A spellbinding vapor slowly rises from the tall, river-
As the sun continues its ascent, the large, rather intimidating tracks of enormous beasts begin to clearly appear all around you. Fresh remains of salmon, as well as bone-
The morning progresses. You sit quietly in an open, obvious place, a safe, respectful distance away from the bear’s active areas and patiently wait for your host to arrive. Time passes. Nothing happens. Only the sound of the wind blowing through the alder trees and the slight buzzing of gathering insects keep you company. Then, when least expected, a large, lumbering brown bear emerges from the brush and surveys the area before coming out into the open. He lifts his head and strategically inhales the air with his immensely powerful lungs. Though a good distance away, he points his super-
As the bear begins his daily stroll along the salmon stream, looking for a few more fresh fish to fill his ever-
As he closes in, he stops for another sniff, this time at the water’s edge. He slowly enters the river and lazily bounces around in the current like an enormous beach ball. Moments later, he lifts a spawned-
Few other creatures summon forth such fear, wonder, awe, and respect as the mighty bears that inhabit our planet, especially places such as Alaska. The bear is a striking symbol of power, perseverance, and all that is wild and free. Encountering one of these magnificent animals in their natural habitat instantly fills one with a profound sense of wonder and intense caution. For indeed, the bear is both a beauty and a beast!
I have been fascinated with bears since my childhood. As a wildlife photographer, they have become one of my favorite animals to pursue, and one of my genuine specialties. In more recent years, especially since moving to Kodiak Island, home of the largest bears on earth, that fascination has grown into an ongoing, respectful relationship with these captivating creatures. There have been weeks during the summer months that I have literally spent more time around bears than humans. As one can imagine, I have had some incredible experiences that I will forever cherish. Many of those memories are preserved in the photographs and stories presented in this gallery. Enjoy!
CAUTION: Bears are potentially very dangerous animals. Please keep in mind, when photographing these animals I use a zoom lens of significant power, strive to maintain a safe distance, and whenever possible, I make use of a natural or artificial barrier between myself and the bears. Proper bear safety education and training is a necessity before viewing and photographing bears in their natural, wild habitat. To learn more, may I humbly recommend my book -
Welcome to bear country! Hat-
A few years ago, during a rather nasty September, I found myself camped out along a remote,
It seemed like it would never stop! Finally, at the end of the week, the weather cleared out. I woke up
on a Friday morning to the sound of silence, and a warm, yellow glow illuminating my tent.
I stepped outside the back entrance of the tent, and to my surprise saw a huge Kodiak bear, just sitting
in the tall grass. The bear was alarmingly close, but was not displaying any food-
behavior. Rather, she was very peaceful and appeared to simply be enjoying the moment. I got my
camera out and proceeded to talk to the bear in a calm voice. She got up for a moment, moved away
from camp a bit, stretched, and then sat back down as a subtle, warm breeze blew across the land.
She closed her eyes, basking in the sun, lifted her head to smell the freshly rain-
then a big, relieved smile eased across her face as if she was saying, “Ahhhhhhh!” It was absolutely
beautiful! That encounter, and the award winning photo it produced, remains one of my personal favorites.
On a beautiful summer day in 2013, I found myself kicking back on a patch of green riverside
grass waiting for the bears to come and feed on the abundant numbers of sockeye salmon along
a remote area of Kodiak Island. Earlier in the day I captured some great images of a sow and cub
fishing together, but all activity ceased during the late morning. Many hours later, while taking a few
minutes to relax and enjoy the sunshine, I suddenly heard the unmistakable sound of an approaching
bear in the thick, nearby brush. Suddenly, an absolutely gigantic, humongous bear emerged from the
tall alders behind me! He gave me a quick glance, paused for a moment, and then kept heading right
in my general direction. As he closed in to where I was seated, he simply walked right around me…at
a very close distance, but in a completely non-
my particular set-
Even though that bear looks mean and intimidating in the photograph, in reality he was just an old
bear, with bad teeth, bad eyes, and lazy mannerisms. As that titanic beast slowly sauntered by me,
he eventually made his way to the river in front of me. He got in the cool, salmon-
old man entering a fantastically soothing hot tub! He then just sat there as the gushing flow enveloped
him while the other bears in the area immediately cleared out. There was no mistaking it, he was indeed
Bears are very emotionally expressive animals, even the formidable grizzlies of the Alaskan interior
(not to be confused with the much larger, but less aggressive coastal brown bears). While bears are
often pictured grimacing and looking rather mean and bloodthirsty, I’ve actually seen far more
expressions of tranquility and joy on the faces of bears. As I was watching this big grizzly during a
bitterly cold, early spring day, he didn’t seem too terribly overjoyed when he first woke up from his nap
(as pictured in the first of these two photos). However, as the bright sunshine emerged from the clouds
and warmed him up, he evidently became very happy, as a big bear smile came across his face.
