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Trip Report: Polar Bears of the Alaskan Arctic
by Russ Nordstrand

We ran two sessions of our Polar Bears of the Alaskan Arctic Photo Safari this year in late September / early October. This is one of our most exciting adventures as it takes groups up to the very Northern coast of Alaska along the shores of the Arctic Ocean to photograph Polar Bears in their natural environment.

We took our groups of eager photographers to Barter Island which sits adjacent to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and has for years been the most reliable locale in Alaska to see and photograph wild Polar Bears. Barter Island is home to the very small Inupiaq village of Kaktovik which has a population of about 300 people – this is where we stay while spending time with the “Ice Bears”.

The trips began in Fairbanks, Alaska as we met everyone at our great little hotel downtown – we discussed logistics including how to plan for the chartered bush-plane to the arctic and then had a great orientation dinner at quite possibly the best restaurant in Fairbanks – Lavelle’s Bistro – which happens to be right inside the hotel with a nice view of downtown Fairbanks.

The fall colors where in full swing when we arrived in Fairbanks and the weather was absolutely perfect – albeit a bit cloudy. Once we arrived hopped in the plane however the terrain quickly changed as we moved further north. Rolling green and gold hills covered in Aspen, Birch and Spruce gave we to Boreal Forest which then gave way to massive, glacially carved peaks of the Brooks Range completely covered in snow. The view out of our small Piper Navajo aircraft was spectacular.

As the plane began to descend onto Barter Island’s snowy, gravel runway we were able to catch a glimpse of the ocean lagoons where we would be cruising for Polar Bears in just a few hours. The arctic sea-ice had begun to “freeze-up” much earlier than normal this year and one could see tiny paths in the forming ice where small boats had been breaking channels through the ice to see the Polar Bears.

There was quite a bit of snow on the ground and I realized that we had the photographic jackpot this year!

We schedule this trip to be just prior to when the Arctic sea-ice freeze-up happens. It is a very narrow window for perfect Polar Bear photography – although one can come here to simply view Polar Bears from about mid-August to early November – the best photography happens just before freeze-up and ideally after the first snowfall.

In a perfect world it’s nice to have your Polar Bears with snowy backdrops and to appear “white” as Polar Bears normally do. Polar Bears have hollow fur and black skin to absorb and retain heat in their frigid arctic environment. When there is no snow on the ground the bears colorless coat takes on the appearance of whatever else they are exposed to – usually gravel and dirt and so they can appear yellowish or even light brown. When there is snow on the ground they appear white once they’ve been rolling around in it!

We checked into our lodge, had a good hot lunch prepared by the chef, Marty and quickly started gearing up for our Polar Bear adventure.

One can’t be prepared enough when traveling by boat in the Arctic and despite how many layers you are wearing you will never really be too warm out there! It is one thing to be actively moving and/or hiking but it is completely another to be stationery on a boat while photographing Polar Bears for hours at a time.

Before long our captain showed up and gave everyone “additional” Canada Goose over jackets to wear on top of their meticulously planned layers. Wind chill adds another element of cold and so now were extra prepared!

The small aluminum boat is just minutes from our lodge and after boarding we were on Polar Bears within about 10 minutes of cruising. The captain was worried that freeze-up had come early this year and wanted to make sure we were able to get as many Polar Bear photographs as possible before that happened. Once the ocean freezes-up and we aren’t able to travel by boat then the photography would be by bus – still good but not quite the same experience.

All-in-all there were about 20-30 bears in the area this year. There were several family groups, sows with cubs and some larger, pretty impressively sized boars hanging out in the area. All of them were awaiting the ice to freeze-up so they could head out en-masse to hunt for ring seals.

These bears have been arriving on Barter Island for the past 30 years or so as they are attracted to the discarded remains of Bowhead Whales that are hunted each year by the Inupiaq. This year the whale remains, known locally as the “bone-pile” had been removed early and thus the Polar Bears had no real reason to hang out for too long.

The next few days saw increased winds which also brought slightly warmer weather and freeze-up didn’t happen while we were there. In fact the snow even began to melt a little! For purposes of photography we hit the ultimate jackpot and were there at just the right time. We were able to photograph Polar Bears from 90 feet away in the boat at eye-level (sometimes closer) and everyone on the trip scored fantastic images. Nowhere else in the world can you capture quality images of so many Polar Bears, close-up. One of our guests had been to both Churchill, Manitoba and Svalbard and he confirmed that ultimately the Polar Bear photography in Alaska was far superior.

One of our groups was able to photograph the Northern Lights outside of our lodge while in Kaktovik as well as in Fairbanks while the other group had cloudier weather and was able to photograph the aurora on the last night in Fairbanks. We had kp levels of between 0.6 – 4 so from Barter Island we generally had to look south to photograph the Northern Lights as it was North of the Auroral Oval (strange concept, right?). You can read an article we did about photographing the Northern Lights.

