Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Tracking the Great Grizzly

Tracking the Great Grizzly
© Daniel Beltra

A week's journey into the pristine bear country of the Alaska Peninsula

For most people, their only encounters with grizzly bears happen during trips to the zoo, where the animals are safely behind enclosures. On the Alaska Peninsula, however, the tables are turned. The few human visitors who pass through the remote region might, themselves, be considered curious zoo exhibits by the much larger bear population.One of the best ways to get up close and personal with these giant creatures in their native habitat is to risk becoming lunch by journeying into the peninsula's Katmai National Park and Preserve. Tucked neatly into the southwestern region of the state, Katmai is a prime location for grizzlies, also known as coastal brown bears, and is an ideal location for photographers and nature enthusiasts.

This summer, Digital Railroad, a Seattle-based provider of online tools and technologies for professional photographers, brought together a hand-picked team of five photographers on a week-long trip to the Katmai coast for a one-of-a-kind Alaskan grizzly bear digital photo safari. PhotoMedia publisher and photographer Gary Halpern was also invited to share his publishing and photo-editing expertise with the group.

The assembled team of professional photographers included:

  • Daniel Beltra, a Seattle-based World Press Award-winning photojournalist;
  • Andrea Johnson, an editorial photographer from Portland, Ore.;
  • Stefanie Atkinson, a Bay Area-based fine-art photographer;
  • Greg Probst, a nature and landscape photographer from Seattle; and
  • Martin Trailer, a San Diego-based advertising and commercial photographer.

Led by Ric Kasnoff, Digital Railroad's Seattle-based senior director of professional imaging and education – himself an accomplished photographer – the group boarded a plane on June 21 and flew first from Seattle to Anchorage, Alaska, and then to Kodiak Island for a welcome dinner and overnight stay. The next day, the team boarded floatplanes and flew 150 miles to a remote spot on the Katmai coast. To help preserve the pristine land, the group stayed aboard the Coastal Explorer, a 75-foot converted crab boat captained by Chuck Keim.

The grizzly's scientific name, Ursus arctos horriblis, pretty much says it all.

The early mornings consisted of going ashore by skiff and braving the harsh weather – 45 to 60 degrees and often drizzly – and difficult terrain to capture exquisite photographs of wild grizzly bears in their natural environment. Meals aboard the ship incorporated freshly caught fish provided by the first mate, Eric Poche.

Each day, the team lugged tens of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment to get the perfect photograph of the bears. An average outing ashore provided 15 or more sightings of brown bears, allowing the group to capture photos of mother bears with their cubs, lone wanderers, and female and male pairings. Nights were spent aboard the ship in tight quarters that were jam-packed with laptops (all Macs, by the way) and high-end photography equipment.

The photographers also received daily instruction on digital workflow, an explanation of tools and new technology, and tips on using digital asset management programs, featuring Adobe Lightroom. "We invited five professionals from five different aspects of photography," Kasnoff says.

"We set out with several goals in mind: to create a sense of community amongst the photographers, open lines of communication, share perspectives with the publisher and show them how to create an effective and efficient digital workflow."

Trips like this one, says Digital Railroad president Charles Mauzy, give his organization's members the opportunity to use their knowledge of the latest digital workflow tools in the field and to share their experiences with other member photographers, buyers and the broader imaging industry.

The thrill of being within 25 feet of untamed grizzlies is hard to capture in a snapshot, but the photographers did an impressive job. Each day the group observed the peninsula's wildlife and captured photos of the bears, as well as bald eagles, cormorants, puffins, sea otters, sea lions and seals.

The breathtaking surroundings, however, belied the potential for danger; the grizzly's scientific name, Ursus arctos horribilis, pretty much says it all. On the second day of the trip, the team encountered a pair of male grizzlies battling fiercely for claim to a nearby female. While they captured the raw displays of aggression, the captain stood ready with his Mace, just in case the bears focused their attention on the group. Luckily, the Mace, a harmless but irritating spray that frightens the bears away, never needed to be used during the week-long trip.

Also, having arrived on the summer solstice in such a northern location, it was an adjustment for the group to get used to the light of day lasting about 22 hours, with a brief period of darkness from 2 to 4 a.m. While this midnight sun may have played havoc with sleep patterns, it also maximized the shooting opportunities for the photographers.

Looking back, Kasnoff says the trip was a success, not only photographically but socially. "As photographers, we all face the same problems and issues," he says. "The highlight of the week was the camaraderie that was developed among the photographers, with the idea that we're all in this together. This was evident in the freewheeling discussions covering everything from digital workflow, distribution and delivery systems, and how to get a publishers' attention to self-marketing and copyright issues."

For a comprehensive viewing of all the final, edited photos from the trip, visit digitalrailroad.net.

The highlight of the week was the camaraderie that was developed among the photographers, with the idea that we're all in this together.

Lindsay Larin
Story Author: Lindsay Larin

Since graduating with a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Washington State University in 2006, I have worked with several publications including; Seattle Business Monthly, Northwest Meetings and Events magazine, Seattle magazine, PhotoMedia magazine and Reporter newspapers with a readership of more than 4o,000.

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