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 in the Great Land of Alaska!
Flying Biters & Bears, Oh My!
and lots of other great info for photographers, travelers and animal lovers coming to Alaska!
We hope you will join us – or re-join us – in our land of “AHHS” to take advantage of the world renown wildlife photo opportunities and grandiose beauty of Alaska.
Among our topics this quarter is a question for you: Of the three big challenges to most visitors here — Bugs, Bears and Weather — what do you think poses the greatest threat to your existence?
Read on and enjoy!
Q: “What do you call a bear who is happy, angry, happy, angry all the time?” A: bi-polar bear.
· What Makes Bears Aggressive?
Most of you know enough not to act aggressive around bears, but there are subtle physical nuances to be aware of before you even see a bear that influence its behavior.
· Flying Biters & Bears, Oh My!
What’s gonna kill you first out there? A summary of the 3 biggest threats to your life in Alaska and what to do about it.
· Perspective-Shift: What do you enjoy more?
A personal question and reminder to “hit the reset button” if things get tense or subjects aren’t cooperating.
· Changes in 2023 tour activities
Every year we evaluate how the season went and what we can do to bring more value to you in the coming years. We value your trust as much as you value your limited time and money invested on these tours. See what’s new and better in 2023.
The short answer: Ignorance. Bears, like most other animals and humans, don’t want to fight, chase or confront others. They are primarily defensive animals, protecting their territory from other bears and predators, protecting their young ones, securing their space for food, hibernation, family.
So in terms of ignorance, you’ve probably figured out that I’m talking about ours, not theirs. When humans enter [invade] a bear’s habitat, we have to be aware of how our actions are perceived by bears. This is easier said than done.
Most people know enough about not moving fast or aggressively, especially in limited visibility areas.
But its often the subtle cues that animals notice before we see or confront them. Learning these cues goes a long way to increasing your photo opps, enjoying their antics, and increasing your safety around them.
This is one reason why the Nat’l Park Service at Brooks Falls is proud to say that since they have been managing the bears there for the last 50+ years, there has never been an attack on humans. Their education programs emphasize a greater understanding of bear nuances and biology, and how a greater understanding of our own habits and nuances directly affect the survival and success of bears and the entire Brooks ecology.
Here are a few points to ponder before you even leave for bear country:
What did you eat for breakfast? Did you have bacon, or syrup on your pancakes? It will be on your breath (or clothes if you eat like me).
What snacks are you bringing? Dry vs liquid, sweet vs neutral spiced, fruit (fresh or dried, etc)?
Are you wearing camouflage or bright, colored clothing? Color is less important than whether it stands out from your background. Bright clothing, though, generally makes you more visible from a distance, which is a good thing. You want the bear to see you. You don’t want to sneak up on a bear to get a great shot. Let them see you to gain confidence and comfort that you are not a threat. They probably already smelled you.
Are you being calm, quiet, minimizing your movements?
How are you standing? Are you facing head-on towards the bear, at an angle, or facing away? Many people think that you have to show a predator that you’re the assertive one – take a confrontational stance – head-on, head up, upright, arms out, “big”, etc.). This is party true in terms of acting calm and fluid, and may work for a timid sub-adult. But it can also backfire.
It depends on a lot of factors such as whether you changed your stance when you saw it (or when it saw you), what the animal is doing, what it’s recently experienced, etc. Perhaps most of all, it depends on whether you’re in an area where they are conditioned to people (e.g. Brooks Falls) or in the interior back country away from recurring, plentiful food supplies like salmon.
Moving to a sideways stance, or even backing up a few steps or moving off the trail, will often signal that you’re not a threat and not interested in him.
Bottom line: A relaxed bear will give you more face time, closer interactions, more photo opps. Being aware of your subtle body cues is not only vital to increasing your face time with bears, but will take you to a whole new level of understanding and appreciation for these these often misunderstood animals that share our space.
Alaska’s got it all – massive space, massive animals, massive beauty. But it all comes with a price. Actually several prices – time, money, planning and the inevitable dangers that accompany your dreams. Those dangers include the three main liabilities you will face wherever you go in this huge state – Bugs, Weather and Bears.
So of these three, what do you think are the most important, most common and most dangerous threat to your life while you’re here? For the vast majority of you, your summer Alaska trip will subject you to all three of these threats at some point (or all together).
Of course it depends a little on where and when you’re going. If you’ll just be on a boat, cruise or water-based trip, bears will be less of a threat (unless you’re kayaking on a river or a long a shoreline). If you’re traveling in the off-seasons (i.e. Sept thru May), bugs will be minimal. Weather will follow you wherever you go, but is it your worst enemy? Here’s a quick reality check on each, and recommendations on how to recognize them in terms of priorities and possible debilitation:
Our mosquitoes love Alaska, and they love you. They love your warmth and your smell.
