Dear John Lowman

[Note: John Lowman is a good friend of mine and one of the most active partakers in my Canadian Wildlife Photography Tours trips.  As such, he is occasionally subject to a bit of good-natured ribbing.  John was a participant on my first grizzly bear tour this year from September 25th to October 2nd.  As he was leaving the lodge, his final comment was, "That was an amazing trip, but I bet it'll be even better next week."]

Dear John,

You were right.  As good as the first grizzly trip was, the second trip was even better. Besides the frigid mornings, we racked up a new record for these grizzly bear photo tours with 23 individual grizzlies spotted in one day and a whopping 8 different black bears just two days after you were gone. The very next day we crushed our own record with 25 different griz!

And the third trip?  Off the charts.  Seriously.  The last day we had to back the boats up because I couldn't fit the bear's heads into my shots.

Funnily enough, though, the best encounter of the entire two and half weeks may have been way back on Day 2 of your tour, when we shot that beautiful grizzly with the bright red sockeye in the rain right across from the lodge late that evening.

A grizzly bear with a bright red sockeye salmon

Then again, our two hour photo shoot with that little griz along the rock slides wasn't too shabby, either.  In fact, it was the longest encounter of any we had on the trip.

Still, this wouldn't be much of a ribbing if I didn't at least hint a little more at what you missed. Besides the sasquatch and the wolverine fighting the wolf, I doubt I'll even tell you about how close we got to the mom with three cubs just a day or two after you were gone (hint: it was close).  Nor will I probably ever fully divulge the details of when we had the mom with three run into the mom with two, or when we had a whopping ten bears all around us on the lake.

Did I mention that on three different occasions we got down to the dock in the morning only to find a black bear waiting patiently for us in a nearby tree?  Oh wait, I think you may have actually been there for one of those, weren't you?

Anyways, it was sad to leave.  The fall colours were just peaking, the bears were becoming more and more accommodating, and my belly was reaching full capacity (damn those lodge cookies!).

Thanks again for coming along, John.  The bartenders at the lodge said they really missed your business.

Your friend,


[And now, a normal blog post]

For the past three weeks I've been sequestered on the edge of the wild and beautiful Chilcotin plateau, where it meets the magnificent snow-clad Coast Mountains in British Columbia, in search of grizzly bears, bald eagles, and sockeye salmon with three great groups of photographers from across Canada.

I've spent my mornings photographing ospreys, eagles, mergansers, harlequin ducks, and kingfishers, my afternoons with black bears and grizzly bears, and my evenings in a cozy, wilderness lodge with like-minded (and nice!) people that warmed the table with tall tales from around the world.  I even had a night photography session on Day 4 in an attempt to catch some northern lights in the dark Chilcotin skies.

A faint aurora lights up the horizon in BC's Chilcotin region -- 30 sec at f4, ISO 3200

The tours had highs and lows: we really did see a mother grizzly with three cubs run head on into a mother grizzly with two cubs (by accident), though the expected fireworks never materialized.  And we did definitely experience a bit of that famous west coast weather that managed to leak its way across the mountains to the lodge, hampering our efforts at finding bears on several different occasions.  Funny how a wee gale force wind can make it difficult to navigate around in small boats!

The tours this year were almost the complete polar opposite of last year's tours: last year the bears showed up early and often, this year they were late getting out of the gates (though even on our worst day we saw 4 grizzlies and 2 blacks).  Last year the peak fall colours were at the start of the tours, this year they hadn't even peaked by the end.  Last year we had hardly any bird life beyond eagles and mergansers, this year we were overrun by ospreys, herons, kingfishers, woodpeckers, warblers, loons, and ducks.

An osprey in full flight leaping out of a riverside tree

Last year the bears were all on the lake, this year they were all on the river.  And finally, last year we had fewer bears, but they were almost all accommodating to photographers, while this year we had way more bears, but fewer were photo-friendly.

And as usual, rather than leave the excitement of the tours to stand on their own, I had to throw in a personal crazy adventure to up the stakes, so to speak. A day before the tours were to begin, I received a brand new Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 OS lens to try out on the trip (I'm sponsored by Sigma Canada).  So while I hadn't had much of a chance to test it on the first tour, I got a few hours between tours 1 and 2 on Day 7 and decided to go out in a kayak with my Canon 5D Mk II and the Sigma beauty (it really is a beauty!).

Grizzly bear shot hand-held from a kayak -- Canon 5D Mk II and Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 300mm/f3.2

Anyways, to make a long story (the lens is amazing, I'll be reviewing it in full this weekend) shorter, I ran into a beautiful sow grizzly and filled a 16GB card with images of her shot handheld from the kayak.  So the whole 'shooting from a kayak' thing proved to be hugely successful, especially considering I'd never done it before.

However (why does there always seem to be a however in my stories?), getting out of the kayak with my camera and the Sigma lens proved to be a tad more difficult than getting in and shooting was.  Since I wasn't sure how close I could get to the bank of the river for my 'dismount', I chose to pull up alongside the lodge's dock, which is about three feet above the level of the river.

I cruised in to the dock and pilings so that the right side of the kayak was against a piling and my right shoulder was against the dock, then grabbed the dock with my left hand and proceeded to attempt to take my camera and the lens off of my neck with my right hand, intent on placing them up on the dock.  To do this, I had to push myself away from the dock a touch, and sadly, what happened next will never see the hallowed halls of Great Marriott Moves.  As I pushed away with my left hand and casually began to lift the camera over my head with my right hand to set it on the dock, the river's current grabbed the kayak and slowly began to tilt it sideways.  In other words, as my kayak and I shifted on the water, I slowly began to get swept under the dock and frantically began fighting the pull of the current to get myself back up to 'all-square'.

Unfortunately, the harder I pulled with my left hand, the more the kayak began to tip.  Meanwhile, as this was going on, my face was jammed tightly up against my camera and the new lens, which was jammed tightly up against the underside of the dock.

So to recap: there I was, halfway twisted upside down in a kayak (that is rapidly filling with water) under a dock in three and a half feet of frigid glacial water, desperately hanging on to both my camera and the dock.

Left with no choice, I did what any photographer would do -- I sacrificed body over camera.

Without letting go with either my left hand or right, I deftly extracted myself from the kayak (all the while holding on to it in the current with my right elbow) and braced my feet on the bottom, then heaved myself out from under the dock and gently placed the unharmed camera and lens (and card!) on the stupid dock.

I then traipsed over to the shore with kayak in tow, elated that a) I had escaped unharmed save for some wet clothing, and that b) no one had witnessed the debacle.

Then, like a wet dog, I sheepishly snuck into my room in the lodge without anyone noticing me, and began to think about what a funny blog post the story would make.

So that's about it for my initial report from the 2011 Grizzly Bear Photo Tours.  All in all it was an extremely successful year again thanks to the bears of the Chilcotin, the great group of photographers, and the amazing hospitality of one of the best wilderness lodges in BC.

Until we meet again!

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for full trip reports and images from the grizzly tour participants, as well as the announcement of the 2012 dates.

Happy shooting!


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