From 40+ years of living and photographing in the Great Land of Alaska, our quarterly bulletins give you relevant, useful tips to help you get great images and enjoy safe, exciting travel experiences!
This edition of the newsletter discusses some universal concerns that all photographers coming to Alaska have on their minds. Questions such as what lens(es) to haul all the way up here and out in the field, how to recognize a stressed bear, what to do to earn their trust, and whether to bring pepper spray or a firearm are answered below. You probably have a pretty good idea of what to bring, — we’ll give you our “Alaska tweak” from our decades of shooting wildlife here to help you make some final decisions.
· I’ve heard so much about Brooks Falls, but there are other places. Is Brooks really worth the cost and hassle?
Yes Brooks is a great experience. Yes there are other great bear places. Yes Brooks is worth the cost. No, it’s not for everyone.
· How Savvy are you about bears? 5 Questions to Prepare You.
When it comes to people and predators, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around. Here are some solid tips on how to act around bears from decades of bear encounters.
· Should I bring my 400mm lens? OK, how ’bout my 600mm? And what about renting?
Quick answer: Bring them all. You probably have room in your luggage. Now pack around ’em. OK not really…
“Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way” — David Frost
Brown bears eating salmon, Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park, Alaska
Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska is the holy grail for photographers wanting bear-salmon encounters. A number of famous photographers, notably Thomas Mangelson, began catching great shots of salmon jumping into bear mouths back in the 1980s. It didn’t take long for bear photography fever to spread, and, ironically, contribute to support for expanding park boundaries to protect their habitat.
The beauty of Brooks Falls is that it is well established, well managed, dependable, convenient (once you get there) and relatively safe. Safe is, of course, a relative term, depending on your priorities and background. If you come from the big city, you might be used to a different kind of threat and danger on a daily basis. But if you look at the general statistics of threats and dangers in our lives — including car accidents, robbery, road rage, natural disasters, etc. — being attacked or killed by a bear is way, way, way down on the list. And even from within that short list, the possibility of a bear attack at Brooks Falls is, well, realistically, zero. It has never happened.
Combined with the beauty of the surroundings, the ease and beauty of the charter flights getting to Brooks, the 50+-year dependability of the bears and salmon at the falls, and the extreme convenience of the raised boardwalks and platforms there, it makes for a supreme bucket-list experience that is well worth the time and money for those who don’t want to “rough-it” to see bears the old, traditional way. So the question really becomes, how do you compare Brooks to the other bear-salmon hot spots in southcentral Alaska?
In previous newsletters, we have discussed and compared many of the other brown bear viewing spots along the Alaska Peninsula south of Anchorage. These include Chinitna Bay, Silver Salmon Creek, Tuxedni Bay, Hallo Bay, Geographic Harbor, Wolverine Creek, McNeil River, etc. Some of these are easier to get to than others, and all pretty much involve a chartered float plane ride for about an hour across the inlet to Katmai or Lake Clark National Park.
Some of these areas have private lodges, while others involve landing and cruising around a lake or salt flats, either on a provided boat or by foot, to watch bears with salmon. Most of these areas do not have waterfalls of any size to them like Brooks Falls does. So many of the bear-salmon encounters in these areas involve watching bears swim around in lakes and small rivers, pulling up salmon from the shallow areas or tiny falls maybe a foot or two high. You won’t see lines of bears above or below the “falls” waiting for salmon to jump into their mouths. But, these areas are easier to get to than Brooks, and do not involve the structure and regulations that come with Nat’l Park Service management at Brooks.
The smaller, lesser-known bear spots will often not have the volume of bears that Brooks has at any one time concentrated in one area like the falls. And, unlike Brooks, they won’t have convenient boardwalks, cabins, patrolling rangers, webcams and gated enclosures to keep bears away from people. These added conveniences and safety features broadens the appeal and popularity of Brooks to families and casual recreationists and photographers who would never do a wilderness tent camp trip in the wilds of Alaska on their own just to get a few classic bear shots.
One other important factor to mention is seasonal timing. Brooks Falls bears are best visited in July. They are following the seasonal Cook Inlet salmon runs in that area of Alaska, which generally run from late June to early August. Bears will move to some of the other areas mentioned here in June, August and early September. So sometimes where and when you go to see bears will be dictated by when you have time in your travel schedule (i.e. Brooks is not always the best place to go). Here at APA, since we are in contact with the main charters, Park Service and bear camps, we keep track within the season where the bears are being seen and most active at all the main sites. We adjust our activities and itineraries to maximize your chances of seeing bears in their prime activity levels during your chosen tour slot.
