Sometimes getting the right shot takes a lot of planning, good equipment and a lot patience…Sometimes, though it just takes a nothing more than a little luck. And if luck is often elusive, sometimes you just have to ask for it. A very good friend of mine recently asked me how I got the “Soft Shoulder “shot of the Grizzly bear in my photo section. I told her I simply asked for it.
However there were a string of events and special circumstances that needed to occur before I could ever be put in the right spot for the shot first. Semi blind-luck got me into Denali National Park in the first place with a road lottery pass days before the park officially closes. (The “semi-blind” refers to the point that we have to at the very least put ourselves in a position initially to even be open to luck in the first place. That is, you can’t win the lottery if you don’t at least buy a ticket.) This lottery road-pass allows me and a few other lucky souls to drive anywhere I want in the park alone and pick and choose my spots to stake out while the rest of the park was closed to the general public.
Now I was not lucky enough to actually win a lottery ticket for myself the conventional way, despite sending in more than my share of entries. I had a few days left over after I flew out of the Katmai peninsula photographing the coastal bears, a much larger cousin of these inland Grizzlies.
I had already hit the jackpot there and if I had seen nothing more than a few ground squirrels for the rest of the trip, I would have still been thrilled and able to practically fly home to LA with out the help of the a jet airplane. I was as close to walking on air as possible but I thought it was worth taking my chances and doubling down in Denali even with out a pass into a closed park. After all, now I was playing with house money. I packed up the car and headed north for the 4 hour scenic drive. When I arrived at the Perch, a little place I used to stay to visit a friend in the past, I immediately headed to the restaurant to see if there were any people who may be lounging around to say hello to. After more than a week alone in Katmai and I was ready for some human company and hot blueberry pancakes. There was one older couple drinking coffee and it wasn’t too long before they asked me where I rolled in from. After a little idle chit chat, I told them I planned on going to the Denali gate in the morning to look pathetic as possible and try to hitch a ride into the park They said I didn’t have to do that because they had an extra lottery ticket and had no need for it. I almost choked on my pancakes. I couldn’t believe my luck and wanted to hug the both of these old folks so hard but I was afraid I might hurt them. They were happy to see how much it lit me up and turned me into kid at Christmas and settled for a handshake and a free cup of coffee. I offered them more and would have paid a kings ransom for it, but they were having none of it. It was as if the sun was just following me around every corner. I have eluded to my spirituality and feeling of overall connection to the Earth in past blogs in places like this. I can’t help but think that my senses of awareness are heightened and that someone is really listening to me here. The presence I feel here in Alaska is undeniable and just can’t be felt to this degree in any man made structure I’ve been in yet. It is said that the Aborigines are so in tuned with their environment that they simply ask it for food, water or shelter when they need it and somehow they find their way to it or the other way around. To a lesser degree, I feel the same connection to this land and often ask for something I’d like to see. Somehow, someway I stubble across it or visa-versa. I know the park pretty well and Sable Pass is the place to see Grizzlies. Of course there are no guarantees, but the odds definitely go up there. As I drove slowly through the pass there were no signs anywhere and decided to pull the car over. There happened to be a soft shoulder sign and pulled right up in front of it. I closed up all the windows, locked up the car, packed up the camera gear and set off across the spongy tundra. When I hit a big wild blueberry patch, I thought it would make a good place to sit tight and see what crossed my path out here. Besides even though the berries were a bit on the sour side, it gave me something to nibble on while I waited. A very dark single cloud formed directly over me and it began to pour. As I looked around the valley, it dawned on me that it was only raining on the area where I was. Sun drenched the rest of the valley and mountains. I thought maybe my luck was changing and hunched over my camera to keep it dry. It was amusing though to me that this lone cloud found its way directly above me and just let loose. It wasn’t long until a complete rainbow extended from one side to the other. I began to shoot pictures of it and began to think the shots would need something else to really capture the magic of this park. I asked myself “why not?” I looked directly up in the rain and asked for a bear.
