This was my first trip to this wonderful and bizarre place. Chris Gibbs, Ryan Marshik and myself camped on Pelican Lake near Orr, Minnesota so we could be in the sanctuary early. Photographers pay a hefty fee to roam amongst the bears before the sanctuary opens to the public at 5pm. We had a mini-training session with Rhonda about the do’s and don’ts of mingling with wild bears.

1. Never lay down…They may see you as vulnerable and submissive.

2. Never step away from your camera bag…Bears are very curious and several photographers have lost their stuff to a mischievous bear.

3. Speak in a low and firm voice while backing away if a bear becomes too interested in you.

What a feeling to be surrounded by WILD Black Bears that really could care less about you (for the most part). I don’t and won’t shoot images at “game farms” where captive animals are the models. These are bears that are coming to feeders (like big black furry birds). It still was not an easy decision to support a place like this. After visiting, I would certainly endorse their educational and research goals. These bears are wild bears that come here from the surrounding forests. The sanctuary only feeds nuts, berries, fruit from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Unfortunately it was a sunny day so it was tough lighting conditions. My favorite is actually the 10mm wide angle shot converted to B&W (above). Wildlife photography with a wide angle lens! I also took quite a bit of video. Chris, Ryan and I were the only photographers there.

I was surprised by two things…That the bears are much more focused on the other bears (not the humans) and that they are such delicate eaters…Often laying down to nibble, sometimes only picking one thing from the assortment. It was not always a comfortable place to shoot…especially when one bear paid me a little bit too much attention.

The big males came in later in the morning. This hefty guy must have been pushing 400 pounds. Yet, he lay down and delicately nibbled at some food on a rock.

When several males are interested in the same feeding area, someone has to lose out. This male rushed a smaller male to get him away from his spot.

I call this one, the “old man and the walking stick” It’s kind of a creepy picture.

Cubs are often the main attraction early in the year. Sows bring their cubs early in the day to avoid the big males. Male Black Bears have been known to kill cubs. A sow without cubs may come back into estrus and the male can mate. In the animal kingdom it’s all about passing on your genes.

We were taking a break at Chris’s Tahoe when I yelled, “heads up!” A female was running down the road towards us. But she whizzed past, excited for the bear buffet ahead. Behind her trotted three small cubs of the year. At some unheard huff, all three scampered up the nearest large tree, a popal.

We had fun photographing these patient bruins. Moms protect their offspring from other bears by sending them up a tree until she’s done eating. The cubs are still nursing so the don’t need solid food yet.