Through the Lens: A Photojournalist and the Changing Tides Project

July 24, 2015 Posted by: Kaiti Chritz

Before today, I had never laid eyes on a brown bear. 

I’m not sure how many people actually get to experience the feeling of living their dream at 22 years old, but personally I can tell you that it’s an overwhelming surge of surreal moments. My job today? Fly out to the coast of Katmai National Park to take photos and video of the team that has been collaring brown bears as a part of the Changing Tides project.

As I approached the park plane with two cameras in hand, nerves surged over me. This was it. I was about to board the smallest plane I had ever flown in and fly out to the backcountry of Katmai National Park to document a team working with wild grizzly bears. Being a student from small-town Michigan, this adventure was more incredible than I could have dreamed up with my own imagination.

I could have lasted a week on the buzz that first flight gave me. The mountains, lakes, volcanos, and diversity of the landscape was unlike anything I have ever seen. Little did I know that just a few hours after we arrived at Swikshak, where myself and two other park employees were stationed for the project, we would hear the faint sound of an approaching helicopter. 

Aerial view of lake in Kaguyak CraterA crater lake sits on top of Mount Kaguyak,  a stratovolcano on the northeastern part of the park. NPS/K. Chritz.

Before I knew it, we were sailing over Katmai again, this time in a helicopter. It truly felt unreal – here I was, experiencing my first helicopter flight in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and on top of that I was en route to see my first brown bear up close. The helicopter landed and dropped us off, heading out with one member of the collaring team to capture the first bear.

When the pilot flew the rest of us to the collaring site, my eyes locked on the bear lying in the grass as we lowered the ground. Grant Hilderbrand, a member of the collaring team, shared that the bear was tranquilized and safe to be around, although she could move her mouth, tongue, and make noises. It would be at least two hours before she regained full movement.

brown bear pawsThe paws of the first collared bear captured on July 7, 2015 in Katmai National Park. NPS/K. Chritz photo.

There she was—a giant brown bear. Known by some as a ferocious predator, but by me as the most magnificent creature I’ve had the privilege of being close to. I had an overwhelming feeling of respect being in her presence. Respect for the life she lives, respect for her paws (larger than my hands) that carry her over this terrain that she calls home. I reached down and felt her fur. When my hand raised up and fell back down from her breath, I wondered how on earth I got lucky enough to experience this moment. 

I refocused into photo mode, going through the shot list one more time in my mind. What video footage was essential to telling this story completely? How was I going to tell it with both photo and video? Two cameras in hand, I began to work. I looked for the right angles and best light, all while listening intently to what was going on, and being sure to not get in the way of the work being done. This was my most intense assignment as a photojournalist to date. In this fast-paced and unpredictable environment, I had to be at my best. I couldn’t miss a moment.

biologists collect blood and hair samples from brown bearGrant Hilderbrand and Deb Cooper collect blood and hair samples from a brown bear on July 7, 2015 in Katmai Naitonal Park. NPS/K. Chritz.

It was like watching a choreographed sequence. Every member of the team had a job, working with efficiency and respect for the animal. Shaving a limb to draw blood, checking teeth for age, collecting fecal samples, collaring. Through the lens of my cameras, it all seemed to happen at once. I switched back and forth from taking photo to video, trying to get all aspects of the important work being done in both forms of media. Whether 15 minutes passed or an hour, I couldn’t tell. Time seemed non-existent in these spectacular moments. Just like that, the team was done. The helicopter flew off to find the next bear, and returned within 15 minutes to fly the crew over.

Biologists work on tranquilized bearScientists take measurements of a tranquilized bear in Katmai National Park on July 7, 2015. NPS/K. Chritz.

