The world that most wildlife live in is not a particularly forgiving environment. There are many factors that come into play in an animals survival – quality of food, parental care and upbringing, environment, and luck. There are others as well, but luck plays a huge role. In 2010 I was fortunate to have several encounters with a grizzly sow and her four cubs in Yellowstone National Park. Over the next 7 years I photographed either the cubs, the sow, her adult cubs, or the sow with her new cubs. This is the main photo for my thousand word essay.
I can still recall the first encounter as if it was yesterday. I had 2 vehicles of photographers following me one morning at the end of May 2010. We had driven out of Mammoth Hot Springs, past the Golden Gate, and out onto Swan Flats heading south. I’ve photographed many bears in this area so I wasn’t surprised to see a large grizzly heading down the hill east of the road, 300 yards out, just past the pull-out near Swan Lake. We pulled over and set up to await the bear heading directly towards us. At a little over 100 yards we began to see the grizzly cubs running through the sagebrush following their mother. I don’t know about everyone else but my heartbeat and blood pressure rose immediately.
At about 40 yards she moved towards some fallen trees to our right. That is the moment I took the photo, shown above. For a brief millisecond all four cubs stood up to watch their mother, just out-of-frame to the right, but before I could get the camera going one crouched back down – an opportunity lost. Still, the resulting image is one of my personal favorites – and has sold as a fine art image as well as a stock image. We had two more encounters with the sow and infamous quad cubs on that safari, but not to the degree of the first encounter.
In 2011 I had heard that the sow lost two cubs (of the four) towards the end of 2010, one to a wolf, the other died in hibernation. Of these four shown in the image above, the two cubs on the left survived, the two on the right did not. Again, we started up to check Swan Flats in 2011 and encountered the sow with her two surviving quad cubs very close to the road – so close that we had to remain vigilant to her every move.
She and the cubs worked their way to us digging roots, before the sow stepped into the road stopping traffic, then waited for the cubs to cross – just like a crossing guard would do at an elementary school. A few days later we found them again, just after sunrise, working the west side meadow of sagebrush. While we saw the grizzlies digging roots, the sow was also very aware of the elk cows roaming just a hundred yards away – they were no doubt paying attention to how close these grizzlies were getting to their newborn calves, bedded down somewhere in the sea of sagebrush. Grizzlies find calf elk delicious.
In 2012, now with the cubs in their third year, I knew that they would be kicked loose by their mother when she went into breeding season. We happened upon the whole family in Swan Flats once again – on a wintry, wet, cold spring morning in early June when the clouds were at about sagebrush level and we were driving in heavy mist.
Bears, like people, have their favorite places to eat, to sleep, to drink, and to live out their lives. Swan Flats was in the middle of this sows world and as long as she is alive she would return to this area over and over-again. Spring grasses must be succulent here, summer probably takes her to higher elevations for nutritious food, while autumn brings a smorgasbord of ripe berries, insects, and pine nuts – all that a bear needs (along with wolf-killed elk carcasses) to fatten up for a successful hibernation.
Anyway, about a hundred yards out into the heavy mist I saw dark shadows moving through the sagebrush. We pulled over to check it out. It was the grizzlies yet again. This time we were in for a point-blank encounter that for a few moments forced us back into our vehicles. The sow and cubs mischievously moved close to the vehicles, one cub standing up to tear down the dangerous bear sign right in front of my vehicle. Without time to change lenses I had to shoot it with my 500mm lens. It then stood up tall, balancing itself with its muddy claws on the hood of a sedan one car over from me. The driver was clearly terrified and didn’t see the humor of his situation. Photographing his face in the car was a missed opportunity that just didn’t occur to me until later. Darn!
The bears moved off, playing grab ass with their mother who swatted at them over and over again. I knew this would be the end for this family, as June begins the breading season for bears – but we got this last opportunity with them.
The following year, 2013, we ran across the two cubs, still together, still working the areas their mother had taught them were good sources of food. You might think it’s difficult to tell bears apart, but it isn’t. Fur color, light chest patches, scars – all make identifying them easier. In that brief 2013 encounter I got this final shot of both the surviving cubs.
I possibly saw one cub in 2014, it was hard tell. The sow showed up in 2016 with two brand new cubs for us to photograph – and in 2017 we ran across them again, this time on the slopes descending Swan Flats into Mammoth Hot Springs. This shot of the sow grizzly, in 2016, with cubs just out of frame, is my favorite. The fresh forehead wound was from defending her cubs from an attacking boar grizzly – apparently she won the fight.