The Bulletin with the Bear Facts on Alaska Travel & Wildlife Photography
Don’t forget anything!
As we bring in 2022, 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!
· Where are the best places to see bears in Alaska?
You’ve heard how big Alaska is. It’s even bigger in person. Dozens of great bear spots to go. No wait. Hundreds. Where do you choose for the best bang for your limited time, money and fun?
· Bear Safety 101: How do you read a bear?
Are they like other animals? Are all types of bears similar in reactions? How can you minimize the chance of a bad experience, and maximize your fun and photos?
· What & How to pack for your wildlife photo safari
Are you the type that would bring an extra lens instead of extra underwear? Me too. Here is a quick list of necessary and optional clothing, photo equipment and other handy essentials we recommend.
We get more questions about when and where to photograph bears in Alaska than any other wildlife photography question. With over 90% of the brown/grizzly bears in the United States in Alaska, the three best areas in the state for photography are in southcentral (including the northern half of the Alaska Peninsula), Denali Nat’l Park, and Admiralty Island in Southeast Alaska. In this article, we will concentrate on southcentral Alaska.
Though Denali can have great experiences for inland bears, there is a tremendous amount of logistics, reservations, crowds, restrictions and luck in getting a close experience without a crowded, jiggling busload of people. Similarly, Admiralty Island near Juneau offers great bear encounters, but they are not of the same scale and fame and quantity as those offered on the Alaska Peninsula. If you are a serious photographer, or want more personal, rewarding,spine-tingling and photo-filled encounters with bears, southcentral Alaska is the place to concentrate on.
Alaska & Kenai Peninsula map, bear camps
As the map above shows, the Alaska Peninsula spans from Cook Inlet and Lake Clark in the north end (across from the Kenai Peninsula) down through Katmai National Park at the southern end towards the beginning of the Aleutian Islands.
Lake Clark and Katmai parks have a supreme combination of estuaries (tidal flats where salmon rivers meet the sea) and mountains, where bears can return to their dens in the fall. Food is plentiful in the tidal areas for 6 months from spring to fall. In addition to sedges that are high in protein and other edible plants in the salt marshes, razor clams exist throughout the tide flats, and berries grow on the hillsides. Salmon return each summer by the millions to spawn and die upstream, and sometimes seals, whales and other marine carcasses wash up with the tide for a bonus meal.
In addition to avoiding conflict in general, bears here do not have a history of thinking of people as food sources. Plus they are neither hunted, threatened or ever injured by people, which makes us about as interesting as a raven or a gull from their point of view. This combination of plentiful food that allows for a high population of tolerant bears living close but not too close to human communities creates the perfect opportunity that you will find in few other places in the world.
Bears are mammals, which give us an advantage. We can gauge some of their expressions and behaviors based loosely on our own, and those of other mammals. The trick is not to assume they are definitive. Unless you have been watching specific bears for a long time, their expressions and actions, like humans, need to be interpreted in the broader perspective of local ecology, sociology, historical behavior, etc.
Bears are not unlike dogs in many of their mannerisms during feeding, play and aggression. Like dogs, you must get to know individual bears to read their faces, fears and reactions. A simple example is a dog showing its teeth. Some dogs show their teeth when they smile, and others only show their teeth upon defense or aggression. Though bears don’t smile, they may show teeth while feeding or playing with another bear, yawning, playing, etc. Knowing the surrounding influences on a bear – from other bears, people, and land configurations that might limit their feeling of safety or escape — helps to gauge and interpret potential behavior.
One of the hardest indicators of bear intentions for most people is gauging defensive vs offensive behavior. The same actions on the surface can be misinterpreted either way. For instance, a bear staring straight at you with ears up and attentive can be a sign of concern that you are a competitor for food, a threat to its young, a food source (if black bear), or just curiosity. They may be assessing whether you are about to crowd or trespass on its territory, or if another bear is nearby. Either way, they are curious and trying to get a better “sense” of your intentions.
The totality of the scene has to be taken into consideration. Are you alone in the wild, or are you at one of the popular bear camps in Katmai or Lake Clark, where bears consider people more like moving trees than threats or food sources? Your actions, before and after seeing a bear, mean everything, and will always influence the bear’s behavior. Many times you can help diffuse any feeling of threat by being as relaxed as possible and acting more like a prey than another predator (man or bear). This means you can stay aware of the bear but continue with what you are doing, as long as you are not approaching it directly or when it may not be aware of you yet. It is a fine line sometimes, and we should never be lulled into a false sense of security, but it does become easier and more natural with frequency.
At the the bear camps in Alaska, trained guides know individual bear habits and have years (decades) of experience in familiar surroundings. You will be viewing bears from either raised platforms, walkways or other familiar structures and beaches that the bears are used to.
Either way, whether you are alone or with a guide, interpreting a bear’s behavior actually starts before you enter the bear’s territory. A guide will of course know the bears in the area, but it doesn’t hurt to learn as much as possible to add depth to your experience. Have there been recent bad encounters, or is the area hunted (bears are known to be more wary in these areas)? Is the terrain open vs limited sight distance from vegetation/trees? Are the bears acclimated to people? Are you able to bring a firearm vs pepper spray (neither usually permitted in the popular bear camps).
You know they have excellent senses of smell. And you know they are wary of other large mammals, including yourself. If you are in a new area, one of the best practices is to group up with at least 3-4 people. Bears will see you as a larger animal and be more likely to ignore you, depending on your actions. Making noise in bear country (this is forgotten more often than you might think) is always a good idea. Also, be aware of what clothes you cooked or ate in recently.
This post is in two parts. The first is a shortened version of our handy checklist of items you should seriously consider on every trip. For the full list and expanded info, seeWhat to Bring on a Photo Tour in 2022.
The second is a short article on tips how to pack large photo gear for a photo safari, from the folks at Think Tank who make packs and travel gear for serious photographers. We’ve used their functional, ergonomic and durable gear all over the world. It holds up to everything and still looks great. Though the article was written for an African safari from vehicles, it has relevant tips for any wildlife tour.
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).
Here is an abbreviated list from the website.Click the first link above for elaboration on each item.
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
We continue to provide our visitors with a clean, regularly disinfected environment to feel safe and comfortable throughout your adventure. Alaska is one of the least dense areas in the world to visit, and its low Covid infection rate compared to the rest of the US and the world is another reason to make this a preferred destination for many travelers now.
APA provides unlimited hand sanitizer 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. Mask mandates have recently relaxed in Alaska, both in larger cities and smaller areas. For those who prefer to wear them throughout their trip or only when we are in areas with more people (enclosed or outdoors), they are constantly available.
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. Immediate and 3-day test results can be taken with much less hassle and wait time in most of the facilities in our area, due to our low population size compared to Anchorage and other cities.
As of the date of this newsletter, 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 2022 progresses. If this situation changes, we will keep you updated in future editions of the Alaska Bear Facts Bulletin.
“Are we the light in the bulb, or the bulb that carries the light?” – Joseph Campbell
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.