The Great Bear Stakeout

Values of the Grizzly

image of grizzly mother and cubs, alaska

A female coastal grizzly teaches her cubs to dig clams on an Alaska Peninsula Beach.

In my opinion the grizzly is the ultimate symbol of North American wilderness. Grizzlies are deeply embedded into our lore, and embody the character of our wild places. For centuries grizzlies were extinguished from their home range, and are now absent from most of their native habitat. The Sierra Nevadas, the Colorado Rockies, the Wind Rivers, The Wasatch, the Great Plains, and the Black Hills, to name a few, are all much tamer places now that the great grizzlies have been eradicated. Only the legends and the ghosts remain.

I have been enchanted by the grizzly bear since I was a child. I was never into trucks and soldiers and video games, like many young boys, but by age 10 I had read every book written on grizzlies to date. I admired their ferocity, toughness, and ability to intimidate humans as much as any creature on our continent. I eventually moved to Alaska for college, mostly to be closer to grizzlies.

I will never forget my first serious encounter with a grizzly while living in Haines during my first summer in Alaska twenty years ago. I was fishing for salmon alone along the banks of the Chilkoot River around dusk. Having had a funny feeling that I was no longer alone, I turned around and stared right into the eyes of a giant female grizzly and her two cubs. As my stomach tightened into a knot, and adrenaline blasted through my veins, I wondered what I was supposed to do. Should I shout at her, play dead, jump into the river? I knelt down in submission and froze. The mother bear slowly put her head down and started grazing on sedges gradually closing the distance, with their heads to the ground, to around 25 feet. My fear subsided, and I savored this strange sensation of being at the mercy of both the scariest and the most beautiful creature I had ever dreamed of. She made eye contact with me again, studied me, and carried on upstream with her cubs. She trusted me and let me go. I was hopelessly hooked, and thankfully, this was only the beginning….

sow grizzly, mother bear, picture of mother grizzly

Beautiful blond female grizzly. Katmai Coast, Alaska


Filming Grizzlies with Gopros In Alaska

brad josephs, alaska, bears image

Me holding up a one of the few gopros that was discovered and damaged by a Grizzly. Photo Buck Wilde

image gopro, grizzly

Image taken with gopro of a grizzly stepping only inches away

Two summers ago I was hired by the BBC to guide the film crew for a production called the Great Bear Stakeout.  My main assignments were tracking the monster male bear we call Van, tracking wolves and hoping to film them with bears, and most importantly, to help set up remote, unmaned cameras to get super up-close wide angle shots that would be impossible to film otherwise, or if we were nearby (click here for more on this).  Tracking Van proved to be extremely difficult later in the summer, and the wolves were elusive, although we did film an amazing scene of wolves watching Pushki and Parsnip which is about halfway through episode 2, but filming bears with unmaned gopro cameras was hugely successful!  The highlights of the gopro footage appear in episode 1 that we acquired in the June filming season.  While guiding Grizzly viewing trips for Natural Habitat in July and August, I continued using gopros to add to the BBC’s collection.   I filmed one clip of a grizzly cub chewing on the gopro, but not damaging it, and this video went viral on youtube, and was featured on nearly every form of media in the world.  I just found the hard drive with all the raw footage from that season, and put together a few more clips.  My favorite is a mixture of bear footage and time lapses.  I sped up the clips in adobe premiere to up to 3500% to show the passage of time, and the movement of clouds and sunlight, but slowed to normal speed whenever a bear came close to the camera.  Check it out!

This footage is what I was trying to get.  Bears doing their thing, ignoring the tiny grey boxes, which look so much like rocks I often had a hard time collecting them after their jobs were done.  The bears almost always ignored these cameras.  They were obviously not baited with anything, because 99% of the time if a bear did see one of the cameras, they would be crushed and destroyed, as bears have a bit of a naughty side and like to show off their strength.  I also never want to distract a bear from doing what it would normally do, as they have a lot of work to do trying to gain enough weight to survive winter hibernation. Baiting cameras is also illegal, unethical, and can create dangerous associations between bears and people that can prove to be fatal for both bears and the cameramen.   The secret is to go unnoticed by an animal who notices everything.  Here is another clip of a female and two 7 month old cubs walking past the camera, paying it no attention.

Here is a short clip from different angles of a bear chasing salmon, including an underwater view!

And of coarse, here is one of the versions when “a grizzly ate my gopro.”

I dont suggest anyone trying to get this type of footage of bears in the future here, as the use of unmaned cameras is illegal in Katmai. We had special, one-time permission from Park Service that summer for this documentary. But I will experiment with filming nature and scenery with gopros in the future, as it is a very safe, unobtrusive way of filming wildlife very close, without having an impact on their behavior. Gopro recently contacted me, and offered to sponsor me in various ways. Check out my friend, and fellow guide Justin Gibson’s very cool video of arctic and red fox checking out his gopro in Churchill, Manitoba!



Note- still images are screenshots from HD video.  Thank Buck WIlde for the top photo of me- click here to check out Buck’s very cool blog!

Making of The Great Bear Stakeout- Behind the scenes

Here are a few clips I put together showing life in camp during the filming of The Great Bear Stakeout. Hopefully the film will help show the world how special brown bears are, and encourage their conservation. Threats to their habitat loom throughout their range.  In my opinion, the greatest threat to these bears is the proposed Pebble Mine.  This mine would be catastrophic to the bears of the Alaska Peninsula.   Bears are easy to fall in love with, and when we decide to conserve bears, we must conserve giant, intact ecosystems.  To me, the words Grizzly and wilderness are synonymous.

Here is an amazing clip that I filmed with a GoPro camera that I strapped to a rock with a rubber band!  The first bear to appear is an older mother, and the second is her 3 year old cub.  The bear only gently mouthed the camera, and didnt even put a dent in it!  Obviously the card was fine, and I actually used the camera many more times.  I filmed this clip while I guiding a Natural Habitat Trip, but the BBC used it in the show.  Anyway, check it out!!!

Here is a tour of our camp, and some explanation of how we stayed safe with the bears.

Last September was very stormy. Here is some footage during the worst storm of the season.

great bear stakeout, discovery, bbc, image, brad josephs