I remember how ridiculous I sounded because I had already been given so much previously on this trip and felt a bit greedy, but as I said before I was playing with house money and had nothing to lose. As if on cued , A dark brown male appeared from behind a knoll about 200 yards away and began to lumber his way out into the open grazing on the berries. I could do nothing more than grin from ear to ear and position myself better to get the entire shot. Not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but I needed to have the rainbow drop on the bears back. So I began to walk then run across the open area most likely grabbing every predators eye in an effort to position myself just at the right angle to get a few of the following type shot.
Of course ole Yogi caught a glimpse of me scurrying across like a really large ground squirrel (their other favorite snack) and began to work his way over in my direction. I appreciate the way he did it though, not ever really overtly paying too much attention to me. He just began working his way towards me while munching away on the berries in front of him. I’m sure he was humming la, la , la to himself the whole time. I all of the sudden felt very exposed in the wide open area and the wind shifted in his direction. It was time to make my way back to the car that was close to a mile a way or I may as well at least start pouring A-1 sauce once so I least tasted ok.
The mile looked so far away and there was no chance to run for it. Grizzlies can easily reach speeds of 30 mph and compared to the 10 -15 or so mph I could muster even if I dropped all my gear, I did not have to be a math major to figure out it I had no chance if he decided to make a move first. Now this bear of course may have had no intention of doing anything more than just investigating me and that chance would most likely be high; but at this point I would have been pushing my already incredible luck and took no chances. I back-tracked to the car never turning my back on him and realized his pace was slightly faster than mine since I had unsure footing going backwards on an uneven terrain. Half way back he was with in 100 yards and by the time I was in safe running distance to the car, he was only 10 or so yards from me. I picked up the pace a bit and found myself on the drivers side looking over the hood as he sniffed the wheels on the passenger side. This is when our little dance began. He began to move around the car mumbling something to himself in low bear grunts. I just continued to walk the opposite side never taking my eye off of him even once. A few times he disappeared only for me to catch him peeking under the car at my feet. We locked eyes several times. I saw him and started my conversation to him starting with “peek a boo.” I scrambled for my camera but he moved back up and around the car again, this time mumbling to himself a bit louder.
Bear: “Grrrrr Grrrr” Chris: “Hey you, how does it feel to be outwitted by one of the slower ones form my species?”
Bear: “Grrrrrr” (louder)
Chris: “Who’s on top of the food chain now, Yogi?”
Bear: Nothing…. (giving me the silent treatment or finally getting bored playing with me)
Chris: “Hey, Yogi there’s a nice big sign post behind you. You can’t tell me that wouldn’t feel nice against your back” The bear literally and once again as if on cue made his way to the very thing I mentioned out loud and attacked this Soft Shoulder sign with his back. His eyes rolled back while letting out the loudest sounds of bear ecstasy and I snapped a way as he practically dislodged the post from it foundation.
I was laughing my ass off as I shot off two rolls of 400ASA film as it was all I had. He was at it for well over 10 minutes and when he had his fill, he fell down to all fours with a thud and made his way away from me and the car. I sat there on the hood, watched him slowly stroll back to the endless sea of blueberries and this magical field of dreams. I thanked everyone responsible for making this happen and absorbed exactly what all this meant. There were several other instances equally as powerful that that happened to me that day (one including a lone wolf) that made me realize I was just about as lucky as anyone I have ever known. But I had to ask for it first.
Postscript: a few years later a British Newspaper bought the images and story. I have to admit it was more than entertaining to read all the “experts” in wildlife, bear behaviorist and even camera “pros” offer their opinions how this is impossible and how obvious it was that these images have been manipulated in PS. A few insinuated the bear was super imposed onto then pole itself.
All I can say aid I am not that good in photoshop..Not even close..And oh yeah, still have the negatives to prove it…I guess they never had the courage to ask for a small miracle here and there..:)
All we can do is ask, and next time hopefully save better quality film for getting that special shot..