Recently I had a chance to visit Vince Shute Wildlife sanctuary in Northern Minnesota to see
wild black bears. Some say that this is the best place to photograph black bears in the wild in
Northern America. The center is located in Orr and provide a safe sanctuary for the bears. Bears are free to move in and out of the sanctuary. Volunteers place
wild berries and other natural food at various places in the sanctuary grounds.
The bears from the surrounding forests come looking for the food.
There are two ways to
photograph the bears at Vince Shute which is open all week except Mondays. The
center is open to public from 5-8PM.
From the main entrance there is a 1 mile gravel road to the parking lot.
From there a courtesy bus takes you to the sanctuary. Wildlife viewing is done from a platform that
is 14″ high. You are free to move around. Only monopods are allowed.
Depending on the day you may have to fight with the crowds to get a vantage
point to view the bears. The day I visited they had 170 visitors from 5 to 8
The best way to observe and photograph the bears is to book
a private photo session. ( 175/- plus one year membership fee of $30) . This
way you get to spend the whole day at the center. Visitor is required to come the day before to
go through the safely instructions and sign the liability waiver forms. If you
go on a Tuesday ( Center is closed Monday ) prior arrangements are necessary to
fill out the forms.
The day I visited I was the only photographer there. I was
asked to meet at the main gate at 6.45AM . Mike the intern opened the gate and
took me to the main office to sign the forms and to go through the safety
rules. He spent the next hour with me to make sure I am comfortable roaming
around the place. You are allowed to walk and follow the bears in the open
meadow but not into the forest.
I spent one and a half days at the sanctuary. Unfortunately
both days were sunny with contrasty lighting.
A cloudy less contrasty conditions are best for bear photography.
Bears are very active from sunrise to 10pm. Early in the
morning there were about 12 adults roaming in the meadows. Spring cubs and the yearling are usually seen
in the trees trying to avoid the males during this time of the day. Some of the
yearling are best photographed from the 14″ high platform. You may be able
to get an eye level shots from this vantage point. Once the males leave the
area, the mothers with babies appear. The sows are aware of the danger to the
cubs from big males and constantly watching out for them. At the slightest
danger the sow makes a grunting sound
making the cubs scrambling aloft a tree. Once I saw a sow and her three
spring cubs climb a tree to escape a
From 10am to till about 3PM the sanctuary is quiet. You can
still find bears resting and yearlings going after whatever food left by the adult bears. You may leave the
premises to have lunch but I had my lunch inside the car in the parking area. When the general public start coming you are
not allowed to walk in the open meadow. You can join the crowd and photograph from the
platform or stay underneath the platform out of the sight of the public.
I took my 600mm, 200-400mm and 70-200mm lenses . Most of the
shots were taken using 200-400 and few with 70 -200. For canon shooter 100-400
would be an ideal lens.
Most of the bear interactions happen in the shadows of the
forest in very contasty conditions. I have to use very high ISO to get a decent
shutter speed. Some of the shots were done using ISO 3200.