Bearly Got the Shot

OK, it’s time to do the grizzly bear story. I’ve been putting this one off because frankly, I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed because I didn’t get the shot. Well, I did and I didn’t. Let me explain.

A couple of years ago, I signed up for a Mountaineers Photography trip to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia. This park is known for its dramatic mountain scenery where Mount Assiniboine itself has earned the nickname “the Matterhorn of the Rockies”. We were promised high peaks, lakes, glaciers, meadows, cascading streams, golden larch-covered slopes and wildlife aplenty to keep our shutters clicking. We would sleep in huts, have unrestricted use of a fully stocked cook shelter (more like a small lodge than a shelter) with tanks of propane, and to top it all off, we would helicopter in to save four days of backpacking. Heck yeah, I’m in! Sign me up!

Now by wildlife they meant critters like the cute little golden-mantled ground squirrel I wrote about a while back, but they also meant the cute big critters called grizzlies. Brown bears. Big fellas. So, along with our sleeping bags and toothbrushes, we were to bring bear spray. We’re talking concentrated pepper spray here. And it has to be labeled for use on bears. We are not talking about mace bought for self-defense against humans. Noooooo, that would be illegal in Canada, as well as a handful of states in the U.S. It has to say “bears” on the label. Can’t have folks walking around protecting themselves against humans – only bears.

Mt. Assiniboine at Sunrise, Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park, British ColumbiaAnyway, we flew in and made ourselves at home in this beautiful park. OK, it was a very wet, beautiful park. It was either raining or snowing pretty much the entire week. Mount Assiniboine itself was shrouded in ceaseless cloud cover. But hey, if you’re going to camp in a wet area, I can highly recommend huts and cook shelters. At least we were warm and dry at night and at mealtime.

Helicopter with Luggage, Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia

Helicopter with Luggage, Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia

Not far from the huts and run by the same park management was a small lodge, where the doctors, lawyers, and dentists stay when they visit to fish, er, I mean have their conferences. It was from talking to the staff at the lodge that we were briefed on the grizzly conditions in the area. It seems there was a momma bear by the name of Lily and her two boys of about four years living nearby. They were somewhat accustomed to seeing humans, and there had never been any trouble. But you just never know. So we were instructed to stay in groups of at least three, always carrying our trusty mace, er, I mean bear spray. And we were to talk to each other so as to be easily identified to any bears as humans.

Ed Relaxes on the Jonesy's Cabin porch, Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia

Ed Relaxes on the Jonesy’s Cabin porch, Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia

Did I mention that it was wet? And cloudy? And by now you probably know that photographers are supposed to get up before dawn and shoot the amazing light that happens sometimes – when it’s not wet and cloudy. So every morning Linda, our leader, would get up and stick her head out the door to check conditions. And every morning we got to sleep in – until about the fourth morning, when she announced that we just might get lucky that morning. By lucky, she meant we would crawl out of our warm, comfortable sleeping bags and wander off into the cold, damp darkness occupied by hungry grizzlies, hoping for an amazing sunrise and no unpleasant encounters.

As I was anxiously standing outside with my friends Lee and Karen, the three of us ready to go and the sky getting lighter all the time, I suggested that we go ahead and let the other group of three catch up when they were ready, whenever that might be. They agreed, and we headed toward the lake where we would have a good view of the mountain with lots of foreground elements to work with. Now any of you who have ever walked with me know I can be a bit impatient, so it was inevitable that I would start to get a little ahead of my friends. Well, it’s getting light fast, and I don’t want to miss my shot! Since there was no longer anyone to talk to, I decided I should sing. I figured that would look better somehow than talking to myself – in case any critters were watching. Hey, it was early and I hadn’t had my coffee yet! I had the perfect song, too. It went like this:

Oh, where, oh where is that grizzly bear?
Oh, where, oh where could she…..OH CRAP!!!!! What was that???

I stopped dead in my tracks, hand on my bear spray holster, as a large object moved in the semi-darkness behind some bushes. When Lee and Karen caught up with me seconds later, I told them I had seen something about the size of a large dog moving behind the bushes, but I suspected I hadn’t seen the whole creature. We continued carefully down the trail past the line of bushes, and sure enough, there was a large grizzly bear behind them, staring at us.

Strangely, at least to me, Lee and Karen decided that this was a good time for some intimate wildlife photography. Admittedly, they had a lot more experience with this sort of thing than I did, and Lee also had a big honkin’ 500mm telephoto lens on his camera, suitable for this sort of situation. By that I mean that if the bear attacked, he had the right size lens to clobber the beast. I did not, so I decided to heed the advice on all the bear literature we’ve been made to read and slowly left the area. After all, I was out to capture Mount Assiniboine on its first and possibly only appearance all week, and was not about to let a grizzly bear mess up my plans. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

A family of grizzlies hunts for breakfast by digging up squirrel dens, in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia.

A family of grizzlies hunts for breakfast by digging up squirrel dens, in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia.

So, Lee got his shot, and I got my shot (first image in this post), and Lily and her boys got back to the business of terrorizing ground squirrels, and everybody lived – well, except for the ground squirrels. All in all it was an unforgettable trip, and I’m looking forward to returning there some day. I hear August is a pretty dry time to visit!

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7 Responses to “Bearly Got the Shot”

  1. Lee Wallen says:

    I wonder if the student mentioned in this article had a canister of pepper spray that was marked saying it was for bears.

  2. Catherine S says:

    Too funny! Looks like a beautiful place.

  3. Dan Taflin says:

    Your shot is beautiful. Lee’s shot is terrifying. I would have chosen beautiful also.

  4. Carol Figura says:

    Great story and wonderful story telling. Felt like I should have been around a campfire.