Brown bear & salmon, Brooks Falls, Alaska. © Ron Levy
I get more questions about when and where to photograph brown bears in Alaska than any other wildlife photography question. With over 90% of the brown/grizzly bears in the United States in Alaska, the three best areas in the state for photography are in southcentral (the northern half of the Alaska Peninsula), Denali Nat’l Park, and Admiralty Island in Southeast Alaska. In this article, we will concentrate on southcentral Alaska.
Though Denali can have great experiences for inland bears, there is a tremendous amount of logistics, reservations, crowds, restrictions and sheer luck in getting a close experience without a crowded, jiggling busload of people. Similarly, Admiralty Island near Juneau offers great bear encounters, but they are not of the same scale and fame and quantity as those offered on the Alaska Peninsula. If you are a serious photographer, or want more personal, rewarding,spine-tingling and photo-filled encounters with bears, southcentral is the place to concentrate on.
Before we dive into when and where to go to photograph brown bears, let’s clear up some confusion. You’ll notice I am referring to brown/grizzly bears here. So what’s the difference?
The short answer is, there isn’t much. Brown and grizzly are common names for the same species (Ursus arctos). There is some disagreement whether the Kodiak brown bear is a separate species, due to its immense size and geographic isolation on the island. But geography mostly determines whether bears can fish on inland mammals and plants versus fish. A diet rich in salmon gives the bears lots of fat and a more dependable, plentiful food source, so coastal brown bears tend to be bigger than inland grizzlies. Both have the distinctive shoulder hump (lacking in black bears), long curved claws, and a wide head with a concave “dish-faced” profile.
Coastal brown bear males typically weigh 600-900 pounds by mid-summer, with females averaging 1/3 less. By the time they hibernate in the fall, males can reach over 1,200 pounds, 5 feet tall at the shoulder and 7-10 feet in overall length.
Where to go: Most popular bear photography destinations.
As the map below shows, the Alaska Peninsula spans from Cook Inlet and Lake Clark in the north end (across from the Kenai Peninsula) down through Katmai National Park at the southern end towards the beginning of the Aleutian Islands. Kodiak island lies south of Homer and east of the Alaska Peninsula. Though Kodiak has the largest coastal bears, it is not easy to get to, has often miserably rainy weather, and is not as convenient nor as affordable as the other spots detailed below.
Kenai & Alaska Peninsulas, showing bear camps
To a lesser extent, the Kenai Peninsula supports a healthy population of brown and black bears that can be seen on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Chugach National Forest, especially near the Russian-Kenai River confluence during the salmon runs. Bears seen here are usually solitary but sometimes very conveniently seen from the road fishing along the rivers, and by the waterfalls at the fish ladder on Russian River (an hour hike up the trail at the Forest Service campground).
Alaska Photo Adventures (APA) brings photographers regularly to the hot spots in Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks, and sometimes to the Russian River when bears are known to be there. These areas have supported and protected a healthy and stable bear populations for many decades since their creation in 1980 with the Alaska National Land Claims Act. Biologists and National Park personnel have been studying the biology and dynamics of these coastal bear populations for over 50 years. The information is constantly evaluated in the context of what is best for the animals and how we can safely integrate premium bucket-list experiences for humans. Priority is given at all times to what is best for the animals, with rules established for humans as visitors to their homes.
There are different brown bear populations and family dynamics within each coastal area, and there have been several bear camps established as inholdings prior to the formation of the parks. Some bear camps are, quite frankly, better than others for photographers, as they can offer a less crowded, more personal, flexible and rewarding experience. Some, like Brooks Falls, cost several thousand dollars more per day and are more crowded than other camps, where you may be able to see equally fantastic bear interactions for much less money. Since we are not locked into one location or vendor, APA saves you tons of money while still giving you the supreme Alaska experience that you want.
Sometimes weather and seasonal variations in bear ecology change where and when bears can be seen. We also include contingency plans and “workarounds” in every itinerary to maximize your ability to see and photograph the animals during your short visit here.
Why are they here?
Brown bears and hikers, Lake Clark NP, Alaska © Ron Levy
Lake Clark and Katmai parks have a supreme combination of estuaries (tidal flats where salmon rivers meet the sea) and mountains, where bears can return to their dens in the fall. Food is plentiful in the tidal areas for 6 months from spring to fall. In addition to sedges that are high in protein and other edible plants in the salt marshes, razor clams exist throughout the tide flats, and berries grow on the hillsides. Salmon return each summer by the millions to spawn and die upstream, and sometimes seals, whales and other marine carcasses wash up with the tide for a bonus meal.
In addition to avoiding conflict in general, bears here do not have a history of thinking of people as a food source. Plus they are neither hunted, threatened or ever injured by people, which makes us about as interesting as a raven or a gull from their point of view. This combination of plentiful food that allows for a high population of tolerant bears living close but not to close to human communities creates the perfect opportunity that you will find in few other places in the world.
Because of the high abundance of food, bears in these coastal areas are more tolerant of each-other and of people than in places with less dependable food. Bears are naturally solitary animals but still establish a hierarchy when in the same areas. This involves the use of signals through vocalizations, scent, body posturing and other behavioral signs that trained guides will be looking for to ensure your awareness, safety and respect for bear dynamics.
People are not considered as a food source by these bears. They see them every day and we behave in a generally predictable manner. Since they are not hunted here, or hurt by people, and do not have a history of acquiring food from us, we are about as interesting as a moving rock to them. I have always maintained that the biggest compliment to a wildlife photographer is to be ignored. Then you can relax and take all the photos you want of natural behavior. This tolerance to humans allows for the perfect bear viewing opportunity in a rarified and gorgeous setting.
