From my first photo safari trips to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1980s grizzly bears where my number one subject, my most sought after of the park’s big predators. Over the next two decades I had many encounters with single grizzlies, a few sows with a cub or two – but nothing that I thought was stunning. On a beautiful spring day in June of 2010 on Swan Flats, just south of Mammoth Hot Springs, that changed and I began a photography relationship with a sow grizzly and her four cubs. She came to be known as the Quad Sow, mother of the famous Quad Cubs.
On this crisp morning these first year cubs came parading down a hillside about three hundred yards away, to the east of the park road, following their mother closely, angling towards the road. I was stunned that there were four cubs; I had seen three cubs before, at quite a distance, but I had never seen four. Cars were beginning to stop, with tourists and photographers lining the sagebrush border to the road. With my heart racing I calculated the line she was taking across Swan Flats and drove to that spot, empty of other photographers or vehicles at the moment. I could have been wrong about the spot, and she could have reversed back up the hill or angled directly at the road – in which case we would have only distant images of the bears, but luckily she didn’t. She came straight to us. When I say “we”, I mean the group participating in my spring Yellowstone Wildlife Safari. There were nine of us, including me and my other safari leader, Bill Singleton.
Quad Sow and Cubs in Swan Flats
We got out the tripods and hurriedly set up along the road, close by the vehicles, hoping that she would continue to angle in our direction. Every few moments the sow grizzly would slow her pace through the sagebrush to let the running cubs catch up to her. She was a vigilant mother, not only keeping close to them, but scanning the meadows around her for signs of trouble. In her world death was around every corner, behind every stump, and could come swiftly across this empty meadow in the form of a pack of wolves, coyotes, or even other grizzlies. She was a couple of hundred yards from the nearest trees and I could tell she was nervous, her muscular head swaying back and forth on powerful shoulders as she surveyed the world around her – carefully.
Sow approaches the road as the cubs look on.
We started shooting at about two hundred yards and never really let up. She continued in our direction, closing the distance much quicker than I thought she could with the four cubs trailing behind her. At about 80 yards she hesitated for a minute, the cubs gathering around her. The road near us had filled with cars and photographers and she seemed to be judging the point at which she wanted to cross. She turned back to the cubs and watched as they stood up, looking at the crowd of humans, and chasing each other briefly – before she resumed her march. Apparently she had a particular destination in mind and she was an experienced road crosser. She moved through the sagebrush in front of us and entered an area of small pine trees and fallen logs just 60 yards to our right. This area was closer to the road and I had to step out a few feet farther into the sagebrush in order to shoot around other photographers standing along the curving road between us. The sow faced us and stood with her front paws (and long ivory white claws) on the log, the quad cubs scrambling over or walking on the logs around her. I was shooting a Nikon D2x body that didn’t have a large buffer, and it frustrated me by continuously buffering out. Fourteen raw files in rapid order, at 5 frames per second, went very quickly with this scene before me. I did my best to control my shooting, control my breathing, and concentrate on focus, action, and anticipation.
The four grizzly cubs watch their mother approach the road.
It was an amazing sight, incredible really, far more than I would have ever anticipated. While she was closer to the road, maybe only twenty yards from pavement where she could have crossed easily, she turned back towards us, crossing the tree trunks and walking right towards us back into the sagebrush. At about fifty yards, much too close to get the whole family in-frame with my 500mm lens, they paused. The four cubs, who had been running together as a group, suddenly spread out a few feet apart – and just then three of the cubs stood up to look at their mother who was to their left closer to the road, and to my right. Luckily, for me it came after the camera’s buffer was clear and I shot off my 14 raw images in a quick three seconds. Those images could never be replaced.
Grizzly cubs log walking.
The quad grizzly cubs of 2010.
The sow suddenly swung towards the road and walked boldly to the middle stripe, apparently to check on car traffic. She paused and looked back at the cubs. They immediately broke into a run and crossed the road after her, heading directly towards the far hillside, never looking back. She never acted agitated by the humans, nor the cars, and seemed to have a system worked out with the cubs for crossing the road. For a few minutes I waited to see if she would change directions, before I finally started to breathe again. Others who also witnessed this said she had been working these sagebrush flats for a number of weeks, so I counted myself fortunate.
Following mom to the road.
While this whole encounter lasted about fifteen minutes, it is forever recorded in my mind as the greatest encounter I have ever had with a grizzly family. So it was with astonishment that I met the quad sow and cubs again the following June, 2011, in the flat, tangy smelling sagebrush meadows that make up Swan Flats. But there was a difference. Two of the cubs were missing from the original 2010 family group. The runt of the litter, who, because of its size was the most difficult to photograph, and one other cub, had died. I heard some different stories about their possible deaths over 2011, but in 2012 a ranger told me they thought one cub was killed by wolves, and the second just failed to appear from hibernation. In reading literature about the lives of grizzlies a mortality rate of 50% is about average among grizzly young. Yet, even with that knowledge of their natural mortality I felt the loss of these cubs.
