Sunday, May 27, 2012

Remembering Dawn

This week's local paper in the Canadian Rockies was awash with bad news for our struggling wildlife: a rare female wolverine killed on Highway 93S in Kootenay National Park, a young male grizzly bear run over at night on Highway 68 in Kananaskis Country, an adult male black bear shot in downtown Canmore, and a young black bear hit by a train in Yoho National Park.

Perhaps fitting, then, that today marks the first anniversary of the magical morning that wildlife photographer Cai Priestley and I spent with a female grizzly bear and her two yearling cubs in a late spring snowfall one year ago near Lake Louise.  Less than 48 hours later, Dawn, the mother grizzly, was dead, hit by a Canadian Pacific train only a few kilometers from where Cai and I had photographed her, leaving her tiny cubs to fend for themselves in a landscape rife with hazards.

Dawn with her two cubs on May 27th, 2011 near Lake Louise in Banff National Park

I would like to think that her death was not in vain; after all, the incident got press all over the world and led to major news programs like CBC's The National covering the story and discussing concerns with the section of Canadian Pacific track that knifes through the heart of Banff National Park.  Dawn's photo graced the cover of national magazines like Canadian Geographic and the controversy over her death eventually led in part to a number of research studies that began this spring to address the issue of bear-wildlife-train conflicts in Canada's first national park.

Dawn playing with one of her cubs

On a more personal level, Cai and I launched a Facebook group, Save Banff's Wildlife, to keep interested parties up to speed on the fight to keep our mountain national parks a refuge for wildlife rather than a sinkhole. We were both really encouraged to see the response and felt like we were getting somewhere with our conservation efforts.

Yet when we have weeks like last week where wildlife carnage seems to be the order of the day in our Rocky Mountain national parks, it quickly seems as if nothing's changed.  Dawn is dead, and other animals continue to follow in her footsteps at an alarming rate. I begin to question myself, as do my friends and colleagues, wondering if we're actually making any difference at all.

But then, last night, a ray of hope emerged from the shadows. A text arrived from a Parks' friend.  It was short and sweet, saying simply, "They're alive!"

And just like that, I remembered Dawn and I remembered exactly what I'm fighting for -- two young, beautiful cubs.

Dawn's cubs have survived the winter.  Now let's hope they can navigate the coming summer.

Happy shooting everyone.


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Thursday, May 24, 2012

First Word from the Khutzeymateen

Ok, so technically, this blog post is more about the drive to the Khutzeymateen rather than my time in the Khutz.  In fact, it's about my incredibly serendipitous first-and-only encounter ever with a mainland white kermode bear! 

I know it's hard for most of you to believe that the guy who's posted wild wolf, wolverine, lynx and cougar shots over the past few years could possibly find something as dull as a white black bear, but I figured I'd start off my Khutzeymateen stories with a pic or two of a spirit bear versus a boatload of pics of grizzlies doing boring stuff like fighting and mating.  Hope you're all ok with that....

When I left for my trip to the Khutzeymateen on May 5th, I purposefully scheduled in three days before my boat trip to explore the Smithers/Terrace/Stewart/Prince Rupert/Kitimat area in north-central British Columbia (a vast swath of wilderness interrupted by the occasional logging road or rural small town) to search for my first mainland kermode bear.  I quickly discovered that it's not quite like going on my Spirit Bear Photography Tour in the Great Bear Rainforest, where often, one simply shows up and waits until a white bear appears.  That trip costs big bucks because of the probability that you will be able to find a white bear; one in every five to ten black bears there is white, thanks to a double recessive gene -- by contrast, exploring the area I was in on the mainland is much more of a crapshoot, where only one in forty or fifty is white.

So the question became, could I find the forty to fifty black bears that would give me the odds of finding one that was white? 

The first few days didn't look good.  Just eight bears, all black. I couldn't even track down any good rumours of white bears, let alone sightings. A few people had seen one "in 2006" or "three years ago down that logging road," but no one had spotted one in the Spring of 2012.

I determined that part of the problem was that these bears were wild, really wild.  Where bears back home in the Rockies often saunter out to the roadsides and have a good feed while a rodeo circus evolves on the pavement beside them, the black bears I was seeing were taking off like a man on fire ever time a vehicle came along.  It wasn't just a casual stroll back into the woods, but rather a panicked fleeing befitting an animal that gets hunted regularly in this part of Canada.

As such, I had just about given up by my third day of searching.  I had decided it was time to head to Prince Rupert to get on with the Khutzeymateen trip, but convinced myself to take one last drive before hitting the pavement again.  And of course, that's when the magic happened.

Driving down a bumpy logging road in the middle of nowhere, I caught a glimpse of something white-ish over a little hill.  I slowed down as quickly and quietly as I could and glanced back.

