The Bulletin with the Bear Facts on Alaska Travel & Wildlife Photography
Welcome to our Community!
With our flagship newsletter, the Alaska Bear Facts Bulletin and APA staff want to wish a warm welcome to our growing community of new and past Alaska travelers, photographers and lovers of the outdoors.
From 40+ years of living and photographing in the Great Land of Alaska, our “timely-but-sporadic” bulletins give you relevant, useful tips to help you get great images and enjoy safe, exciting travel experiences!
· What are the different types of bears found in Alaska?
How can you tell the difference between grizzlies, brown and black bears? Do their territories overlap?
· How to Photograph Wildlife with Minimum Impact & Guilt
Are we part of the problem? How to photograph with a clear(er) conscience.
· What & How to Pack for your Wildlife Photo Safari
Are you the type that would bring an extra lens instead of extra underwear? Us too. Here is a quick list of necessary and optional clothing, photo equipment and other handy essentials we recommend.
· Covid 19 — Update
Periodic updates on what we do every day to insure your experience is safe, healthy and fun!
“Between every two pine trees, there is a door leading to a new way of life.” – John Muir
Alaska has three species of bears — black, brown and polar. They can be distinguished by their features and geographic distribution, though there is some overlap in both of these classification categories.
Polar bears (Ursus maritmus) live exclusively along the northern coasts of Alaska and Canada. Of the estimated 20,000 polar bears in North America, about half live in Alaska. They do not venture inland and do not hunt or eat land animals, subsisting almost exclusively on seals and marine life. In this post, we will be concentrating more on black and brown bears, as they are overwhelmingly the more common bears you will likely see.
Black bears (Ursus Americanus) occur throughout Alaska and Canada, below the arctic treeless zones, and throughout the Western United States down into northern Mexico. There are about 750,000 black bears in North America, of which about half are estimated to live in Alaska. Since escape is their main means of defense against man and the larger grizzlies, black bears have migrated and evolved to live around the larger forested areas. Though grizzlies and brown bears can and do climb trees, it is usually not worth their effort to climb after a black bear, as they do not normally eat it as a food source.
Brown/grizzly bears number about 60,000 in all of North America, of which about half live in Alaska. The brown bear label includes brown (along the coasts) and grizzly (inland). Though they can interbreed theoretically, their distribution and habits keep them separated, and they have developed distinct features that can usually be seen quite readily to tell them apart.
Grizzly bears are found in interior Alaska, north of southcentral and southeast Alaska, in popular places like Denali National Park, Kenai Peninsula, and in parts of British Columbia, Washington, Montana, Idaho and Yellowstone. Weighing around 500-800 pounds, they are generally smaller than coastal brown bears, which can reach over 1200 pounds in Kodiak. The smaller size of grizzlies is due to their reliance on mammals rather than fatty salmon of coastal bears. The “all-you-can-eat” diet of coastal brown bears contributes to their larger sizes and slightly different behaviors than grizzlies (see below). Brown bears are found along Alaska’s southern coastlines in Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks, the Kenai Peninsula, and several islands, including Kodiak and the ABC islands (Admiralty, Becharof and Chichagof) along the Inside Passage.
As far as physical features, the charts below, used with permission from “Alaska Bear Safety Manual” (Steve Stringham, PhD, 2010) show some of the major differences between brown and black bears. In a nutshell, black bears are smaller than brown bears, have longer noses compared to their head size, do not have a pronounced shoulder hump, and generally have a more solid (blackish) color. Black bear tracks can be distinguised by their smaller size and the fact that the claw mars and/or pads are somewhat arched around the foot, unlike brown bear pads and claws which are more straight across the foot.
The different distributions between grizzlies and brown bears have also resulted in different behaviors and tolerances toward humans. In a very general sense, the increased availability of salmon for coastal brown bears has made them more tolerant of humans and other bears. By contrast, an interior grizzly, as mentioned above, has to work harder for its prey, which generally consists of smaller animals with less fat than salmon. Thus, except for some protected areas like National Parks or Refuges where they are more accustomed to humans, grizzlies can be more dangerous than brown bears.
