ecotourism

Tips for the Khutzeymateen

TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING GRIZZLIES IN THE
 KHUTZEYMATEEN, BRITISH COLUMBIA

Khutzeymateen Provincial Park is one of British Columbia's premier, virtually untouched, wildlife preservation areas. Located near the B.C. - Alaska border just north of Prince Rupert, it occupies an area of 44,300 hectares at the northern most edge of what has become known as the Great Bear Rainforest. The park was established as a sanctuary for grizzlies in 1994 with the help of conservationists and none other than the Duke of Edinburgh. Accessible by float plane from Prince Rupert, only a couple hundred visitors are permitted to visit the sanctuary each year. Only two vessels are allowed to dock in the Inlet, the Ocean Light II and Sunchaser. Both take clients out into the estuaries to view bears in inflatable boats (called zodiacs). I chose the Sunchaser, captained By Dan Wakeman (and it wont be the only time). 

The Khutzeymateen Inlet is a stunningly beautiful area and a great example of conservation success. Canada would benefit greatly from more protected habitats like it. Despite the beauty and potential for awesome wildlife images, there are some things I learned on my May 2018 trip that I wish I knew beforehand. There are also some decisions I made (in gear choices, clothing, etc) in preparation for the trip that made photographing much more enjoyable and efficient. Here are my tips for photography in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary:

PACK RAIN GEAR ("WATER RESISTANT" IS NOT SUFFICIENT)

It rains a lot in British Columbia's northern coastal forests. During my Khutzeymateen experience, it rained every day and night. When you're living on a sailboat and going out to view bears in an uncovered zodiac, you're gonna get wet even when isn't raining. Probably the most important advice I can give for visiting a climate like this is to have warm, water-proof clothing - not "water-resistant" or "water-repellent." Those aren't sufficient and tend to soak through after a few hours in the rain (and it is very difficult to dry out your stuff on a sailboat). You want solid rubber and full coverage from head to toe. Imagine the stuff that lobster fisherman wear...that bright yellow rubber rain jacket and pants...that's what you want. Several outdoor clothing companies make rain gear of this caliber; I'd recommend something from Helly Hansen or similar, or you'll be stuck with the guide's bulky rain suits, which are difficult to shoot in. Make sure your boots are waterproof as well!

A large male grizzly swims in the estuary, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. No matter the weather, the bears are usually active in Spring and Summer. (Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 3200)

A large male grizzly swims in the estuary, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. No matter the weather, the bears are usually active in Spring and Summer. (Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 3200)

PROTECT YOUR CAMERA GEAR FROM THE ELEMENTS

The best investment I made in preparation for the Khutzeymateen was the cheapest purchase made for the trip. I paid $7 for a pack of two plastic rain covers with drawstrings for my cameras. They worked perfectly. Even though my clothing was damp by the second day of shooting in the rain, my camera gear was completely dry! A couple other guys in the boat had much more expensive nylon rain covers, but I noticed them constantly adjusting them, and they didn't seem to cover their lenses completely. My cheap plastic covers protected my camera and 200-500mm lens from hood to viewfinder. I only got a couple droplets on the LCD at times. One of the other photographers actually had water and condensation get inside his lens and camera body while using one of the more expensive covers. I had no issues with moisture. I also packed several absorbent microfibre cleaning cloths, but rarely used them. 

A waterproof camera backpack, or a good rain cover, is also essential to store other gear or a backup camera in. The bottom of the inflatable boat will be very damp, so a rain cover is necessary. I used a detachable cover so that I could hang it out to drip dry between outings. 

A grizzly looks across the rainy inlet in the direction of the Sunchaser, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia. 

A grizzly looks across the rainy inlet in the direction of the Sunchaser, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia. 

CHOOSE THE RIGHT CAMERA GEAR

You may be tempted to bring a 500mm f4 or 400mm f2.8 or some other gargantuan piece of glass to the Khutzeymateen. You don't need it. You'll be close enough to photograph bears with a 70-200mm for the most part. I used my Nikon 200-500mm VR 90% of the time. In fact, each of the four of us used lenses in that range. One guy had a Tamron 150-600, another used a Canon 100-400 IS, and both me and the other photographer were using the Nikon 200-500mm. We all got great images.