They won’t ruin your trip or kill you (unless you’re allergic), so they are a nuisance, not a danger. While I have been to spots in Alaska famous for massive swarms of mosquitoes (the middle of northern interior Brooks Range, and much of the boggy northern tundra away from tourist-visited towns), the truth is that 99% of the time, they won’t be any worse than you may have encountered in other locations. (One documented historical account during the discovery of the Florida Everglades mentioned that (paraphrasing) “…the bugs were so thick…that if you wiped out 90% of them, you wouldn’t notice it…”).
While they won’t be that bad, they will be something you will encounter almost anywhere in Alaska between June – August, where there is fresh water that they can breed. That includes sloughs, rivers, lakes and ponds. It also includes tidally stranded water that may collect rain. There are usually two general blooms of mosquitoes in Alaska – early June, and late June/early July.
Make yourself less loving to these pests by following these guidelines:
1. Use unscented mosquito repellent (min. 35-50% DEET, more for intense bug-fests). You can use up to 100% DEET, but the stuff is a manmade chemical that absorbs into your skin, so despite its relative safe designation, I personally wouldn’t use more than 75%. Use the liquid rub-on rather than sprays, as if it’s windy, sprays can waste a lot. One other note: Higher DEET concentrations can eat through fabrics, so only put it directly on skin (hence my hesitation on using more than 75%)
2. Second choice besides DEET is Picaridin, which has been popular outside the USA for years but now finding its way into the US. It’s not quite as effective as DEET, but can be all you need. The benefit is that it is safe on clothing and doesn’t smell or feel as bad or oily as DEET.
3. Speaking of clothing, you can also buy outdoor clothing imprenated with Permethrin. This has been used effectively now for 20+ years since it received EPA approval and is effective at warding off mosquitoes. It’s not quite as effective as higher concentrations of DEET, but it avoids the need to apply repellent to your skin. It doesn’t smell as bad as DEET and feels smoother on the skin. It will gradually decrease in effectiveness after numerous washings (supposedly after 70 laundry loads) so it all depends on your budget. If you’re buying clothing anyway, balance the extra cost (if any) against some extra peace of mind in the field.
4. If you don’t want any foreign chemicals on your body, Citronella is the best natural choice. It is an herb with a lemon scent that is somewhat effective at warding off moderate concentrations of mosquitoes. Personally I haven’t found it worthwhile in the more heavily boggy areas that bears, moose and much of Alaska’s popular wildlife reside. But it has been around a long time now and is much more skin friendly, with a nice, fresh herbal aroma. Many folks prefer it to the harsher chemicals mentioned above.
5. Some people say that extra vitamin B can deter mosquitoes, but I personally have never found that true nor read accounts that can be verified with population studies over time.
6. Avoid any other creams, deodorants, moisturizers, perfumes, etc. you spray or wipe on that smell attractive. Nothing else has been effective or verified, as mentioned above, against repelling mosquitoes — especially higher concentrations in Alaska — than those mentioned above at this time.
7. Bring long sleeves (wool shirt, windbreaker, or any light shirt) and cotton pants (no Levis – terrible in wet weather). I like the zip-off extensions for shorts. There is some evidence that lighter colors like tan, light blue or green are less attractive to mosquitoes than darker blues, blacks, reds, etc. 43. Bring a headnet with a wide brim or that works over a fishing cap (I rarely use a headnet for most of coastal Alaska, but in the interior of the state, bugs can be the worst)
8. Avoid hiking, resting, camping in areas with standing water (ponds, tidal flats, etc.). However, algae is known to oxygenate water and kill mosquito larvae, so use your own judgment if you don’t see any mosquitoes around. If unsure, avoid.
These are the most visible and hair-raising of your Alaskan enemies. They can kill you faster than the other threats, and make for greater home and theater movies. But are they the most dangerous of the three in terms of what’s likely to kill or disable the average Alaskan visitor, hiker, etc.?
Answer: No. The incidence of bear attacks and/or deaths is far below the millions of folks affected by mosquitoes, other bugs and bad weather. Thousands of people see bears in Alaska each day of the summer. Many more thousands donate their blood to mother mosquitoes dedicated to the welfare of their young each summer day. Unless you’re allergic to mosquitoes, you won’t die from them, but they can still ruin your day and (slightly) your appearance.
Considering the millions of visitors throughout the state in the summer, you are far more likely to encounter mosquitoes than bears. Whether or not you put on the right amount of mosquito repellant, they’ll still find you, even if they don’t land.
