Editor's note: If there's an icon in the wild kingdom of Grand Teton National Park, it would be No. 399, a venerable grizzly sow known for her prolific breeding and trio of cubs in tow. Contributing writer/photographer Deby Dixon recently traveled to the park to gain some images of No. 399, and the park's other grizzlies, and came home with the following story.
The Photo Story
A few days ago a friend called and said, "Deby, pack your bags and get down here tonight, 399 just came out with three cubs."
I am not an effusive, loud person, but suddenly found myself screeching with delight at the news that Grand Teton National Park's research grizzly sow 399 was alive and well and had once again emerged with three cubs. My friend probably regretted the choice between calling and emailing because I couldn't quit making those delighted sounds that one rarely hears from me.
Within the hour my bags were packed and breakfast, lunch and dinner were thrown into a cooler, and I was ready to hit the road for the Tetons bright and early the next morning. The news took me back two years when I had picked up the Spokesman Review newspaper and read that a 15 year-old grizzly sow was delighting photographers and wildlife watchers by once again raising three cubs close to the road in Grand Teton National Park.
The short story of this grizzly sow hooked me instantly, and even though I had never been to the Tetons, my heart was rocketed to Wyoming and I began making plans for a solo tent camping trip to three national parks.
At the time that I read about 399, I was finishing up a quarter at the local community college where I had gone to become better at creating the photo story. Writing came first for me, and then photography happened along as an afterthought. But from the very first day that I discovered the power of the image and the words together, and my ability to capture them, every word was illustrated with a photo and every photo with a word.
When I imagined myself standing beneath the rugged, jagged edges of the breasts of the Rockies, photographing wild grizzly bears, I knew it was time to leave the comfort of the classroom and head out into the real world to practice my storytelling with adventures in national parks.
My first night in the Tetons was at Colter Bay cabins for a comfy night on a bed and two or three showers in preparation for a few nights of camping and long days of watching and photographing wildlife. At check-in I asked where to find the bears, and the person helping me began to say that they had just been up the road, behind the gas station but her supervisor stopped her mid-sentence and said that they did not know where the bears were.
Well, silly them, didn't they know that they had a grizzly sow and three cubs as neighbors? I had gone to the Tetons with no idea of how to find the bears but was lucky enough to check in right where they liked to hang out.
When I ventured out, after unpacking and taking my first shower, I saw, up close and personal, four grizzly bears in a wildflower covered meadow! Two years ago I was a wildlife photographer wannabe with a short lens and the desire to capture a pretty photo of an animal without caring anything about the life of the critter.
And then I met 399! Cars lined the road and people filled every available standing spot that allowed them a glimpse and a possible photo of the sow and her three cubs. The wildlife brigade (park rangers trying to keep bears and humans safely separated) was walking a fine line between allowing us to see the bears and making sure that we kept our distance.
Being ever adaptable, along with feeling desperate to capture photos of the bears, I quickly found someone who seemed to know what they were doing and followed their movements. Thus began my education in wildlife photography, starting with reading the other photographers by watching how they anticipated the movements of the animal and attempted to position themselves in a place that would allow a clear view, unobstructed by trees, tall grasses and sagebrush.
Preferably we wanted the animals in the later afternoon sunlit meadow that was covered with wildflowers, but those moments were fleeting and would be missed if not ready. For three glorious weeks I camped at Signal Mountain Campground, instead of a few nights, and spent long days chasing grizzly bears and taking their photos. I was so focused on the bears that it took me a while to begin looking around at the beautiful landscape - like, how could one possibly miss the Tetons?! Grizzly bear fever, I guess.
Capturing the landscape of the Tetons took me into a whole other world of exploration, and I wondered why anyone would ever want to leave. I sure didn't.
Over the course of those weeks, I learned much about wildlife photography. The patience of waiting for the animal to come out and be seen and how it pays off with surprise visits by bears at my front bumper, taught me well. I watched the photographers and the bears and came to know habits and mannerisms and was able to anticipate movements.
Patience and learning to read the animal and the environment are what set great photographers apart from the others, and result in the photos that capture a special moment and tell a story. Through listening to stories about 399 I came to know some of her history, and, through being in the Tetons, began to create my own with her and her family.
At the age of 10, 399 emerged into spring with her first trio of cubs and kept them safe by raising them near people, which naturally detracts the male (boar) grizzly bears from coming near them. In the spring boars have only one thing on their mind and they will kill and eat the cubs in order to get the females to quit lactating so that they can breed again. These three cubs survived and went out on their own, but one was eventually shot by a hunter defending his elk carcass.
