My experience of photographing the Ice Grizzlies of the Yukon could very easily read like one of those early childhood ‘what I did in my holidays’ essays. “I got up & then I got on a coach. I went to the airport & flew in a big plane to a place called Vancouver. I got into another, smaller plane & went to Whitehorse. It was snowy & cold. The next day I got in an even smaller plane & went to a place called Dawson City. It was a Sunday; everything was closed. I stayed in a hotel & then we got in a helicopter. Then we saw bears & a wolf. Then we came home”.That’s pretty accurate, albeit over-simplistic. It’s quite an adventure getting to Bear Cave Mountain, but boy is it worth it. Dawson City is a fascinating mix of history & modern. Many old buildings date from the Gold Rush era, in varying states of upkeep, & the trappings of modern life, but with a very Northern twist. A seasonal city that serves the tourist industry as well as still supporting commercial gold extraction. It was post-season when we were there but it was still fascinating & the people are welcoming.
The next stage of the adventure is the helicopter ride — two hours over the starkly majestic tundra & mountains of the Northern Yukon. Challenging & inhospitable doesn’t even start to describe it. The approach to the camp is ‘interesting’. There’s no sign of where the camp is & the pilot just took us down to river level & landed on a shingle ‘beach’. Only then could we see the camp through the trees. Settling in didn’t take long. There are only four buildings & a ‘room with a view’ – more on this later – the main cabin, three two-person sleeping cabins & a loo.
The nights just North of the Arctic Circle were already getting long & we lost several minutes of useable light each day. A home cooked breakfast set us up well for the day & the photography started around 10 am. The temperatures varied from -5 to -20°C during the day but we were blessed with reasonable weather, cloudy & fine, but best of all no wind chill. Nevertheless, the adage ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing’ was borne out, but Bear Cave Mountain Camp provides all the clothing you are likely to need, from boots to insulated outer layers. That said, there’s no denying it was cold.
We were guided to a viewing site each day. Bear Cave Mountain has several & it is the behaviour of the salmon that determines which. Once at the viewing site, it’s simply a case of setting up your kit, getting as comfortable as you can, & waiting. Seven hours later, it’s the reverse, but hopefully, some grizzly bears or other beasts have shown up in the interim!
The frequency of sightings varied but we did not have a ‘dry’ day. Two bears were frequent visitors & they would appear out of the woods but metres from us. That was when the briefings kicked in; breathe deep, act slow, wait for the bear to settle down. Once the bears realise you’re no threat, they get on with hunting the salmon & will happily stand within 5 metres of you as you click away! That’s when you know you are in a special place; there is a balance between you, the grizzly bear & nature, & it’s spiritual. Being privileged to enjoy that proximity to a wild animal is difficult, if not impossible, to describe adequately. It’s just ‘other’ & it was essential periodically to put down the camera & bask in the sensation.
The bears were not the only wildlife. We saw moose tracks but, regrettably, never the animal. Pine martens were frequent visitors at the creek & the woods were full of red squirrels. Ravens were an ever-present observer (& scavenger of salmon) & there was a variety of other bird-life. One day, we saw a lone wolf on the other side of the Fishing Branch River. It gave us the stare & wandered on. Some hours later it was back &, having crossed the river, graced us with its presence & proximity for the best part of an hour.
All the details of the Ice Grizzlies of the Yukon Photography Holiday are available on the dedicated event page.