Through the Lens with Leon Lorenz

Wild River Adventures 2017

Leon Lorenz

Part 1 - Every August for more than 25 years remote rivers, spawning Chinook salmon, and grizzly bears have drawn me from other projects to film these three amazing wonders of nature together. The rivers where I concentrate my time are all part of the Fraser River watershed. They start their journey from melting snowpacks and glaciers back in the mountains, ever increasing in size as they pick up tributaries along its way to the Fraser River. The water has a voice of its own, sometimes roaring as if in protest as its hurtled downhill and over large rocks, through log jams and around sharp corners. Other times you can barely hear a whisper as the water flows with hardly a ripple. The saying "quiet waters run deep" surely applies to these rivers and creeks as the water depth can change from six inches to 10 feet or more in less than a stones throw.

I really admire the Chinook salmon. They are the largest of the five main Pacific Ocean species, with the other four being the Sockeye, Pink, Chum and Coho. Most of them now as four-year-olds have returned to their natal river where their life began. They have escaped from hungry predators, battled waterfalls and rapids, missed various fishing operations, and some swam over 1000 km up the Fraser River. The odds of them making it back is very slim indeed, as on average two will return to spawn of approximately 6000 eggs that each female will lay.

The grizzly bear is the most feared and respected animal in North America. It is fast and powerful enough to catch and kill an adult moose under the right conditions and every human and animal sits up and takes notice when the "King of the Mountain " enters their space. Grizzlies love eating fresh salmon, and those that live near a salmon-bearing river are very fortunate indeed. The grizzly bear is one of my favorite animals to film and capturing this magnificent creature charging after salmon with water flying everywhere, well what can I say, it doesn't get any better than that.

Wild River Adventures 2017

We humans are creatures of habit and I decided for this year 2017 to return to where I had previous filming success in past years. My plan was to go for ten days; however, I knew the weather could make or break my trip. Lots of rain usually means high, murky water and the bears will then generally spend most of their time forging for berries, grubs, roots and various vegetation in the forest rather then following the rivers. Also, I've observed over the past quarter of a century that the number of Chinook salmon that now return is only a fraction of what it was when I first started filming in 1991. Ambushing for grizzlies with only three or four salmon in the spawning channel can be quite discouraging. The more salmon there are in any given location the better, which translates into lots of action in the water. They are more easily caught by hungry bears which makes for exciting footage to capture.

The first river I checked was higher than normal for mid August and also quite murky, and my big disappointment was that there was hardly any salmon there. A highlight for me to observe - but unfortunately was not able to film - was the very first salmon I saw for the spawning season actually being caught by a mature bald eagle. The struggling salmon had no chance to escape the powerful talons of the eagle that had a firm grip around the gills area. This all happened in a span of about ten seconds, and by the time the eagle had the salmon landed on the gravel bar it spotted me and quickly flew away. Only once before have I seen this extremely rare event and fortunately I was able to film it, which can be seen in my "Journey Home of the Chinook Salmon" film. I explored more areas along the river that evening and next morning without seeing much for spawning Chinooks so I decided to head to another one of my favourite rivers.

By mid afternoon I arrived at my new location and found the river crystal clear and quite low, which is what I hoped for. Now hopefully there will be some decent number of salmon to make things interesting. My thoughts go to when I first came to this river nearly 20 years ago. I had parked my pickup and had decided I would walk for just a few minuets to the river to check for salmon and bear tracks so I didn't bother to bring my camera gear with me. As I broke out of the bush and stepped on to the gravel bar I spotted a grizzly heading in my direction about 50 yards away. I stepped back into the forest and decided to hurry back for my camera, but the bear was gone before I returned. I knew it was a shot in the dark but I decided to try anyway. 

Part - 2

Wild River Adventures 2017

I found that the ideal way to travel this river was by a small and light nine-foot kayak as it is easy to pack around log jams and tow if the water is too shallow or too fast to paddle upstream. I stowed my camera in the waterproof compartment, tied on my pack and headed upstream as two ospreys circled overhead. This stretch of the river was quite deep in spots and the paddling wasn't difficult. A quarter of a mile upstream the water depth became quite shallow with a faster current, however I managed to keep the kayak moving forward without getting out and towing. The next corner of the river two white-tailed deer suddenly frightened by my presence bounded from the gravel bar and into the safety of the forest. With mounting excitement and anticipation of what may lay ahead for filming opportunities I slowly but steadily worked my way upstream. As I paddled I scanned the sandy areas for bear tracks and made a mental note of all the spawning groups of salmon that I encountered. Most of these spawning channels didn't offer a decent ambush location, which is a must for filming grizzlies fishing this narrow river. For nearly one hour I headed upstream until I reached a big "S" turn in the river, which contained a massive log jam. Here I noted a number of salmon, not a lot but enough to make things interesting if a grizzly came along. Quickly and silently as possible I landed and dragged my kayak up the bank and set up my camera gear. All the hard paddling had me very hot and sweaty, and I knew that even if I was to have a remote chance of filming grizzlies close up I would have to eliminate my scent as much as possible. Cold water baths are nothing new to me so I stripped off my clothes and quickly got refreshed. This location is ideal as I could spot incoming grizzlies or other wildlife from 200 feet in either direction. Also I am elevated about five feet on one end of the log jam which is actually a grassy knoll of an active beaver lodge.