These lenses are not only light and easy to pack and hand-hold, they provide lots of versatility in focal length. This allows for creating a variety of compositions instead of being bound to just 400 or 500mm. The boat can't always shift around to give photographers a better view (the bears well-being and safety come first), so versatility is essential. You also can't use a tripod in the zodiac, and even use of a monopod makes shooting awkward (and is annoying for others in the boat). So, use of heavy prime telephotos is not recommended. Make sure your lens has vibration reduction (or equivalent). The zodiac is moving a bit even when the engine isn't running, which makes getting sharp shots a bit of a challenge. 

The guide is required to keep the boat a minimum distance from the bears. Some bears are more tolerant of human presence than others. This particular bear didn't mind us hanging out for a while at the minimum distance, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. (Nikon D750, Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 4000)

The guide is required to keep the boat a minimum distance from the bears. Some bears are more tolerant of human presence than others. This particular bear didn't mind us hanging out for a while at the minimum distance, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. (Nikon D750, Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 4000)

CHOOSE THE "RIGHT" EXPOSURE SETTINGS

The biggest challenge in photographing wild grizzlies was getting sharp and well-exposed images. As earlier mentioned, the boat is constantly moving, but so are the bears. Proper hand-holding technique with longer lenses is crucial and vibration reduction helps as well, but a fast shutter-speed is also needed to freeze the bears. They're not moving fast, usually just lumbering around eating sedges. Combine their constant movement with the constant movement/vibration of the boat, and the fact that it'll probably be dark overcast, and you've got the perfect recipe for blurry images. The faster the shutter-speed, the sharper the image. Of course that comes at a cost. High ISOs (which degrade image quality especially with crop-sensor cameras) are needed to get shutter-speeds fast enough to freeze motion. 

I shot in Manual mode with auto-ISO turned on while using a full-frame DSLR (allowing ISO to fluctuate between 400 - 4000 depending on the shutter-speed and aperture I selected manually). Full-frame cameras do a much better job at producing clean (less-noisy) images at high ISOs compared to crop-sensor models. Most of my images from the Khutzeymateen were shot between ISO 1250 and ISO 3200. Many of my favorite shots were captured at ISO 2500. This allowed me to get shutter-speeds of at least 1/500th of a second. My ideal shutter-speed was 1/1000th or faster, but that was not always possible. To help achieve the fast shutter-speeds necessary and not boost my ISO even higher, I shot at relatively wide apertures in the f5.6 - f7.1 range (my Nikon 200-500 VR is f5.6 at its widest). 

A young grizzly rests on the banks of the Khutzeymateen Inlet at low tide, British Columbia. (Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f.6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 2500)

A young grizzly rests on the banks of the Khutzeymateen Inlet at low tide, British Columbia.
(Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f.6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 2500)

HAVE RESPECT FOR THE ENVIRONMENT, OTHER GUESTS, AND THE GUIDES

I am happy with my first experience in the Khutzeymateen, as well as with Sunchaser Grizzly Tours. The other three photographers on the trip, who I had never met previously, were great to shoot with. We cooperated with each other in the small zodiac to make sure we all had clear views of the bears. There were no big egos. We had a great time and came away with great images despite the tricky conditions. Captain Dan and his assistant made sure that we had a 5-star bear viewing experience while respecting the environment and coming away with a better understanding of grizzlies and their habitat. I'd recommend this trip to any nature photographer. Thanks for reading and safe travels.

For my full travel/nature photography packing list, click here.

Exploring the Icefields Parkway, Part II, Jasper & Banff National Park

EXPLORING THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY, PART II, JASPER & BANFF NATIONAL PARK

I drove into the Canadian Rockies last week in hopes of photographing a particular species: Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep. I grew up watching Marty Stauffer's Wild America, and big horns were sort of the trademark animal of the series, celebrated in various episodes. I always dreamed of visiting the rocky mountains and seeing large rams butt heads on high mountain meadows - or at least standing proudly on a cliff overlooking snow-capped peaks. Alas, no rams on the way into Jasper National Park, just a few ewes high up on craggy ledges. I stopped for a few shots and moved on, later exiting onto the Icefields Parkway on one of the hottest and haziest days of the summer. 

It must have been too hot for wildlife that day. I expected to see more elk, as I had photographed them each time I'd driven down the Icefields Parkway before, but no elk, no bears, not even a raven for miles. I stopped at the "Goat Overlook" (the sign reads "Goats and Glaciers", but I didn't see any goats or glaciers...) and walked the short trail to the edge of the cliff overlooking the Athabasca River with Mount Christie and Brussels Peak on the horizon. I saw the potential for an image there, so I decided that would be my sunset location. I was hoping for goats; the sign implies that they hang out there after all, but nothing was stirring but a few Canada Geese at the edge of the river. 

