Photographing 'ice bears' along the Fishing Branch River, Yukon

May 12, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

In this blog, I give a little background on why grizzly bears feed so late into the winter at Bear Cave Mountain, in the northern Yukon, and some of the implications for photographers, including the practicalities of how to safely manage daily grizzly bear encounters in the wild. The people management hints come from Phil Timpany, who manages the Bear Cave camp. 

I now have my full line-up of grizzly bear (brown bear) photography safaris at Bear Cave Mountain online - with prime 'ice bear' slots available all the way out to 2026! Links for individual tours are down at the bottom of the blog.

Ice bearIce bearA frosted grizzly bear peering over a river bank, ice mist in the air. Fishing Branch River, Yukon Territory, 23 October 2018.

'Ice bears' are, of course, just 'normal' grizzly bears, but late in the season at Bear Cave Mountain in the northern Yukon, grizzlies actively fish until early-November. Usually in about mid-October the weather starts to get really cold (dropping to -15 C, +5 F) and the bears get all frosted and icy as they are in and out of the river all day long chasing salmon. The image above (shot on Oct 23 back in 2018) shows the typical result, with the bear's head encrusted in icicles. At the end of the season, overnight temperatures can drop to -30 C (-22 F) or more.

Now, I am sure the first thing many people are thinking is 'why aren't these bears hibernating?' To understand why not, a little geology and a little biology background are needed. 

On the geology side, two factors come into play. First, the Fishing Branch River in this spot has warm springs that percolate up through the river bottom, keeping the river and side sloughs ice-free until deep into the winter. Second, there are a series of caves high on the mountainside directly above the river, caves that happen to be perfect for grizzlies' over-winter slumber.

On the biology side, there is an extremely late run of chum salmon that migrate from the Bering Sea, up the Yukon River, and eventually up into the Fishing Branch River. The salmon have evolved to take advantage of the warm percolating spring water, laying down their eggs in the clean gravel in late-autumn - warmer water means eggs hatch sooner next spring, the young salmon fry grow faster, migrate downstream at a larger size, and therefore have a survival advantage. So for salmon from the far north (Bear Cave Mt is only about 100-km south of the Arctic Circle), this is the perfect spot.

Salmon are nature's nutrient conveyor belt, helping to bring nutrients from the oceans, where the salmon feed and grow, deep into terrestrial environments. Salmon in western North America play a critical role in maintaining ecological stability, providing a rich source of feed for primary predators like grizzly bears, as well as a whole second tier of creatures that live off the scraps left by the bears (e.g., wolves, pine martens, birds that eat salmon eggs, etc.).

Salmon in the snowSalmon in the snowRemnants of a salmon, part of a meal for a grizzly bear the evening before. Shot on the shores of the Fishing Branch River, Yukon.

The bears have adapted to this salmon run. They can roam the tundra feeding on berries and whatever else they can find in the summer, and then congregate here in the autumn and gorge on the chum salmon that are ready to spawn.

While salmon flesh is readily devoured, the eggs of the female salmon are the most valuable prize in the river for bears, as the eggs are full of lipids and nutrients that provide maximum nutritional value, increasing their odds of a bear lasting through a long, hard winter. When watching grizzlies hunt here, you can see that they will preferentially go after the large female salmon to get at the eggs.

The bears just trudge up the mountainside after they have stuffed themselves full of salmon, to slumber away the winter in the caves above the Fishing Branch River. With minimal energy expenditure to get from their feeding spot to the over-wintering spot, this is the perfect place for grizzly bears. As a result, they have evolved to continue hunting well into the northern winter. 

That's a complicated story but this combination of geology and biology is why Bear Cave Mountain gives photographers an opportunity for images that are just not possible when shooting in other locations. 

Grizzly winter portraitGrizzly winter portraitIce bear close-up portrait - a 3-yr old male checking out the river for salmon

 

If that helps to explain the 'why' of their presence, for many people the next question might be 'are you insane to go out with a forest full of grizzlies who are looking to bulk up for winter?'

As it turns out, humans can get away with being out in bear world. And, again, there are a couple of different threads of the story to tell.

