This was my last sighting of grizzly 399 and her two cubs for the season as she made the most of gut piles left over from hunters. It looks like she has denned up for the winter. She was the very first grizzly I saw and photographed. I grew up spending my summers in Jackson, and dreamed of seeing a grizzly from my earliest days, but it took a while. When I finally turned 16 and got my driver’s license I had a little bit more flexibility. With that I was able to go into the field on my own schedule and spend all the time I wanted waiting around. That was the summer I saw her. I remember the adrenaline and excitement like it was yesterday. She will always be very special to me, and I know there are many people who feel similarly.
Two grizzly bear cubs watch and learn as mom fishes for salmon in the Great Bear Rainforest.
This large male grizzly was certainly one of the most memorable encounters from my recent time in the Great Bear Rainforest. It was clear he dominates this section of river, but his missing ear and torn lip indicate his dominance comes at a cost.
If you are fortunate enough to see and photograph a mother grizzly bear like this one in Yellowstone, one of the first things you will notice is her careful attentiveness to her surroundings. Not only will she keep a watchful eye on her immediate environment, but she will also frequently pause to intentionally engage her most powerful sense, her nose. Her sense of smell is estimated to be 1,000x stronger than a humans. To help put that into perspective, a dog, whose sense of smell we use to detect bombs, is estimated to possess a sense of smell that is 70x stronger than a human. Imagine what we could do with a TSA grizzly. With this superpower, a mother grizzly is able to detect potential threats to her cubs from a considerable distance. When she detects danger in the air, her demeanor immediately alters. Standing up tall, she will sniff the air excessively while huffing at her cubs to alert them to the impending threat. Many times I have witnessed this behavior, and within 3o minutes a large male grizzly, which will kill bear cubs, arrives on the scene. Of course by the time I realize what posed the danger, the mother and cubs are long gone.
Hibernation is one of the most remarkable adaptations in nature. Imagine the effects on your body if you were confined to a bed for 5 months, and then imagine you did it without food. That's what this bear just did. Grizzlies are able to rely entirely on fat reserves during this time, and don't deplete any of their muscle mass.
“All I can personally but crudely attest is that there is something fundamentally different about a land roamed by big meat-eating beasts, a sense that becomes forcefully apparent in a solitary walk through their realm. And I can only believe, from somewhere deeper than any logic center of the brain, that a life of incomprehensible loneliness awaits a world where the wild things were, but are never to be again.” William Stolzenburg - Where the Wild Things Were
From the Native Americans and early frontier explorers to current day outdoor enthusiasts, perhaps no stories are told with more enthusiasm and pride than those of encounters with the grizzly. This is the emblematic face of the American wilderness. I am so thankful to live in one of the few places this creature still calls home.
"There is much about the grizzly and his characteristics which highly recommends him to our historic lore. He is American to the backbone and as noble, roughhewn, and fearsome as the emblematic lion of England, the winged bull of Assyria, dragon of China, sphinx of Egypt, or any other fabulous animalistic demigods of history...The bravest, toughest and most distinguished [frontier adventurers] have spoken with the greatest pride about their encounters with the grizzly-Lewis and Clark, Zebulon Pike, Kit Carson, Stonewall Jackson, General Custer, Theodore Roosevelt, and many more. Not one has held him lightly." - excerpt from The Beast that Walks Like a Man
After the initial excitement of finding this grizzly in the Tetons I was confronted with the difficulty of creating an image with the contrasting light. All of the scenes seemed to contain either dark shadows or harsh light, neither of which are pleasing to the eye on their own. There was one possibility…but it would take a bit of luck. I would need a scene where the light illuminated only the bears face, while leaving the majority of the scene in shadows. If this came together, then I could underexpose the image by 3 full stops in order to reduce the chaos in the backdrop by turning it black. I would also need to position myself as low as possible to create the shallowest depth of field possible, which blurs the background. These two elements combined (the darkness and blur) allowed me to a create an image that was pleasing to the eye in conditions that otherwise were not.