Mount Christie and Brussels Peak from the Banks of the Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

Mount Christie and Brussels Peak from the Banks of the Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

Happy Little Trees

As the sun got lower, I set up for a some exposures at "Goats and Glaciers." I framed the river and mountains and decided that wasn't enough, so I then added two wiggly spruce trees to the left of the frame (thinking, "let's put a happy little tree right over here and give him a little friend"), which added a much needed foreground element. The sunset didn't quite create the dramatic sky I was hoping for. After taking those shots, I drove down to the next overlook by the river bank, stepped out into the river on some stones and framed a simple shot of a few whispy pink clouds over the mountains with the cool glacial river flowing by. All campsites nearby were full, so I went back to "Goats and Glaciers" and set up camp in the back of my Jeep. I didn't sleep much. The park was so busy with folks trying to get campsites at nearby Honeymoon Lake, it was like sleeping next to a highway. Not quite the peaceful night I was hoping for after a day trekking around the mountains in the heat. 

Athabasca River and Rocky Mountains, Jasper National Park

Athabasca River and Rocky Mountains, Jasper National Park

Sunset over Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

Sunset over Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

Saskatchewan River Crossing & Peyto Lake

I awoke literally one minute before my alarm went off at 4:29 AM. My research suggested that it would take me 1 hour to drive to Peyto Lake in Banff National Park from my "campsite." I hit the road 1 1/2 hours before sunrise time, excited by the prospect of visiting Banff for the first time and capturing sunrise at iconic Peyto Lake. Things didn't quite go according to plan... When I arrived at the mid-point of my journey, Saskatchewan Crossing, sunrise was already in peak color. It was a great one, much better than last evening's sunset. I realized I wasn't going to make it to Peyto Lake, so I pulled over at the bridge and took a few shots just before the light faded away. It wasn't what I had planned, but it was a great location and all the elements came together in a few photographs I'm proud of. It would take another 45 minutes to arrive at Peyto Lake, plus the 10 minute hike into the woods to get to the best location. 

Saskatchewan River Crossing at Sunrise, Banff National Park

Saskatchewan River Crossing at Sunrise, Banff National Park

There was no color left in the sky when I arrived at Peyto Lake. I wasn't that disappointed; this was one of the best vistas I've ever seen anywhere! Other than one artist sitting on the wooden deck painting the scene, I had the place to myself. It was early enough no one else was out. I took a few shots. The sky had some puffy white clouds rolling across the blue sky, but the mountains were dark as the sun had not yet emerged from behind one of the eastern mountains. I went back to the car for breakfast and waited until the the sun's rays began to light the peaks of the mountains to the west. I grabbed my gear and ran out through the woods to the overlook to find a couple dozen people crowding the edge (and a drone buzzing overhead sounding like a pissed-off honey bee). I wedged my way through and shot several images from different locations all along the sandy bank high above the emerald colored lake. Golden light hit the mountains and clouds rolled quickly across the sky. I shot away, then opted to go for a time-lapse video. I would've liked to have been there for the colorful sunrise earlier, but I'm not disappointed in the images I did get. It's a magical place. I won't stay away long. 

Peyto Lake Time-lapse, Banff National Park, Canada

Return to Goats & Glaciers

I made two stops on my way back north along the Icefields Parkway at Rampart Creek and Tangle Falls. I had Rampart Creek all to myself. It was a peaceful location. I made several long exposures of water rushing over colorful stones with a glorious mountain in the background using a 6 stop neutral density filter. I sat at the edge watching a golden mantled ground squirrel gather seeds for about a half hour. 

Tangle Falls was a different experience all together. It's a famous waterfall that cascades dramatically down a few cliffside steps around 100-150 feet in all. I arrived to find several others climbing around the falls. I took two long exposures with the 6 stop ND to try and blur the people out of the scene with no luck. The sun came out and dappled the scene in harsh flat light. I decided to save Tangle Falls for another time. 