I know that’s not comforting, but these are the facts folks). Approximately 10-20% of the visitors to Alaska will see bears (e.g. approx. 500,000 people). Of those, the vast majority will see them from a comfortable distance, either from a bus, boat, plane, car or open-air facility. Of the rest, many will see them in in the most popular areas of Lake Clark or Katmai National Parks (e.g. Brooks Falls), where they are managed well and conditioned to accept humans.
Attacks have happened very sporadically, almost always in wilder, hunted areas where they are more wary of people, or from surprise or accidental encounters with sows and cubs. Over the last 50 years, there have only been a handful per year – often in spring when they are emerging from hibernation and very hungry. Though I have had friends and co-workers attacked by bears (only 2 in over 40 years here),
I have personally been hiking alone or with one other person several times when a bear or two (black and/or brown) popped up at close range out of nowhere. They either ran off immediately or climbed the nearest tree. When you consider that bears are in every part of the gigantic square mileage in the state – polar bears in the treeless north, brown and black bears sharing the interior and coasts – the evidence shows that they really do not want to attack us, nor do they normally use humans as food. They are primarily defensive creatures.
In short, for the vast majority of folks going on guided tours, camps, boats, etc., you are very safe. Putting it in perspective even more — you’re less likely to get bitten from a bear than a mosquito. So that leaves our final category:
It’s not just relevant for backpackers and climbers. Anywhere you go, anytime (and often), the weather can turn ugly in Alaska. More people die or get hurt from exposure and hypothermic weather conditions than bears or bugs in Alaska every day.
Whether you’re 20 or 60, in excellent or poor health, hiking 5 miles from Anchorage or on a short day trip to see wildlife on land or water – if you’re not prepared for rain or wind, your condition and attitude can deteriorate rapidly. It can be a slow or fast progression that can catch up to you while you’re distracted with pursuing your goal(s) for the day.
Mountains and oceans create their own weather patterns, forcing local air and water vapor to rise and fall. This can create local wind, rain and snow that may not have been on the forecast, or more severe than forecasted. It’s important to know that whether you’re part of a guided group tour or hiking on your own for a day or overnight, you have to consider the worst in unexpected conditions.
If you’re in a guided group, you’ll still want to bring personal items with you if/when you leave your vehicle, whether for the day or overnight. See our recommendations online for what to bring on a photo tour. But for this article, we are concentrating on how to deal with weather conditions, both in terms of preparation, recognitions and emotional awareness.
Here are a few tips and warning signs to consider and recognize in yourself and others:
1. Have you prepared adequately for where you’re going, and for how long? Depending on whether you’re traveling alone, with a guide or large group, and/or how far from the nearest town you’ll be will determine how much emergency gear you’ll want to consider.
2. Are you bringing wind and rain gear, enough emergency food for an overnight, a tarp or some sort of temp shelter if you’re not near a road or vehicle, water for at least a night, any meds you need, an emergency radio of some kind, etc.
3. Are you starting to feel cold, or noticing others feeling cold/shivering/stuttering? It often happens insidiously, while you’re enjoying a moose or bear sighting, ignorant to growing minor discomforts or sight increases in weather
4. Is it harder for you to grasp things or see clearly ( if raining, etc.)?
5. Do you have a lot of things hanging around your neck, pants, shoulders, etc.? This requires extra coordination and strength to keep from banging around and others, and to keep dry if raining. Things can start to fall or be forgotten if there are open pockets or unsecured items.
6. Are you having trouble photographing during the wind/rain or bouncing boat? If weahter is turning, these ordinarily minor challenges can be too distracting and may lead to an accident
7. Are you becoming too obsessed with seeing an animal or reaching your destination to recognize worsening conditions, or the option to come back another day (or even later same day? (This also applies to being on a guided tour where an inexperienced guide may want to reach a destination or please his group more than err on the side of caution)
Recognizing and following these guidelines will go a long way to keeping you aware, safe and happy in Alaska, where the elements (large, small and insidious) can make or break your day and life at any time.
This is a personal favorite topic of mine. Often, in addition to expenses, there are a lot of logistics to overcome in getting to famous hot spots or beautiful, bucket-list places on this planet. There always seems to be a delicate balance between enjoying the beauty of the moment and spending a lot of time and effort getting a great shot “for the future”. Priorities can shift often without our knowing when we can get so obsessed with getting a great shot that we may miss the serenity of the “bigger picture”. So this is a zen “be-in-the-moment” wake-up call for all photographers to consider whenever they’re in the field.