This very general distinction does not apply if any bear is surprised or has cubs with it. And of course, it does not apply to an individual that may just be in a bad mood, or diseased or hurt from another bear attack. There is no way to know what kind of bear you are encountering, unless you’ve had a chance to observe it for a while and get a sense of its demeanor. That is why visiting one of the more well-known bear viewing areas with a trained guide can really give you peace of mind and added safety.
Even if you’ve had many bear experiences in the past, there is no substitute for local knowledge. Bears are really not unlike any other animals, including humans. They just want to be left alone, not threatened for their food, their lives or their young ones. Once you can view them in this way, not as an aggressive predator that most movies or some books make them out to be, you will be much farther along to some truly sublime wildlife interactions.
Thus, the most important “tool” to bring with you in bear country is not physical. It is what you know, what you observe, and how you act. Humility mixed with knowledge and experience will keep you as safe as possible — avoiding negative outcomes that are based on ignorance or arrogance — and give you terrific, lifelong memories with these beautiful animals.
The ethics of photography in wild areas has received a lot of scrutiny in the last 30 years. Any serious nature photographer should be aware of the reasons for this increased attention, and of their own actions whenever they are interacting with animals and ecosystems in the wild.
Over these last 50 years, wild areas have become more accessible, and cameras have become more compact. Everyone can capture scenes as citizen journalists and wildlife photographers. Thousands of photographers can create what was once only possible for a handful with enough money and heavy equipment. That is the crux of the issue.
The dilemmas, frustrations and transgressions that have accompanied photography ever since it’s invention in the mid-1800s have unique consequences in nature photography. It is hard to imagine any other endeavor where the access and act of recording a scene, while never touching or removing the animal dead or alive, can lead to the subjects’ disappearance on such a pervasive scale.
The irony of loving nature to death is not new, but lately it has 2 new big brothers: population growth and climate change. Though these are controversial topics, the fact remains that we are chasing a larger dragon’s tail now. Consumption and harmful technologies are increasing too fast for the us to maintain a healthy place to live.
A Cornell University study found that “1 in 4 birds have disappeared in the last 50 years”, most likely due to human interference. Though “human interference” is a larger umbrella than just recreation or nature photography, it is still hard to deny the related causal factors.
In terms of recreation, consumptive uses involve those which physically take something from the land (e.g. fishing, hunting) and development of facilities (i.e. “conversion” or justified destruction of forests or other areas to facilitate recreation or appreciation of nature). Non-consumptive uses traditionally have included photographers, hikers and wildlife viewers who don’t “take” anything from the land.
But this arbitrary distinction has proven inaccurate, as both classes of recreational users can cause physical damage to the land or animals. Changes can occur gradually, right before our eyes, yet blind to our consciousness. Subtle non-consumptive impacts can negatively affect natural areas just as seriously as the consumptive idea of removing an animal from its home.
Using our own social dynamics as a barometer, violations of unwritten social norms can have short and long term repercussions. If you were to violate someone’s space, or address them in an aggressive manner, the individual would probably not associate with you in the future, even after just one encounter. Individuals would communicate this to others in their “groups” and if aggressive interactions continue, social adjustments and/or laws may change.
Similarly, our cumulative tangible and intangible violations in natural areas have been bearing diseased fruit for years. National Parks and other wild areas have documented short and long term displacements in wildlife migrations and behaviors. This has led to increased law enforcement, tighter restrictions and sometimes closures in our most beautiful and popular photo destinations.
A 2016 NCBI meta-study of 274 articles documenting the effects on wildlife from 18 types of non-consumptive recreation included two interesting conclusions: 1)“Non-motorized and winter terrestrial activities had notable evidence for negative effects.”, and 2) “Most (59%) of the effects of recreation on animals documented in the reviewed articles were negative effects.”