Rampart Creek, Banff National Park

Rampart Creek, Banff National Park

I arrived at "Goats and Glaciers" around mid-day to find a family of Mountain Goats grazing by the road. They lumbered off into the woods toward the overlook where I had been the evening before as a few tourists approached them for selfies (this drives me insane - please do not approach wildlife). I parked and went into the woods behind them indirectly and from a generous distance with nothing but my Nikon D7100 and 70-200 f2.8 lens. I followed their fresh tracks in the sand until I reached the steep banks of the Athabasca. I looked over the cliff and scanned the river's edge, but saw no goats. They had a hiding spot. A few minutes of scanning, and a goat popped up, then another. I took a few shots. They saw me and went back into hiding. I knew they would have to come back up sooner or later. I sat in the woods in between some juniper bushes for only a few moments when they emerged. If I remember correctly, there were six total. One billy, a few nannies, and two kids, all fluffy and white. I did the "looking for my wallet" routine so they didn't think I was out to get them. When they relaxed, they came closer, and I fired off several shots as they meandered through the bush only feet away from me at a slow pace, eventually disappearing into the woods. Though I saw no big horn rams this trip, I'm happy to have a had a few peaceful moments with this family of mountain goats! 

Go. Do. See.

I'm lucky to live near so much amazing nature and wildlife here in western Canada. I'm getting to spend time with animals I'd dreamed of seeing my whole life. Every time I go out into the rockies, it's harder to leave. I encourage all to visit the amazing natural places in North America, just do so with respect. Don't approach wildlife directly, give them plenty of space. Take time to observe and learn things instead of snapping a quick cell phone pic and moving on. The wonders of the natural world are delicate and fleeting, so are we, enjoy it while it lasts. 

To read Part I of Exploring the Icefields Parkway, click here! To find out what's in my camera bag, click here!

Exploring the Icefields Parkway, Part I, Jasper National Park

Elk with velvet antlers, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Elk with velvet antlers, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

I'm still very much in the process of getting settled in since the move from North Carolina to Alberta earlier this month, but I've made sure to spend a little time out west in the Canadian Rockies. So far I've visited Jasper National Park twice; once for an evening with my wife and our dog and once alone while car camping at Honeymoon Lake. The scenery is breathtaking, and opportunities for both wildlife and landscape photography are abundant.

The Icefields Parkway winds and dips through the craggy rocky mountains mostly following the course of the Athabasca River all the way to Banff NP in the south. I have yet to make it to Banff, but it won't be long until I do. Jasper NP is located just over 3 hours west of Edmonton, AB via the Yellowhead Highway (16 West). Exit onto Alberta Highway 93 headed south at the town of Jasper to drive the Icefields Parkway, which is a 268 kilometer drive through stunning mountain vistas peppered with blue lakes and dense spruce forests. It can also be accessed from Banff, AB simply by driving north. 

This year (2017) Canadian National Parks are free admission in celebration of Canada's 150th birthday. This does not include fees for overnight stays. There are various types of campsites available ranging from backcountry to fully serviced RV camping and even rental cabins. Some campsites can be booked online, but most front country sites are first come, first serve and you simply pay at the campground when you arrive. For more info about fees, regulations, and safety information, visit the Canada Parks website

EXPLORING THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY

After my brief initial visit to Jasper NP (and a handful of decent images in the bag) I had to return as soon I could for a longer stay. As a photographer, it's hard to stay away with such amazing wilderness a short distance from my home. I decided to drive up on the longest day of the year, shoot sunset at Athabasca Falls, camp in my Jeep at beautiful Honeymoon Lake, and photograph sunrise at the lake shore a few steps from my campsite. Of course, all plans for photography in nature are at the mercy of the weather. Though the forecast was clear to partly cloudy, I experienced lots of wind and intermittent rain over the course of my two day stay. 

Iconic Waterfalls & Wildlife

After securing my campsite at Honeymoon Lake, I decided to start my photographic journey a few kilometers south of there and work my way back up to the town of Jasper the next morning. My first stop was Sunwapta Falls, a must when traveling through Jasper NP. It's an iconic waterfall along the Athabasca River. Fed by glacial runoff, the waters practically glow iridescent blue. An island of tall spruce sits in the center of the river and the waters rush around it soon falling several meters into a gorge.

