A background: my wildlife photography practice.

One of my readers pointed out something very important in my last post.

I should have made this preamble before I began posting photos that I took of ‘cute little teddy bears’ from my summer adventures of camping in various Canadian and US national parks.

It is very dangerous to approach ANY wildlife. As you will see on many signs around the park you are in, it is illegal to feed the wildlife and highly recommended (and the law in a few parks) to stay at least 100 yards away from a bear, wolf, cougar (and other large predators) and 25 yards from all other wildlife when outside of your car.

This summer, and the two previous summers, I enjoyed months of wildlife photography, but enjoyed it in a safe and responsible manner (aka zoom lens, inside my car)

If you were planning on hittin’ the road and exploring a national park near (or far) from you – make friends with park rangers as they often know how to handle situations when an animal is near. Listen to them – they know (usually). Visitor Centers are also key if you are new to a park. It’s wise to find out what the rules and regulations are and how you stay safe and responsible in a territory where bears, bison, elk, etc. frequent.

If you leave any food or beverage around your campsite unsupervised and a bear is exposed to this food, this bear will be eradicated and the blood of this bear will be on your hands. This actually happened in our camp area this summer (don’t worry: we had the human culprits fined before the bear was able to grab any food).

Given the concern of habituating bears and the omni-present reality that there will be that one person who crosses the line, many have argued that if you see a bear in a national park, you should not stop to watch it or take a photograph, knowing that it will lead to a bear jam. And while I understand this argument, there is an important counterpoint.

Bears – and other indicator species – need large, roadless wilderness in order to survive. While many of these spaces exist in the world, places like Yellowstone and Banff are not and never will be a roadless wilderness. In fact, though the perception is that these wild spaces exist to conserve wildlife, the reality is they were created almost always for the benefit of the people. It’s a fact we have to work with. Many national parks are trying to re-wild their front and back country and put a heightened focus on animal conservation. This is admirable. But roadways and trails (and, frustratingly, towns and golf courses and ski resorts) are here to stay. As a result, this imperfect version of protected wilderness needs to strike a fine balance between animal needs and the bigger picture of helping people foster a love for nature and conservation.

Seeing bears in the wild is a remarkable experience and positive bear (and wildlife) encounters are critical to creating a culture that appreciates and supports conservation. It’s a proven fact that people who have first-hand experience with a region or a specific animal are more likely to believe in its protection. So while most of us can appreciate why many parks discourage bear watching, in my opinion, it’s a futile fight and a misguided one to boot.

Parks like Banff and Yellowstone will never be the kind of wilderness required to maintain functioning populations of large carnivores; however, in order to create the political will to establish such spaces, these parks can assist conservation through land protection, yes, but also can play a more critical role in sparking a love in people for wilderness.

I am very lucky myself that my boyfriend studies bear behaviour, has been trained by world renowned bear biologists and bear guides and has had experience of over 20 years photographing and researching not only bears, but many other types of wildlife all across North America. We should all be so lucky to have a guide such as him. But for many people, their ‘guide’ will be rangers and the difference between a good ranger and a bad ranger is stark.

We need parks and rangers to champion policies and people that use wildlife jams as a manageable tool to provide people with first-hand education and positive experiences (and photos) to take home and share with their social networks. Yes, there will be times when a wildlife jam is inappropriate (impact on the animal, impact on traffic, people safety, etc.) and a good ranger knows the difference between a bad jam that can’t happen and a good jam that is safe. And by educating people at jams – and, in a sense, deputizing them to help look-out for animals and people at jams without rangers – creates the conditions for positive experiences and, critically, an environmentally conscious populous.

Yellowstone’s wolf project is a great example of how a park’s policy has led to this difficult balance being achieved and rangers like Yellowstone’s John Kerr are the gold standard in conservation law enforcement.

At the other end of the spectrum (and this is a blog for another day) Kananaskis Country – and their front line conservation officers – are the sad example of what not to do. Anger, intimidation and policy making on the fly is no way to handle people, bears or achieve the balancing act of necessary co-existence.