So with costs being about the same for most of these popular brown bear viewing areas — roughly $1000-1500/day per person — the issue becomes whether you want to go to possibly a spot that takes less time to get to than Brooks (where you would get more time in the wild and tons of bear shots, but maybe not the shot of a salmon jumping into a bear’s mouth), or whether you’re willing to spend more time flying/less time at Brooks but gotta have those salmon shots. That’s not to say you can’t get other bear shots at Brooks or any location, and/or catch better/worse weather at any location either. But it does encourage you to think about what it is you really want to experience and photograph, and what will really bring you the most joy for the relatively limited amount of time and money you have to spend here.
If I can impart one guiding principle for photography and traveling in general, it is this: Your time is your most precious commodity. The more time you give yourself in supreme, unique places like these, the more you will usually be rewarded. That reward may not always be photographic, as sometimes a brief, close encounter with a trusting animal (predator or not) can really change your life. Accumulating life encounters like those can be a wonderfully addicting, heart-pounding joy that I truly believe can make this world into a much better, more compassionate place to co-exist.
Five Questions to ask yourself about bear behavior and safety in southcentral Alaska. (For our purposes here, I will be referring mostly to the most common types of bears seen in the popular bear spots such as Katmai, Lake Clark and Denali Nat’l Parks. These bears are relatively used to people and do not perceive them as threats. This is because there is generally an ample supply of food (salmon) in these areas (except for Denai NP, which has an ample supply of small mammals and berries, and is managed in a way to minimize and prevent negative encounters).
That being said, within these same areas, and particularly anywhere in wild areas that do not contain the density of bears congregating around popular salmon streams and/or road systems, bears can be more unpredictable and aggressive. They have not had the repeated history with people to condition them to be less afraid or wary, and therefore less dangerous.
1. Which bears are more dangerous, black, brown or grizzlies?
A few preliminaries: First, bear attacks from any species are extremely rare, compared to all the sightings and encounters people have with bears, in and out of Alaska. Second, brown and grizzlies are the same species. They are just commonly referred to as brown for the larger coastal bears and grizzlies for the inland, terrestrial bears.
Most bears will usually do anything to avoid you, if they see, hear or smell you. The object is to remain seen and/or heard (see below about bright clothing…). That doesn’t always mean yelling and trying to scare or sound authoritative around bears. That can backfire, as a bear startled from your aggressive yelling may react defensively, especially if nearby.
In most wild areas apart from Brooks Falls and other highly visited bear viewing spots, black bears are more tolerant and wary of people than brown or grizzly bears. In this context, brown refers to coastal bears surviving quite well on the millions of fatty salmon returning every year, along with clams, high-protein sedges and berries. Grizzly bears commonly refer to brown bears living in the interior away from salmon streams. They survive on a more intermittent diet of small mammals, grasses and berries. Since inconsistent food supply dictates competition, defense behaviors, morphological differences and distribution, grizzlies are historically least tolerant to any threat to survival, e.g. people.
Generally, the most dangerous bears are those that you have surprised at short distance, those with cubs, and those that for whatever reason, feel you are a threat to them. Each situation will have factors unique to it. For instance, black bears generally attack more for predatory reasons (they are hungry and food is scarce at the moment) or if there is a sow with cubs that feels you are a threat.
Brown/grizzly bears however, attack more often for defensive reasons — with or without cubs, you probably surprised it at close range. If it saw you from afar, it may be running toward you to get a better look, but not necessarily charging. So any bear can be dangerous, regardless of its color. Context has everything to do with it. Learning to integrate all the clues and signals and possible influences into an intuitive, gestalt about an animal (including humans) will reward you with less stressful encounters and more rewarding interactions.
2. How can you tell if a bear is stressed around you?
This is worth a few chapters, but we’ll summarize here. Black or brown, bears have common reactions to perceived threats (other bears or people). Recognizing these reactions is vital to having great bear experiences.
It’s interesting to note that recognizing or reducing stress and gaining the trust of bears starts before you get close enough to them to sense their stress level. They may see or smell you long before you know they are there, so being clean, relaxed and observant will maximize your chance of acceptance and an enjoyable encounter.
When approaching from a distance, see if the bear looks in your direction. If it does, does it sniff the air, change its position or feeding behavior, round up its cubs, or anything other than what it was doing previously? These aren’t necessarily bad signs, but they are worth noting. Obviously, if it goes back to what it was doing, or lets its cubs continue to roam around, it is probably not too stressed. Even if it stands up and stares at you, or takes a few steps in your direction and watches you for a while, this doesn’t signal danger. They are curious animals by nature.
