Kayaking With Grizzlies In british columbia

A Plan Comes Together

Last year I was looking for a wildlife photography project in my backyard of British Columbia, Canada, and I'd heard rumours of a magical lake deep in the Chilcotin Mountains where the annual salmon run brings a large number of grizzly bears to the water's edge. But how could I make a this project stand out? What could I do differently to get incredible images?

Rowan paddles out in the morning.

I wanted to create images that felt intimate. Images that made it feel as though you were a part of the grizzly bear's world, not just looking in from the outside like an animal at the zoo.

I realized that to do this, I needed to be at the bear's level and a kayak would be a great way to achieve this viewpoint. I teamed up with my friend and fellow photographer, Rowan Thornton, and we tested several different kayak setups in the month prior to the trip. Stability was a key factor. We needed to feel comfortable paddling around with tens of thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment balanced on our tripods!

Self-portrait of my kayak and camera setup.

Fishing kayaks turned out to be the answer. They are designed to be stable enough to stand up in for casting, and this gave us more than enough stability to feel comfortable on open water. They also have plenty of storage space which was also important as we would both be carrying a lot of additional camera gear for documenting the trip with both still and video cameras.

As you can see in the self-portrait above, I was able to strap my tripod into the kayak, and comfortably balance my huge Canon 200-400mm lens on it while paddling. I also rigged the kayak up with a number of additional cameras, like a GoPro, and a small Canon mirrorless camera with a fisheye lens on it which could be triggered with a remote from my tripod. It was important to me that I documented the whole story of this trip, and not just photos of the bears.

First Sighting

After a long drive into the mountains on unpaved roads, I pulled up to the location with a real sense of trepidation. Would we really find the bears we were looking for? I sat on the side of the lake that evening just taking in the beautiful views. I planned to put my kayak in the water the following morning for an initial search, but for the moment I was content to just sit and relax after my drive.

Then I saw it! My first grizzly of the trip.

On the opposite shore, a beautiful blonde bear walked along the beach as the blue waters of the alpine lake lapped at her feet. It was a mesmerizing scene. After a few minutes she playfully chased a blackbird, and I captured my first real grizzly photo of the trip.

Coolest selfie ever?
Inquisitive young bear taking a dip in the evening

Seeing the bear on the shoreline that first night was a relief. We were in the right place, and all we would need now was a little patience and some time to learn the bear's movements around the area. After a couple of relatively quiet days on the water, we began to figure out some of their patterns, and become familiar with specific bears. As our knowledge increased, so did our shot count.

The kayaks worked perfectly!

Many of the bears seemed completely oblivious to us as we slowly paddled through the shallow waters. The salmon run was in full swing and it definitely had their attention. A few of the bears were a little more skittish than others, and after a while we were able to figure out which ones would best tolerate our presence.

It wasn't all bears!
Click to view larger versions.
This was the view I was hoping for. Eye level with these amazing animals in their habitat.
Evening shore patrol.

From a photographic point of view, we faced several challenges. Whilst the kayaks proved to be stable enough that we never feared tipping them over, the constant bobbing motion was something that had to be overcome. The bears were most active at sunrise and sunset when light levels were very low, and this made it tricky to shoot with a fast enough shutter speed. At times when the wind was stronger, I had to time my shots at the crest of the boat's motion. I was glad to have a full-frame camera with me that was easily capable of shooting at higher ISOs like 3200 and above, but even then, some of my shots had shutter speeds as low as 1/80 of a second. This would be considered quite slow with a regular lens, but with a super telephoto lens on a moving platform, it was a real challenge!

Sushi dinner!
The view that our kayaks provided was sometimes indescribable.

Trip Of A Lifetime

As you can probably imagine from the photos, this trip was very special. I'll never forget some of those peaceful evenings drifting amongst the bears, and I'll always cherish the photos from this trip. It's rare when an elaborate plan comes together so perfectly, but this was one of those occasions and I left the mountains with a deep affection for this group of incredible animals.

Blessed Are The Curious For They Shall Have Adventures

- Lovelle Drachman

(Photo: Rowan Thornton)


This Slate story is part of my Adobe 10-Day Stay Out There challenge. Every day I'm sharing a new challenge and photo tip on my website and social media channels. Hit the button below to read the rest of them and join me in the challenge.

About Dan

British-born, Canada based photographer Dan Carr is the founder and chief educator at Shutter Muse. Inspired by the mountains of British Columbia, his photography has been featured in magazines all over the world. Dan’s commercial clients include companies such as Apple, Nike, Red Bull and Oakley. His writing appears on leading creative industry websites such as DP Review, and he’s contributed to magazines that include Digital Photo, Practical Photographer and Photography Week as well as providing educational content for leading industry brands like Canon. To find more of Dan’s educational articles and products, head to ShutterMuse.com and DanCarrPhotography.com.

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