Ask a person what comes to their mind first when they think about photographing giant brown bears in the Alaskan wilderness, and chances are they’ll say something close to: “Uh, not getting eaten!!”
It is a relatively good thing to have a healthy case of fear, or maybe it is better referred to as “respect.”
Backcountry Journeys has been traveling to Alaska to photograph Brown bears for years and does so with guest safety as our number one priority.
In a previous article written by Ben Blankenship, we learned about ethical considerations with wildlife photography that we always want to be cognizant of because it’s simply the right way to do things (read that article here). With bears in the mix, this topic extends beyond what is right vs what is wrong because ultimately we want safety to be at the top of our priority list, and not only for us humans. The bears need to be kept safe as well and our actions can go a long way towards this end.
With a collection of BCJ tours in Alaska focused on photographing Bears coming this summer and autumn, we thought it prudent to focus an article on staying safe while viewing and photographing Brown Bears in Alaska. Something we do on trips such as Brown Bears of Katmai, Coastal Brown Bears of Lake Clark, and our exciting Special Departures: Alaska Uncharted: Wild Coastal Brown Bears.
The following tips are a few of the ‘best practices’ we’ll live by while on any of our tours that visit and photograph bears. For folks who have traveled with us to Katmai, you are familiar with ‘Bear School’ and the unique rules and procedures we follow while at that park.
If people travel to the same places, in the same way, day after day, year after year, our behavior becomes predictable to bears, and they are more likely to view us as an unobtrusive part of their environment. If there is an existing trail to designated viewing sites, we’ll use those. If our responses are equal parts appropriate and consistent, this will help to minimize surprises for the bears. Surprises can lead to encounters we’d prefer to avoid.
Predictability Does Not Always = Boring
You may be used to “sneaking up on” wildlife with the intention of not disturbing the animal(s). That can be viewed as an ethical practice, right? Don’t disturb the wildlife for your photograph. Well, bears don’t like to be surprised. And when they are surprised they can be dangerous. In bear country, we’ll want to be visible so as to not be a surprise, and that is a nice segway to our next bullet point.
We’re Better Off As a Collective Says the Group
Groups of people are generally safer than individuals. By maintaining a nice group we’ll avoid a circumstance that can be perceived as a greater threat, that is a handful of smaller groups surrounding the animal.
Ask Not What Space Can Do for You, Ask What Space Can Do for the Bear…Oh, and for You, Too
In most cases, it is best to stay out in the open where your group is visible to the bears that you are photographing. This way, they can see, and avoid you. We’ll want to keep a nice distance, as well. In general, entering a meadow where bears feed is unwise. We’ll never closely approach, crowd, pursue, disturb, or displace bears while photographing them. The discussion on space also entails where we’ll not be going, and that is where the bears’ food is located. Displacing bears from their feeding sites or damaging their food sources has serious consequences for them. On the Lake Clark coast, bears have rights to the prime fishing holes, clamming spots, and sedge meadows. Generally speaking, bears along the park’s coast (where we’ll be on the Brown Bears of Alaska tour) where there is plentiful food are more tolerant of the presence of each other, other wildlife, and even people than bears who live inland with fewer food sources. With that said, we’ll need to always give these bears multiple routes to get around us. We’ll also want to make certain that we have multiple routes to get the heck out of dodge in case a bear starts toward us.
Shh… Let’s Stay Quiet
This one might fall into the category of “Yeah, duh. Tell me something I don’t know,” but it’s important to mention. Keeping noise to a minimum will help to limit disturbance. This doesn’t mean staying completely quiet, as talking allows bears to know you’re coming – its more about volume and unsettling noise here.
Don’t Contribute to the Delinquency of a Bear
We simply cannot make mistakes with our food. If you’ve ever traveled in ‘bear country prior, you’ll be well versed in keeping food safe and the measures that must be adhered to in order to do it correctly. First, and easiest is to ensure there are no traces of food or garbage lying around. We certainly will not be using food to lure any of these big guys anywhere. If this one is surprising to you, please go back and read Ben’s article on ethics. We’ll have access to bear-resistant food and garbage storage while camping and dining in bear country. Keep your gear with you at all times, too, Don’t let a bear associate your gear with play toys.
If They Aggressively Approach, We Must Assert
Sometimes these bears can get curious and/or aggressive. If, after we attempt to get out of an approaching bear’s way, he or she continues towards us, we’ll need to assert ourselves in order to defend a consistent personal space. There’s that word again, ‘consistent.’ We’ll hold our ground, then raise our arms and wave, talk to the bear and stand on a higher object to look larger. If the approach continues, assertive actions should escalate appropriately.
All-in-all, BCJs adventures photographing bears are safe. We visit places that have the consistency already in place so that these bears are quite used to people being nearby, sharing space. We’ll go over all of our precautions and best practices upon arrival, and will heed the advice of the Park staff at all times.
Photographing bears can, and is, a great deal of fun! With that fun we have a responsibility to ourselves, and to the bears, to do it the right way. The safe way.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Olympic, Redwood, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.