Five years later and 399 had not been seen much for awhile, until she emerged with another trio of cubs, not long after her daughter, 610, was spotted with two cubs of her own.
Like her mother, 610 proceeded to raise her cubs near the road in the Willow Flats area of the park, while mom concentrated on the Colter Bay area. Grizzlies travel great distances with no troubles and the territories of mother and daughter overlapped. The ultimate photo for photographers would have been to see the families together, cubs and all, but, as it was, the grizzly paparazzi had their choice of bears to photograph and often had to choose between mother and daughter.
Mom, with her triplets, seemed to be the favorite and photo ops with them were often out in the open, amongst the wildflowers. 610, meanwhile, was a master at crossing the road quickly and disappearing into the willows.
The two bears were easy to identify because mother had red ear tags and daughter had yellow ear tags put on by the grizzly bear researchers who gave them their numbers.
While watching the two moms and five cubs during my three week stay in the Tetons, I heard speculation about 399's health and her ability to care for the cubs because it was thought that, due to bad teeth, she had a difficult time chewing. And, as the days wore on and the danger from the boars decreased, 399 was seen less and less while her daughter was known for popping out of the willows at any second.
One of the most fascinating aspects of my time watching the bears was having the opportunity to watch 610 teaching her youngsters to hunt elk on Willow Flats. The magic of a national park and watching raw nature is amazing. The trio did not take down an elk but witnesses to this event came away with an experience that they would never forget.
All too soon it was time for me to leave, but by then I had become so fascinated by the story of the bears that I continued to follow them from afar, oftentimes feeling like my body was caged in a city while my heart was in the Tetons.
One day a grizzly sow with yellow ear tags emerged with three cubs instead of two and everyone went looking for 399, who was eventually spotted with only two cubs. A twist in the story - 399's daughter had adopted one of her sons.
Had the cub gotten lost and been taken in by his older sister, or had mother and daughter met behind the willows with 399 asking for 610's help? We will never know what went down, but the story became more fascinating.
The following spring the mothers emerged into the spotlight once again, 610 now a mother of triplets and 399 a mother of twins. As fate would have it, a boar came along and 399 ran from her cubs, which kept them safe, and disappeared from sight for a time. She never reunited with the two cubs, now named Brownie and Ash, and it is believed that Brownie was killed by a car not long after they were out on their own. The fate of Ash is unknown.
Two seasons gone by and every time that I looked at the photos of all of those wonderful grizzly encounters, I cringed because the images were not sharp, due to camera failure.
But, recently, things changed on the photo equipment front and after years of honing my wildlife photography skills with a slow Nikon 80-400mm 4.5-5.6 lens, I was able to purchase a Nikon D-800, a 500mm ƒ4 lens, a 1.4 teleconverter, a Sirui tripod and a Wimberly tripod head from Bozeman Camera and Repair in Bozeman, Montana. I can't thank Marshall and the staff enough for their help in getting me into the right equipment, which included free rental of a test camera and lens to make sure I was making the right choice.
New equipment and 610 had already kicked her three cubs out, after a week of frolicking on the ice covered Oxbow Bend, beneath Mt. Moran, and the last thing that I expected was to hear that 399 was going to emerge with three healthy and beautiful cubs - looking pretty good herself.
I packed my new gear and a toothbrush, planning to spend a night in the front seat of my car, and rushed to the Tetons to greet the now 17 year-old mother of three. Pilgrim Creek, near Colter Bay was running fast and furious and 399 was trying to get her cubs to the other side, via the bridge, which was under construction.
For about two-and-a-half days rangers, the bear brigade, and photographers watched and waited for the mom to get safely across the bridge, praying that she wouldn't become so desperate that she would attempt a swim across the creek. But, the mom was patient and after some failed attempts, which clearly left her exasperated, the family crossed and monopolized the road for some time until they were finally on their way to mom's destination.
That mom knew right where she wanted to go and nothing was going to stop her. Getting photos was tough because photographers were competing for narrow spaces of opportunity, but, thanks to my new equipment, two more years of learning about the movement of wildlife, being patient and a Teton ranger bending over backwards to make sure that we were able to see the bears, I was rewarded with a second chance and some great images.
And, now the photos and the stories of the wildlife that I get to watch over periods of time, have finally come together in a complete package. For me, photography is not so much about the pretty animal shot, though they are nice, but about the story behind the shot. And, I find that my customers want the photos that come with a story, which they can pass on to family and friends.
The story of 399 continues - are you hooked yet?