Photographing Polar Bears

Photographing Polar Bears from a moving boat can be tricky. It is best to hand-hold your gear as the movement of the boat negates the value of a tripod or even a monopod. Therefore higher shutter speeds are required to freeze your subject.

Generally shutter speeds of around 1/1250 to 1/1600 are ideal for this sort of photography. I generally shoot in shutter priority mode and set the shutter to about 1/1250.

I then prioritize the ISO next as I want to limit the amount of digital noise or pixilation in my images while still maintain proper exposure. The ISO setting is completely dependent on how much light is available and the quality of the light. We had light situations in the arctic in full-sun where my ISO settings were as low as 300 (ideal for very little noise). However most of the time ISO settings were around 1000 or even higher due to overcast conditions (higher noise level).

Although still important – the aperture is the least important element of the exposure triangle for most wildlife photography. I set the shutter and the ISO and let the camera choose the F-stop (aperture). In a perfect world it would be ideal to have an F-Stop setting of between F 7.1 and F 11 as most camera lenses are sharper towards the middle of their aperture range. However prioritize shutter speed and ISO under cloudy conditions (not much light) often forced us into our widest F-Stop settings – so for myself shooting with my Canon 600mm Prime that was F 4. Oh well – as long as the focus point was on the eyes of the bear that works! Photography, like life is a practice of give and take. Of sacrificing one thing for another and you can never have exactly what you want…or if you do get it then you are pretty darn lucky!

As photographers – especially landscape and wildlife photographers we are always awaiting that perfect moment – and when it happens it’s like hitting a grand slam at the world series. We are hunters really, we photographers. Constantly stalking the perfect light, the perfect settings, the perfect conditions and hoping – just hoping that maybe we’ll find that perfect scene. The scene that a skilled artist can simply paint onto his easel such as a Polar Bear in perfect light with the Aurora Borealis raging overhead while a Bald Eagle snags a fish in mid-air right behind it!

As fanciful and comedic as that sounds – it is what we are often waiting for and I know for myself that is one of the joys of the craft – the hunt – and then that “aha!” moment where your “bat” connects with the ball and you (photographically) knock it out of the park and you capture one of those incredible moments that may never happen that way again.

The most important thing in both wildlife and landscape photograph is to simply show-up. If you aren’t there you certainly won’t get the shot!

Please join us next year in Alaska for one of the most incredible experiences of a lifetime in photographing Polar Bears up-close. As of the time of this writing we are only planning on running one session of this trip next year and currently there are only four spots remaining.

The Dates are:

September 30th to October 5th, 2019

Current Price: $8495

Read more about the Inupiaq Village of Kaktovik and the Polar Bears of Barter Island.

You can also check out this factual article we wrote on Polar Bears as well as this one.

For more information on our Polar Bear Photo Safari please click here.

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Russ Nordstrand is an award winning Landscape & Wildlife Photographer based in Homer, Alaska. His Fine Art Prints are hanging in private collections throughout the world and he runs Photography Tours & Workshops in the most beautiful and inspirational locations in the Western United States and beyond.

Russ has been hiking, backpacking, photographing and guiding people in the wilderness areas, deserts, canyons and mountains of the world since 1997. He has logged thousands of miles on the trail and for many years in the past decade over half of his nights were spent in a tent in some far flung outdoor destination.

His Photography reflects an awe and admiration of the great, wide and still wild world we live in. Often his subjects include towering canyon walls, mist shrouded mountain lakes or wildlife in their natural habitat. It also reflects a commitment to preserving these places for the health of our world and for those who come after.

It would be a lie to say he does it completely from an altruistic standpoint. Like any great outdoor photographer he loves the thrill of wild, remote places and the accomplishment of nailing that shot after waking up three hours before dawn and hiking in the dark!

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"Backcountry Journeys offers guests the unique opportunity to explore our natural world from behind their own lens. We run a selection of hand-crafted Photo Tours, Workshops & Safaris connecting passionate people to exceptional experiences. Locations include Yosemite, Alaska, Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, Hawaii, Utah as well as Botswana & Costa Rica."

- Russ Nordstrand, Backcountry Journeys Founder & Director
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All Images & Content are property of Backcountry Photography Tours, Workshops & Safaris LLCs - Copyright 2023
"Backcountry Journeys offers guests the unique opportunity to explore our natural world from behind their own lens. We run a selection of hand-crafted Photo Tours, Workshops & Safaris connecting passionate people to exceptional experiences. Locations include Yosemite, Alaska, Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, Hawaii, Utah as well as Botswana & Costa Rica."
All Images & Content are property of Backcountry Journeys Photography Tours, Workshops & Safaris LLC - Copyright 2023
8am to 4pm Mountain Time


Download our Trip Catalog for detailed information on our many destinations for photography tours, workshops, and safaris.