In most of the popular bear viewing areas, when bears recognize you as a human, as long as you are keeping your distance and leaving them alone, they will do the same for you. Stress level is minimal. The next level to watch for are common stress indicators — popping their jaws, running closer to get a better look (not usually an aggressive indicator), moving immediately to a farther feeding or resting area, stomping paws on the ground, walking towards you with head low and eyes fixed on you. These may be a mix of defensive and slightly offensive behaviors.
Fearful or angry bears, like people, can sometimes be loud or demonstrative as a feign to actually avoid fighting. Regardless, recognize this next level of stress and change something — walk obliquely away, stop and turn around, become more visible, group up and raise your arms together, etc.
Staring at a bear, by the way, has not been shown to agitate or provoke a bear, as it often does in humans or other predators. Nonetheless, bears will sometimes avoid eye contact. Oddly enough, moving your arms slowly over your head might show the bear that you are not another bear, which is always a concern for them, with or without cubs.
3. What are the best ways to gain the “trust” of bears?
A natural extension of question #2 which really addressed how to avoid surprise situations and avoid being perceived as a threat. A simple conversational tone, slow speech, and calm demeanor is very effective at revealing your presence in a non-threatening way. It is not necessary to “prove” to a bear by a harsh tone or actions that you don’t want to be messed with. In the vast majority of cases, they will naturally avoid you.
In popular bear viewing areas like Brooks Falls, bears will walk right by you, sometimes with their cubs. Over the years, biologists have theorized that Brooks bears associate humans with….nothing. The common analogy is that we are like “moving trees” to them. But it also is theorized that sows may feel that walking near humans actually deters other lone bears from approaching their cubs. So the “gaining of trust” here has already happened long before you arrived. Regardless, the experience is thrilling and chilling when it happens.
Nonetheless, whether in Brooks or other bear spots, be aware of crowding a bear. Their tolerance zone is not always obvious, so assume it is wider than yours. Approach openly rather than trying to sneak up and get a candid photo. In his many books over the years, bBiologist Stephen Stringham states that:
“Winning the trust of bears reduces likelihood that they will flee, which would deprive us of viewing opportunities and bears of nutrition…Trust also reduces defensiveness, the major cause of serious or fatal maulings by grizzly/brown bears. However, the mere act that a bear trusts you does not mean that you can trust it. That depends on ursine self-restraint, which is best assured if the bruins respect people…Respect may do a little to inhibit defensive aggression. But it is essential for minimizing offensive aggression– for instance attempts by bears to exclude people from their turf or to compete with us for food.” (Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual, 2008)
Other ways to be accepted and gain a bear’s trust include sitting down (bears will do the same if not stressed), continuing to walk at an oblique angle away from the bear and/or staying in a group. A quick mention here about “reverse trust”, a term I’ve used in the past but is not really a scientific term. In trying to gain a bear’s trust, you don’t want it to trust you, or humans, for the wrong reasons. You don’t want it trust you for food in any form, including odors. This means not bringing anything that might be smelled outside of its sealed packaging, including flavored drinks. Use non-scented mosquito repellent.
It is worth saying that you need to be diligent and vigilant for any trash, scraps and food droppings that may escape onto clothing or the ground. This includes washing your hands, face and perhaps your folding knife after eating (non-scented soap). It also includes any urine that may have gotten onto clothes. Keep clean. Otherwise you will be conditioning them to trust you are worth approaching and antagonizing for goodies, no matter how small. And, worse, their cubs will learn the same.
4. What kind of noises and sounds can warn or deter bears from approaching?
Talking in a slightly louder but conversational tone, clapping, and periodically breaking sticks can be effective non-threatening forms of communication. Whistles have notbeen shown to have any warning effect on bears. This has been tested by several guides and rangers. Bears tend to ignore whistles, perhaps because they sound like birds or, worse, one of their prime food sources in the interior, marmots.
The same can be said of another popular bear “deterrent” — bells. Unless a bear can distinguish the direction of the bell sound, it is unlikely to be deterred. Often, several hikers in a group will have bells. The sounds of different bells in slightly different distances or angles might be confusing to a bear. Similarly, like whistles and other sounds, vegetation, running water or wind might drown out softer bell sounds.
