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.