Traveling with bears
North America has three types of bears: polar, brown and black. I have had many wonderful opportunities to spend time with all three - the black bear sow with her two adorable little cubs that were taking a morning stroll in Mesa Verde National Park (surprisingly, the only black bears I have photographed in my home state of Colorado); the curious, large white bears of the Arctic that seem to worry more about playing than the changes happening in their climate; and the beautiful brown bears of Alaska.
Photographing the brown bears (Ursus arctos) has really peaked my interest. Over the last few years I have spent many days and hours photographing them as they eat, play, sleep and raise their young.
There are a few subspecies of brown bears (coastal, Kodiak, grizzly) depending on a few factors, including the region they live, but they are all related.
The grizzly bear is a brown bear that is smaller and lives in a few northern states in the continental U.S., interior Alaska, and southern Canada. These are the brown bears visitors to Yellowstone National Park will see. They are smaller due to their diet of moths, seeds, roots, and the occasional carcass of elk, deer, or bison.
Kodiak and coastal brown bears are very similar, but Kodiak brown bears are considered the largest Ursus arctos. Both can be extremely large - weighing up to 1,400 lbs - and live along the coastal habitats of Alaska and western Canada, with Kodiak bears being unique to the Kodiak Archipelago in Alaska. Their size is often attributed to their abundant diet of fish.
The coastal brown bears are the bears I have spent the most time with in the last couple of years, including being as close as 15 steps from one very curious three-year old bear.
The most important thing to think about when planning a bear photo trip is to select the season. Brown bears come out of hibernation in early spring and are hungry after sleeping through the winter. These first few weeks out of hibernation will keep bears busy foraging for food.
As the weeks roll into May, brown bears will enter their mating season, which typically lasts through June. Males will find a female in heat and follow her around for several days to a couple of weeks. The females are not always responsive, and the interaction can be interesting to photograph.
June brings warmer days and wildflowers start to bloom in Alaska. Sedge meadows start producing food for bears and clamming becomes a popular yet necessary means for food. It is amazing to watch a large brown bear use their large claws to pry open a clam shell only inches long and scoop out the tasty morsel in the mud flats at low tide. Newborn cubs also start making appearances but wary mothers keep their eyes on the little cubs of the year to protect them from their biggest enemy, male brown bears.
In July and August, salmon by the thousands swim upstream to spawn throughout coastal Alaska. This smorgasbord of food attracts bears by the dozens to fishing holes full of the tasty fish. These congregations of bears can be full of activity at low tide when spotting salmon are easier for bears. Fights break out over fish, hungry bears tear open large salmon, and cubs eagerly learn the art of fishing.
By October, brown bears are preparing their dens for a long winters nap.
Check back in the coming weeks for tips and techniques about how to successfully photograph brown bears in various seasons.
If interested in photographing brown bears in coastal Alaska, join professional and award-winning wildlife photographers Dan Walters and Dawn Wilson for the brown bear photo workshop in June 2015.