The Great Bear Rainforest 2013 The Grizzlies of Khutzeymateen
Well, after a year’s hiatus I was finally ready to head back out into the wilds of Canada and what better place to begin than probably my favorite place on earth, The Great Bear Rainforest and to be more specific Canada`s only Grizzly sanctuary the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary in the far northern reaches of the forest less than 30km from the US Alaskan boarder.
I have talked much about The Great Bear Rainforest over the years so I thought it was time to share some of its history with you and how it began...
The Great Bear Rainforest is a name thought up by environmental groups in the mid 1990s which refers to a remote region of temperate rainforest along British Columbia`s coast between Vancouver Island and Southeast Alaska. It includes within its range all offshore islands with the exception of Vancouver Island and the island archipelago of Haida Gwaii (another one of my favorite spots on this planet).
Its size is roughly 32,000 square kilometers and in 2006 3 new land use zones were created: Protected Areas; Biodiversity, Mining and Tourism Areas and Ecosystem-based Management Operating Areas. As of 2009 approximately 16,000 square kilometers have been designated as protected areas in a form called conservancies and 3,000 square kilometers as BTMAs where commercial timber harvesting and commercial hydro-electric power projects are prohibited.
The Great Bear Rainforest is one of the largest tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest and is home to species such as cougars, wolves, grizzly bears, black bears and of course the Kermode bear. The forest is also home to 1000 year old western red cedars as well as sitka spruce which tower 90 meters above the forest floor.
Even though the name was coined by environmentalists these days it is being used by almost everyone including government officials.
Today it is in the news due to the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project, which if approved, would bring crude oil tankers destined for China through the tight channels of the area. Needless to say the vast majority of Canadians are against this pipeline yet the company is still lobbying the Canadian Government for the right to build the pipeline.
Khutzeymateen Provincial Park (a.k.a. Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary) was established as the first area in Canada to be protected specifically for grizzly bears and their habitat. It also represents the first undisturbed estuary of its size to be protected along the north coast of British Columbia. The topography of this land and marine sanctuary is diverse, with rugged peaks towering to 2100 meters above a valley of wetlands, old growth temperate rainforests and a large estuary.
The ultimate purpose of this area is to protect the north coast grizzly bear by preserving a part of the ecosystem in which they live. Because of this area's high sensitivity and strict conservation orientation, visitor use is not encouraged. However, a limited amount of controlled viewing is allowed under permit. The size of the sanctuary is 44,300 hectares.
As with most of the Great Bear Rainforest this area is remote and access, as mentioned above, is limited. The estuary itself can only be accessed by 2 operators 1 of which is the Ocean Light II which we were on and which can accommodate 9 passengers as well as the crew and the other is a smaller vessel which looks like it can accommodate 4 or 5 people plus the crew. Private vessels can go as far as the estuary boundary but no farther. Other guides and tour outfitters can only go as far as the boarder of the grizzly sanctuary.
Khuteymateen is known for its spring bear watching as this is the time when the bears come out of hibernation and head for its shores to feed on its abundant nutritious grasses. Viewing is best in late May through June and after that the bears seem to disperse. With this being the case the Ocean Light II only runs expeditions to this area in May and June.
Our trip began in Prince Rupert and we spent the day prior to our flight into Khutzeymateen exploring a newly built hiking path on a small island which was accessible by boat. The trailhead began at a village called Metlakatla which has an indigenous history dating back over 6000 years. It is a place of abundant shellfish and indigenous people have been gathering this bounty from the ocean for thousands of years. The trail itself, which measures 20km in length, follows the coastline through classic temperate rainforest and there were plenty of opportunities to explore shorelines and tidal pools. Several suspension bridges have been built across creeks and the highlight of the hike is an 80 foot tower which allows you to get up into the upper canopy of the rainforest. To reach its top you must traverse a suspension ramp which takes you initially to a first tower and then a second ramp which takes you to the top of the second tower. Although I am terrified of heights I did make it to the top but I couldn’t convince myself to get close to the edge and without a doubt I missed many photography opportunities as I needed to get off just about as fast as I got up. The trail itself is an open pallet for any photographer and great photo opportunities abound. Light plays off of mosses, old-growth trees, and plants and macro opportunities abound for those willing to take the time. And of course countless eagles patrol the shorelines.
Tide pools are always interesting to explore...
Baby hermit crabs. Both are about 1cm in size.
Baby dungeness crab about 1cm in size at most.
The scenery is always amazing when exploring the shorelines in this region and here was no exception.