When to go
Photographer & brown bears, Brooks Falls, Alaska– Ron Levy
Depending on where we go, some rivers and lakes have one, short salmon run in the summer, while others have 2-3 runs covering a few months. That doesn’t mean each run has millions of fish, but it does give us options depending on how the runs are doing at each area during a specific tour. There are many factors that determine when the salmon start their run up the rivers and sloughs, and there are factors like weather, fog, bear populations, etc. that determine how easily we can access each area and whether it will be worth your time.
We want you to get the best bang for your buck every time, so again, the best benefit for going with an independent operation like ours is that we have the freedom and flexibility to pick the best spots for maximum photo opps, and small group sizes to shift quickly when weather and logistics dictate.
June is the best time to witness bears mating, socializing and searching for razor clams at low tide. Though bears search for clams at low tides throughout the summer, most of the salmon haven’t reached this area yet until late June, so more bears are searching for clams. Later in the month, when the tide rises, bears will look for salmon in the water and protein-rich sedges in inter-tidal meadows that are temporarily flooded. Cubs may or may not be present, depending in large part whether the boars are around or aggressive. Male bears will kill cubs and can be aggressive towards females and other bears as well.
June is also the longest month of daylight, so you will have longer hours to watch and photograph bears. Wildflowers will also be out in their glory.
Mid-June through July is generally the best month for the most quantity of bears in coastal areas. This is due to the higher numbers of red (sockeye) salmon in Cook Inlet at this time. Sockeye salmon have a little more fat than the other salmon (silver, coho, king and chum), so bears seem to like the taste and sheer quantity of fish. They will still graze in the meadows and eat clams at low tide as well.
Mid-July thru early August is generally the best time to photograph sows with cubs. Cubs are usually born in January and are about 6 months old July. It is the best combination of time when they are old enough to be outside and active enough to follow the sow around, play around, explore.
That doesn’t mean you will get the type of interactions you may want (see above). The females with their 6 month old cubs start to leave the den in late June-early July. It is a great month for watching bears play, graze, and nurse, though it is also the most crowded for visitors. Logistics and (plane/boat) traffic will be at its peak, and some lodges and flight operators price July visits higher than other months.
At this time, huge bears and females with cubs are still patroling the river banks looking for spawning salmon from the ocean. Bears are either snorkeling or diving into the rivers to catch pink salmon. Salmon is a great source of protein in preparation for Alaska’s harsh winters.
You may see some rather large solitary boars and sows after a summer of feasting on salmon, grasses and clams. Cubs are getting older and yearlings will be out on their own as well. Fall colors begin to appear in early August, and in this part of Alaska, consist mostly of yellows and pink-orange. You won’t see the deep reds that are more common inland and in the northern interior of Alaska. But even a hint of color can really add a great splash of color to bear shots of any kind. Combine that with the golden light of sunsets or morning sunrises (coming later the morning now!), and you can have a saturated shot of some great bear interactions.
Fall colors continue through September, as the days and nights can get brisk, sometimes down into the 40s at night. Again, bears will be getting bigger from a summer of feasting on salmon, clams and grasses, against a backdrop of an increasingly brilliant palette.Bears will still be fishing for salmon, but most likely pinks, chum and silvers by now, as the red/sockeye runs are usually over. Berries will be more plentiful and you may catch feasting bears with splashes of blue across their faces and tongues. By mid-September, most of the cottonwoods, birches and willows lining the rivers have turned brilliant gold. In terms of weather, days can be brilliant sunny with brisk mornings and cool evenings.
As September is the equinox month, days and nights will be about the same length. Rain is more frequent in the fall, but clouds can offer some fantastically dramatic low-angle light and “God-light_ breakthroughs. Add to that the splashes of fall colors and glimmers of light on a huge grizzly’s eyeballs, and you’ve got a winner shot.
Brown bear and bald eagle with salmon, McNeil River, Alaska © Ron Levy
All the above notwithstanding, you can have fantastic bear experiences at any time of the season. At unexpected times, we have witnessed poignant mother-cub interactions in blazing colors and/or foggy mornings, boars fighting, and human-bear close encounters throughout the summer, so don’t get too stressed if you can’t come when there are “the most bears present” or “the best fall colors”. As is true with all wildlife photography, it is better to spend as much time as you can in bear country, rather than trying to pinpoint an exact location or set of days.
A lot of people go to Brooks Falls because it is world famous and there are a lot of bears there. But the scene is somewhat static, even though the falls are always moving. It’s still a great place to get a lot of bears with fish jumping in their mouths. But just keep in mind that unique synchronicities of events, colors, moments, interactions and “god-light” can happen anywhere – e.g. on the hikes to see the bears, rather than at the actual destinations.
The more time you give yourself in the wild, the more you will be rewarded with moments you couldn’t plan even if you consulted all the weather and animal behavior charts you could get your hands on. Astounding moments await those who are patient and prepared. Best wishes and I hope to see you on one of our tours!
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Ron Levy started leading tours back in 1980 when he was stationed as a Park Ranger on San Miguel Island off the coast of California. He has guided hundreds of travelers on nature, photo and historical excursions in Alaska, California, Arizona and Ecuador over the last 35 years, both as an NPS and USFWS ranger and independently. His images have been published internationally for over 3 decades, including exhibitions in museums and galleries in the US, Europe and Asia. He has also been a photography instructor at the University of Alaska, and provides assistance to agencies and NGOs specializing in health and conservation issues worldwide.