From 40+ years of living and photographing in the “Great Land”, APA/Alaska’s “The Bear Facts” Bulletin gives you relevant, useful tips to help you get great images and enjoy safe, exciting travel experiences!
The first half of summer — when we release this edition of the newsletter — rewards us not only with the big mammals we love to see, but their young ones as well. So in this edition of the “Bear Facts”, we give some hints and observations about photographing moose calves, bear cubs and other young ones. Also a common question from our clients — what are the bears doing this time of year, and is it a good time to photograph them?
· Bears + salmon = trees
A perspective and a plea, based on instinct — theirs and yours.
· Tips on photographing young mammals like moose calves, bear cubs, caribou calves, etc.
Early summer is a great time — actually the only time — to see brand new versions of the big guys we all know and love. Here are a few tips to help you earn their trust, get great shots, and keep you from getting hurt by momma…
· Is June a good time to see bears?
Bears — specifically brown/grizzly bears — have definite cycles and habits throughout the season. Though July is the most popular month to see them in Alaska, June and August offer great benefits not available in the other months.
Note: APA and Alaska’s Bear Facts Bulletin does NOT receive any remuneration or kickbacks for any links or recommendations in this newsletter. They are purely for your enjoyment, safety and knowledge in your travel and photography plans.
“I stopped believing in evolution when I heard that Darwin was adopted” — Steven Wright
Brown bears, Brooks Falls, Ron Levy/Alaska Photo Adventures
Alaska’s “The Bear Facts” Bulletin
When you fly to Alaska’s incredible brown bear viewing areas, you get this birds eye view over the incredible interface between the ocean and the largest intact rainforests of the world. I’ve been here 40+ years and it hits me right in the gut every time I see this from above – the incredible beauty and unity of it all. Most people don’t realize that the Pacific Temperate forests depend not just on sunlight and predator-prey diversity to survive, but on the ocean as well.
Millions of salmon come from hundreds of miles away in open ocean towards their fresh water birthplaces. When you land from your flight, you transition from the big picture above to the working cogs of the system below. Bears pull the fish out of the water, eat them, and open them up for other predators like wolves, small mammals, birds and bugs to feast on the bones and remains. Those digested remains then get spread all around the forest for hundreds of miles via air and land.
But what a lot of people don’t know is that the nitrogen stored in these remains also get spread all over. 80% of the nitrogen found in the trees and plants here come from the salmon. So the salmon are the most important fertilizers of these forests. Without them, we would not have the incredible expanse, diversity, balance and health of the rainforests here. What a thing to keep in mind as you watch bears satisfying their appetites at the all-you-can-eat summer swim-fest that brings us all together.
And yet it’s so much bigger than all of us. Politics, special interests, economics and even science (depending on who’s quoting who) often suffer from a “reductionist mentality” — a myopic view that sacrifices small parts of large areas, ignoring or forgetting to pull far enough back to see the bigger, global relationships. And to adequately value these benefits far enough out in time. Sometimes we focus too much on filling energy “demands” or “boosting the economy” rather than intuitively accepting the deep, interconnected value of areas like these brown bear habitats the way they are.
Places like Brooks Falls and other wildlife hot spots in the Pacific Northwest work incredibly well when we “manage” them mostly by leaving them alone and intact. It is possible to let them hum along as they have for centuries without dams, mining, mills or other economically ”founded” projects that can be built elsewhere. The animals know what to do, and the resources manage themselves in cycles that were balanced long before man laid his project blueprints over them. The priorities in these forests are larger than macro-economics, and they are larger than the threats and assaults launched at them. Anybody who sees bears feasting on salmon and enjoying themselves like kids splashing in the bathtub gets it from a gut standpoint.
It’s party time in the summer and you’re invited. Walk softly and carry a big lens.
Life is good.
Cow moose & calves, Ron Levy/Alaska Photo Adventures
At first, you might think that there’s no difference between shooting adults and young animals, and many times you would be right. But like human babies, they can be trickier to photograph, (especially the wild ones…). If they know you are there, they can be more afraid of you and hide behind their mothers. Whether bear cubs, moose calves or other mammals, they will will be cueing off their parents’ behaviors, and keeping their distance in line with their parents’.
So the challenge right from the start, is to gain the trust of the parents (just like humans). Sometimes it takes days, weeks or, in the case of Brooks Falls’ bears, years. You obviously might not have that much time in the field, especially in Alaska, so this is where going with a guide can be well worth the cost to get great shots in a short amount of time. Guides for a particular area will know the general habits of bears in that region, and often specific habits of individuals.
