Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bears

Published: 08/14/2019

It wasn't actually the grizzly bears that drew me to the Khutzeymateen, but rather the place itself. The idea of going somewhere virtually untouched, remote, with no crowds or road jams, and then teeming with wildlife was just too good to pass up. To set the scene, the Khutzeymateen is a 100,000 acre sanctuary, northeast of Prince Rupert, Canada (right under Alaska) set up about 30 years ago with no hunting and minimal tourism. What this means in practice is that for multiple generations now these grizzly bears haven't developed the same fear of humans that bears in other parts of North America have. A result of this is that you can view these bears just going about their life and really get an insight into their natural behavior. 

So when I got the chance to join a spring tour into the preserve, I jumped at it. In reality, I actually went back and forth for a while with various doubts (Do I wanna spend the money? Do I have the right gear (read what gear and settings I used here)? Will the photo ops be worth it? etc.). In the end I decided even if I didn't get any good photos, at least I would be going to an amazing area and would see some really awesome stuff.

These fears were proven unfounded pretty quickly the first day in the park -- one of the first 'keepers' I got was a bear shaking off -- one of the few 'list' shots that I wanted.

From here it was just awesome. There really isn't another way to describe it, to be honest. Being able to observe bears just being bears in such an intimate setting was truly special.

All shots were taken from a zodiac (takes some getting used to...). The park set up is essentially a river cutting through a valley where the water level is variable with the tide (which dictated our schedule for outings). The bears then come down to the water to feed on sedge grass. These photos show that well.

To my delight, tons of the bears we saw had cubs varying in age from one to three years old (and varying in cuteness). Seeing a grizzly bear with a cub is awesome. And seeing them being totally relaxed is infinitely better. 

The cubs were, as you would expect, great too. They were always more cautious, but very curious as well. Often you would see a parent do something -- like cross a log...

And then a minute later the cub would follow. This was one of my favorite images from the trip.

That's not to say the moms weren't checking out the weird floating thing in the water every now and then either.

But overall, the bears just spent a lot of time slowly eating grass. This is another one of my favorite images from the trip (and likely all time). For all the awesome bear encounters we had -- shaking off water, standing up, cubs up close, just seeing a bear sitting in the grass, well that doesn't get old either.

They'll often come down for a drink too.

Of course, none of this means they aren't still paying a little bit of attention to you.

It wasn't just bears in the park either. Although I didn't get a chance to see one of the elusive coastal wolves, I did get a great looks at a mink, seals, and, of course, bald eagles.

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One thing I loved about the cubs is how expressive their eyes are in tandem with their body language. This one mom had two cubs -- one who couldn't be bothered with us at all, and another who kept checking us out. I loved the contrast here between the two feeding bears, and this slightly more skeptical cub.

This next picture really captures that for me. From a technical point of view -- this is really a less than ideal capture -- the ears are clipped and the mothers ear is maybe just a bit too much in the frame. But those eyes...

While I loved shooting tight with these bears, capturing the scenery with them was awesome too.

One of my favorite encounters was on the last day. It was pouring rain on and off when we saw a mom with two cubs. The young cubs were hard at work (eating).

While mom was super relaxed laying down.

However, all of a sudden she started looking around (all while standing on this great 'perch' in the rain).

Soon after, she called her cubs and they took off into the woods. A minute or two later, this massive male emerged. This was the first true dominant male we had seen on the trip, and while all of these bears are big, this one took the cake! 

From here, the dynamic of the park changed a bit to say the least. Males will often attempt to (or succeed in) killing cubs in order to mate with the mother. It goes without saying that after that male came around, moms with young cubs were very cautious, often standing up to get a better view. 

It also seemed like they were moving more than we had previously observed. This same pair soon crossed a river, with the mom giving a cool shake off.

But we would go on to see one more adult male. There was an apparently truly massive dominant male at one point, but who was thought to be long dead. However, 'Brutus' was not quite out! Although a bit worse for wear with a limp and a cataract, this was still a beautiful bear with a ton of personality, and a tendency for swimming. 

Clearly an old guy, but not too old to blow bubbles and make a splash. Maybe some lesson in there for all of us!

You can see the full album of from my trip here.

The trip was honestly amazing. I hate when people say a trip or a place was life changing, so I'll refrain there. I will say though that it was certainly perspective changing. It drove home the need for areas like this. Not only is it great to have an area where bears can be bears, but ecologically areas like this serve as important sources of genetic diversity as a safe and stable breeding pool. Photographically, well hand-holding lenses in generally low light in a zodiac is a challenge! But more importantly, the trip gave me a lot of perspective on what type of photography I like and want to keep doing. A lot of these images aren't technically perfect, but they are looks into natural behavior few will ever get to see. I think you can translate that to other, less-elusive animals. I got a chance to photograph Carolina wren recently, and while I really liked the 'standard' shots like this and this headshot, I really like this shot of a wren preening since it really is just such a different view than at least I've experienced or noticed before.

Anyhow, it was a great trip that will stick with me for a while. I'm already eager to go back to BC and try my hand photographing these bears again. A huge thanks and shoutout to Brad Hill, Terri Shaddick, and the crew of Ocean Light II.

Lastly, I wrote up a blog post of what gear and settings I used in the Khutzeymateen. Feel free to have a look!

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