That bigger picture should include an appreciation of the beauty and challenges of getting the shot even when you don’t get the shot. Can you take a moment and melt into the sublime “here and now” of where you are? I often use the analogy of pulling back and up in the air as if I’m on a drone, seeing myself as just a dot in the larger biosphere. It might sound a bit corny, but the feeling of being supremely fortunate to be part of such an (increasingly) exceptional and rare experience brings a much deeper, longer lasting joy for me that goes well beyond any two-dimensional image. The photo is just the icing on the cake.
Whether you’re shooting for fun or profit, it’s healthy to keep this perspective in mind when things get fast, furious or frustrating in the field. You are a very lucky person on the planet to go to the places you go, immerse yourself in the beauty of incredible places, and participate in the interactions that you have. Photography is a vehicle to lifelong happiness, and an end in itself for the moment – an excuse for you to do whatever it takes to get out here and reinforce those experiences over and over.
Photography also gives us many different, lifelong goals to pursue. Those goals can be long and short term – such as photographing all the hot predator locations in the world, starting with Alaska. Building a portfolio of great shots with a theme like this adds depth and purpose to your journeys. It gives us a goal to pursue within our larger goals. This gives us a reason to pop out of bed in the morning and energize our lives. It gives us a reason not to feel guilty for spending the money that we do and repeatedly doing whatever it takes to keep getting “juiced” in the middle of nowhere.
Just keep in mind that one of your goals should always be happiness, whether or not you actually get the primo shot you came for at the moment. For me personally, the payoff was never the shot, or the money from a sold print or published image, or the sashe’ from recognition in major magazines. That was icing on the cake — some very nice icing that erased the headaches in the process.
The payoff was long before print or publication, in between the headaches in the field. Everything seems to pale in comparison to the acceptance of a wild animal with its young allowing you close into its space for extended periods, or the deep, multi-sensory reward of magnificent light and color and fresh air and rainbows all burning into your body and psyche forever.
Nobody can take away the experiences you’ve had that have made you the person you are. These experiences not only form the fabric of your being, but they give you strength and courage to follow your desires, flexibility to make the best out of challenging circumstances, spectacular vistas and animal encounters that tie you together with the fabric of this planet.
Go forth and multiply your exposure.
~ ~ ~
Changes and Improvements for 2023
Every year we take a hard look at what we can do to increase your enjoyment and face time with the animals, keep costs from spiraling with all the other inflationary costs, and add whatever options and value folks tell us before, during and after the tour.
For 2023, we have made changes that will give you more time to photograph animals, and allow you to modify your main activities with optional ones if you wish. This new flexibility in our itinerary grew out of the last few years of monitoring and readjustment on almost all our tours due to weather, more limited flight charters, and surge in post-Covid travel. They were also based on a review of the last 5 years of participant surveys, rising costs of fuel taxes and activities that many participants opted out of, and scheduling changes that made our tours run a little smoother.
The first change is that some of our tours this year may run in reverse! No, you won’t have to look out the back window of the van. But depending on the lodge schedules, flight charters, weather and other logistics, we may go to the bear camps earlier in the tour than shown in the generic itinerary. Normally, we schedule bear camps on the 3rd or 4th day. This only gave us 1 day at the end for any adjustments due to weather or whatever, to finish up and get back to Anchorage.
By going to the brown bear overnight camps earlier on the 1st through 3rd days, this gives us more flexibility to do the other day activities (helicopter aerials, marine wildlife/whale tour, land wildlife tours, etc.) that aren’t dependent on variables out of our control.
This may involve us chartering directly out of Anchorage to the Lake Clark or Katmai bears, and returning either to Anchorage or the Kenai Peninsula to continue our tour. If we get delayed from leaving or returning from the remote bear spots, we have more time to readjust. This change It doesn’t really affect you in any way, just gives us more leeway and a little less stress when Murphy’s law surfaces.
Another change is that the dogsledding on a remote glacier activity is now optional rather than included with all tours. This also allows us to spend more time at the other wildlife activities that, over the years, most of our participants preferred. Since we are geared to photographers, a vast majority consistently opted to forego the dogsledding when offered more time shooting wildlife on the road, boat, helicopter or bear locations.
Others reasons for the change include 1) the cost of the dogsledding from our providers was increasing almost every year, including major fuel tax increases across the board for any charter flight or boat operations. By making this an optional add-on, we were able to keep our prices from increasing too, and 2) weather cancellations or postponements of many of the dogsledding in the past — they are at lower elevations and nestled in glacial cirques that are more susceptible to fog and rain whiteouts.
Thank you again for your trust and commitment to photographing and sharing in the beauty of our planet!
“By learning to live with bears, humans can learn to live with each other” – Charles Jenke
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.