nature and wildlife photography by Joseph Classen

Grizzly and Kodiak Brown Bears Gallery

A huge, at sized Kodiak bear track. Joseph Classen
Grizzly bear claw marks on a tree near the Russian river, Alaska.
A huge bear track at Katmai national Park, Alaska. Joseph Classen.

Welcome to bear country! Hat-sized tracks and fresh claw marks on nearby trees are reminders that one is no longer at the top of the food chain!

A spellbinding vapor slowly rises from the tall, river-side sedge grass. The morning sun baths the land in glorious warmth. The surrounding emerald green begins to radiate a golden hue in the intensifying light of a new day. Overhead, the sky explodes with an array of blending colors while clouds slowly drift and transform, as if lovingly stroked by an artist’s brush. The hypnotizing sound of rushing water is interrupted only by the intermittent splashing of spawning salmon moving upstream. The air is thick, with fragrant, organic aromas. Jagged, snowcapped peaks reach to the heavens in the far off distance while brushy foothills meander down into the fertile valleys and coastlines. This is a land of rugged majesty, where few humans trod. While captivating beauty is all around, it is a land where tooth, fang, and claw reigns supreme. The volatile struggle for survival is always brooding under the surface of an otherwise paradisiacal abode. The peace and tranquility of this land, as well as its inhabitants, can erupt at any time. But for now, all is well.

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-filled dung is scattered virtually everywhere. The aftermath of a wild, feeding frenzy is evident, and slightly unsettling. Grassy, matted-down trails are carved to and fro, weaving in and out of the surrounding area. Nowhere amidst the primordial scene are the tracks of mankind, except for yours. A slightly confusing, alarming sense of both extreme caution and exhilaration begins to arise in your soul. You feel a strange sensation of being watched, of knowing good and well that there is an acute awareness of your presence by the creatures that remain hidden for the time being. Your voice, your scent, your actions, your very existence in such a domain begin to feel more and more out of place. You are, indeed, a stranger in what for most people is, indeed, a strange land. This is not your home, but you may be a tolerated guest, welcomed for a visit, if you abide by their rules, respect their ways, and consciously mind your manners.      

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-sensitive nose in your general direction, followed by a quick, confirming glance. He knows you are there, and is not bothered by your presence, as long as your behavior is non-threatening and consistent with that of the other humans he has seen there before.

As the bear begins his daily stroll along the salmon stream, looking for a few more fresh fish to fill his ever-growing belly, you marvel at the sheer beauty and strength of this magnificent creature. You can hear him breathing…slow, deep, heavy breaths. You hear his footfalls on the moist earth, ponderously repetitious and steady. You admire his thick, glistening fur, still wet with morning dew. As he casually passes by, you notice the gigantic claws and enormous teeth. His musculature is absolutely astounding! All the photos and videos you have ever seen in the past seem irrelevant at the moment. None can even begin to capture and express what you are feeling and now witnessing in person! You realize, with immense gravity, that you are clearly not the dominant being in this land. This solitary creature who is now so calm as he peacefully roams about, could in an instant inflict brutal, unimaginable suffering upon you…if he so desired. There are no high fences or iron bars separating you from him. The realization of this fact only multiplies the off-the-charts level of respect you have quickly gained for this animal, his kind, and this place in which they dwell.

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-out salmon to his mouth and begins to feed. The sound of ripping skin, the crunching of bones, and the swallowing of flesh only increase your awareness of the reality of the cycle of life all around you. After devouring the first of many meals to come for the day, the bear continues his stroll. As he passes by, you notice his face: not grimacing with aggression, but serene. He’s enjoying the beauty of the day as much as you. He’s happy that life is good and abundant at the moment. A smile is upon his face, literally! He moves on down the line, exiting your life forever. This enormous creature eventually vanishes on the horizon, like a ball of fuzz slowly drifting away in the wind. Welcome to bear country!

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 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 –  How to Photograph Bears – The Beauty of the Beast