Back during my college years, when I was first delving into photography, I started spending my summers working within national parks. The first of these was at Grants Grove of Kings Canyon National Park. I worked the front-desk, doing reservations and check-ins for their lodging and campgrounds. Situated only about 20 minutes drive from the adjacent Sequoia National Park, it was a great jumping off point for exploring the Sierra Nevadas: the snowy high alpine passes, the oak covered lowland valleys, and the ancient sequoia groves that stood in-between.
That summer in the mountains was a transformational period in my life. I'd never been exposed to such a pristine wilderness, an environment still that close to its natural state. I was captivated by it, and felt that it was something that needed to be shared, hoping that perhaps my photography could encourage others to seek out the wonder of such places. I spent the summer trying to document it through the lens, approaching it as photojournalism. In the process I grew a lot as a photographer, but the portfolio I came away with at the end of that summer still felt incomplete. It was missing a key species within the mountain range's ecology: the Black Bears that occupy the top of the food chain. It's not that I didn't have the opportunity for shots when I lived there. The density of Black Bears within the Sequoia forests are among the highest I've seen anywhere. On one of my first hikes there I had seven encounters in a single day. But at the time my gear and wildlife photography skills weren't really up to a level where I could do this species justice. I was shooting with 50 ISO Velvia transparency film, better suited for landscapes, and in the shadows of the towering trees, my shutter speeds were too slow and the resulting images were blurry, or the images would be of only their rear ends as they plodded into the distance. For the decade that followed I'd been dreaming of someday returning to the Sequoia forest to give it another go. This year I had the chance to do so.
We departed from the giant forrest into the same area I had seen so many bears years prior, heading out for a 40 mile journey along the High Sierra trail up to Hamilton Lakes. After seeing only a few signs of scat and prints the first three days I was beginning to get a little discouraged, but on the fourth and fifth day we ended seeing a total of six, including a mother and two clubs, which was a pleasant sight to witness. While Black Bears may not be as aggressive as Grizzlies, they still deserve space and respect. This is especially true with protective mothers. The mother we encountered eventually caught our scent, rearing up onto her hind legs and giving a few grunts as a warning. Bear-spray in hand, we quietly pulled back to signal to her that we weren't a threat. Her cubs quickly scurried up a large pine as she retreated into the woods. We waited quietly. After a few minutes she returned, signaling to her cubs that it was safe to come down.