The next bear was equally beautiful, with longer hair than the previous. I was lying on the Alaskan tundra, quite literally nose to nose with a brown bear, taking photos of the scientists working around her. I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was to not only get to meet these people, but to get to share the amazing work they do. Through this data they get to share more than a glimpse of the life of Katmai brown bears, and learn how we can best protect them and their environment. To be able to help in sharing such an amazing story through photo and video is absolutely a dream come true. My next assignment is to continue documenting the work on bears in Katmai by joining a team of scientists conducting observations in Hallo Bay. The dream just keeps building.

person poses next to tranquilized bearKaiti Chritz is an SCA media intern for the Ocean Alaska Science and Learning Center. She is currently studying photojournalism and biology at Central Michigan University, and is focused on documenting the Changing Tides project this summer in Alaska’s national parks. NPS Photo.

Changing Tides, bear, Brown Bear, science

10 Comments Comments icon

  1. cat hat
    April 24, 2018 at 12:07

    Excellent web site you've got here.. It?s hard to find high-quality writing like yours nowadays. I honestly appreciate people like you! Take care!!

  2. Joy
    August 28, 2015 at 11:00

    The National Park Service and the researchers conducting these studies are on the same side as the people who love the wilderness and the bears in Katmai National Park. As one of those researchers, our goal is preserving the bears’ way of life, and if we don’t have an accurate view of what resources are important to them, we cannot do our job to preserve those resources for them. The work we do is done to benefit the bears in the long run. Helicopters are used to locate bears for the study, but the amount of time bears are pursued by helicopters is short (

  3. August 11, 2015 at 02:08

    Congratulations-so proud of you! We watch the live cams thru and are truly fascinated with the landscape, sun rise and sets, animals and birds. The Rangers take great pride in their jobs and with communicating with the chatters. So jealous that you found something to do with your life that you love (work outside of automotive in MI is hard to come by). Please don't let some comments get you down-sometimes we just like animals more than people;)

  4. July 30, 2015 at 12:57

    Quote: "We saw how they used their helicopter to flush the mother bears and cubs and then proceed to run them down helicopter traumatizing them until they were exhausted at which point the mother bear turned to protect her cubs from the swooping noisy helicopter that deafened her, only to get a dart, a BLOW OFF COLLAR and SPRAY PAINTED GREEN for her trouble. Not to mention the nesting eagles, ducks and other wildlife being displaced and deafened by the helicopter. It is time for our National Parks to stop being private laboratories for spoiled brats. We have yet to see the effects of this on the bears, however every naturalist guide working with the bears believes it to be the most pointless and stupid thing allowed to take place in our National Parks. And you know what, they plan on continuing it for 2 more years. \ It is time to stop this nonsense." It is time to stop this nonsense!

  5. July 30, 2015 at 10:00

    I love watching them on the link that they provide. so you being able to watch them up close wow what a wonderful opportunity for you. They are beautiful animals.

  6. July 29, 2015 at 09:43

    These last wilderness areas remaining for the magnificent coastal brown bears and preserved by National Park status should not be treated as private or special interest research laboratories and the magnificent coastal brown bears treated like lab rats for the pleasure of special interests. By the National Park rules helicopters are not to be permitted to operate in the Park except for emergency's and yet here you are and not even a "Determination of Need" study beforehand. This travesty must stop. By the way, the article did not mention they humiliated the mother bears even more by SPRAY PAINTING THEM GREEN Naturalist Guides working in Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks are calling for this helicopter study be be stopped immediately as it is inevitably in one manner or another going to cause the death of a number of mother bears and their cubs

  7. July 26, 2015 at 05:24

    Amazing photos and article Kaiti. This is an experience that you will remember the rest of your life. I'm sure you were in awe of the bears beauty and strength; How about their claws? Good luck with your work.

  8. July 26, 2015 at 04:17

    WOOW !!! Great work !! I would love to see the videos as well. Any chance that could happen? I think it is vitally important to document these moments. Tens of Millions of us LOVE the Park system, and when you can share these moments with us, it really brings the power of the Park System home.

  9. July 25, 2015 at 11:19

    Thank you so much Kaiti, you found wonderful words ♥ together with the amazing photos you made a great present to us all with this article. Best wishes, Martina

  10. July 25, 2015 at 10:39

    Wonderful post, Kaiti! And great photos! Thank you for documenting this important work, and for sharing your experience with us. I hope we'll get to see images and hear a report of your next assignment, too!

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Last updated: July 24, 2015

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