Another priceless moment I was blessed to capture.
The following eight images are of a Kodiak sow and cub that I was able to watch and photograph for an entire morning. They spent their time swimming together, catching and eating salmon, climbing up and
down a riverside cliff, and just having a great time bonding together. It was heartwarming fun to watch the
cute little cub follow her mother around, imitate what she was doing, and even striking many of the same
poses. The mother was very patient and seemed to be enjoying the quality time together as much as
her cub obviously was. The photos from that shoot remain some of my all-
bear images to date. In fact, Kodiak Bear Bonding #1 was used by the Smithsonian Institution, and
Kodiak Bear Bonding #3, was featured on the cover of the official 2014 Kodiak Island Travel Guide.
Miserable. Sopping wet. Wind-
one autumn afternoon while wandering about on one of my favorite Kodiak rivers. As I sauntered back to
my truck, I looked out from underneath the canopy of my hood and spied what I initially thought was a
washed up log lying on the gravel bar. As I got a little closer, I discovered that it was, in fact, not a huge
chunk of wood, but rather a big ol’ Kodiak brown bear, soaked to the bone, sprawled out and dead
asleep! I decided to keep my distance and watch him for a bit to see what he was going to do when he
awoke. Well, he was in no hurry to move on. He’d lazily wake up for a few minutes, stretch, yawn, and
then flop right back down in the dirt to go back to sleep as the rain continued to drench his thick, fall hide.
I eventually went around him, giving him plenty of space to keep enjoying his nap. While I continued to
watch him from the other side of the river, another bear came along. This one was not in such a lazy
mood. It aggressively ran up to the sleeping bear and proceeded to kick his butt down the river! The
poor, tired bear that was so rudely awakened ran for his life, all the while looking back at his violent
pursuer with a very confused look. Later that afternoon, I found that same bear a hundred yards or so
down the river, flopped over a big log, with his head hung down…way down…low down! He had the
most humiliated, depressed look I’d ever seen on the face of any animal. I snapped a few photos
while he sulked and respectfully moved along. Sorry bear. This photo is another of my award winning
Kodiak bear images.
I photographed this grizzly bear on the mainland of Alaska. While it looks like winter, it was actually a
rather warm, spring day…by Alaska standards. That bear had been quite active on the morning I
photographed it. He was wrestling around with another young bear, eating and chewing on whatever
he could find in the area, and having a great time it appeared! Eventually, he just sort of wore himself
out and laid down to take a little bear-
pose, and was out cold. He even started to snore at one point and make funny faces, much like a
human who is having crazy dreams.
This is another grizzly bear from the mainland of Alaska that I photographed in early spring. I’m not
sure what he was searching for in the cold waters of that lake, but he was very intensely going about
his business of looking for something to eat, as I’m sure his stomach was growling after the long
winter nap of hibernation. The statuesque pose he struck as I captured this image was highlighted
quite uniquely by the icy waters and snow covered terrain.
It’s a rare opportunity to get so close to grizzly bears that one can see even the tiniest details of their
faces. As it is said, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” Studying the facial features of wild animals
gives one an entirely different perspective about the creature and opens up new world of visual and
intellectual exploration. As a footnote, I must always stress that even my extreme close-
wild animals (especially bears) are, in reality, always taken at a safe, respectful distance, and in a safe
respectful manner. Getting into a potentially dangerous animal’s personal space is a certain recipe for
Hell hath no fury like a protective mother bear! The greatest threat to the bear population in the wild
is male bears (referred to as “boars”) gobbling up a new crop of cubs. As I often say, the natural
world is not anything at all like a Disney movie! Far from it in reality! Many male bears aggressively
seek out, kill, and eat cubs (even their own offspring) for two main reasons: for food, or to bring the
female bear (referred to as a “sow”) back into heat so the male can breed with her again. It’s an
unbelievably savage sight to watch a boar launch an all-
having to get past the mother first. Thus, the reason that female bears, though much smaller than
males, develop a relentless ferocity when it comes to defending her cubs against an aggressor, or
eliminating anything that she may perceive as a threat.
The Kodiak sow in this photo appears to be coming right at me in a threatening manner. But, in reality,
the target of her imminent attack was a young boar who was muscling in on her territory, overtaking
her food source, and seemingly about to go after her two cubs. Without hesitation, her mood and
behavior changed from docile and content, to full-
got within her personal space, she launched after him with lightning speed and taught him a lesson
I imagine he didn’t forget any time soon. The two next photos, Always Watching, and Out of the
Shadows, illustrate the continuation of the story.
After that young male Kodiak bear (as described in the previous photograph) was severely reprimanded
by the protective sow, he ran for his life through the woods in my general direction. Several minutes later,
the sound of a snapping twig alerted me to look over my shoulder. As I carefully examined the thick bush
where the sound came from, I saw a tuft of brown fur and two beady bear eyes peering out at me.