But let’s say you’re walking or driving along and you see a moose with calves by the road. Nobody is around. Here are some questions and possible solutions:
1) Do they see you? Are you in plain view or hiding behind something, including your car? Many times, moose, bears and other animals don’t associate a car with a living animal or a threat. Or they don’t care about a constantly moving machine until it stops.
Possible Solutions: Slow down and gauge their reactions. If they ignore you and continue eating or doing whatever they are doing, keep slowing down and see if you can either 1) take photos as you drive or walk by, 2) slow down enough to come to a complete stop where you can shoot as much as you want, 3) stop completely far enough away to where they don’t change their habits or run away. This may be your only alternative in cases where the animal has noticed you and begins to watch you more closely or change its habits (walk closer to or behind momma, run behind a tree or something else, etc.). Sometimes your best bet is to pass by slowly and get whatever shots you can. Go up the road, turn around out of sight, and return slowly to see if they have come out of hiding. If you are on foot, standing behind a tree or rock, not moving for at least 10 minutes, and/or visibly turning your body away from the animal may signal to them that you are not a threat.
Like us looking at bears, if we see them staring directly at us, or approaching closer, our adrenaline spikes and the fight-or-flight response starts to kick in. Realize that with many animals, their initial response may be to freeze, which makes it difficult for us to really know how uptight they are or whether they are ready to take flight. Slowing down our movements, or stopping completely if you have something to hide behind, combined with turning your body and/or head enough to where it doesn’t see your eyes, are two of the best behaviors you can do to defuse the situation.
2) Whether or not you think they see you, what do they do when you get closer? Do they do nothing different? Does the mother move between their young and you? Does the mother move away from you, into the woods or in any direction away? These all indicate that, without directly looking at you or stopping what they are doing, the animal is most likely, casually taking precautions against the oncoming threat. A change in behavior like this can be the first sign — warning — that they are not relaxed.
Possible Solutions: Same as above. Treat the situation as an indication that this is a pre- flight-or-fight move. Most people are too impatient and want results in less than a minute. Take the time, as above, to gain their trust. You will be showing them that you are respectful of their signals and their pace and rhythms. On an unconscious level, most animals will perceive your awareness and relax gradually. Patience is your best behavior to get closer, and matching their pace helps to “align” your rhythm to theirs. It will be appreciated (as with people). You will have better luck getting natural images of play between siblings, and those surprise moments that only get revealed when animals are most relaxed.
3) If you are on foot, you will be perceived as a threat. Many wild animals — birds or mammals — don’t mind cars moving along the road. But a vertical or crouching person with eyes and moving parts is more ingrained in their evolution and experience. They don’t know your intentions and will default to hiding or moving away if you try to come closer too soon.
That being said, there are four general exceptions in Alaska: 1) moose on the Kenai Peninsula; 2) wildlife in Denali National Park; 3) bears at Brooks Falls and 4) McNeil River. Most of the animals in these areas are so used to humans that we are perceived more like “walking trees” than threatening life forms. What this means is that you have a really good chance in these areas to get great photos, but you still have to know how to read the animals.
Threshold levels are reached differently on all animals before they start changing their behavior. Body posture in large mammals like moose and bears can be good indicators. Many times they will stand broadside to you to show their size, or to let the babies hide behind them. Be aware of this, rather than assuming they’re just standing that way to reach leaves or something else.
Or they might stand and stare facing directly at you (an obvious sign of stress or concern). The babies may be unaware of these changes and just continue feeding or playing until momma makes overt calls to them. The important idea is to gauge how much space mom is giving the kids to play away from her. Watch if the group as a whole tightens their distance from each other. It may be subtle, but it is important. Sometimes these signals are just with the eyes or minor head movements that the kids know what to do. With bears, things like moving jaws up and down, standing up to see better (not usually an aggressive move), or slowly moving away are all indicators that they might not feel comfortable.
Possible Solutions: Stand or face obliquely to them. Try stepping back a few steps. walking obliquely away, and see if their behavior changes after a few minutes. Do they stop moving? Does momma start feeding again? Do the young ones gradually increase their distance from her?
These are just a few observations and suggestions. There are differences between animal groups (birds rely more on sight and sound; mammals often use sight and smell), locations (closer or more frequent human contact vs little to no contact, or in areas with little food supply) as mentioned above), individual animals, time of year, etc.
