Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen, 2013. This is a large desktop wallpaper, feel free to click it, make it larger, download it and enjoy it on your desktop. This is my favourite image of the trip and sums up my time with these beautiful bears.
I’ve been planning this trip to the Khutzeymateen for a while now, not because I’ve got a particular thing for bears in particular, or that I have any desire to become a wildlife photographer, though as life goes on I’ve got less use for the labels anyways. I went because I’ve loved wilderness since I was a kid taking first walks in the Black Forest, and later, in a kayak my father made, summers in Canada’s Algonquin Park, a place I still long for in my dreams, falling asleep in the tent to the sounds of loons calling across the lake. I went because I’ve got this wild notion that when you get a wild notion you just need to say, Yes, and do it. So I signed on for two back-to-back trips with the Ocean Light II, a 72-foot ketch-rigged sailboat that takes clients to some of the wilder places on British Columbia’s coast, hoping to relax a little and explore the new direction my work began to take in Hokkaido.
Packing, I took as little as I could. I joined the Ocean Light II in the Khutzeymateen Inlet, a 20-minute flight in a Beaver float plane, away from Prince Rupert, which is either a 2-hour flight or a 20-hour drive from Vancouver, and the weight limit was a strict 60lbs. Even with my lightest technical down sleeping bag, which weighs only 2lbs, and a couple pairs each of underwear and socks, I was forced to pull out my tripod. I’ll put my packing list at the bottom of this post for those for whom that’s helpful, but here’s the broad strokes:
It rained like the gods were weeping, all day, for at least 4 of my 6 days. Best clothing choice was waterproof gear – jacket and pants – from Patagonia, knee-high boots from the Muck Boot Company, and Icebreaker layers underneath. Best gear choice was two Think Tank Photo Hydrophobia rain covers. I loathe rain covers, and I’ll do almost anything to avoid using them, but these are the best I’ve found, though the aweful truth is that I had to go to YouTube to find out how to unscrew the eyepiece ring from my Nikons in order to mount the eyepiece for the covers. And you thought the pros were meant to know that kind of thing.
Most of the photography happened from inflatable zodiacs and with the larger lens – a 300/2.8 with a 2x – I could have used a monopod. My friend Jon had one with a beautiful Really Right Stuff head on it that I might look into. But in the end it wasn’t the images from the 300/600 focal lengths that I liked best. The Khutzeymateen was an amazing place, and the encounters with the bears were extremely intimate, thanks to the presence of my guide, Tom, who’s been there over the last 25 years and knows – and respects – these bears. It’s easy to get a frame filled with a bear using these long lenses, but I’ve never been interested in the “look how big this lens makes this duck look” kind of photography. I wanted to make photographs that expressed some of the intimacy of the place and for that the longer lenses just don’t work for me, so in the end most of my best work was done with either the 16-35/4.0 or the 70-200/2.8. You can choose your lens based on how close it gets you, though I’ve often joked that you might not want to use a wide angle for making photographs of bears, or you can choose your lens based on behaviour and aesthetics – nothing works for me like a wide angle lens pushed in close. Which brings me to the question, “So how close were you?!” which isn’t really the point, but begs to be answered photographically.
We were close. Sometimes so close I felt I could reach out and touch them (not really, but it seemed that way). But we were safe, and I think the greatest take-away on this adventure was what I learned from Tom, with whom I had long conversations, who taught me how to approach these amazing animals. Turns out it’s not much different than you do with people. You go slow. You go with care and respect. You give them the chance, through body language in this case, to say no, and you back off when they do. You wait for them to invite you into their space. And you take your leave before you outstay your welcome. Grizzlies are large, powerful animals, they aren’t like big, cuddly, dogs, and they move with astonishing speed, but they give signs when they’ve had enough or don’t want you there. Respect that and have a guide with his hand on the throttle, and the possibility of truly intimate encounters is there. Look at the image at the top of this post, the mother let us be with her and her two cubs for two days, never showing anything more than curiosity, and eventual boredom, with us. She played with her cubs, nursed them, and watched over them, or just lay down to sleep. She trusted us. And that allowed us to photograph slowly, intentionally, and with shorter lenses. I will always believe that respect, curiosity, and a willingness to slow down, are among the most important skills for photographers. You also have to put in the time, which is why I booked 2 back-to-back trips because 3 days didn’t seem long enough for me to explore the place and get comfortable with the bears. I’d love to go back every year and make this an on-going body of work. I live in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and this year’s the first year I’ve started to photograph it.
One of the things I wanted from this work, once I began to figure out what the place was for me, was a warm, calm, consistent colour palette, and I wrestled with it for a while because the greens in this place are so visually massive, and pull the eye so much, that they were almost neon and drew my attention away from the bears. So I created a preset in Lightroom that pulled the greens back a little – less saturation, and less blue in the hue of the greens. I added some clarity to draw attention to the texture, and I pushed my colour temperature a little, though I shot on cloudy most of the time, so often I had to pull it back towards cooler. I think one of the things painters and other visual artists do well is pay greater attention to their colour palettes and that’s something I’m trying to be more intentional about. In the end I think I managed to create something with the kind of mood and magic I felt about the place, and the bears, and allowing the gesture in the frame to speak for itself.
The boat, the Ocean Light II, was an amazing home and I can’t wait to be back on it in July as we explore the Gwaii Haanas. Every night we’d come back from the estuary and eat an amazing meal while images imported, and talked about the day, shaking our head at the beauty and wonder of it, we’d dry out our clothes, check tide charts for the morning, then go to bed while batteries charged. I can’t imagine a more perfect week.
