The Grizzly Bums: A Photographer's Tale

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Written by bike posted on Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

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Nature photographer John E. Marriott has to manage more than just his camera gear while on photo shoots for us here at Rockies.com and CanadianRockies.net.
Luckily, having visited the Canadian Rockies since he was one month old, he has learned about bear etiquette as well as shutter speeds and apertures.
One example of this is an experience he had that he calls “The Grizzly Bums story.”
Unfortunately, the wilderness of central British Columbia brings together bear families and drivers on the Trans-Canadia Highway. Big trucks delivering goods from one part of Canada to the other and cars with travelers cross the highway on a regular basis. Their frequency has made it commonplace, and the bears aren’t as afraid as they should be.
Mother grizzlies have charged at cars and even semis to protect their young- usually to fatal ends. Such was the case for the Grizzly Bums. On a remote stretch of highway near Prince George, two yearling cubs were orphaned when their mother charged a semi-truck driving at full speed.
“As soon as I heard the story, I dropped what I was doing and headed up there,” recalls Marriott. Hoping to photograph the pair, he spent three days searching for the little brown bears. But after his seventy-two hours, he gave up and headed back home in Banff.
A week later, he headed back, peeling his eyes for hours for the fuzzy duo in the roadside vegetation. Another day lost, Marriott went to bed again with zero photographs.
The next day, he got up at sunrise. He came across a big black bear eating dandelions and started to take some photographs. That was when he saw a car in the distance stopped at the roadside. Taking a chance, he drove down to the other car.
“At first, I couldn’t see anything,” Marriot said. “But then I noticed a little brown head poking out of the bush staring apprehensively at the road. It was soon joined by a second little brown head, and before I knew it, the two cubs were timidly walking out towards the lush grasses and horsetails at roadside.”
After his arduous search, the first day he found them, he just watched from the inside of his car, more than 100 meters away. Why, you may ask, after all that searching would he just watch?
“In retrospect, the reasoning for it was twofold,” Marriot admitted. “One, I didn’t want to disturb the cubs, they were obviously very hungry and very wary of traffic, particularly semi-trucks. They would stand up quickly, take a look, and then bolt back into the forest at the first sign of a truck. And two, I still couldn’t quite convince myself that the mother hadn’t somehow survived and might be lurking back in the trees, injured, but ready to rush out and protect her cubs. After all, I hadn’t seen a body anywhere and none of the truckers I had talked to had either.”
Knowing to watch out for the mother was intelligent, but the real dilemma came after he realized there was no larger bear. Marriott also knew that habituating the bears to human contact makes them less weary of cars, and potentially could lead to their deaths.
He stayed back, sacrificing potentially excellent photographs for the well being of the bears until after several cars had already stopped for close looks at the cute duo.
“As a wildlife photographer with a heavily visited website and the potential to reach tens or even hundreds of thousands with my photographs and stories, I figured that I had to photograph the bears. They were obviously getting used to humans very quickly whether or not I was there, so I decided to move in and start photographing them,” he remembers.
The results are some great, intimate portraits of Grizzly bear cubs. Definitely worth the search and the wait!
After the photo shoot:
Marriott travels all across Canada photographing, so found himself back in the area in mid-July. He was elated to see the same cubs again, but still hanging by the roadside.
“I returned again in August, September and October,” Marriott said, “but did not see the orphan cubs again. With any luck, they survived the summer without being hit by a vehicle or being eaten by another bear or wolves and are now denned up next to each other high in the British Columbia Rockies.”
We’ll see this spring!

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