Like paparazzi photographers, whether alone or in groups, nature photographers can cross the line for a great shot. Without noticing any “violation”, they may change an animals’ habits by continue to shoot until the animal leaves, becomes “unphotographable”, or until access or weather interferes.
Subsequently, if the image(s) taken have received praise in publication or exhibit, more photographers are motivated to try for the same shot in the same area(s), affecting the threshold of animal tolerance in one way or another. Small ethical transgressions like these can mushroom to larger, more frequent transgressions by the masses. The lure of recognition or money tempts even the best in the heat of the moment to push moral limits. (See Professor Singer’s “Ethics in the Real World” on how we stretch rationalization).
So it becomes an ongoing, recursive challenge for all of us to fine tune our sensitivities and adjust our habits before, during and after our encounters.
Grizzly bear and fishermen along Kenai River, Alaska
How to Shoot with Minimal Impact and Guilt
Aside from the unresolved ecological consequences, the good news for photographers is that the increasing popularity and impact on the land has set in motion forces to uphold the integrity of the profession, provide a consistency of behavior, and protect areas that inspire us. (The ecological moral issue remains how to protect areas that don’t inspire us).
Rather than a physical confrontation — a “transaction” where one side pays a price and the other side gets a benefit — wildlife photography should be more of a quiet conversation. Like most conversations, we should listen more than we talk. As with people, we should be more aware of our non-verbals. But animals also have heightened senses that we are often unaware of. They can see, hear and smell miles better than we can, depending on the animal. They can sense our presence long before we see them, and long after we leave.
In addition to the general codes of ethics in the larger photo associations such as ASMP, NPPA and PPofA, two of the more prominent nature-focused groups in the US — the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) and the North American Nature Photographers Association (NANPA) — promote more targeted codes. They emphasize being aware of your actions and those of the animal, and minimizing disturbance by how and where you walk, talk, act and use your equipment.
Alaska Photo Adventures adheres to a synthesis of their Codes:
1) Learn about the area and animals you are photographing. Be aware and respectful in the field; this will enhance the sustainability of wildlife populations, important natural areas and the nature photography profession.
2) The welfare of the subject is more important than a photograph. It is not a zero sum game in which a successful photo can only be gained by violating the natural rights of an animal to live free without fear, distress or hindrance. Use the golden rule to guide your actions. Exist within the land, not in control of it.
3) Minimize disturbance to the area you are in as much as possible to preserve the same character that attracted you there in the first place. Tread lightly, pack it in, then pack it out.
4) Integrity extends to post production. Do not manipulate images to deceive or misrepresent natural events. Caption honestly and accurately. Indicate when animals are captive, or ecosystems are man-made or otherwise not wild.
Back in the 1940s, Aldo Leopold, one of the founding fathers of conservation in this country, inspired us to think ethically with a general concept to keep in mind toward the natural world: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.”
It is as simple a concept as it is elegant, but some individuals, special interests and policy makers still have trouble following its sound, healthy advice. The consciousness of our impact as photographers seems to be gaining traction. But is it too late, before we unnecessarily lose more wildlife, land and opportunities for enlightenment? Can these ideals be adopted by the masses, generalizing across all strata — general recreational users, non-photographer animal lovers, children, and perhaps, in some form, consumptive users? All of us have room to minimize our impact.
We need to balance our own goals with those of our wild subjects, our self with our larger community, and our desire to “capture the moment” with the possible loss of it in the future.
From photographing not only in Alaska for the last 40+ years but in 50+ countries around the world, here are our recommendations tailored to wildlife shooting in AK.
Quick tip: If you’ll be taking small charters or commuter flights, they might weigh your carry-ons. There is usually a limit of usually 2 bags at 15-20 lbs/bag. One way to cheat is with your photo vest (see below).
Gloves: 2 pairs: liners + heavier pair
Hats: Sports cap or wide-brimmed rain hat,wool stocking cap
Pants: Cotton or 100% wool
Socks: Wool and cotton, 4-5 pairs.