Getting this image was not easy. Because admission is free, Japser was particularly crowded even though it was Wednesday. The wooden bridge that crosses the gorge in front of Sunwapta Falls vibrated as tourists came and went in large family groups. This made getting a sharp photo with a slow shutter speed impossible. The view from there isn't actually that great anyway. To protect visitors from falling to their death, there is an ugly chain link fence that follows along the cliff's edge in both directions. Achieving a composition that does not include this obstruction is difficult. I walked along the fence until I found the end of it and what do know!? A photographer's path! I would not advise people to climb the fences or go to the edge of the cliff. It's dangerous for sure. Because there was no barricade or sign warning otherwise, I decided to follow the narrow footpath through dense forest until I arrived near enough to the edge that I had an unobstructed view of the waterfall, but wasn't so close that it was risky. Light rain had been falling, but the clouds cleared a bit as I was approaching the falls. The sun came out and a mysterious haze formed over the mountains providing the scene with a bit more visual interest. I set up my gear, using a polarizer, 6-stop ND, and 3 stop ND grad, and took a few shots. Happy with the results, I moved on up the Icefields Parkway. 

Sunwapta Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Sunwapta Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Driving north I spotted a cinnamon-colored black bear eating dandelions by the road. I slowly pulled over close enough to use my 70-200mm, but not so close that the bear even glanced up at me. I waited a moment for the bear to step out into the open- it was moving casually toward me as calm as can be- but just as it did, several cars pulled up out of nowhere in front of me. Some less than intelligent lifeforms popped out of their vehicles to snap pics with their phones only a few meters away from the large bear. The bear immediately became agitated and lumbered off into the woods. I was agitated to say the least. Little angers me more than having a potential shot ruined by irresponsible and disrespectful tourists. Luckily, I had already photographed this same bear a few days before on my first trip to Jasper. 

Cinnamon Colored Black Bear Eating Dandelions, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Cinnamon Colored Black Bear Eating Dandelions, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

After my less than ideal bear encounter, I continued on to Athabasca Falls, another iconic waterfall along the Icefields Parkway. It's a bit easier to photograph and has fewer obstructions than Sunwapta Falls. The blue waters plunge into a deep gorge just like Sunwapta, but the river is wider and there is a much better view of the mountains. I arrived an hour before sunset in hopes of getting vivid dramatic color over the mountain; it was raining, of course. A few other photographers and I waited patiently for the clouds to part. For a brief moment, they did. At first, the sun lit only the strip of trees below the mountain, a beautiful scene, but less than ideal for a picture as the rest of the frame was very dark in contrast. A few more minutes of waiting and the light finally made it up the mountain. I was hoping the entire mountain from base to peak would be golden, but the clouds wouldn't allow it. I had to settle for the peak. The light soon faded, and instead of dramatic color, the scene turned dark again as the light was snuffed out by dark rain clouds. I waited in the car nearby for conditions to change, but they didn't improve. I watched a pine marten fiddle about at the forest edge for a moment, then drove back to my campsite in hopes that I would be able to capture an epic sunrise in the early morning. 

Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

After 4 hours of sleep, I woke before sunrise to light drizzle tapping the glass on the sunroof. I stepped out and walked over to the bank of Honeymoon Lake to find that low hanging clouds were completely blocking the mountains. No views at all! A little discouraged, I prepared my equipment and camera settings for potential wildlife shooting as I made my way north and out of the park. I didn't have to drive far. Only 5 minutes from the entrance to the Honeymoon Lake campground stood two bull elk grazing beside the road. I drove past several hundred feet, made a u-turn, then parked near enough to photograph them, but not so close as to bother them. It was around 5 am and barely bright enough to take pictures. I waited as they peacefully grazed, occasionally looking up at me to make sure I was up to no funny business. It gradually became brighter, and I shot away using my 70-200 2.8 and 1.7x teleconverter. This time no tourists upset the encounter. No one but me was on the road that morning. Just me and two impressive creatures of the northwest. 

Elk Black & White, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Elk Black & White, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

I had a good half hour with the elk before they faded off into the dark woods. Feeling much better about the morning, I headed north toward home, stopping once for one last image of tall spruce trees leaning over the Athabasca River with Pyramid Mountain in the foggy background. Now satisfied with the experience, I headed back to Edmonton to real food, a warm shower, and comfy bed. I will not be away from Jasper National Park for long.

Leaning Spruce, Athabasca River, and Pyramid Mountain, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Leaning Spruce, Athabasca River, and Pyramid Mountain, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

To find out what's in my camera bag, click here!

 

Travel Resources:

My First Images of National Parks in Alberta, Canada

My first photographic experiences with the landscape and wildlife of Elk Island and Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. (Apologies for the poor sound quality at the beginning. Microphone upgrade will be made soon!)