One of the areas that have always fascinated me about the coastal rainforest are its textures. I could spend hours doing macro work in this area for weeks on end.
Nurse trees are trees which have died and while decomposing on the ground have given root to new growth including new trees. These abound here and the following is a great example. This is the remains of a large tree which has been completely uprooted and turned upside down with the trunk firmly implanted in the beach. The root system, now elevated above the ground, became the perfect platform and home for several trees over 2 meters in height and many small plants. Not only did it provide a classic example of a nurse tree but the underside with its entanglement of roots provided the opportunistic photographer with many textures created by the entangled roots.
Without a doubt the highlight of this hike was the climb up into the canopy of this old growth forest. Being terrified of heights I only stayed up top for a few minutes and not having the courage to approach the edge of the platform for photos I did not walk away with any great photos of the spectacular scenery viewed from there. I did manage this image however of Mike as he approached the viewing platform. Not even a good image but I did want to post something from up there.
Eagles were abundant along the shorelines.
I predicted this landing well before hand. Unfortunately we were about 150 meters away so this was as close of a shot as I could get. This is just 1 of a series of 8 images of this eagle landing with all being of equal quality. Unfortunately I will be posting a lot of images below so I just chose 1 image from this series to post. This will hold true throughout this post. Although in many instances I captured amazing series of bears and eagles alike exhibiting many of their behaviors, due to the amount of images I wanted to post I rarely will post any series of images.
Even eagles get harassed. The first is by a seagull and the second is by a crow. Both images are extreme distance shots but I wanted to post them just to show the behavior.
Proper planning for a remote trip like this is essential and if you have never been on an outing like this it is a good idea to talk with your guide and/or trip supplier about what is needed and what the limitations may be if any. Proper rain gear is of course a must and you should always have the best you can afford. It is a temperate rainforest and as such most regular rain gear just won’t survive. Layered clothing as well is a must. Biting insects can make your outing a challenge at certain times of the year and as such one must ensure to have a quality repellant on hand. Keep in mind however when applying products which contain deet that these products can damage lenses and lens filters or any plastic surfaces so be cautious. Tour operators may well ask you to bring along items as well as was the case on this outing. We were asked to bring a bed sheet, pillow case, and sleeping bag. Make sure your camera gear is packed in a quality waterproof container or pack as it will get wet, if not from rain from water in the zodiac for sure. Always have extra batteries and ALWAYS make sure you have enough storage. It has been my experience that someone always falls short on memory and this trip was no exception. If you take a lot of pictures or like backing up your images to be safe, bring along a small laptop computer. This also allows you to review your images in the evenings which in turn will allow you to share your work with others. Last but not least is of course a tripod or at least a monopod. Keep in mind you will be shooting in an area with limited sunlight due to high cliffs and mountains in almost all directions and a lot of cloud cover of one form or another. You may well also be doing most of your shooting from within a small craft of some sort. As such you will be working with high ISO’s to reach even minimal shutter speeds.
All this being said the kicker to all of the above is always find out if any part of your journey will involve a bush plane or float plane as if so you will more than likely be limited to 50lbs of gear as we were on our trip. If this is the case please weigh your gear before leaving and if you are over you may have to limit yourself by leaving something like the laptop behind.
We woke up early the next day as our flight was due to depart at 7am. When we arrived at the dock to catch the planes we were informed that cloud cover was low so we would need to follow the shoreline to reach the sanctuary which would extend our flight as the usual route is over the coastal mountains. Upon arriving at the boat I asked our pilot of he could do a 360 degree turn around the boat as the first plane, 2 had been chartered to get us to our destination, had already landed and looking down you could see the plane beside the boat just as the sun popped out for a brief minute (this would be one of the few times we would actually see the sun on this outing). After landing we quickly unloaded the planes and boarded our home for the next 4 days. Once we were unloaded the people from the last tour quickly loaded their gear onto the planes and they were off. Among them was Brad Hill who is a professional photographer and photography tour guide who is known for his work in the Great Bear Rainforest.
With 2 planes taking us to our destination I had been hoping to get some aerial shots of our companion plane as it followed the shoreline below us but unfortunately weather prevented that. I did manage this image however as our pilot circled what would be our home for the next 4 days.
So here we were. Our team was comprised of 7 individuals all of varying photography skills. Our leader was Mike whom I had travelled with before on my spirit bear trip and whom I will definitely travel with again if I have anything to say about the matter. His knowledge pertaining to wildlife and wildlife photography are unsurpassed in my humble opinion and his storytelling is second to none. Our crew was a family affair with Tom being our captain and Jen, Tom’s ex-wife, being the boat owner and cook. They were joined by their 16 year old daughter Sarah who helped out with cooking and other chores.
