“My first bear encounter was when I was young. I walked out the front door of my house and found myself walking backward, back toward the house, because a bear was coming down the driveway toward me. My mom called a cab to take me to school that day. I was late for class.”
Meet Elleana Elliott, a photographer from Hoonah, Alaska, whose main interest is photographing coastal brown bears. Elleana is Inupiaq and Tlingit, Raven, T’akdeintaan clan, Seagull. She was born in Sitka and raised in Hoonah, a small village on Chichagof Island. “Our community has one public school, two grocery stores, one large restaurant open year-round and a few small seasonal restaurants.” She’s married to Paul Elliott, and has two children, Ted, age 17, and Nelila Elliott, age 7, including one dog, Luna, and one cat, Layla.
Hoonah, located in the Tongass National Forest on Chichagof Island, is part of Southeast Alaska’s ABC islands (Admiralty Island, Baranof Island, and Chichagof Island). “Living in Hoonah is small and big at the same time. Our community is small, but our island is big. Most days, when I go out around the island, my camera is my favorite traveling buddy.”
Elleana spends time adventuring on Chichagof Island taking photos of coastal brown bears. Coastal brown bears are larger than inland grizzlies. “The adult males (boars) can weight up to 800 plus pounds and the females (sows) can weigh up to 450 pounds,” she says, because “the bears have access to marine-derived food, giving them a richer diet.”
Coastal brown bears are a subspecies with unique genetics linking them to both brown bears and polar bears. They vary in coloring from brown to black, reddish, and blonde. “My favorite is the white bears that show just a bit more polar bear genetics than brown bear.”
Elleana has been a photographer most of her life. When she was a child, her first camera was a disposable one.
“When I was a kid, my family traveled to the mainland, to Juneau, on vacation. I got a couple of disposable 35 mm Mickey Mouse cameras. I took all the photos, and I was so confused about why we had to mail the cameras out to get the photos back. I remember being upset because I thought the cameras would come back in the mail with the pictures.”
Her early experience with disposable cameras sparked a lifelong passion. “The only thing I wanted to do was take pictures.” She evolved to use Polaroid cameras, then flip phone cameras, and eventually smartphones. “I wanted to capture as many memories as possible.” She taught herself how to use a DSLR camera and now uses a variety of camera equipment.
Her passion for photographing brown bears happened naturally. While on dates with her future husband, they’d travel the logging roads for picnic lunches and observe the bears.
“We started to pick up on the bears’ routines.” In the early 2000s, Elleana acquired her first flip phone with a camera. “The pictures were so blurry you could barely tell they were bears.”
When Elleana first started photographing bears, though, she didn’t drive and depended on others to take her out the road. A few years ago, in her late 30s, she finally got her driver’s license. “Now that I have my driver’s license, my friends tell me I’ve moved out the road and only visit home. Rain or shine, even in the snow, I’m out photographing nature. I only got stuck in the snow three times and towed out once. The other two times, I dug myself out.”
While photographing bears, she’s had a few close encounters. “The bears travel the roads as much as people, so they’ve adjusted. So, we have a unique situation where we stop our vehicles as the bears make their way down the road.” Elleana doesn’t go out armed except with a small container of pepper spray in her camera bag, though she brings her rifle on occasion for small hikes away from her truck. “I have had frequent close encounters while sitting safely in my truck. Even if I park far away, the bears come up and walk past the truck, give it a sniff, and keep on going. I get very nervous when that happens. I prefer to photograph bears from a distance with a long lens.”
Until she started photographing bears, Elleana didn’t realize how large the local bear population was, nor how many miles of logging road there was to explore, either. “In the springtime the bears are next to the road munching on the first greens.” Elleana explains that, later, when more greenery blooms around the island, the bears’ territory widens, and bears aren’t seen as often. Plus, when the berries ripen, they’re busy eating across the island. Then, in mid-July, thereabouts, bears are fishing in rivers and creeks until the salmon die off. After that, the bears will patrol the beaches where the salmon have washed down the streams and back out into the ocean.