From a superficial perspective, we might just say that kg for kg, people just are not as nutritious as salmon, so we are not their preferred feast!.

Now, Madame, will that be fish or meat for dinner?

It helps to think of the big picture of evolutionary fitness and survival. The bottom line for all animals, including humans, is pretty simple - eat, have sex, and reduce risk if you want to successfully survive long enough to pass on genes. If one of those threes factors is in short supply, then an animal is willing to cut some corners on the other two.

For humans to successfully be out in the wild with grizzlies, you don't want to be influencing grizzlies' food, sex, and risk calculus. We're a non-factor (hopefully!) on the sex side of the equation, so that leaves food and risk to manage in our encounters. 

If people are not competing for salmon, then the bears realize after a time that their preferred food source is unaffected. Combine that with the fact that salmon provide more valuable nutrients than humans, and food more or less factors out of the equation. 

One thing that could upset the natural balance is if humans provide bears with food, either by deliberate baiting (e.g., brown bear viewing in some places in Finland) or accidental waste (e.g., garbage bins in a heavily-used national park). There is no baiting of bears at Bear Cave Mountain. One of the big no-no's for photographers sitting on the bank of the Fishing Branch River is to spill even the smallest amount of lunch or snacks in the snow - we are meticulously clean on this trip, so that bears do not come to associate humans with nutritious snacks like M&Ms or potato chips, things that might lure bears away from their salmon diet and lead to more aggressive encounters.

That then leaves risk to consider: do grizzlies consider humans an inherent threat?

Bear Cave Mt is located in the middle of a territorial park of the First Nation whose land we visit on Bear Cave Mt safaris. There is no big game hunting here, so bears have not learned to automatically fear humans. Just like lions within national parks in Africa, these bears are fully aware that they are at the pinnacle of the food chain and, in the absence of hunting or a history of human harassment, they just are not too concerned about people (check out the video at the bottom of this blog to see how casual they can be).

Being out in the woods with the bears in their peak feeding system may be, somewhat counter-intuitively, the safest time for people in bear world.

Grizzlies are so intelligent, aggressive, fast, and powerful (and have the tools to do such damage - 'Nails to Die For' is the title of the image below!), you don't want to be anywhere near them when they are truly hungry and they are more likely to take risks to get a meal.

Claws!Claws!Nails to die for!

This perspective on food and risk influences how the local guides manage the photographers (the bears are certainly not the ones in need of being managed!) on my Bear Cave Mountain safaris.

First, photographers are only taken to a limited number of shoot locations and on a limited number of trails. Bears know where they may encounter humans and where they would be a total surprise, and therefore a potential risk. Second, photographers take all efforts possible to minimize movements and noises that bears could construe as threats. So, no high fives after a bear runs past in front of you, no loud talking, and limited bursts in quiet mode on your camera.

The only time that humans would want to deliberately increase the perception they are a risk to bears is when there is a close encounter.

So, for example, when hiking down a snowy game trail in the morning, if we encounter a grizzly bear coming the other way on the trail, the local guide may call up the photographers to stand 4 abroad and the guide will speak to the bear in a soft voice to start. That is what was happening in the image below - while our local guide was talking to the young 3-yr old male, I was beside him shooting photos and the other 3 photographers were moving forward, so that all five of us were visible. The bear looked for awhile, and then just turned around and reversed track on the trail.

Stand offStand offAbout this image.

While heading down the stream for a day of grizzly bear (=brown bear) photography, we met one of our subjects on the trail in the morning. This is a young 3-year old male bear. One of the rules when encountering a bear in the wild is that 'retreat is not an option.' Our guide did some soft talking while I snapped photos and eventually the bear turned around and reversed track. The young bears are used to being dominated by all the older ones - later in the morning we saw this guy head up a creek where we had just seen a big male. It just seemed like this guy was bottom rung on the dominance ladder all that day, so you had to feel a little sorry for him. He will keep growing up till he is 8-10 years old, more or less doubling in size, and then a big testosterone spike hits and he will about double in size again once he hits about 12 years. There were a few males in this region that were 25+ years old.