Regarding time — it is often your best ally. With few exceptions, we humans are far more impatient with our time than our animal friends are. Unless it’s a predator that has personal or historical experience with man as a hunter or other threat, you will most likely be rewarded with much longer time and better opportunities for great photos.
Aside from taking the time to get as close to the animal as you want, don’t forget to keep your lens constantly ready. It might seem obvious, but I’ve seen so many photographers concentrate on getting as close as they can that they miss some really terrific behavior shots and expressions along the way. Try to develop a sixth sense as you approach animals to anticipate if the light is turning golden or the animals are starting to interact. It might be the right time to start clicking away and forget about getting closer. You can always crop later.
See more tips and techniques on how to approach and read wildlife under our Photo & Travel Tips online.
Brown bears & hikers, Lake Clark NP, Ron Levy/Alaska Photo Adventures
Yes! June is a great time to get close to bears, or let them get close to you. The photo above was taken last year at this time by one of our bear camps in Lake Clark National Park. When salmon numbers are low or non-existent, bears are gradually moving across mountain passes toward the coasts. They will be feeding on the tide flats for clams and other shellfish, and in nearby grass fields and sloughs for high-protein (20%) sedges and small critters. They are just biding their time until the salmon feast begins later in the month.
Cubs will start appearing late in June, but you may see some young ones earlier. They will be hanging close to momma, nursing, rolling and playing in the tall grasses. There is not as much frenzy of activity (with people or bears) so you have more time to get a variety of great shots with gorgeous backgrounds and light. They will be relaxing more, playing in fields, rolling around, etc. And they will be unconcerned about humans, as there is still plenty of food in these areas.
As mentioned above, the salmon don’t start coming into the fresh water sloughs and rivers in Cook Inlet or Southcentral Alaska until late June/early July. This is also when the migration of tourists come upriver to Alaska as well. The only difference is really that the bears don’t congregate to watch us eat dinner. (Sometimes I do wonder if bears were philosophical, how they would interpret our behavior… but — like Western civilization — I digress).
The type of geology, weather and vegetation here in this time of year allows the bears several options to accommodate to the variability of life forces here. Excellent visibility allows them to see humans and other animals, especially threats from other bears. The wide variety and supply of food options between plants, berries, grasses, small animals, shellfish and salmon allows them to move around throughout the summer. And the bushes and trees allow temperature control with shade and privacy for sleep, etc. All their needs are met by the land here.
June also offers some logistical benefits. Flights are easier to get, lodging less crowded, everything is at least 25% easier going in June than July. But if you are dead-set on getting that salmon jumping into a frenzy of bears, or one bear’s waiting mouth (it’s worth it to see this action in front of you), then July is the better month.
But if you want a variety of other bear encounters, situations, interactions, etc. that show them living their lives in the vast beauty of this state, June can be a fantastic time. Weather is equally good as it is in July. Our 75 degree days can be comfortably warm and dry due to our latitude, slightly thinner air and often breezy days.
If you need any help deciding when or where to go for bears or other animals, be sure to see our extensive menu of free photo and travel tips for Alaska. Probably most of your questions will be answered there. But if you still have specific questions or concerns, fill out our contact form below or send us an email at [email protected] and we’ll be glad to help.
As of the date of this newsletter, vaccinations are not required to enter Alaska. Exit requirements from many countries have relaxed for many months now, and we are finally receiving many clients who have paid in previous years and postponed till this year (some from 2019 deposits). So while we seem to be settling back into our tourist season rhythms and activities, we are nonetheless vigilant and dedicated to keeping you clean, disinfected and safe during your time with us.
APA maintains a clean, regularly disinfected vehicles, equipment and choices for your lodging and camp experiences 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.
We also choose vendors, flight operations and lodges that have been operating for years and we trust to provide clean, disinfected rooms, aircraft and operations. We wipe down our vehicles inside and out at least twice daily, and always have masks and hand sanitizer 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 health facilities. Immediate and 3-day test results are usually available, often with less hassle and wait time than in Anchorage and other cities. If you are concerned about vaccination status in Alaska or within APA, you can always contact us for updated info as 2022 progresses. If or when the situation changes, we will keep you updated in future editions of the Bulletin and our emails to clients and anyone who signs up..
“I can’t afford xrays, so when I travel, I hang onto my handbag a little longer at the TSA machine. Then I can confirm whether it’s really a wrist fracture.” — Paula Poundstone
Disclaimer: Alaska Photo Adventures and Alaska’s The 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.