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The Year of the Bear

Getting the perfect photo proves a challenge
By Joe Brandmeier
Published: March 26, 2010
Photo by Joe Brandmeier
For some reason, 2009 became "the year of the bear" for me. It started in early spring, several months before another wildlife photographer would turn a bear named Lily famous with the first video footage of a bear giving birth.

I had heard of a bear den on a farm in northern Minnesota and was intrigued by the thought of getting a picture of this black bear popping his (or her?) head out of the den for the first time after a long winter’s nap.

So I set up my tripod and camera, put my HD video camera in my pocket (just in case) and sat outside the den, just feet away. Many people strongly advise against this type of bear surveillance, but for some reason, I felt I was safe. After hours of standing there and no sign of anything, I left for the day.

The next day, I was back. I was told the bear was in there, so I felt confident I’d see it. But after hours of more standing still, I lost patience.

“I don’t know how those ‘Planet Earth’ guys do it!” I thought as I slowly moved towards the front door of this den, camera in hand, heart pounding. I stuck my head in and literally came face-to-face with the bear! It was definitely in there! As he stared back at me, I froze and then slowly backed away.

The bear never did come out, and I later realized what a bonehead move that was, but that moment set off months of a mission-like effort to find and take pictures of bears. I traveled all around northern Wisconsin and Minnesota trying to find a great shot but was never able to see another bear.
Weeks later, I drove onto my own cabin road (in northern Wisconsin) and saw a mother black bear and her cub about 10 feet from my front door.
Go figure, I travel all over looking for them – and they find me.  They were in search of food: scraps, bird feed, deer corn and just about anything else.

I got out of my car with my camera (which is always with me) to get a good shot. I try to choose the best moment – the best frame.  She wasn’t thrilled about me being there. She was pacing back and forth, jumping up the nearest tree, then back down toward me, but I was able to snap a few shots before they got tired of me and drifted away. This bear, her cub and a stray yearling – who enjoyed pulling on the bird feeder – came back several times until the food in the area ran out.

Once again, I was compelled to discover more about bears. This led me to a dream trip to Alaska and a week with a guide in Katmai National Park shooting stills of grizzly bears. From there, it was back to northern Minnesota and a visit to a black bear haven called the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary. It was here that I got up close and personal with several bears and began to get a better understanding of the creatures.

It was around this time that it became difficult to explain to my wife why I was using all my free time on bears – and not her.
The year of the bear is far from over for me – it has continued into 2010. This spring I’m looking forward to more explorations with bears and getting a better understanding of what they’re like.
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