Brown bears congregate on the Fishing Branch River, far north in the Yukon Territory in the autumn to feed on chum salmon that migrate to this river very late in the season (warm springs percolate up through the river bottom here). On the mountain above the river there are caves that the happy and full grizzlies can waddle up to after their salmon feast, safe places to slumber during the long winter, which is why this area is known as Bear Cave Mountain.

My grizzly bear photo tours.

Starting in Autumn 2022, I will be running week-long photography safaris to Bear Cave Mountain in the Ni‘iinlii Njik Territorial Park & Wilderness Preserve, Yukon, where this image was captured. If you are interested in capturing images like this in one of the wildest places on the planet, please join me on a photo safari to the Yukon. In 2022 I am also starting summer grizzly photo tours to the Taku Wilderness in northwest British Columbia. See tour information at my website: https://tendrelimages.zenfolio.com/schedule.

Image processing and printing information.

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The number one rule with wild grizzly encounters is that 'retreat is not an option' (you don't want to kick in a bear's evolutionary programming to chase down prey!). You instead want to increase the level of risk that the bear perceives from pursing an encounter. Facing a group, the risk factor goes up for the bear, so the bear is more likely to decide the best course of action is to detour into the woods. In the event of a charge, the local guide may yell at the bear, throw something at it, or even fire a warning shot in a drastic effort to convey an escalating level of risk the bear faces. Firing a shot has proved an exceedingly rare event at Bear Cave camp (only a few times over 3-decades of operating in this area). 

Our local guides always have a shotgun in hand and are constantly watching our surroundings, so that we photographers can concentrate on the images we are shooting. I must say that just knowing I have a shotgun at my back makes for such an incredible difference in confidence and erases the fear factor that a close encounter would normally entail. I have spent lots of time in grizzly country without having a gun and was often a little nervous (that would be a Canadian understatement) when out alone trail running along the Yukon River or hiking in the Canadian Rockies.

During the visit to Bear Cave camp, the trek down to the outhouse in the middle of the night is probably the most 'awareness-building' time of the trip - definitely an incentive to not have an extra beer with dinner!

However, being out in the far north at 3 a.m. has its own allure too and one clear night, at about -20 C, I ended up standing out for some time staring at the stars and northern lights through the breaks in the forest - it is not every night one gets to jump into the pages of a Jack London novel while being fully awake. Bears faded from my consciousness as I breathed in the cold Arctic air - and then, because I was having a 'Call of the Wild' moment, my mind wandered and I started to wonder if that scraggly, surly timber wolf I saw earlier in the day actually slept all night...

Here is a quick highlight of the grizzly bear photography tours on tap - more details for each are in the links.

2022 - 6 full-days, 2 half-days of photography at Bear Cave Mt, arrive Whitehorse Sept 27.

2023 - 13 full-days, 2 half-days of photography at Bear Cave Mt, arrive Whitehorse Sept 23.

Both 2022 and 2023 are before prime ice bear season but we have longer days and should see more bears on these trips, and will hopefully get at least a couple of snow days on both. The first tour in prime ice bear season is the second departure of 2024.

2024 - 6 full-days, 2 half-days of photography at Bear Cave Mt, arrive Whitehorse Oct 4 (this in the only opportunity between 2022 and 2026 for a 4-person group of experienced photographers to travel into Bear Cave without me along as a photographic guide).

2024 - 6 full-days, 2 half-days of photography at Bear Cave Mt, arrive Whitehorse Oct 11.

2025 - 6 full-days, 2 half-days of photography at Bear Cave Mt, arrive Whitehorse Oct 25 (final slot of the season for best ice bear opportunities).

2026 - 13 full-days, 2 half-days of photography at Bear Cave Mt, arrive Whitehorse Oct 19 (final two slots of the season for best ice bear opportunities).

I also have summer grizzly bear safaris scheduled for 2022 and 2023 in the remote Taku Wilderness of northwest British Columbia. These are a little more economical and we have long summer days for extended shooting opportunities.

To wrap up this blog, here is a completely unedited video clip of a female grizzly in the river directly in front of where we were sitting in the snow on the shores of the river bank. This was shot with a 16-35 mm wide angle zoom, starting out at 16-mm and then zooming in a little to around 25-mm. At closest, this bear was about 5-m (15-ft) away.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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