So I thank my reader for reminding me to write this important back-story that I failed to provide the first time round and I hope it helps provide food-for-thought for others who are planning on watching wildlife in national parks. Guidelines exist for a reason and all animals should be respected and given their space. But we also need parks to help people find inspiration from nature and watching/photographing wildlife is a necessary evil to help create real parks that place animals first. It’s a balance, but Yellowstone and Jasper proves it is possible, whereas Kananaskis and Grand Teton remind us work remains to find a better way.

Please read my previous post on how to deal when encountering an aggressive bear. It’s very rare, and if you do read about a bear attack, it’s more than likely the human did not follow the appropriate protocol in an area with bears.

A few links to help you be safe and a responsible guest:

Yellowstone National Park – Your Safety in Bear Country

Jasper National Park – Bear Management

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Cute little teddy bear!

What a gorgeous mother griz in Kananaskis, Alberta. Too bad the park rangers there are the worst you might ever encounter!

Past Photos:

Grizzly Cub

Elk

Big Horn Sheep

Baby Big Horn

Waterton, Alberta

Top 4 hikes a la summer- #4 Specimen Ridge, Yellowstone

Welcome to Lamar Valley in Yellowstone. One of my favorite areas in this vast park.

I know I mentioned earlier that I would talk about my top 3 hikes this summer, but I just had to include my #4 pick.

At a starting elevation of 8864 feet (end 9600 feet), it’s very surprising if you happen to see anyone else on the trail (aside from a herd of pronghorn).

As the name states, it is one of the ridges of Amethyst Mountain, starting just past the Yellowstone River.  And you basically have this place to yourself. Not many people set out to hike this trail, that, as we discovered, had many paths.

And, as the name also states, you may see some fine specimen on this trail, including: pronghorn, grizzly bear, elk, bison, and rarely, moose.

Which path to take? Umm, we decided uphill was the way to go – the steeper, the better.

What my boyfriend and I found amazing about this hike, aside from the lack of people on the trail, was the glimpse we got of Yellowstone ‘behind the scenes’.

We could see, to our right, the Tower Falls area. A place where we spent countless hours watching two sets of black bears with cubs. We had no idea how enormous the area was behind the ridge. Imagine all the wildlife we would be able to spot if we could have seen into this area!! It just blew my mind.

To our left, we could see the entrance to the Lamar Valley, and again, our mouths were dropped at the areas we would never have be able to see from the road.

Difficulty? I would say moderate. It’s a high elevation hike, little shade, and steep hills. Make sure you have good hiking boots, or you might end up downhill skiing as I did on the way back.

Grizzy Bear Cub – Kananaskis

Could this be the cutest bear ever?

Taken in Kananaskis Country, Alberta. What a stunning and wild part of Alberta to visit. Just awe inspiring – raw, beautiful, wild…

I would buy the stuffed animal of this lil griz.

Photos of the Day – The White Wolf Waits for Wistfully Wandering to Wind Up There

Ohhh too much… but the title is staying.

As I bounce off my seat itching to get on the road to Yellowstone, I was reminiscing about some of the great wildlife encounters I experienced there last summer.

Here are some of my favs:

First wildlife sighting in Teton – Elk on alert!

Grizzy 399 and 2 of her 3 cubs she had last year. Down to none apparently now 😦 although the rumour is they still survive – 1 with the grizzly 610, and 2 are lost, but well.

Awww Sedgehog (I don’t come up with these names 🙂 in Sedge Bay, Yellowstone

The white wolf…hence the cringe worthy title of the post.

Mr/s. Marmot in Sheepeaters, Yellowstone

The lone bison walks the line

I could keep going and going, but I will stop at my favorites in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. I also saw a large variety of wildlife in the Canadian Rockies, including big horned sheep, mountain goats, a cougar (such a rare and amazing sight!), elk with huge racks, and a ton of foxes, coyotes and a brief glimpse of black wolves.

CAN’T WAIT!

Practice makes perfect.

