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North Country Adventure

RL local photographs the Big Browns
Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter
Wednesday, November 24, 2021
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Photos by Colleen Kilbane A Brown Bear enjoys a stretch of water.
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Alaska Guide Dave Rasmus with Colleen Kilbane.

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Photos by Colleen Kilbane (Above) Brown bear ready for his closeup!

Colleen Kilbane, of Red Lodge, loves photography. She has been developing her skills for years and is not shy about shooting subjects beyond Montana’s majestic landscapes and large mammals. She’s gone south to the Canyonlands. This past summer, she headed north. 

 “Alaska should be on everyone’s bucket list,” said Kilbane. “The beauty is unmatched, the wildlife is spectacular and at this particular lodge, the food was 5 star!” She stayed at the Salmon Creek Lodge where Jared Lloyd held Lloyd’s Brown Bear Photography Workshop and the guide is part of the lodge.” 

Again, she reached for the expert for honing her techniques. “I attended Jared Lloyd’s Winter in Yellowstone Photography Workshop two years ago.  He has worked for the BBC, is a writer for several publications, is a wildlife biologist, and the most accomplished photographer I have met.  When he had an opening for this workshop, I jumped on it!” 

Both brown bears and the Montana grizzlies are grizzlies. The term “brown bear” is the common term used by Alaskans for bears found in coastal areas. Their habitat includes lush grasses and salmon filled streams offering a rich food source. Although Lloyd calls this “the densest brown bear population on earth” the abundant food access generally makes the brown bears less aggressive and larger than mountain and prairie grizzlies. 

She said, “(Lloyd) knows where to find them and how to shoot them.” Although not without risk, one former hunter turned photographer once said, “I was charged numerous times by grizzlies while hunting. Not once was I charged while photographing bears! They seem to know the difference.” 

Kilbane had no fear but excitement at the prospect of seeing the huge bruins up close and capturing them. “Wildlife photography has always been a passion of mine, along with landscape photography, but there’s something (about) the Alaska Brown bears that intrigued me, and it’s been on my bucket list to photograph them for a while now!”

That item can now be checked off. She also loves the countryside. “Alaska is truly the last best place.  Flying in by bush plane was exciting as both of my parents had their private pilot’s licenses and we flew on small planes as kids.  I was able to get a glimpse of this truly wild place on the hour and a half flight to the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge from Anchorage.”

Kilbane found the bears’ temperament a lot calmer in Alaska. “The brown bears are completely different (than) that of the grizzlies of Montana and Wyoming.  Bears have what biologists call an Overt Reaction Distance (ORD). Me, I like to call it the bear bubble!”

She explained, “Outside of this bear bubble, they pay little attention to us. Inside of this bear bubble you have their undivided attention - for better or worse. Thanks to the unique dynamics of salmon fed ecosystems from British Columbia to Alaska, coast brown bears have evolved a very small bear bubble of usually about 15 - 20 feet. This is what allows photographers like myself to work in such close proximity to these bears.”

However, in Montana there is a crucial difference. “The inland subspecies we call grizzly bears is very different,” she observed. “Life is much harder in the interior of the continent. Food and other resources are scarcer. And for this reason, grizzlies have a bear bubble of around 100 yards / meters - which is why most national parks set rules at this distance.”

There were no close calls. “We were out with a group of six photographers in this workshop and were accompanied by a seasoned guide.  In the 30 plus years, no guide has ever used bear spray,” she said.

But, she recalled, “We were all on the boat going to Duck Island to photograph puffins. It was a typical Alaska fishing boat with an enclosed cabin that we were in. Our guide rearranged himself in the captain’s seat and all the sudden we were all looking at each other with horror in our eyes. Our eyes were burning, our lungs were burning and nobody could breathe!” They quickly opened all the doors and windows. 

“We discovered that the safety on his bear spray came off and the seat armrest deployed a small bit of bear spray!” she said. “We all laughed about it afterwards!”

Kilbane also was able to enjoy fishing.  “Our guide acted as a bear watch and alerted us when the bears were heading up the rivers in search of salmon.  We pulled out our rods and grabbed our cameras!”

One day, a person in her group caught a salmon and an adult female with two yearling cubs ran from the sedge grass and headed towards the splashing fish.  Their expert’s reaction was witnessed, firsthand. “Our guide, we nicknamed ‘Badass Dave’, worked at the speed of lightning to get the fish off the line and either in the aluminum bear box, or release it to the river where the bear couldn’t get it.  He couldn’t get his hands on his pliers, and the line was too strong to break.  When the bear was a few feet away, he finally broke the line!”  

The fish swam downstream and the bear didn't get the fish.  “If this had happened,” she said, “the bear would have gotten habituated and would start seeing humans as a food source.”

The same female and cubs were walking around the lodge and cabins.  One cub got lost and the sow and cub were frantically trying to find it.  Again, expert knowledge and response saved the day. “The lodge door was ajar and one of the employees quickly clapped his hands and walked towards the bear and prevented her from getting inside!  Bears are everywhere!”

If they are on your path, “All you do is…let them pass!”

Waders and boots were mandatory.  “Jared’s style of shooting is just below the animal’s eyes.  We spent the entire time laying on our bellies on the beach, in the water, or in the grass shooting.  It led to some amazing images!”

But more importantly, said Kilbane, she learned techniques. “Grain, in images, does not come from shooting with a high ISO (light sensitivity), it comes from a lack of information.” On site, “I was shooting at very high ISO’s on cloudy days…20,000 ISO…We’ve been doing it wrong for decades!” 

Summing up her experience Kilbane exclaimed, “Exhilarated!  I love the outdoors, mountains, water, wildlife and seeing new, truly wild places.  I was so excited that I booked a ten-day trip for both Jim (her husband) and I for August, 2022.” She will visit The Farm Lodge, also on the Cook Inlet. It has its own fleet of bush planes and flies the class out daily to photograph walrus, brown bears, caribou and glaciers. 

Alaska, said Kilbane, is “…the beautiful scenery, the beach, the tide, the animals, the crew at the lodge, the quiet, the food, the peace, being off grid, mostly!”

Not missing a beat she added, “The next bucket list item is photographing the white Spirit Bears of the Great Bear Rainforest!”