Images from North America

A photo gallery from my recent five week trip to Alaska and Canada's Hudson Bay is now online. There are two versions of the gallery - a flash version and a "normal" html version. If you have a relatively fast internet connection the flash version is better as it automatically resizes the photos to the size of your browser window, enables you to view it as a slide show, choose whether you want the thumbnails to remain visible, etc. If you are on a slow connection, the html version may be faster (the full size photos will also be a bit smaller to download faster).

Some photos from previous trips can be found here.

Photographing bears in the Katmai national park

Visitors from Africa are sometimes disappointed that American national parks do not have the diversity or abundance of wildlife they are used to in the major African parks, such as the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Also, the distances at which you view wildlife are often much greater than in Africa. In this regard the Brooks Falls area of the Katmai National Park in Alaska is a notable exception, and an amazing place to photograph bears during the salmon run.

Bear catching a salmon

A typical Brooks Falls photo

What I particularly enjoyed about the park is that you can wander around on your own. On arrival you attend a mandatory "bear safety" briefing, that cover points such as not carrying food with you, what to do if a bear approaches (it has right of way, but you should never run from it), etc. You are likely to encounter bears on the trails and even in the lodge area. The protocols seem to work, and the bears mostly ignore the humans.

During the second half of June sockeye (red) salmon start moving up the Brooks river (which connects Brooks Lake with Naknek Lake) on the way to their spawning grounds. At Brooks Falls they encounter a formidable obstacle in the form of a 6ft high waterfall. They have to jump up this waterfall, and not everyone makes it at the first try. Brooks Falls is therefore an easy fishing spot for bears, who congregate there from far and wide to fatten up for the winter. When we were there we counted up to 25 bears in the waterfall area.

The national park service have erected two platforms at Brooks Falls from which the bears can be observed from fairly close. The presence of humans do not appear to disturb the bears and the NPS seem to be managing the impact very well.

Brooks Falls platform

Photographing bears from the platform at Brooks Falls. This photo shows a fairly "quiet time". At times the platforms are jam-packed.

Be warned that Brooks Falls is a very popular destination. At peak times everyone cannot be accommodated on the platform closest to the waterfall, so the NPS enforces a 1 hour maximum use. However, when your hour is up you can put your name on the list again for another hour, and the wait for another opportunity is often not very long. While you wait you can use the less popular platform which also offers very rewarding photo opportunities, somewhat different from the typical "Bear and jumping salmon" shot. It seems that most stock photos of a bear catching a jumping salmon were taken at Brooks Falls.

I'm not putting down the the "Bear and jumping salmon" shooters - I did a lot of shooting there myself - it's just that there are a lot of other photo opportunities as well. Specifically if you want to photograph younger bears or sows with cubs, some of the other areas offer better opportunities, as the big male bears dominate the immediate vicinity of the waterfall, causing mothers with cubs to keep their distance.

Mother and cubs

Mothers with cubs tend to avoid the immediate vicinity of the waterfall, but can often be seen near the lodge. This photo was taken from the platform next to the footbridge at the lodge.

As I said Brooks Falls is very popular, and the Brooks Lodge fills up quickly, so book early if you want to stay at the lodge during the peak of the salmon run in July. I tried to book in January, but they were already fully booked. If you cannot find space at the lodge, you can stay in the NPS campground (tents only). This campground is also quite popular, so book a space in advance. The campground only offers very basic facilities (pit toilets, no showers). You can shower at the lodge for $7 a time!

The third, and least desirable option, is to go as a day tripper. Several companies offer day trips, typically from Anchorage. While better than not going at all, there are several disadvantages:

According to the lodge's website they intend to limit people to a two night stay during July (from 2008). So if you want to stay longer (and I would recommend staying at least 3 nights) camping will be your only option.

Some notes on equipment

The wooden platforms do vibrate as people move around, so a tripod may not provide the stability you expect. In addition, when the platforms are full it is difficult to avoid bumping against tripod legs. Many photographers resort to handholding. Even when using a tripod, image stabilized lenses will help. At the waterfall, you do not need a very long lens - a 70-200mm lens should work well. Elsewhere in the park longer lenses can be useful, but at the waterfall photographers with 500 and 600mm lenses sometimes struggled to get enough distance. They simply could not retreat far enough, without people blocking their view.

Denali

Denali is very scenic, but a "more typical" North American park as regards wildlife observation. In other words, you will see wildlife, but mostly at a distance. Photographic challenges include "variable weather" and the fact that the only transport in most of the park is via the bus system. You can stop the bus to take a photo, but regard for the non-photographer passengers will dictate that you be quick about it and not ask for a stop all the time. You can get off the bus, do your photography and wait for another bus to come by, but deeper in the park that can be a long wait.

Denali does offer the opportunity to experience the wilderness first hand by going "back country" camping - not something you are able to do in most African parks. The park is divided into units, and only a limited number of permits is issued per unit. This ensures a true wilderness experience and you should not see hikers (other than your own group) until you make your way back to the road to be picked up by a "camper bus".

Polar bears in summer

Churchill is a small town on the Hudson Bay coast of Canada's Manitoba province. It calls itself the "Polar Bear capital of the world" and serves as a base for observing polar bears. The best time of year for this is the fall (autumn) as the bears congregate in the area waiting for the bay to freeze. Apparently the area around Churchill freezes first, and this attracts a lot of bears to the area.

You can also visit in summer, to combine bear and beluga whale watching. Some lodges in the area offer specific summer packages. However, bear watching in summer is much less of a certainty. We stayed at a lodge, but had to charter a helicopter to see ANY bears. So staying at a lodge is no guarantee that you will see bears, and you can save a significant amount by rather using the town itself as a base. Paradoxically, while we were having no luck with bears at the lodge, there were bears right in town!

Polar bear on the rocks

Polar bear on the rocks

Another (colder) alternative is to visit the Wapusk national park in February or March as mothers with cubs emerge from this important denning area. Definitely something I'll consider for a future trip...


Text and images © Emile Wessels 2007 (All rights reserved)

Some of the photographs on this site are available for sale as stock photos, via the stock photo agency Alamy. Alternatively you can send me a mail if you want to licence any of the photos.