Sometimes, though, you’ll find the bears in town. “It’s a year-round problem, but in the winter, we get a couple weeks off from encounters. Problem bears are just bears that have picked up bad habits from our human community.” Hoonah has a city dump where they burn their garbage, which attracts bears. “The bears there now are likely the last generation of dump bears since the city put a cage up around the burn pile to keep the bears out as much as possible.” Fortunately, Hoonah Police Department utilizes Facebook and text warnings to keep the community aware of bear sightings. “It really helps, especially with families who have children who like to run around the community. Our dogs warn us in the problem months like spring and late fall after the fish die off.”
For advice in dealing with Hoonah’s in-town bears and the dump bears, Elleana says to let your neighbor know when you’re going to the dump and to ask for help or have them to accompany you. Also, she suggests extra caution to keep your pets safe, especially if your dogs are tied up.
Despite having to deal with bears in town, Elleana loves living in Hoonah and like many small towns and villages in Alaska, the community comes together when tasked with challenges. “I love that our community comes together to celebrate the good in life and sticks together in times of need. It really takes a village.” Implementing tourism into daily life was one of those challenges. Though there are bears in and around the village, everyone wants to see a bear in the wild, especially visitors to Alaska. With tourism, comes bear tours. “There are a few amazing bear tours that I enjoy seeing out the road. We help each other find bears.”
Hoonah, with a population of about 850 people, is now a popular tourist spot. “When one of the Native corporations opened a cruise ship dock with shops, our community grew into a tourism destination.” Elleana says they’ve had to adjust, especially when two ships are docked at once, but “it’s a shockwave in well-needed economics.”
Mainly she says, for humans and bears to live together, we should have respect for the bears. Respect is one of the most important Tlingit values. —Lingít áwé wa.é. Yaa at yakgeenéi. You are a human being. You will respect all things. “Have respect for the bears especially concerning distance. The farther away the better.” Elleana enjoys observing bears fishing in the creeks. “I love to watch a momma sow with cubs, how verbal the cubs are when mama catches a fish. The cubs get so excited.”
Over the years, like her ancestors before her, through observation and living among bears, she’s learned a lot about bear behavior, “Just like cats, bears have body language that lets you know what they don’t like. If you are near them when their ears are back, and they ruffle their nose and start to huff and scratch the ground, they’re showing they’re territorial and you are too close to their space.”
Elleana has many favorite photographs. In one, she photographed a white-colored brown bear sow next to a large, brown-colored boar. She especially loves to photograph bears when they’ve first come out of hibernation. “The bears go searching for their bear friends or relatives and when they meet up, it’s wonderful. The bears nestle each other. I have a photo of one bear who appears to be kissing another bear’s face. And, in another photo it’s as if a bear is telling a secret into another bear’s ear.”
Though Elleana is establishing a new photography business, she’s been sharing her work online for a while. “Through Facebook groups, I’ve met some awesome photographers and we’ve become friends. Juneau Photo Group is one of my favorite groups. They’re the best people to hang out with.”
Eventually, Elleana would like her photos sold in local shops in Hoonah and she wants to advertise her photography business through social media. She currently operates a public Facebook page and a private Facebook group: A place called Hoonah: Photography by Elleana Elliott.
“Photography has been good for me. It’s a passion I can grow with. Looking for bears has brought me to amazing places on the island.” She’s not sure why, though, it seems the number of bears on the island has declined over the last few years and it’s become harder to find them.
“I don’t know if they’re moving away from the roads because of the new traffic from the tourism. Or maybe the drought that occurred a few years ago, causing the fish numbers drop dramatically, has affected the bears.”
Living on an island of bears brings wonder and adventure. Throughout the years Elleana has driven the logging roads on Chichagof Island photographing bears, she’s learned many things about herself and life, but the one advice she has for us all is: Travel where it best fits you and just enjoy the view.”
Vivian Faith Prescott, a writer and artist who lives in Wrangell, Alaska, writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork. It appears twice per month in the Juneau Empire.