One of the more convenient sound-based deterrents are the compact, pressurized air horns. These are cheap and easy to buy anywhere. The problem is twofold. 1) air charters may not let you take them onboard (the same is true with bear pepper sprays, though this has more to do with the painful spray being released inadvertently in the cockpit or on a crash), and 2) they have had mixed results in many areas. They have been tried on black, brown and polar bears with mixed results. Many have simply ignored the obnoxious sounds. However, on the popular TV show Alone, they were shown several times to scare off approaching bears. In terms of announcing your presence, they are loud and effective even in a mild breeze. But for actually deterring a bear that hasn’t immediately avoided you, there are no official tests to really confirm or recommend them. They are convenient though, so worth considering.
Keep in mind that the goal of making sounds in the wild is to encourage bears to avoid you, not to disturb or displace them from their entire feeding area. You don’t need to chase or assertively move toward a bear. There is a complicated chess game going on out there between all predators within a local topography. Giving bears plenty of space and an escape route is all you should want, rather than trying to get them to abandon their prime feeding area and perhaps displace other bears toward you.
By the way, climbing a tree to avoid an approaching bear can also backfire and be seen as a submissive prey against an approaching bear. Both black and brown bears can climb trees, so it really does no good. Calmly standing ground, talking peacefully to the bear, and minimizing gestures will go a long way towards defusing a potentially bad situation.
5. Pepper spray vs firearm?
In my 40+ years of hiking, sleeping and working in bear country, I have never had to spray or shoot a bear. I am fortunate, I guess, as I have had friends, backcountry rangers and other co-workers who have had negative encounters (hurt badly but all survived). In every one of those instances, the bear had been surprised near a kill, or it had been known to be a dangerous bear in the area.
As a photographer, if you are visiting a popular bear viewing area with a guide, you will not have these conditions. Bears will be highly visible and/or used to your presence, without competition for food. Nonetheless, this question always comes up, so here a few things to consider.
Notably, most charter air operators will not allow pepper spray on the planes (I have tried a few times and been denied). Too debilitating if it malfunctions during flight. Second, most guides will have firearms with them and at camp. However, I personally know of no situation at the popular bear camps where a bear has been shot in self defense.
Allowing visitors to bring firearms into a bear camp is very risky for the guides, legally and physically. Generally, a shotgun with slugs is the preferred weapon. Since those are large, heavy and unwieldy, a large bore pistol like a .44 caliber is the ideal bear protection. However, pistols have been shown to be less accurate than rifles or shotguns in stopping a bear attack or killing a bear.
This has partly to do with the accuracy of the shooter in the few seconds before contact to actually hit a charging bear in the right places, and the size of the ammunition. A lot of practice and skill are required to be competent enough to nail a bear at close enough range while it is charging. Adrenaline, nerves and the fact that most casual shooters or hunters have not really practiced under stressful conditions simulated a charging bear. Consequently, most pistol shots, small or large bore, will miss their spot or worse, anger the bear further, or, in some cases, hit people nearby.
Pepper spray, on the other hand, has been proven effective at stopped numerous attacks worldwide. They are easy to aim, deter bears immediately, and, at worst, cause temporary pain if you get some on you or others. The main problems with pepper spray are 1) as mentioned above, not allowed on charter planes (not even as checked baggage on many flights), 2) they must be aimed away from the wind (sometimes hard to tell in a light breeze), and you of course must be upwind from the charging bear, and 3) they must be used within a few years of purchase. If all those rules are followed, you will have a much better chance statistically of stopping an angry, charging bear using pepper spray than a firearm.
Since we’ve addressed general tips on what photo gear and other handy essentials to bring on an Alaskan photo tour, this post is more specific to the larger wildlife telephotos. For those of you with one or more of the large monster lenses (400mm f4 and up), there are several factors to consider. Most of the factors are not really specific to Alaska, as the conditions and hazards you may confront here are not really any different than anywhere else.
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 a photo vest…
Your lens(es) need to be padded, protected and portable. Most of the time you’ll have your custom case for your expensive super telephoto, so it will be in its own carrying case. This can be packed in your checked luggage with all your other padded items, clothes, shoes, etc. Or you can lug it through TSA and carry-on, though I have been less inclined to do that lately as I feel it just increases the likelihood of dropping, falling, damage or inspections. This is a pesonal preference — you may not want your baby out of your sight.
Regardless, the crux of the issue is whether it would be worth it to bring one or more of these glass and metal monsters with you on a wildlife safari. The first question to consider is whether you’ll be on a tour vs a true wilderness experience. Tours will usually have vehicles, hotels, cabins, etc. to set your gear down close enough to use when you are either touring around in the vehicle or on location (bear camp, boardwalks, etc.).
