Bear-Tracks writer, Jaime Stathis, had the opportunity to interview Michelle Theall, who spent the last eight years as an editor and photographer at Alaska magazine, where she became enamored with the Last Frontier. This obsession led to the creation of Wild Departures, a wildlife viewing company specializing in bears and other wildlife on photo tours in Alaska and beyond. For this interview, we focused mainly on Theall’s trips to Brooks Falls in Katmai National park and Preserve, known for the iconic images of grizzlies feeding on spawning salmon.
Where Did It All Begin?
Q: I know you grew up in Texas and that outside of a zoo, you were pretty far from grizzlies or other wildlife. Did your parents take you traveling to the national parks, or did you discover a love for Western landscapes on your own?
A: I’ve always loved animals, but I grew up in three of the largest cities in the United States (Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio), so about the best I could do for nature within biking distance was a fabricated duck pond in the neighborhood. The farther west I got and the more I experienced nature and open spaces, the more I felt at home and in my own skin. It started with the open plains of West Texas, where I went to college at Texas Tech, and continued after I moved to Colorado.
Q: Can you tell us about when you were 21 and saw the photo of the grizzly on top of Brooks Falls?
A: The bear thing really took hold of me when I saw that photo by Tom Mangelsen in a gallery. I couldn’t believe that someone stood there and took that image—saw that bear catching a fish mid-air jumping up a waterfall. I was hooked.
Q: Do you recall the first photograph you took of a grizzly? Was there anything remarkable about the setting or the feeling of capturing the image?
A: The first image I took of a grizzly was at Brooks Falls more than 15 years ago. I went there specifically to see grizzlies and get that famous shot. That first image was blurry from shaking hands, and I never got to see them on top of the waterfall that day. But we saw about 30 of them in 8 hours, which absolutely blew my mind.
What is Your Connection to Bears?
Q: How would you describe your relationship with the bears? Do you love grizzlies or just think they’re photogenic?
A: I do love bears. Something inside of me shifts just seeing one or being around them. I can’t explain it, really. As for a relationship, it’s quite one-sided. I don’t imagine the bears feel any kind of connection to me beyond curiosity or sometimes fear. You don’t have a friendship with the bears.
Q: Can you tell us a little more about your decision to launch Wild Departures?
A: While I know not everyone loves wildlife or wants to spend copious amounts of time in the wilderness, I do know there are folks out there like me, people who want an immersion experience seeing wildlife in their natural habitat and studying their behaviors.
Wild Departures isn’t for those folks wanting to check a box, “Saw a polar bear, check! Now I’m ready to go home.” It’s for people wanting to go out a few days in a row and spent time in the animals’ presence. I started Wild Departures because I’d spent so much time in Alaska, and I’d bump into strangers there saying they didn’t see a single bear, which was the one thing high on their list.
I thought, “I can take you right to them, safely, right place, right time of year.” It’s so far to come to be disappointed, and it’s unnecessary.
Q: Do you assume everyone who signs up for one of your trips will respect the wildlife? I know it’s tricky, but with people so eager to “get the shot,” do you find that they require education on best practices around grizzlies?
A: All of my guests have a healthy respect for animals, plus everyone gets an orientation regarding what’s expected of them and what’s safe. I’ve had to rein in a few people, but for the most part, it’s been from a guest getting excited and moving too quickly toward a bear and scaring him off, which ruins the experience for the others.
We watch the behavior of the animal. If it’s trying to move away from you or is uncomfortable in your presence, move on. You don’t want to stress out the bears or have them be afraid of people. That said, we go to habituated bear areas where the bears are quite used to people and have learned (because we trained the tourists, not the bears) that things walking on two legs aren’t hunting them, aren’t a food source, and aren’t competing for a mate.
If you walk into other areas of Alaska or Yellowstone, the bears aren’t used to seeing humans. They don’t necessarily feel safe around you, or they might be surprised by your presence. You could get charged, which is a defensive response.
What’s An Experience Like?
Q: Do you find that clients are afraid once they get close to the grizzlies? How close do you get?
A: Some clients are fearful, but I think that a little fear is a good thing, even if in certain areas it’s not really warranted. We stay within the distance guidelines of the area, which most of the time requires 100 yards. You never approach a bear while feeding.
However, most of the bears didn’t get the distance memo on the guidelines and they often break the distance barriers, at which point you let them pass. You yield on the trail. You back up or move to the side. You never, ever run from a bear.