To my astonishment, a beautiful white bear stood there on a small grassy knoll staring intently at me as if getting ready to run.  In a second I had my lens out of my sunroof and was twisted into position like a pretzel, "Tffttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt!" My motor drive banged off quick nine shots in a second and a half, before 'POOF!', the bear vanished down the hill into the forest.

A white kermode bear eyes me warily seconds before disappearing into the forest down the hill

I sat there for a minute, still not even sure I'd just seen what I'd seen. Had that been a kermode, a white bear?  And had I captured it in that flurry of action?  The back of my camera answered both questions for me; it had indeed been a white bear, and I'd definitely nailed the shot!  I had a wave of exhilaration go over me, followed by about fifty whoa-I-can't-believe-that's.

For the next few hours I drove and hiked back in forth in the area hoping for another glimpse, while also somewhat reluctantly acknowledging that my presence there was probably stopping the bear from feeding roadside on the only fresh greenery in the area.  Long before the hours of golden light, I left the area so the bear could feed again.

I didn't return to that spot until after my Khutzeymateen trip concluded on the morning of the 16th.  I scoured that road up and down and sideways, but could find no trace of my beautiful white bear.  I did find a whopping 53 different black bears over the course of four days, but never did see another kermode.

In honour of a special friend of mine that's battling cancer right now, I've decided that I am going to auction off a signed 16x24 unframed print of this white bear image to the highest bidder to help raise funds for him.  If you're interested in bidding, please visit the auction site on Facebook at If you're not a member of Facebook, yet want to bid on the photo, you can still look at all of the items up for bid and email the auction privately at to put in a bid.  Bidding currently concludes tomorrow (Friday) at 5 pm MST, though there is a chance we'll be extending it to Monday evening due to the recent surge of donations and bidding activity.

I've also donated a full day in the field with me as a bidding item.  Just you and me, one-on-one, in the field in Banff looking for creatures and scenics from dawn to dusk.  What's that worth to you?  You can check it out here for more details.  And there are a ton of other great items up for bid, including ski passes for Panorama in BC, a golf package in Canmore, handmade furniture, greeting cards, coffee table books, yoga packages, and 90+ more items!

Stay tuned for more Khutzeymateen photos in the days to come and thank you to everyone for all of your support over the years, I really appreciate it.

Happy shooting!


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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Khutz update from the field

Quick update from a rainy Prince Rupert on Day 1 of the Khutzeymateen grizzly bear photo tour.  Saw 8 bears, a wolf, 2 coyotes and a pine marten on the drive out to PR, including one glorious, albeit brief, encounter with a kermode bear north of Terrace!  Pics to come in a week or two when I return.

Wish us luck, I'll be back in touch again on the 16th or 17th.



Saturday, May 5, 2012

In Search of Bears!

Just a quick post to let you all know that you can follow my progress this week and next as I head northwest towards Prince Rupert and then into the Khutzeymateen, as I'll have my SPOT tracker on the entire time. I'm in Salmon Arm tonight and then am off at 5 am Sunday morning in my search for bears.  For the first few days I'll be searching for kermode (spirit) bears just east of Prince Rupert, and Wednesday it's on to the Khutzeymateen aboard the Ocean Light II. Wish me luck!

Happy shooting!


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Thursday, May 3, 2012

High Adventure in the Bugaboos!

Spring has sprung and with the advent of green grass and new leaves, I've been far from my computer most days in search of wild beasts all over the countryside.  In fact, tomorrow, I leave for my much anticipated inaugural journey to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Reserve for my first photo tour of 2012. I'm going to take my time getting up there, though, and search for black bears (and kermodes) along the way.  Sound like a tough life?  Ha-ha, maybe not for the next few weeks....

For those of you interested in future trips to the Khutzeymateen, I do have dates already for next year's trip, however, I am going to wait until my return from BC in late May before I post them. Please contact me if you're interested in a spot on that trip (for those of you that have never been on one of my tours or workshops, note that first priority is always given to previous clients).

Speaking of workshops, I only have one spot remaining on my 2012 heli-hiking nature photography workshop with CMH Summer Adventures in the Bugaboos in August.

British Columbia Magazine features a wonderful article by staffer Shanna Baker in their current issue that talks all about the 2011 workshop, which Shanna participated in.  It's a great read that starts on page 34 and continues for a whopping nine pages, with some great descriptions of what you can expect on the workshop.

Shanna's beautiful photo of  Anniversary Peak, Bugaboo Glacier, and Houndstooth Spire graces the cover

The cover was shot on our 'sunrise shoot' one morning -- we got picked up by a helicopter in the dark at the lodge and whisked away to the top of a nearby ridge to await the golden hour!  As I said already, there is one spot remaining, so if being treated like royalty and learning some amazing photo tips sounds good to you, then snag that final spot!

Happy shooting!