I really need to play around with this Nikon DSLR before I head out in less than a week to Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

Wildlife will of course be my #1 priority, I’ll attempt landscape when I can too.

Here are a few tips I have learned from the past 2 years practicing wildlife photography:

1. Always find something to stabilize your camera. 

From Amazon

I often roll up my window half way in order to rest my camera on the pane. I also often use a tripod, but sometimes it doesn’t work out, since some wildlife comes right up to the road, and I don’t want to take my chances out of the car.

My father also gave me a pad to help rest my camera on the window of my car.

2. Stay cool, calm and patient if the wildlife is near (just stay cool and calm all the time anyway!)

I’ve seen a few crazy tourists run up to wildlife and, thankfully, it has only ever ended up with the wildlife being chased off. It’s a bit disturbing and frustrating what tourists will do to get close to dangerous and unpredictable wildlife for a quick picture.

3. Be aware of your surroundings.

A funny experience happened as about 30 people were happily shooting photographs of a beaver in Yellowstone. And as they were all focused in the beaver, I was observing the surrounding area, when – ta daaaa – a white wolf popped out of the bushes and proceeded to swim across the river, where the beaver was posing, perhaps 8 feet away. I think I was the victorious one, capturing the wolf’s dip and then able to grab a few beaver photos after.

Plus – you should always make sure you are safe from sneaky animals. Those bison are so huge, yet so quiet when they saunter over toward your car…

4. RESPECT the wildlife!

It’s hard not to have an impact on the behaviour of an animal close to the road. Just make sure you stay out of the way, don’t startle it, and listen to the park rangers if they are around. Don’t be an idiot and feed them. I’ve seen that too many times in the very short months I have been photographing.

5. Time it right!

The beloved golden light that appears with the sunrise and sunset. The best time to photograph anything! And also the best time to spot wildlife, as most of these guys love resting in the day.

Teton’s at sunrise

Just can’t wait to get up at 4:30am every morning this summer, sans coffee. NOT!

6. Practice, practice, practice!

Check out these two photos of a grizzly bear in Kananaskis, Alberta. The first one was taken 2 summers ago, the second was from last summer. (not the same bear, but same lighting and location).

I hope this means that my grizzly shots will be 3D this summer! hah.

Much clearer!

With all I have picked up over the few months I’ve been photographing wildlife, I still have a long way to go. And I still need a great camera!

My dilemma

This summer I plan to head out on the long road.

The long road to…Grand Teton National Park and then Yellowstone National Park and then Waterton National Park and then Jasper National Park…and then civilization again in Vancouver. And then back to Toronto via ???

So here is my dilemma:

When I am in camping mode, I can pretty much ditch all those luxury goods and services, except one SIMPLE thing.

a shower, a toilet, a cell phone, a comfy bed, COFFEE!

And since my boyfriend insists on dragging me out of my warm sleeping bag (with 2 layers of pants, 3 pair of socks and 5 sweaters of course), into the extremely cold and dark bowels of the morning – sans coffee, well, let’s just say – my extremely laid back self has daggers, no wait, chain saws aimed at his head. (I love you…..).

After we see the peek of a sunrise – as us two, the lone souls in the middle of a deserted road, along the majestic Teton mountain range, with the jagged peaks welcoming the rising day into it’s arms, waiting for that magic light to take breathtaking photographs of a grizzly bear and her cubs grazing amongst the golden backdrop… Ok – get the picture?

Well I NEED MY COFFEEEEEEEE!!!!

We tried so hard last year to find a way to make a nice cup o’ in the car; tried to find a gas station open early enough for a steamer; I sweetly batted my eyelashes at my boyfriend to wait for me to build a fire and boil some water (no time…lighting is money honey!); attempted to wane myself off the addicting brown stuff…

Nope. I NEED MY COFFEE!

So, here is the best I could come up with, which would produce semi-warm liquid water, in which I would throw in a Starbucks single:

Somehow, I don’t think this will cut it. I’m still trying and welcome and suggestions 🙂