The quad sow with her two surviving cubs in 2011.
One year later, and within two hundred yards of our previous encounter, we met on Swan Flats once again. It was late morning when the quad sow and her two surviving cubs came ambling out of the eastern woods and headed west, directly for the road. Within just a few minutes they were at the road and causing an immense bear jam, something only appreciated by regular visitors to the park. Once again I was fortunate and exactly on location for their close approach and crossing of the road. As had happened in 2010, the sow and cubs hesitated for a minute or two in the sagebrush barrow pit area right along the road. The cubs stood often, studying the humans, and wrestled each other as they waited for their mother to decide when to cross. Eventually, she walked between two cars and immediately stopped traffic. She glanced back at the cubs, the signal to follow, and they ran the short distance and crossed the road, dropped off the roadbed and back into the sagebrush. Again, they never looked back and trailed off towards the ridgeline west of the road, and south of Swan Lake.
Watching mom clear traffic for them to cross the road in Swan Flats.
Relaxing in the spring sun, waiting for mom to return.
You might think that I had some kind of inside knowledge about this grizzly bear family but she was just a creature of habit. I like to stay at the same hotels, eat at the same restaurants, and even buy gas from the same stations. On mornings when I’m not on a photo safari I start by reading the online news, check and answer my e-mail, shower about the same time, work through a to-do list, process images, before spending much of the afternoon writing. I’m predictable, and to some degree, she was too. The next morning before sunrise we crossed paths again.
Once again she was on the east side of Swan Flats working her way diagonally across meadows. For the third time I parked at a spot that seemed likely for her to cross at, and she unswervingly came right to that spot. At about 75 yards she turned sharply towards us, the sun beginning to rise above the horizon right behind her. I only took a few images before it dawned on me that she wasn’t moving around us. With friends around me shooting, all of us standing next to our vehicles, there was room on either end for her to get past us. Even though other humans were walking up the road to be closer to the bears, she continued walking towards us, the two cubs trailing along behind her. At 35 yards, and standing just feet from our vehicles, I drew my can of grizzly mace in case she came on in a run.
Sunrise, as the grizzly sow and 2 cubs walks right at my group of photographers.
This was the first time I had ever drawn that can of grizzly mace from its holster with the close approach of a dangerous wild animal. I had come to believe that two-legged predators were a bigger threat than the four-legged ones, and the mace just served as a visual deterrent. Photography in the parks and foothills around my home in the San Joaquin Valley of California, areas known to be favored by marijuana growers, created more anxiety with me than any bear ever had. The $20k dollars worth of equipment I normally carry could be a tempting target that I would prefer not to give it up easily – thus I always carry the mace in the field, and on some occasions I back that up with a firearm. With both a Utah and California concealed carry permit, I’m good to carry in about 38 states.
As she approached to about 25 yards I walked a step or two in front of the others and aimed my can of mace at her. At that same moment she turned 90 degrees to my right and calmly walked around us, crossing the road in an area clear of cars. The mace would have dispersed at 10 yards so she would have had to get a lot closer before I could have used it, and her past behavior had shown her to be very non-aggressive towards humans – but its best to err on the side of safety. I once saw a ranger near Tower in Yellowstone pull his mace as a black bear sow approached us as we talked. She must have been maced before because just as he pulled his mace she retreated with her cubs. Bears aren’t always inquisitive, or aggressive, but sometimes they just want you to get out of their way.
Sunrise light sweeps across a cub after crossing the road.
After crossing the road going west our photography improved dramatically now that we had the sun behind us. She moved off the road about a hundred yards, maybe a little more, and began digging for roots. There were a number of cow elk, without calves, another hundred yards beyond her. They seemed to pay little attention to each other, but the bear and I knew one thing, there were elk calves bedded down in the sagebrush of Swan Flats, somewhere. She started moving back towards us in the sagebrush, but now she wasn’t digging as much, and she was far more alert and attentive.
Park Rangers had arrived on location now and they made sure there was an opening in the traffic for the bears if they continued towards the road. As the bears closed to about fifty yards the rangers asked us to stand by our vehicles to continue shooting. The sow and cubs crossed the road in that opening going east, their rumps plainly visible as they moved through the sagebrush.
Sow and cubs hunting elk calves after crossing the road.