For tours like APA’s that include flightseeing, the decision is twofold. If your flightsee is a round-trip for an hour or so, without landing anywhere, then the recommendation is take minimal long lenses. Generally anything more than 200-300mm will be impossible to get great shots from inside a fixed-wing or helicopter. Too much vibration, distortion from windows (unless you are lucky enough to get doors off) and speed to generally get great shots with longer lenses in flight. With the newer mirrorless lenses, focusing can be faster with more focus points available.
You may have to test a bit to see how much movement/vibration you can handle and still get sharp shots. You can test in your own vehicle by just moving the camera/lens a bit in varying conditions (have someone else drive please). Or if you’re lucky enough, get up in a plane (even a commercial flight somewhere) and run some tests.
Either way, you still need a fast shutter speed to override the plane/helo speed and vibration. Bump your ISO up as much as you can to get your shutter speed to at least 1/500. Also, don’t zoom in all the way, if you have a variable zoom telephoto. It is better to get the sharpest shot possible in the field and perhaps crop a bit in the computer, than to try and get as close as possible with a huge lens inside a plane/helo. It is also much easier to remove noise in the computer from a higher ISO (but faster shutter speed) in post processing, than it is to sharpen a blurry shot taken with too low a shutter speed.
Let’s also not forget that the top of the line cameras these days have such sharp sensors and arrays that they are equaling the detail that used to be only available through the sharpest lenses. Cropping an image slighly from a 45 megapixel digital image can yield close-ups equal to the 400 or 600mm lenses from just a decade or so ago. It will of course depend on how big you want to view or print your images, but for most digital and print purposes, a top of the line camera can make up for a shorter telephoto lens.
What if you have more than one super telephoto? Should you bring more than 1, or rent at location? Well this will obviously be speciic to where you’re going and what you’re shooting. But in general, if you have a 400mm, you’ll probably have a 1.4x adapter. So you’re up to 560mm, so right there you probably don’t need the 600mm (if that’s what you have). Or if you have a 1.7x, you’re up to 680mm, generally plenty of lens for 90% of wildlife situations (except tiny birds or mammals across valleys…).
Or, if you have a 600mm and maybe one larger lens, with your 1.4x or 1.7x, your 600 is now 840mm or ~1000mm. Plenty of glass for anything. This is assuming your multipliers are top notch, top of the line, as this is where secondary quality can really ruin the potential of such great lenses to get the clarity and closeness you want.
In Alaska, most photographers are here for the big mammals. A 400mm or 600mm is the standard. You will be most likely, and most satisfied, by bringing one, not both, of these lenses, with a 1.4x multiplier and of course your tripod (yes a monopod is worth its weight as well). Big brown bears against green or blue background make for nice, detailed contrasty shots. They usually don’t move fast and stay in one place.
On the other hand, smaller birds, bald eagles in flight, brown mammals against dirty backgrounds (e.g moose, caribou, beaver, etc.) require more finesse in the field to maintain sharpness and separation. Sometimes leaving the 1.4x off may help with clarity and focus, and cropping slighly in the computer may yield sharper results. The point of all this is, if you haven’t gleaned already, is that there is very little need, in my humble opinion of decades of shooting in Alaska with hundreds of kindred photogs here, to bring 2 lenses above the 400mm range. (Exceptions may include situations where you have more room for equipment and/or time to set up, e.g. polar bears, commercial situations, snowy owls and other birds in the far north, etc. where light is plentiful and they don’t move around much).
The other consideration we are always asked about is how about renting? This only address the cost factor, not all the other factors mentioned above about how often you would really have a need– and/or get a true benefit from — bringing a second huge lens. So yes, renting is a possibility if you don’t own a huge telephoto to begin with, or you really think you’d like a 600 or 800mm in addition to your 400mm.
It will cost you a few hundred bucks (we have local stores in Alaska, or you can rent through Borrowlenses.com or others), but as mentioned above, perhaps trying out your existing equipment at home and experimenting in post processing might get you a sharp cropped image you would be happy with. That being said, the cost of renting is an excellent option to seriously try out a lens before buying. I just wouldn’t do it for the first time on a bucket-list photo tour.
I hope these tips give you some ideas, and hopefully you have enough time before your photo tour to test out some options at home. Lenses, cameras and software are getting so much better every year that it is becoming much easier to carry less gear in the field (if you have the money) than we used to in order to get stunning, pro shots of classic wildlife. Happy shooting!
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.
“I used to have progressive contact lenses but they only let me see to the left”– unknown
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.