Moments later, he very cautiously stepped out of the shadows, looked around to make sure the coast
was clear, and then headed farther down river to get away from that mother bear that gave him such a
sound thrashing. It was an unforgettable encounter that I was again blessed to be able to capture with
Out of the hundreds of bears that I have encountered and photographed over the years, there has only
been a few that made me a little nervous. One such bear is the Kodiak featured in these two images. I
was out salmon fishing on a beautiful autumn morning many years ago, when out of the blue, this bear
just seemed to magically materialize out of thin air…as they have a knack for doing. I was in a very
productive fishing hole, that the bear no doubt had claimed for himself…unbeknownst to me. Since he
was fishing next to me…uncomfortably close…I backed off as far as I could, to a safe, respectful
distance, and let him go about his business while I took a few photos. It was quite exciting to see him
dive and charge into the pools of fish, swatting and clawing and the dozens of slippery salmon that
erupted out of the water upon his attacks. After he had a fish in his clutches, he for some strange
reason would saunter over to where I was observing and flop down right in front of me like a big dog
while ripping apart and devouring his fresh fish.
The bear repeated this pattern as he caught and ate several more salmon. And then, something
changed abruptly in his demeanor. The bear was tired of being photographed and gawked at, and
wanted me out of his area…now! He suddenly stopped eating his fish, swatted it aside, raised his
head in my direction, gave me a bone-
language), and came slowly stalking right toward me. He firmly backed me out of the general vicinity.
I was happy to oblige and got the heck out of there in a calm, safe manner.
This young Kodiak boar is another of the few bears that have ever unsettled me a bit in their presence. I encountered this bear along the Thumb River a few years ago. During the couple of weeks I was out there, he was the only male bear around. Thus, I reckon he had to prove himself by exerting his dominance during the fleeting days that he actually had any, as he would no doubt be the low bear on the totem pole once the much larger, truly dominate males showed up on the scene. That young bear was sort of stalking me all week. He’d show up when I least expected him, slowly sneak up close to me, circle around me in a very intimidating manner, give me a rather stern look, and he even attempted a bluff charge at me on one occasion. We did not get along so well, to say the least. Nonetheless, I always remained respectful while on his turf, kept my distance, and followed all the usual bear safety protocol. By the end of the week he was not so disturbed by my presence and realized that I was not a threat to him, his food, or his domain.
One particular afternoon while hiking back upstream from a reconnaissance mission of sorts on the lower end of the river, the young boar again appeared unexpectedly at the confluence of a smaller, salmon choked tributary stream. I knew what was about to happen, so I got out my camera, got in position, and captured some fantastic images of that bear charging the salmon in a full-
This beautiful Kodiak bear featured in these three photographs became a mascot of sorts during my
time spent guiding on the Ayakulik River, on the super-
things, she loved to go swimming! Not a day would pass that she did not stop by for a visit. Quite often
she would come by in the mornings and evenings to sniff the aroma of whatever was being prepared in
the cook tent, and after breakfast, she almost always showed up on the river somewhere to see how the
fishing was going or what our clients were up to. She was a very well behaved bear and knew the routine,
as far as proper behavior around humans. Likewise, we humans made it a point to always be respectful
and safe around her, always adhering to proper bear safety protocol. When you spend weeks at a time
around certain bears, you genuinely develop a working relationship with them and learn to communicate
(to a certain degree) through consistent behavior and finely tuned perception of body language, much in
the same way that people and their pets learn to communicate. But, of course, wild animals are indeed
wild, and at times they are certainly unpredictable and downright dangerous. The highest degree of
caution must always be implemented.
While bears will generally live fairly close to a food source when it’s active, sometimes they will live right on top of one…literally! These photographs are of a Kodiak sow, who with her cub, literally lived right on top of a whale carcass for many weeks. Those two bears were hanging out along a beach area on the outskirts of town for several days, and then simply disappeared! Meanwhile, there was a dead whale that had washed up on another beach many miles away. Dozens of bald eagles and other creatures were devouring that whale carcass very quickly. Then, one day out of the blue, that sow and cub, who had traveled a long, long ways, showed up on the scene. They set up camp literally, again, right on top of the remaining carcass. They spent their days feasting on nasty, rotting whale blubber, chasing off the hordes of invading eagles, and slept right on top of the huge pile of bones.
Bear fights are something to see! Whether a playful wrestling match, a more serious tussle to establish dominance and discipline, or an all-
The two young grizzly bears in this triptych started off with a simple sparring match, but soon after, things escalated to what appeared to be a very serious fight. Fur was flying, blood was drawn, and things got ugly! But, as is often the case, the fight was over very quickly, and they seemed to get along fine afterwards…once the less dominant bear now knew good and well who was the boss!
© 2017 Joseph F. Classen -
Alaska Wall Art
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