Our group minus 1, Bill.
I had travelled with Tom before on another outing and found him to be a strict captain but one must keep in mind he needs to be as he is responsible for your safety. One thing I love about him is that he is an avid photographer as well and as such is always looking for the perfect photo-op for his clients. One instance on this trip really stood out. We were watching a female bear being followed by a male and she was trying her best to avoid him. Suddenly Tom said “I’m gonna play a hunch”. He thought the female was going to circle around and follow a shoreline which in the background had 2 trees covered in old man’s beard. At this point we had lost sight of her. He asked us to sit perfectly still in the zodiac as not to cause any ripples in the water as he knew that if the female did come back there would be a great reflection of her and the trees on the perfectly calm water. Over the next 15 minutes we watched the entire scene play out before us just as he had predicted. He was constantly looking for bears of course but was also always keeping an eye open for lighting and reflections which could, and did, lead to some amazing photography.
Tom, our captain and our guide. The zodiac was our shooting platform for almost our entire trip. I would say 95% of all of my images where shot from within it.
It didn’t take us long to settle into our bunks, get unpacked, and get ready to head out in the zodiac for our first day of bears. The day was high overcast which made for perfectly defused lighting ideal for this kind of photography. Day 2 would prove to be mostly rain and drizzle with some high overcast moments which again lead to some great photography showcasing bears in a temperate rainforest and day 3 would be a repeat of day 2 with high overcast skies and maybe 20 minutes of sunlight. All-in-all we had ideal conditions for photography.
One item I had not taken into account was the tide which limited our viewing of the bears to approximately 6 to 8 hours a day. The estuary on low tide proved to be all but inaccessible. As such we had plenty of time to review our pictures of the day and share stories. Although I am used to spending 12+ hours shooting on outings such as this it was a pleasant change to have this much casual time to get to know your fellow photographers and share stories.
I have mentioned this previously after other trips and I will mention it again here. When on an outing such as this with a group of fellow photographers you will soon come to the realisation that most of your images will be nearly identical. As such always look for a unique angle and always be ready to shoot at any given time. You will find most people want to stand or at least sit high as they are shooting. Staying low on your knees or even on your stomach when the moment allows will create those unique angles. Shooting at eye level or below eye level of your target will always lead to a unique perspective especially if you are shooting predators. You will also find that as the day goes along and as the days pass people may lose a bit of focus which will inevitably lead to missed shots. Being ready at all times and keeping your focus on the target will lead to pictures many will miss at the end of a long day. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Just because you are on a grizzly outing doesn’t mean you will not come across other unique photography opportunities. I have had many trips where the focus was on a certain species and the best shots of my trip ended up being of something completely different. Lastly always pay attention in the evenings to what is being discussed. In almost all cases there will be at least one individual with a tip to improve your photography skills. Many times this will be a tip relating directly to photography or gear but just as often it will be a tip pertaining to a species’ behavior which will improve your odds in the future if you encounter the species again.
Let us begin with just a few landscapes to set the mood. Keep in mind we were dealing with high overcast or rain the entire trip. Also keep in mind that I lost 1 of my 2 camera bodies on the hike the day prior to the trip and although I do not mind changing lenses in these weather conditions I was reluctant to do so.
With the sun being a rare sighting on this outing and several of the days seeing low clouds landscape shots, at least for me, were hardly a consideration. I did manage a few however just for reference purposes.
This scene really reminded me of something out of Jurassic Park
A wild crab apple tree draped in old man`s beard.
One of the hardest tasks to accomplish for this post was to narrow down the selection of images to include. With so many series of images showing running through water, suckling, shaking off water and wrestling, so many showing different surroundings such as on snow, rocks, in trees covered with old man’s beard, with flowers in the backgrounds or emerging from the forest and so many more showing different behaviors such as drinking, climbing out of the water or jumping in to the water and more I was still only able to cut it down to just over 30 images. With that being said on to what we all went there for... images of The Grizzlies of Khutzeymateen.
One of the first sightings we had.
1 of a series of 5 images all having unique water patterns coming off the head.
Needless to say we had some very close encounters.