A year later, in 2012, the quad sow and surviving cubs crossed paths with me on the last two days of my early June safari. After six days of searching for her, while still shooting amazing subjects in other park locations, I figured my run of luck with her was over. I had crossed Swan Flats numerous times but with no luck. On day 7 she came out into the flats from the direction of Electric Peak. The sow and cubs walked up to the trail marker sign, about 250 yards from the road at the north end of Swan Flats. Then they used the trail marker as a back rub and as a toy, each of them taking turns rubbing against the posts, followed by removing the paper warnings that had been stapled to the plywood sign.
The next morning the rains and wind had returned to Swan Flats and a cloud had descended right to ground level. For a few minutes the bears appeared about two hundred yards away, then the cloud descended and the thick misting rain lowered visibility to just a car length or two. There were few cars on the road and it was amazingly quiet. After about a half hour I retreated to my vehicle to sit out the rain, hoping for another opportunity to photograph the bears.
When the storm cloud finally began to lift the quad sow and cubs appeared right in front of us, not more than a 70 yards away, and moving towards us in the mist. The two large cubs, now two-and-a-half years old and only slightly smaller than their mother, played and wrestled, their wet fur throwing drops of water into the air. Slowly they came towards us in the mist, taking on more shape and texture as the cloud thinned. At about 40 yards the ranger moved us back towards are own vehicles, but allowed us to stand in the vehicle door and keep shooting. The bears continued to come right to us. The small parking area had room for about 6-8 vehicles, and I was about the third vehicle in from the right. We were all parked perpendicular to the road, facing west. Then the fun began.
Sow and cubs appear as the cloud rises.
The grizzly cubs play in front of the parking area before the sign attack.
Right in the middle of the parking area, just in front of the middle vehicle, a white sedan of some kind, was a 2×4 post with a 1×2 duct-taped to it, with a “Dangerous Bear frequenting this Area” sign attached to it. First, a cub walked over to the sign, stood up, reached up, and took offense to the sign obviously meant to warn people about him/her. With a whack of its paw the paper warning sign came down, then the bear ripped the 1×2 away from the 2×4 and began to peel off the duct-tape like he was shredding an onion. Second, the other cub walked up to the white sedan, maybe forty feet from me, and stood with his muddy paws on the hood of the car. The person inside seemed mesmerized, whether out of fear or fascination I couldn’t tell. With a camper between my vehicle and his, I could just see over the camper’s hood to the bear. The ranger was behind the camper and couldn’t see what the bear was doing. He asked me and I told him, “The cub is standing with two feet on the hood of that white car.” With that the ranger went around the camper and put his whistle to his lips and began blowing, walking straight at the cubs.
Grizzly Cub takes offense to the Warning Sign mentioning dangerous bears
Now this was a big ranger, maybe 6’-4” and 235 pounds or more, early 50’s – I wish I had got his name. He had driven up to our spot earlier in a white ranger truck and had parked behind our vehicles, parallel to the road. He wasn’t excited, didn’t go for his mace (apparently I should carry a whistle as well as the mace) or gun, just blew the whistle and took big strides towards the bears. Like children being caught doing something wrong by a parent, the quad sow and her cubs leaped away from the cars and scampered back into the sagebrush and off into the mist, disappearing from view at about fifty yards. Once again the clouds descended and it began to mist and rain as our visibility was diminished.
The ranger drives the three grizzles away with a whistle.
Everyone exited their vehicles and we all gathered by the white sedan to view the muddy grizzly cub paw prints on the guys car. Some were taking i-Phone photos. I had kept shooting with the 500mm lens, not wanting to leave the door of my vehicle to open the back and get out a 80-200mm f2.8 lens from my bag. I got great shots of the cub dismantling the sign but the cub at the car was too close. Like kids we stood around chattering, relating our own view of events. The ranger had walked down the road some distance but returned to view the muddy tracks with us. It was an exhilarating moment, apparently even for him, as he high-fived me and others as we related our stories once again. I told him that I appreciated how he had let us continue to shoot, even at that breath-taking close distance. He said he had many encounters with the sow and cubs and they had never been aggressive towards people, and so he was right. There, I said it, a ranger was actually right for a change.
Encountering the quad sow and cubs over three successive springs was a unique opportunity for me. The sow would have kicked the cubs loose sometime after our last encounter, going into season and being mated by a boar grizzly – to have a new set of cubs born during her hibernation this winter. As I write this in April 2013 that has probably already happened, and new cubs have been born, and the circle of life for these grizzlies will have continued. I will be crossing through the tangy smelling sagebrush in Swan Flats this coming June looking for her, for her new cubs, and hoping for another encounter with a bear that will always be know as the quad grizzly sow of Swan Flats, or by my last experience with her as the grizzlies in the mist bears.