If you have to be attacked by a bear, pray that it’s a grizzly.
Yes, I know. Grizzlies are huge and inherently ferocious. But the smaller black bear is not prone to “defensive” attacks just to protect her cubs – i.e., charging, often bluffing by pulling up short, trying to shoo you away, maybe slapping you ‘gently’ upside the head a couple of times – whereas, with a little bit of luck, the grizzly might be. Which is why the rule of thumb is: play dead with a grizzly but be prepared to fight a black bear.
Of course, never try to run away from either.
That said, there is nothing quite like an encounter with a bear – black, brown, tan, or otherwise. Your heart thumps and every neuron snaps to preternatural alert. Who you used to be, the civilized you, drops away. All the finely-tuned instincts of your ancestors come striding down through the centuries, leaving you giddy with wonder and anticipation.
And others are chasing that same high, too. In the Tetons this summer hordes of paparazzi converged at every sighting of the two resident grizzly sows and their cubs. They often have runners, or spotters, who scour likely locations, radioing back sitreps. In fact, professional photographers quickly become so adept at predicting a known bear’s movement that they are usually already there with cameras on tripods pointing to the exact spot where she will eventually emerge. A select few are in tight with the Park Rangers and always manage to get the best vantage point.
My strategy was simple: shadow every movement of the best of the best. Yes, they are fierce competitors, in business for themselves; they can be tight-lipped and a bit evasive. But I never really encountered anyone who was overtly hostile or mean-spirited. I found myself shooting a black bear next to one photographer, incidentally, trading quips & small talk as we both clicked away, only to realize later that we actually “knew” each other from Flickr! Just by watching, I learned a lot from her about how to negotiate bear jams. That in itself is an acquired skill with lots of critical components. Where to park, which direction is the sun, can you get out of your car and walk closer or do you need to climb up through the sunroof? You have to weigh and parse these factors instantaneously while driving slowly through a jam, trying not to hit anyone and simultaneously scanning the horizon for the bear and the lay of the land, because the Rangers won’t let you stop unless you pull completely off the road – and once you do you’ve committed yourself to a location, for better or for worse.
You not only want to attach yourself to the photographer with the biggest lens, but also stay close to the gals in the brightly colored ranger vests. Listen to their radio transmissions. (Sometimes they will get word of a separate sighting in another area, and you can get a jump on the crowd.) Anticipate where they’re going to set up the orange traffic cones, as that’s the likely spot where the bear will cross the road.
Yes, bear jams are exciting, and the bear paparazzi in itself is a dynamic and fascinating culture. I met one guy, a jovial videographer, who was shooting tons of footage interviewing and documenting just the photographers and the onlookers themselves. Each time I saw him I joked about not having signed a ‘release form’ and he would respond by saying he didn’t want my ugly mug in his film anyway!
In a couple of weeks I will be meandering back East but I hope first to squeeze in a few more days in the Tetons. ‘Tis high tourist season out here, with motels cranking up their prices and camp sites bulging at the seams – so, we’ll just have to see how it works out.
In closing, I would like to mention one internationally famous photographer I was privileged to observe day after day, Tom Mangelsen. I was in total awe of Tom – his equipment, his shooting style, his demeanor. Noteworthy to me is that even as an apex photographer – in 2005, he was named “One of the 100 Most Important People in Photography” by American Photo Magazine, one of only two wildlife-environmental photographers selected for the list – he is nevertheless humble, congenial, and still passionate about the natural world. But even more impressive is the prodigious amount of time and effort he puts into his art. From before sunrise to after sunset, he was always there, waiting.
And that’s precious advice for the rest of us wanna-be photographers, now that I think about it: “go to the sacred spots . . . and WAIT.”
There are numerous other videos you can access from his website, including one of Dave Matthews playing the guitar & singing the song ‘Bartender’ by the fireplace in Tom’s living room alongside Dr. Jane Goodall with a glass of wine in her hand!