Guest Post by Paul Nicklen | Scotch with a Grizzly Bear
This is a guest post by WWSG exclusive speaker, Paul Nicklen.
Now that Cristina Mittermeier and I have rejoined our team in Mexico’s Pacific waters, our conservation work has taken off. It feels good to be back on the SeaLegacy 1 filming impactful stories for our ocean. I cannot wait to share with you everything we have accomplished. But in the meantime, I wanted to revisit a story that is dear to my heart about a certain bear who has been on my mind throughout this winter. Some of you likely already know the story of how I ended up having a glass of scotch with the grizzly featured in my limited edition print, Majesty Surfacing. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, please read below and meet “Morris.”
Back in the fall of 2012, my partner, photographer Cristina Mittermeier, and I set out far above the Arctic Circle to photograph grizzlies feasting on the seasonal salmon run. To prepare for the coming winter, bears eat incessantly in a phase called hyperphagia, in which they gather every life-sustaining calorie they can from large chum salmon before leaving for the mountains to hibernate. It is both a crucial and precarious time as massive males, juveniles, and mothers with cubs all come together in close proximity to feast. Tensions can run high as space is negotiated between a normally solitary species. We arrived at the Fishing Branch River in Canada’s northern Yukon Territory and took our cameras down to the riverbanks.
As we waited and watched, we saw a large male coming up the creekbed. He spotted a sizeable chum salmon and, when it took off upstream, he charged after it in pursuit. We watched in awe of the bear’s explosive power and agility, before realizing he was heading straight for us. Somehow, in an accident of timing and geometrical angles, the salmon ended up between Cristina and me. We now had a large, hyper-focused male bear skidding to a stop just a few feet shy of us.
We froze, neither moving nor making eye contact. He was certainly closer than what he was comfortable with — and closer than what we were comfortable with, for that matter. We sat motionless as he slowly inched back out toward the stream. When filming bears, I always let them dictate the encounter. They get to decide the distance between us. If they are nervous or shy, I always remain still, and I never, ever follow them. Thankfully, he seemed to sense that we were no threat and, from then on, was comfortable sitting close to us.
After that one thrilling encounter, the days passed slowly and uneventfully, ebbing to the natural rhythm of the river’s life cycle as the winter began to creep in. Bears came and went, each one leaving the river and heading into the mountains to settle into their dens. And then, one day, they were gone — or seemed to be, anyway.
Late one afternoon, just before we had decided to leave, I poured myself a glass of scotch and headed down to the water’s edge to toast a successful shoot. As I sipped my drink, I suddenly heard a crackling in the bushes behind me. I turned, expecting to see Cristina coming to join me— and instead found myself standing beside a large, not-yet-hibernating male grizzly. I immediately recognized him as the same bear from the close encounter. He stepped to the very edge of the shore and peered into the waters.
A salmon splashed right in front of me. The bear instantly lunged, pinning the 20-pound fish down against the riverbed, and then hoisted it high into the air, with as much effort as a cat playing with a toy mouse. I was sure he would head downstream and devour his prized catch, but instead, he sat down next to me. Evidently comfortable in my presence, he simply tucked into his meal and then stared out over the river, smacking his lips contentedly in an eerily human gesture.
Following his lead, I took another sip of my scotch, and the two of us soaked in the scene around us– a pair of unlikely companions enjoying their favorite indulgences. Finally, as the last of the afternoon light slipped away and the chill in the air became biting, we parted ways.
I often find myself wondering where that bear, who I had named “Morris,” is today, and I think about the uncertainty of his world. Salmon runs are no longer as reliable and consistent as they used to be. We are still clearcutting ancient forests, polluting vital waterways, and not thinking of the consequences.
The global fight to overcome climate change and restore our living world will be won or lost in this decade. As the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres reminds us, “One thing is certain: those that give up are sure to lose. So, let’s fight together– and let’s win.”
With hope and gratitude,
I love the heart-shaped face of this grizzly photographed along the banks of the Fishing Branch River. The vulnerability and gentleness within his eyes captivated me as he stared back through my lens. I have always found bears to be full of personality and surprisingly willing to engage with me.
Through my lens, I enjoyed studying the intricate pattern of ice that encrusted the hair around this grizzly’s face, watching it grow thicker and heavier each time it dunked below the river’s surface.
Snow flurries fill the air and quickly cover the river, muffling both the sights and sounds of Canada’s Yukon Territory. With the days growing shorter, this lone bear is down to its last opportunity to feast on salmon before settling into its den for the winter. Looking at this image conjures a sense of nostalgia for the solitude of the far north, where I grew up immersed in the rhythm of the seasons.