Here’s my packing list:
Icebreaker merino T-shirts – 2
Icebreaker merino Long-Sleeves – 2
Icebreaker merino Long Underwear – 2
Icebreaker merino underwear/socks – 3 each
Icebreaker merino toque and gloves
Pants – 2
Icebreaker merino sweaters, light – 2
1 Patagonia fleece, heavy
Patagonia rain jacket
Patagonia rain pants
Muck Boot Co. boots
Boat shoes/ Sneakers
twin sheet / pillowcase
Nikon D800 and D3s
Nikon 16-35/4.0, 70-200/2.8, 300/2.8, 2x
sensor cleaning kit
Lens cloths – 10
Hydrophobia 300/600, Hydrophobia 70-200
CF / SD cards
11″ MacBook Air, AC cable
iPhone, cable, headphones
Moleskine notebook, pens.
Eveything packed into lightweight O.R. dry sacs and then into either my large North Face Expedition duffle bag or my GuraGear Bataflae backpack which I love more with every passing day. Another thing I found helpful was a large climbing carabiner. I keep one on my camera bag and use it almost every trip to clip my cameras to something – in this case the zodiac. Up-Strap bandolier straps are what I use all the time now, and they’re easy to tie into a quick knot to shorten them up and clip to something.
For a first look at the photographs from this trip, check them out on this post and on this post.
David this all sounds awesome. Interesting approach with the colour palette by the way…
Black Forest? Couldnt google any other than the german BF. You didnt grow up here in Germany did you?! =)
I spent my first 5 years in Lahr.
David, you are a great photographer, and a great pic!
Nice capture 🙂
Really intriguing how a humanitarian photographer has completely captured this grizzly family with expressions so close to human. I am split between figuring out if you have taken the wild out of the photo or if you have made the human race more wild – but I so feel like a momma bear today! thank you
Awsome David, seems like it would be just one step to be able to join them playing! Very intimate, very close, very natural….
Thanks for this thoughtful post.
The photographs have an intimate feel to them, and this post explains how you achieved that. You are always on a journey to learn, grow, and explore your art and craft, and you take risks. This pays off!
Your comments on colour palette are especially interesting. I hope you have time to explore and share more about this.
Black Forest? Did you grow up in the Black Forest? Where about? I live in the BF.
David, what an awesome photograph! The personality you captured in the bears is great. Love the processing too.
It is an amazing part of the world. I have not yet been to the Khutzeymateen, but spent a few weeks last summer touring the Terrace, Kitimat, Prince Rupert region. Can’t wait to go back.
Thanks for the images and stories . . .
I looked at the RRS MH-01 when I purchased my Gitzo 2541 monopod. Anything from RRS is fabulous quality, I have the BH40 and am ordering a BH55.
You could also look at the Kirk Enterprises MP-02 which is what I ultimately purchased.
Looking forward to my little gift in the mail of your coming book.
What an unbelievable experience. Your photographs o these beautiful bears are so intimate and really bring out their personalities.
Awesome David- what a thrilling opportunity to photograph such amazing animals. Just want to chime in on the Muck Boots: after getting a pair myself two christmases ago they have become my most important of all photography gear! I never leave home to go photograph without them! I have the Muck Wetland version. Be well and continue making great work!
Bears are something I wish to have the chance to photograph in the wild. Great to hear insight on this trip. Love the photograph, went straight to my desktop to lighten up my work days for a while 🙂
Beautiful work! Thank you for the time you take to explain us the making of behind your trips.
I love how this photo feels like a painting. Without the bears it looks like a Bob Ross classic. I love the light-airy feel to it.
The white/yellow light on the upper part of the trees in the background is so warming and inviting.
Your images are very different from what I often see from photographers returning from a grizzly trip. I love the approach you took. It tells me so much more about the bears in their environment.
Did you go with other photographers? How many people were on the Ocean Light? in the zodiacs?
This makes me long for what I may find out east even more…
Awesome stuff, David!
That’s a beautiful, intimate image. I can almost feel what it was like to be there.
“though as life goes on I’ve got less use for the labels anyways.”
This is something that has bothered me for a lifetime. Galleries and jurors all want you to have this unchanging style. Yet when I bring my work directly to the public, (sometimes going as far as opening my own gallery) although it encompassed a variety or styles, it has always been well received. I know it’s easier for them (the galleries and jurors) but it’s bad for “Art.,” not to mention the artist.
I have always taken solace in this quote by Picasso:
“When you come to think of it, I am probably a painter without style. ‘Style’ is often something that ties the artist down and makes him look at things in one particular way, the same technique, the same formulas, year after year, sometimes for a whole lifetime… You can see me at this moment, but I have already changed, I am already somewhere else. I can never be tied down, and that is why I have no style…”
So, that said, I hope you never stop exploring and expanding your view…. just don’t go “fashion or product” on us! 😉
Thank you, Tom, for this Picasso-quote! Just the right words at the right moment for me….
“I live in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and this year’s the first year I’ve started to photograph it.” Those of us who live in BC are truly blessed by the beauty of the place.
Although I love your international and humanitarian work, I am really looking forward to your photographs from home. Thanks for the gift of the bears!
Wow! Fantastic photo David, it reminds me of the Russian painter Ivan Shishkin’s Morning in a Pine Forest. Internet pictures never do it justice, but he had a fantastic way of capturing light and transporting you to a place, which you have done wonderfully here. Thanks for all your words and encouragement.