1 of a series of 8 images showing a male trying to mate with a female. This image was taken at a distance of approximately 350 meters from within the slowly moving zodiac holding the camera freehand. The quality of the image was poor at best and it took 2 runs through lightroom and 1 run through neat image to get it to this, a little better than poor, quality. The reason I kept them and the reason I posted this 1 was not because of the image quality but because of the story. This was the one attempt at mating that we seen and the series as a whole is in my mind extremely comical as in the end the male does not succeed and even sulks which is just funny to see.
It also brings up another fact which makes me cringe at times and which I see happening over and over on outings such as this. This being individuals who in the evening are scanning their images and start deleting them based strictly on the fact that the image quality isn’t perfect. They forget about the stories and what the image portrays for the all important pixel peeping clarity. Whenever I see this I always remind people that the age old saying is “A picture paints a thousand words.” It does not say “A great picture paints a thousand words.”
A second after this the cub in the back pushed the front one in.
Although I was trying to limit the number of images in this post by not including any series of images this was 1 of the most special encounters of the entire trip. It was early morning with a light rain falling. The log she was on was slick from the rain and the reflections off the top of the log as well as the reflection in the water of the log created in my mind an eerie Tolken like setting.
My first surprise came when she didn’t just walk straight off the log and swim across to the area she wanted to graze in.
The other funny thing going on at the same time was watching the 2 cubs very cautiously trying to make their way to the base of the log. It was obvious they were not pleased with the route their mom took. At the same time the mom was lowering herself bum first into the water.
Through the rain and the haze it was at this moment that I realised bears really do prefer to walk instead of swim whenever possible. She proceeded to walk on her hinds across this little narrows to reach her feeding grounds. The cubs on the other hand said to heck with that and turned around getting off the log and waited for mom to return to find an alternate route which she did immediately after realising the cubs had not followed her.
A good shake after a swim.
At this point she was sitting at the end of a broken tree trunk approximately 3 meters above us. We were so close I couldn’t get the end of the broken tree into the frame which I really wanted to capture in the image.
It was amazing to see how on guard all the bears were at any given time. The female especially would get on her hinds every few minutes to scan the area for any threats.
A nice reflection.
Resting mom and cub.
Digging for clams. Unfortunately we never saw any bear actually find a clam. It is one of the most amazing things to watch as the giants delicately pry open the shellfish to retrieve the succulent morsels.
Mom nursing her cubs. It was an amazing experience to have this female allow us to be this close to her as she was nursing her young. The whole seen played out in front of us and I managed well over 100 images of this encounter. Right after she carefully watched as her young wrestled at her feet. It was extremely difficult deciding which images to include here as there were several showing the milk soaked snouts of the young and the milk soaked nipple of the mom. The play fighting images as well were extremely difficult to choose as so many showed bared teeth and claws or just funny awkward moments.
Every once-in-a-while a bear would just give us one of those looks saying ok... that is enough.
At this point these are probably 2 of my favorite images of the trip. Both were taken in heavy rain with along with the perspective and angle gives a very unique feel to both images in my opinion.
I did have an interesting experience on the drive home when I was close to being swept away by a mudslide large enough to cause the closure of highway 16 through Jasper for nearly 2 days. I had stopped just prior to the landslide to photograph a black bear so depending on how you look at it the bear either extended my outing by 2 days and 600kms or saved my life. Below you will find a few images of both the bear and the avalanche/mud slide.
When all was said and done I travelled 5200km by car and took 4972 images almost all of which were of bears.
As wildlife photographers I feel we have an obligation to share our images and stories with, among others, those who for any number of reasons are unable to experience the wilds first hand. Through this we will hopefully enlighten others and may even spark a flame of passion in someone to help protect and conserve environs and the wildlife within them such as this. Having the bears allow us to get this close to them and having them approach us to within a meter of the zodiac of their own free will was amazing. We were after-all in their world. Add to this having a captain/guide as skilled as Tom is both in regards to his knowledge of the bears and their intimate relationship with this environ as well as his knowledge of photography and an expedition leader as Mike whose experience and love for wildlife, photography, and storytelling are beyond compare and you have the makings for a once in a lifetime expedition. These outings will bring to life a realization of these magnificent creatures and the environs in which they live that few will ever experience. Their gentleness, playfulness, curiosity, shyness, and at times ferocity will without a doubt leave an impression which will last a lifetime and hopefully leave those fortunate enough to be in their presence enlightened forever.
Lastly I thought it would be nice to supply links for those interested in this type of outing and with that below you will find links to both Mike’s and Tom’s websites for more information on trips such as this that both lead and at times that both work together on as well as a link to one of the conservation sites trying to protect this amazing land and its inhabitants. Mike BeedellOcean light IIPacific Wild