As I scan the river constantly in both directions for grizzlies I have my eyes on angry looking black clouds rolling in by late afternoon. Rain is certainly what is needed for the many wildfires burning in the province, but heavy rain can also turn my trip into a complete failure. With each passing hour the sky gets darker, the thunder crashes and there is no doubt the sky was going to open up soon. I knew I could paddle downstream at least three times as fast as coming upstream so I stayed until about one hour before dark, which is sooner than I normally would leave, then I packed up and left. I have been caught in heavy rain before when kayaking on this river and it certainly is not fun.

Paddling hard against the wind but fortunately going now with the current I managed to skim over the shallow areas with gravel scraping on the bottom of the kayak. With heavy thunder and lightning striking all around I land my kayak, grab my camera gear and dash up the bank as the rain starts. Suddenly my eye catches branches moving on the opposite riverbank, and a large grizzly steps out of the bush.

There was no question that the bear either heard or smelled me as he was on high alert. I remained motionless until the bear turned to head downstream, and despite the rain I quickly attached my camera on the tripod and managed some low light footage as the bear that was obviously heading for heavy cover, waded the river and disappeared into the forest.

By the time I packed up my camera the heavens really opened up as I ran to my camp. All through the night the rain pounded down and by early morning the rain was over, however, the sky was still very overcast. The river overnight had turned into a very powerful, high and dirty flood. I debated whether to even venture upstream in my kayak; however, I decided to try. Once again ospreys circled and cried around me as I left, and this time I realized why. On a broken off tree just a short ways in the forest was their large nest which I had failed to see the day before. The only advantage of all the high water that I could think of was, I could now paddle through most of the shallow spots where under normal conditions I would have to get out and tow the kayak.

What a contrast with the river from the day before I thought. The chance of filming something was pretty remote in such terrible river conditions as I couldn't even see the salmon now, and with such high water it could take at least two or three days for the water level to drop and become clear again. Several hours later I can't shake this gut feeling that waiting at this location was not going to be very productive and I'd be just wasting my time. I decided to head downstream and check out a fairly large tributary to this river, which also has Chinooks spawning in it, and maybe the water won't be so high and dirty there. Arriving at the mouth of this creek I was pleasantly surprised that the water wasn't nearly as high as I expected and it was also fairly clean. Here I had to abandon my kayak and bushwhacked the rivers' edge as there were endless log jams to contend with. In 2005 I had arranged with the Fisheries and Oceans to film their operation of counting the number of Chinooks along this creek. They had picked me up near the river with their helicopter and we had followed the twisty turns of this watershed flying just above the treetops. What we flew in minutes, now bushwhacking the rivers' edge takes me hours of hard toil as I pack my gear and scramble over log jams and cross fast water.

The spawning salmon was low in number here, however, I did notice some grizzly tracks, which was encouraging. I came to a fast section of the river where I wanted to cross with the water about 18 inches deep. I almost always use a pole in fast water crossings, but a quick search revealed no such handy support pole so without hesitation I carefully started to cross. Suddenly without warning the power of the current pushed at my feet and legs with such force that in the blink of an eye I lost my footing on the slimy rocks and fell face first in the water. Just as fast I was back on my feet, I was now drenched from heard to toe. On the shore I wrung out my socks, dumped the water out of my waders and proceeded to a deep pool area where I had seen four graceful river otters a year earlier. There were a few Chinooks spawning below the pool, so I decided that was where I would ambush till the water cleared in the main part of the river. I knew it wasn't the ideal place, for now it would have to do. Besides, I was soaking wet.

The sun was trying to break though the clouds so I peeled off my clothes and wrung them out as best I could and started hanging them on nearby branches to dry. I realized I was breaking one of my many filming rules: "First thing, always get the camera ready for action".

So here I am standing in my birthday suit hanging up my clothes, and wouldn't you believe it, I hear something coming out of the bush about 40 feet away. I turned to see a mother grizzly bear with her cub about to enter the log jam that I'm on. My first thought was, what bad timing for grizzlies to show up. I tried in vain to get my camera out of my backpack without being detected, but alas she heard me and quickly disappeared with her cub. I believe I won't break this filming rule again. For the next two days I searched the area sometimes ambushing here at the log jam, other times slowly following the river; however, I never saw hide nor hair of the mother grizzly and her cub again. Closest I came to encountering grizzlies on this side creek was when I was hiking out near dark. I noticed paths of water-soaked rocks where two grizzlies had crossed the creek and water had poured off their coats leaving an easy to read story on the gravel bar.

