Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Run, Grizzly, Run!--But Not Towards Me

Throughout the decade of the 80's and halfway through the 90's I spent so much time photographing in Denali National Park that it prompted my daughter's good friend, Jennifer, to ask me if I worked in the park.
My answer was no, but in a de facto way the park was indeed my office.  I was there to obtain captivating imagery that I would subsequently be marketing through various stock photo agencies. My visits to the park were not casual. They were always photography intensive.

From the beginning I concentrated on photographing grizzly bears whenever possible. Even when I was seeking images of other species in the park, grizzlies had a way of trumping whatever else I might be doing.
Like the time I was in the park in late September, after all the tourists had left for the season. The park road remained open to cars until the Savage River, about twelve miles in. There was already a good accumulation of snow in the park and I decided to hike into Savage Canyon and look for Dall Sheep. I brought with me my Nikon FE camera on a strap around my neck and on the camera was mounted a Nikon 300/f4.5 lens.  In those days of the early 80's there was no auto focus, no image stabilization, and on the bright snow I set the exposures manually.

I hiked into the canyon and after spotting a group of seven rams high on the western slope I slowly made my approach. When I was about fifty feet away I laid down on my belly in the snow, steadied the camera by placing my elbows on the ground, and began shooting. It was a beautiful blue sky day. I was looking through the viewfinder and had only taken a half dozen shots when all of a sudden the rams ran to the left and out of sight. I thought that perhaps the sound of the motor drive on the camera had frightened the animals, but the reason for their swift departure soon became apparent. As I lay there still looking through the viewfinder a grizzly bear walked right into the frame from the right side. This was my first closeup encounter with a bear since moving to Alaska the previous year.

I knew the bear drill by heart: stand your ground, don't run.  I didn't have bear spray in those days. It was yet to be invented.  What I did have was an abundance of fear and I panicked, plain and simple. Instead of standing up and holding my ground I tried to get down the snowy slope as fast as possible. In the process I got caught up in some alder branches. My face and camera became entirely covered with snow as a result of this lame escape effort. When I cleared the snow from my eyes I could see the bear up the slope right where he had been before my hasty retreat. He hadn't moved.  As I looked at him he stood up and looked back down at me. We stared at each other for a few long seconds before he returned to all fours and continued unhurriedly on his way in the direction that the rams had gone a short while earlier. When my adrenalin level finally returned to normal I felt foolish, knowing that I had done the absolute incorrect thing in trying to run from a bear. I got off lucky this time. My next bear encounter would be a little more harrowing.

The first time that I had the opportunity to see a bear run at full speed was just east of a lookout pullover in the park called Stony Hill.  I had a photographic permit that day which allowed me to drive the park road in my own vehicle rather than having to use the park's public bus system.  Such are the perks of being a professional photographer. As I drove slowly and approached Stony Hill a lone wolf ran across the road a short distance behind my car.  Henran up a slope and out of sight.  I quickly made a U-turn and headed back toward where he had been running.  I rounded a bend in the road and found the wolf standing near a fresh looking caribou carcass that was partially eaten. Then a good sized grizzly bear lumbered in from over a small rise and headed right for the caribou.  The wolf was reluctant to give up his meal and stood his ground until the grizzly was nearly upon him. He did not move until the bear gave chase, and that is when I got to see a grizzly run at full speed for the very first time.

The bear did not catch the wolf. He was not interested in doing so. He only wanted to steal the wolf's meal, and this goal he easily accomplished. 

The next time that I got to see a grizzly running at full speed was not so entertaining.

My wildlife artist friend, Mike Sieve, and I met under interesting circumstances on the Denali Park road in the summer of 1980.  I was hiking down the road alone, deep in the park, when I rounded a sharp bend and saw a grizzly bear 100 feet ahead on the side of the road. The bear didn't notice me and I quietly backed up on the road until I was out of sight. I had no idea if the bear was headed in my direction or not.  Soon an SUV came along and I stepped into the middle of the road and waved my arms, forcing the driver to stop. I told him there was a bear up ahead and asked if I could get inside his vehicle. He said sure, and that began a friendship which has lasted over thirty years and spanned several continents. In subsequent years Mike  and I
have collaborated on photographic trips to India to find tigers and to Africa to capture images of a plethora of wildlife. We have been to Canada to photograph on several occasions, to Banff and Jasper National Parks and Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta and to the recently established Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan.  We have also returned several times to Denali Park together, and it was on one of our Denali visits that we had the experience of a lifetime that I would rather not have had. I still cringe when I think about it.

On that particular outing Mike brought along his 12 year old son, Eric. For a week we did some extensive hiking and wildlife viewing, spotting most of the larger species of mammals within the park.

Early one afternoon the three of use hiked up a gravel stream bed west of Polychrome Pass. We kept loosely together as we hiked and Mike made a point of telling Eric to always stay where we could see him.  For a while he did. Mike had a wildflower guide book with him and he and I used the book to try to identify every flower we came across. Eric eventually lost interest in the flowers and in being with adults and wandered off.  At first neither Mike nor I noticed his absence. We were busy looking at flowers. When we did finally realize that Eric was gone we shouted out his name.  There was no reply. We walked back down the stream bed a ways and called out again. There was still no reply.

After another few minutes we saw Eric round a bend about one hundred yards away down the gravel bed and come running right in our direction. He was running fast. He was also yelling. When he was fifty yards from us a grizzly bear rounded the same bend behind him, in hot pursuit.  Eric was running. The bear was running. They were both headed right towards us.  It was surreal. We each took a canister of pepper spay from holsters around our waists, removed the plastic safety tabs, and aimed the cans in the direction of the rapidly approaching duo. I shouted for Eric to stop running and never was a command so blatantly ignored.  The grizzly was gaining fast on Eric as Eric was closing the gap between us and him. One hundred feet. Ninety. Eighty. Seventy.  We had the bear spray cans up and aimed. When Eric was just forty feet from us and the grizzly was almost on his butt the bear first noticed Mike and me standing there and instantly aborted the chase. He veered off into some nearby alders and disappeared. 

We called it a day and hiked back to the car. 

Mark Newman

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