the bear is actually, In your face, this is the time to use a deterrent, as a pepper spray. Having seen gut-shot animals travel great distances, I think the sole purpose of a handgun in bear defense (I have a 44-magnum that has only been fired in target practice) is to give a false sense of security so the holder doesnt emit the come-and-get me scent of raw fear. The joke is to save one round for yourself. If traveling to Alaska through Canada, know that transporting a handgun is illegal. Since the days of the Lewis and Clark expedition frontiersmen have known that most firearms do not have the power to stop a grizzly charge, unless the shot is placed to break bone. This leaves the aerosol propelled bear repellants. No, you dont use them like a bug dope, spraying your tent. You wait, and wait, and wait, until the right moment to spray. One of my favorite Alaskan characters is Keith Scott, The Bear Man, (author of the Magnificent Bears of North America, Handcock House Publishers, 1431 Harrison Avenue, Blaine, WA 98230). Keith should be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the greatest number of close encounters (eight) of the Ursa kind. He is a great believer in pepper spray used as a bear stopper. at six feet!Many bears will approach even closer, and then stop short of attacking. Remember that the nose is very sensitive. I once bumped into a black when busting through thick brush. By accident, I reacted by kicking out with a stout hiking boot, connecting with the 2 to 3-year old blacks snout. I know he was a young one by the way this fellow ran off crying like a baby. I felt bad the rest of the day.
Too much personification? Perhaps it helps to look at bears as a BooBoo character. Fight any bear that attacks you in your tent. He is a playground bully and deserves what he gets. Second thoughts about being attacked in a tent: was it your fault? Camping in bear country requires some adherence to guidelines. Practice three-point management of food storage, cooking, and sleeping, separated from one another. In Denali National Park backcountry permits come with a bear proof food container. In drive-in campgrounds throughout bear country, be sure to use bear-proof garbage cans. The adage, A fed bear ( i.e. having acquired a taste of human food, and a lazy attitude in how to obtain same) is a dead bear, is unfortunately true.If out to photograph scenery just over the other side of the mountain (trees are always greener on the other side) know that bears (as the song says) also climb mountains. If not wanting to make quick decisions as to whether or not a bear is stressed, or not, I suggest making noise as you hike. For some stupid reason which has the effect of driving my wife nuts I beat my way though brush shouting ad nauseaum for all to hear . Make way Lady with a baby!! Bells work just as well driving bears away, and to make people batty. The one real no-no in grizzly territory is to whistle. That could be mistaken as a marmot ringing the dinner bell.
Studying your subject, and terrain, you can set up the circumstance of a bear encounter, which will result in better wildlife photographs. My personal answer to the question How close? from actual experience with photographing grizzlies, is 150 feet. This is why I never venture out with less than a mirror 500mm or a stabilized 600 mm lens. These are even better when on a digital digital body. Not only is the depth of field greater due to a smaller film size the overall magnification is greater. Having said all of this, other than my safety suggestion of buying a longer lens being that we also live in a very dangerous society of litigation happy people, and ravenous lawyers, who feel that someone has to pay the price for their clients stupidity, let me recap. How close is it safe to approach grizzly bears in Denali National Park? Oh, how about a quarter of a mile.


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