Part 3  

With the return of clear skies over the last couple of days the water in the main channel of the river had dropped nearly a foot and was almost clear. Again I used my kayak to navigate upstream to my previous location. There was now even more salmon spawning than before the heavy rain. The saying "good things come to those that wait" is never truer than for a patient wildlife filmmaker; however, as each day would pass and still no grizzlies or anything else exciting to film besides beavers and merganser ducks, I began to wonder if the grass was greener somewhere else. At the crack of dawn each day I would be kayaking upstream to my location, then spend nearly 14 hours in ambush. During the heat of the day when the likelihood of a bear showing up was slim I sometimes would kayak either up or downstream for a while to break the boredom that comes when there is no action. Sometimes floating slowly across large deep pools and using my paddle blade to shield the sun and make a shadow on the water to cut the glare I would see large schools of whitefish near the bottom. Why didn't I bring my fishing rod? One such pool I slowly drifted on for about 200 feet and noted there probably was well over 1000 fish in it. I made a mental note to someday ambush river otters at this pool.

Wild River Adventures 2017

Early morning and from mid to late afternoon most wildlife are more active, especially when the weather is hot and this is especially true for bears. The bears of coarse enjoy the cover of darkness and may look for food sources like spawned out salmon through part of the night. When my wanted wildlife subjects don't show up over long periods of time I have to keep reminding myself to just keep doing what has brought me success in the past.

By five o'clock in the afternoon I am on extra high alert, constantly checking both directions of the river for bears as one or more could break around the corner anytime. The conditions are now excellent, with clean water and spawning salmon for a hungry predator to come and fish.

I first saw just the grizzly’s large head and front legs and my heart soared. Finally I'm able to film some action if he doesn't detect my presence. Quickly I get the camera powered up and start recording as the male grizzly makes a slow deliberate stalk toward the spawning Chinooks, then explodes though the water at them. However, the salmon were in water nearly two feet deep and escaped the hungry bear. With water pouring off his thick coat it continued on past me to the top of the big "S" corner and tried his luck again with similar results.

I was elated to finally be able to film close up of a large grizzly in action. All the hard paddling, bushwhacking, cold water baths at 6 a.m., waiting, hoping and praying has paid off for me at last. Praise the Lord! As I kayaked downstream with the moonlight reflecting off the water and salmon splashing I felt truly blessed that I enjoy my work despite all the many hardships. Nearing the end of a large quiet pool in the river and very near dark I suddenly hear close by a grizzly huffing and puffing its disapproval of my presence before it moves deeper into the forest. I smile and paddle on.

The next day with my mind still abuzz from filming the beautiful grizzly so close up, a large white-coloured male gray timber wolf suddenly steps out from the forest 75 feet away and sniffs around some salmon scraps where a bear had dined days earlier. I was only four feet from my camera and I knew if I attempted to get behind it the wolf's peripheral vision would catch my movement, so I just watched and waited. Soon it continued its journey downstream, and when a bunch of stumps and logs obscured my sight from the wolf I quietly eased behind the camera and recorded beautiful close up 4K footage for nearly one minute. At one point the wolf, who was belly deep in the water, went right past a pair of spawning Chinooks, as I'm sure he knew it would be futile to try to make a catch in such deep water.

The next day was the last filming day of this trip and again it turned out to be beautiful and warm. Mid afternoon found me repairing my throw-over camouflage blind, which has helped me capture many wonderful shots over the years. The sun was shining off the water on the upstream side of the "S" turn with a mirror life reflection so I worked with my back turned to it.

Suddenly I heard loud splashing behind me and I turned to see a grizzly lunging after salmon. As the sun was nearly blinding me from that direction I wasn't checking there for bears nearly as often as downstream from me. This grizzly, smaller than the earlier one and lighter in colour, had no salmon to show for its recent effort and continued downstream towards me. As it reached the log jam I could hear low grunting sounds coming from its throat. It started pacing back and forth in the water and I could see it was using its front paws to feel for any spawned out salmon. Failing to locate any it continued past the edge of the log jam with the distance of only 40 feet between us.

At this close range it is extremely difficult to go undetected from the super keen sense of smell that grizzly bears have. As the bear reached the point in the water that is downstream from me it catches my scent and with unhappy huffing it wades slowly to shore, climbs the riverbank and disappears into the bush. The bears regularly only smell me when they are on the downstream side of me as my scent molecules, which are constantly falling off my body, are being carried downstream by the water and air to the bear's nostrils.

With darkness closing in I pack up and head downstream slowly and quietly. I thoroughly enjoy kayaking down with the current and with the nearly full moon shining between the towering spruce trees, well its simply beautiful. I glide past a number of spawning salmon and then startle a kingfisher off a low over hanging branch.

Words cannot describe the peace and tranquility I experienced throughout this wilderness filming trip. Yes there was danger and hardships, but the rewards are great when one doesn't give up.