Canadian photographer R. John Knight shares the stories behind some of his nature and wildlife images

Sunday, December 12, 2010

To Stop and Photograph a Big Black Bear, or Not?

While coming down the road from Maligne Lake, Jasper NP, last October, we encountered a traffic jam.  There were so many cars and people that it was difficult to see what the attraction was.  We drove up slowly, and then saw a very large Black Bear feeding on Rosehip bushes in the ditch.  The tourists were only a few metres away along the shoulder of the road.  Yikes!

We drove on a little ways, and turned around in a side road, and came back to watch.  It was tempting to get out, but the bear was too close for comfort, and there were so many people and cars. 

Eventually, the bear decided that it had had enough.  It initially climbed up the opposite side of the ditch, and then decided to run between the cars and across the road.

Amazingly, several people ran after the bear as it disappeared into the woods. Other tourists followed.  Comments about being too close and giving the bear some space were not welcomed.  We drove further up the road and turned around, then came back and watched from a distance. 

As more people moved towards the bear, it became trapped between the shoreline of a small pond and a long line of tourists.  The bear didn’t know what to do, but amazingly didn’t show any aggressive behaviour.  After a moment’s hesitation, the bear shot through a gap that developed at one end and disappeared into the woods.

While all of this was happening, I slowly and carefully ventured a short distance laterally from our truck and away from the crowd of tourists.  I took the shots here from a distance of about 20-25 m with a 500mm lens, just before the bear disappeared.

Afterwards, I found myself wondering, as I still do now, whether or not I should have stayed to take these images.  Even though I kept my distance for both my safety and to give the bear space, did I interfere with the bear’s activities simply by being part of the ‘bear-jam’?  Should we have stayed, or just driven away?  It’s a tough question.  It’s one that I will continue to think about.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Is There a Fox, an Elk or a Grouse, in your Rear-view Mirror?

Bull Elk
While visiting Prince Albert National Park last fall, we drove along the north shore of Waskesiu Lake early one morning in search of wildlife.  We paused briefly at the bridge over the Waskesiu River, but didn’t see anything.

As we pulled away from the side of the road, Sherrill did a shoulder and mirror check, and happened to notice a fox running up from the ditch.  We stopped, and watched as the fox came towards us on the other side of the road.

While aware of us, it was clearly intent on hunting.  I jumped out of the truck with my camera and 500mm lens, and managed to get a couple of shots over the hood as it ran past.

Shortly after passing us, the fox saw something in the far ditch.  It stopped, and froze.  I fired off a few more shots, and then paused and looked up to see what the fox was going to do next.  As I did, the fox flew high into the air and launched itself out of sight into the ditch.  A few moments later, the fox reappeared, licking its chops, and continued hunting along the edges of the road.  I had missed the ‘wow’ shot of catching the fox in mid-air on my camera, but his airborne pounce was captured as a virtual image in my brain.

Checking us out
Something moved in the ditch!
Ready, aim ...

... missed launch and capture!!!

M-m-m-m-m good!!!

We slowly followed the fox for another kilometre or so, as he continued hunting.  He stopped several more times to chase and catch something in the ditch or the adjacent woods.  Eventually, he crossed the road and disappeared into the woods.

On the road again!
Boy, that was good!
We headed down the road, and were surprised to find another fox coming the other direction only a few kilometres away.  This time, the fox disappeared into the woods as soon as we were spotted.

We traveled up and down the road a few more times that morning, but did not see the foxes again.  An important lesson from this encounter was to not only have your camera and long lens ready, but to periodically check your rear-view mirror for wildlife.  If Sherrill hadn’t done her shoulder and mirror check, we would have missed seeing the first fox.

Grouse hiding in the roadside grass

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Do Grizzlies, Photographers, Fishermen and Tourists Mix?

In late September 2009, we drove to Bella Coola, west-central British Columbia with the hope of seeing grizzly bears.

After the long drive from Calgary to Williams Lake, British Columbia, we continued west for another 365 km across the Chilcotin Plateau to the top of Heckman Pass (elevation 1524m) in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park.    Here, the road abruptly changed to gravel.  For the next 70 km, the road plunged and twisted down the mountain-side with grades up to 18% and precipitous drop-offs with no guard rails.  Locals refer to this portion of the road as “The Hill”.  It was completed by local residents in 1953 after the provincial government decided that a road to the coast was not feasible. 

We safely negotiated ‘The Hill’, then stopped briefly at Hagensborg and Bella Coola.  Here, we learned that grizzly bears were feeding along the Atnarko River in Tweedsmuir Park.

We parked our pop-up camper amongst several large camper-trucks, RV’s and trailers at the Fisheries Pool Campground.  From there, it was only a short walk to the Atnarko River where grizzly bears wandered periodically along the edges of the river in search of salmon.  The main targets were the old putrefied Sockeye, and fresh Chinook salmon.  They were eating in preparation for winter hibernation.   

One sow with two almost full-grown cubs (yearlings) appeared along the river banks when the males were absent.  The bears stayed primarily on the other side of the river.  This gave us the width of the river as our safety margin.  Occasionally, they would wade or plunge into the river to go after larger salmon.  When this happened, we backed away from the river’s edge to give them space, and to keep a safe distance away.

We had to be on alert all of the time, watching for bears up and downstream, and behind us.  At one point, we lost sight of one cub when it swam around a bend in the river upstream.  When the sow swam towards our side of the river, we quickly backed away from the edge into the woods.  As we did, we wondered what had become of the cub that had disappeared up river.  This was timely because that cub was now heading down our side of the river towards us.  It was time retreat well away from the river.

The bears were clearly aware of our presence, and did not seem to be bothered by us being there, as long as we gave them space and did not interfere with their activity.

As we drove through the day before, we noted yellow tape and closure signs along portions of the Atnarko River.  During the week before, large numbers of photographers and other people converged on the area to view the bears.  Some of these people apparently crowded the bears to get ‘the shot’.  The closure of some of the viewing spots along the river was the result, although everyone did not agree with the action or the reasons.

We were quite happy to be there the week after when things were quieter.  Most visitors respected the bears and gave them space.  Unfortunately, there were exceptions: 
     -  One photographer clearly pushed and crowded the bears  
     -  Several fishermen yelled and threw stones at bears that were in sections of the river
        where they wanted to fish 
     -  Several tourists came to the river’s edge with unleashed barking dogs, flash cameras
        going off, and with wandering unattended kids

Each of these situations was a recipe for an unhappy confrontation with a bear.  Fortunately, the bears tolerated both the good and bad behavior this time.

Can grizzlies, photographers, fishermen and tourists mix?  From our perspective, the answer is yes, if there is respect for each other. 

Most visitors had an opinion about who was causing the problem for the bears, and it generally wasn’t them.  To us, it seemed that everyone has to accept responsibility for their actions.

To save us from ourselves, Tweedsmuir Provincial Park has since imposed new viewing restrictions, and has constructed a viewing stand adjacent to the Belarko boat launch, just inside the western boundary to the park.

If you go, consider the following: 
- Join a tour group to view bears
- Follow the recommended viewing distances
- Don't feed, crowd or harass the bears in any way
- Don’t get between a sow and her cubs, or another adult grizzly
- Be alert for other bears in your vicinity, e.g., behind you
- Don’t antagonize a bear by making loud noises or using a flash
- Don’t look directly into the bear’s eyes
- Leave pets in your vehicle
- Keep your kids close and under control
- Carry pepper spray and bear bangers
- Have an escape route and plan