Q: How do you, as the guide, balance respecting the wildlife and getting the shot?
A: It helps to remember that this is an animal that could kill you if it wanted to and that your behavior could ruin the experience for everyone else around you. In my mind, the bears make the rules, and if you pay attention, you can see when they are afraid or stressed or curious or aggressive. If a bear runs away from you, it’s telling you to go away.
That said, anyone who has spent time around bears in Katmai, Lake Clark, or McNeil River will tell you they’ve seen mother bears lead their cubs over to a group to “babysit” while they fish, knowing that the cubs will be safe from male bears who are also nearby.
It’s the craziest, most privileged thing I’ve experienced—that and when the moms lay down right in front of you and nurse. Those are the times when they and their cubs are the most vulnerable, and it demonstrates their ease and trust of people in their midst. The bear has thousands of acres to disappear into to nurse, but instead she plops down next to human beings.
Who Goes On These Trips?
Q: Who are your clients? Do they go for the wildlife experience, the thrill, or the hope of getting the perfect shot?
A: It’s a combination of all of the above, but the one thing they all have in common is wanting to immerse themselves in the experience and spend some time with the species we are traveling to see. I try to help photographers get the shot they came for, but no one really leaves disappointed. It’s magical and something you have to experience for yourself.
Q: I noticed on your website that unlike other wildlife viewing/photographic tour that just visits Brooks Falls for the day, you stay three nights on site! That sounds amazing. Can you tell us more about staying there? I checked out Brooks Lodge and noticed that they only allow water in the guest cabins—this is smart! Do guests try to sneak in granola bars and other “just in case” snacks or do they follow the rules? With so many bears living right there, I imagine fear might be a powerful motivator.
A: In these habituated bear areas, it’s critical that bears never get food from humans and associate them with a quick meal, period. That’s why we can be around them without getting hurt. Guests cannot keep food in the cabins and they can’t carry it with them in the backpacks. There’s a food locker and dining hall at Brooks Fall—a designated safe place for people to keep food and eat. Otherwise, it won’t work and guests seem to understand that. No one wants to be mauled by a bear and no one wants to see a bear be put down. It’s worked for 50 years.
Q: Speaking of fear, has a guest ever been so afraid/more afraid than they expected? What happened? Were they able to get over it?
A: No one has had a big fear response. The initial thrill and adrenaline seem to be kept in check. Everyone is in awe of what’s possible and the level of respect between animals and humans. It’s a great education that we are the problem more often than not in terms of how wild creatures respond to us.
Why Do We Need These Experiences?
Q: The combination of awe and fear—plus flying into a remote location disconnected from technology, which most people aren’t used to these days—must cause some transformational experiences for the clients. Is there anything you care to share about that? It must be something for you to be a witness to this over and over?
A: People lose track of what day or time it is, whether they’ve eaten a meal, or when they last had a shower. It recalibrates us. The bears don’t care if you have on makeup or wear a suit or if you’ve recently had a shave or a haircut. There is something quite liberating in realizing that the entire world has gone on without you, that we could be at war and you wouldn’t know it.
We aren’t the center of the universe and we have very little control over anything but ourselves at any given time. All the anxiety created by the outside world—news, social media, politics, stocks—melts away, and my guests realize that while those daily pressures still exist, they don’t have to dominate our lives, causing so much stress and affecting our health. By stepping away for a week, you realize that the world spins with or without you.
Q: Does everyone carry bear spray at all times? What’s the safety protocol like? Has there ever been a close encounter?
A: No close encounters other than good ones. You aren’t allowed to carry bear spray in any of these areas because all it takes is one person panicking that a bear is too close and spraying the guy to make the bears see us as a threat. Again, 50 years of data show that this works.
We don’t attack the bears. We came into their habitat on purpose. I would carry bear spray in other areas, and most of the rangers carry bear spray but they’re there to protect you without overreacting.
In McNeil River, Katmai, and Lake Clark, most of the guides and rangers will tell you that they have rarely, if ever, had to use any of these things. The bears don’t want to eat you. They want to eat the salmon that are running. Attacking you takes energy they don’t want to waste, energy they need for mating and for protecting their territories from other bears.
We realize that not everyone will have the means or motivation to trek to Alaska to witness grizzlies in the unique habitat that is Katmai National Park, but we’re so grateful for those who do. The images created foster reverence for grizzlies, which in turn leads to increased awareness and protection of this important keystone species. Our world falls apart without them!