Long underwear: Top and bottom breathable type, polypro preferred
Rain/wind shells: Top and bottom
Light boots and tennis shoes or other camp shoes.
A few T-shirts
Fleece sweater or nylon shell/synthetic fill jacket – no goose or duck down
Pair of shorts
1-2 DSLR cameras – Mirrorless cameras can save weight
3 lenses minimum: 24-80 or 28-120mm, 80-200m; 300-600mm
Top quality 1.4x tele extender
Point-&-shoot camera — videos, wider angle shots, and backup camera if DSLR gets hurt/dunked. (We saved a photographer’s camera on one tour when it fell into salt water. He used a point & shoot for the rest of the day)
Back up batteries, extra media cards in ziploc and/or pocket case.
Sturdy tripod with ball head
Filters: polarizing for saturation on nice days; graduated ND filters for scenes with dark/light areas
Detachable flash (mostly if you do close-up flowers, rocks, etc.) w/corded or wireless trigger
Flash drive(s), external hard drive, and card reader. (Always carry spares of each of these items)
Camera backpack or flexible padded case (no large hard cases – hard to use/pack on flights).
Photo vest – handy in the field and flying (I’ve never been asked to “weigh my clothes”). Unless you’re 250-300 lbs, make yourself as bulky as possible without embarrassment. Take laptop in back vest pocket (if they fit); camera bodies in front/inner pockets. A rain/wind jacket over your vest can reduce your “footprint”. If asked for your body weight, be sure add gear weight to your number.
1) Pocket knife or multi-tool with tiny camera screwdriver(s) — remember: not in your airline carry-on bag!
2) Sunglasses with retainer strap
3) Small daypack (~1500 cu inches), rain/windproof, or boat dry bag with backpack straps.
4) Insect repellent
5) Personal items (earplugs, eyeshades, sunblock, extra glasses /contact lenses & meds w/ prescription)
6) Water bottle
7) Clear plastic bags: Ziplocs for small items (batteries, liquids); small garbage bag(s) can line daypacks
8) Binoculars. Image stabilized if possible.
9) Duct tape or electrician’s tape.
10) Lens cleaning microfiber cloth
We are at your service to ease any stress from the continued Covid pandemic. Currently, we are in a holding patterns for our 2021 season. With travel restrictions in place in many international countries, there is a great deal of uncertainty whether our foreign visitors will be able to plan flights and and leave their country this summer. We will continue to hold any reservations held over from last year, and any new reservations made recently, until our international clients can decide if they can make it here this year. Similarly, we will refund any deposits paid in the event you need to cancel.
Vaccinations are not required to enter Alaska. Nonetheless, if you are concerned about vaccination status in Alaska or within APA, please contact us for updated info as the season progresses. We will keep you updated in future editions of the Alaska Bear Facts Bulletin.
For our USA travelers, here are some of the cleaning practices that we have adopted to date. There will be unlimited hand sanitizer provided throughout our tours in our vehicles, camps, flights, etc. We choose vendors, flight operations and lodges that we have trusted for years to provide clean, disinfected rooms, aircraft and operations. We wipe down our vehicles inside and out at least twice daily, and always have masks available. Masks are constantly available and provided for you throughout your tour.
If you are returning home to a state or country that has testing requirements, there are numerous testing facilities in our area, including Walgreens and other private and public health facilities. We will help you get tested in plenty of time to prepare for your return flight(s).
Disclaimer: Alaska Photo Adventures and the Alaska Bear Facts Bulletin staff take great care to make sure that all information presented in our newsletters is accurate and truthful at the time of writing and posting. However, we are responsible or liable in any way for any costs, incidental or otherwise, related in any way to changes that may occur in laws, travel restrictions, codes of conduct at private lodges, accommodations, parks, wilderness areas and other locations and activities mentioned in these newsletters. We will make every reasonable attempt to publish any relevant changes in future newsletters in a timely manner.