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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

Dying to See

There were two animals my family was dying to see during our recent road trip through northern California and Oregon. The first was a rattlesnake.

Everyone knows rattlesnakes are venomous and that they’ve thoughtfully evolved the rattle to warn a potential predator or clumsy human of this fact. But did you know that rattlers have an exceptionally keen sense of smell? And that certain proteins in their venom change the odour of their prey, so that when a bitten animal flees, the snake knows which trail is that of its victim and doesn’t waste energy on following the wrong one? Nature is devilishly clever.

Zumwalt Meadow Trail, King's Canyon National Park. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk

My son did spot a couple of water snakes on the Zumwalt Meadow trail in King’s Canyon National Park, and we saw several handsome garters at Bodega Bay. When my daughter found no fewer than three shed rattler skins in Montaña de Oro State Park we thought it was only a matter of time before we’d see our first rattlesnake.

Unfortunately, it was not to be.

The second animal we were eager to encounter was a black bear. After spending a few hours in Yosemite Valley (so full of cars and camp grounds – even a swimming pool! – there was little evidence of Muir’s wilderness), my hopes of finding one began to fade.

Upper Yosemite Fall, Yosemite Valley. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk

That afternoon, we decided to take the Glacier Point Road to what promised to be a spectacular view of Half Dome. About midway we found our way barred by idling cars, people staring out of windows at something on our left. We stared too. At first, all we could see was vegetation. Lots of it. But then my husband said the magic word: “Bear!” We all saw it, a dark shape ambling through the trees, about forty metres from the road.

To my surprise, people started opening doors and getting out. Having grown up in Tanzania, where leaving your safari vehicle is risky and frowned upon, and having done field research in the Peruvian rainforest, where predators like jaguars and giant otters are generally observed from the safety of your boat, the idea that we could step into the bear’s world, just like that, was startling. But being the enthusiastic wildlife photographer I am, I didn’t hesitate long. My husband and kids and parents all followed suit. We stayed on the road, pacing up and down near our cars, craning our necks, hoping the bear would head towards us.

My father, also a photographer, came to stand next to me. That was when we saw the two tiny dark shapes. Oh gosh. Not a single bear, but a female with cubs. Excited murmurs rose from the small crowd of onlookers. I strained to see the family through my lens, my view obstructed by shrubs and branches. The bears seemed to be moving away, and I snapped a single photo of the mother while I could.

Black bear, Yosemite National Park. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk

It would be so easy to maneuver myself into a better position to take the perfect shot… All I had to do was walk down the slope toward the edge of the trees. From the corner of my eye, I could see my father begin to do just that. My inner photographer battled with my conservationist self…

“Peet,” I called to him. “Let’s not get closer. We shouldn’t move away from the road, it’s not fair on the bears.

Though obviously frustrated, my father understood and didn’t venture nearer. But a sporty-looking young woman came hustling along the tarmac, asked us what we were all looking at, and when somebody mentioned bears, plunged down the slope without a moment’s consideration. Striding towards the tree line in a sort of hunter’s crouch, she spotted the bear, looked over her shoulder at her audience on the road, and whispered theatrically, “He’s right here.” She pointed in the bear’s direction, in case we had missed it.

I replied in the same tone, “We know.” She didn’t hear me. I’m pretty sure she thought we were admiring her bold and skillful approach. Maybe some of us were. I have to admit, at that moment I both envied her for her complete lack of inhibitions and begrudged her the opportunity I had denied myself – and my father - of taking a decent picture.

Then, several others followed the Amazon’s example. Soon there were about eight people dodging and ducking through the foliage, all holding their smart phones at the ready. By now the bears had disappeared entirely from view; we could hear the snapping of branches as the family retreated further.

My ambivalence towards the Amazon vanished. This was simply wrong. These people were invading the bear’s space, altering her behaviour, harassing the cubs. The fact they might even be endangering their own lives didn’t worry me.

I turned back to the car, and we left.

As we drove on I found myself wishing I’d never even tried to take a photo. Had I chosen to observe the bears through binoculars, I would have absorbed more details, appreciated the brief encounter more. Sure, now I have a photo to prove we actually saw a black bear. But the memory would be sweeter if I hadn’t let the urge to capture the moment with my camera interfere with my enjoyment of it.

Come to think of it, I wish I’d taken a photo of the Amazon and her groupies instead. It would have illustrated this post better.

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