I don’t like disclaimers or fine print, but here is mine: “What I do, works for me, the information here is designed to be honest from my perspective and maybe useful to some readers. Take from it what you can and find your own path along the way…”
It Starts With an Idea
So how do I end up in Alaska or Yellowstone or wherever on a photographic vacation?
For me, it starts with an idea or a wish to see something in particular, or to have a certain experience. My wife and I love wildlife, we also love the beautiful scenic landscapes that are in some of these wonderful locations. The first time I went to Alaska was in 2010 and at that time we had a lifelong dream to visit Alaska, but more particularly to photograph the huge grizzly bear without fear of getting eaten alive. With that concept in mind I did my research and found someone whom could fulfill that dream at a cost I could afford. The second time we went to Alaska in 2015 was to photograph moose, I love moose and I have always wanted to experience the big Alaskan moose up close and personal. Again, the idea was to see some of the biggest moose there is and research led me to Alaska.
Then the Research Begins
I hinted above that research plays a big role and it really is a necessary evil that must be done if you wish to have a successful trip. There are two main ways of doing a trip like this for photography or enjoyment purposes, “you plan it” or “have someone else plan it“, if you choose the second option, you still need to do a little research in finding the best tour or photography guide and of course having someone else do it for you costs you more money.
I only have vacation at certain times of the year, so my planning starts with researching what topics / wildlife or locations are best during the times I have available. You also have to think about what season you want to photograph this animal or subject in, for example:
- You could choose to go to Katmai to see the grizzly bears during the baby / wildflower season around June / July
- You could choose to go to Katmai to see the grizzly bears during the salmon season for a completely different experience.
These kind of seasons and choices present themselves for other animals or even scenic trips, using moose as a second example:
- You have the baby season
- The bulls in velvet season
- The bulls in rut or after velvet season
So your idea has to be a little more specific, or at least you need to get more specific about your idea as your research takes shape.
Lets take my September 2015 trip to Alaska as an example, I wanted to see the biggest bulls and I wanted them out of velvet with their final antlers on display.
Google is my research tool of choice, I usually research for a couple weeks on and off finding and fine tuning my searches. Some of the most important topics I search for are:
- Best place to see xxx, where xxx equals the subject you are researching.
- Best time to see xxx in the season you want to see it in.
- Photos to verify the research and also verify what kind of photos you might get.
- Forums or travel blogs to verify information obtained or to ask more specific questions.
- If I need a 3rd party involved eg: tour operator, which one is best and some supporting photos from those vendors
- Pricing of going to see what it is I want to see
- Weather during the time of the visit for clothing needs etc.
- Hotels and food etc.
We Have Done the Research, Now We Start to Plan
Once we have completed the research stage, we now have an idea of what we are going to see, when and where we are going to see it, and possibly whom we might need to see it with. Lets continue to use my September Moose trip as an example. Through research I found out I wanted to be there in September, I found a couple of possible locations, I found video and photos online to support my quest, I started the planning phase.
The planning phase includes setting final dates, vendors or guides, hotel, travel, car and other stuff needed for the trip.
I usually follow the planning routine below:
- Which travel dates give me the best bang for my buck with the airline, eg: if I leave Friday is it cheaper than leaving Saturday?
- I need to check these dates and find the date range I am attempting to book my trip in, I usually don’t book my airline ticket until I have at least checked hotel availability and or car availability if a hire car is needed.
- Once I have the travel dates, I find hotels close to where I am visiting or photographing and verify they have rooms available
- I also check hire car company and car availability before booking anything.
- I always find out what their cancellation policies are, because it can greatly matter if you decide to change your plans slightly.
OK, everything is good to go, so I book the airline tickets, book the hotel room and hire car. These three items are usually the most expensive items on you planning list and will be a big part of your travel budget. Food and Custom tours or Guide services are also major costs to be considered, when we did the Katmai Bear trip our major cost was the custom bear viewing package, at that time in 2010, it cost about $3500 per person for a week of bear viewing (but everything was included – food – accommodation – float plane – guide – permits etc).
During the planning phase I will also check if passes or permits are required, or do I need to buy some maps to help me out. I want to do as much of this before I go, the last thing I want to be doing is using my precious vacation time driving around finding stuff I could have pre-organized. Some examples of these items might be:
- Parking permits or park passes – is a season pass a better (cheaper) option if going for multiple days
- Hiking or travel maps – do I need them? – I usually have national geographic park maps of major national parks
- GPS – I have a hiking one and also a road version. I check and set my destinations before I go, I check for map updates and load the latest.
- I usually create an excel spreadsheet with each location, address, contact number, confirmation number etc. just in case!
My starting goal:
“See up close and personal large amazing moose, hope to get some keeper photos, hope to have a wonderful experience.”
- 10 days available (my vacation time) – I have decided Chugach NP in Alaska is the place to try and fulfill my goal of photographing big moose
- Fly Boston to Anchorage, Pick up hire car in Anchorage Airport, drive to hotel and start the photographic journey the very next morning
- Bring photographic equipment for both short focal lengths and at max 600mm reach
- Bring clothing to suit possibly; cold weather, wet weather, but not too much – travel as light as possible
- Booked 9 night stay in Anchorage (initially)
- Drop off hire car on way back to airport, Fly Anchorage to Boston – Work next day
So the plan in this instance was a simple as that, I think where a lot of people fail to take it from a dream to reality is coming up with excuses or I will do it later, or its too expensive or, or, or. Don’t get me wrong, these trips cost money, but there are ways to limit the cost of such trips, there are ways to make them affordable. Its the execution and not the planning that becomes your life altering experience, if you don’t execute, you can plan every dream trip you can possibly imagine, but you’ll never have those magical forever moments. We make sacrifices to go on trips, we find cheaper hotels, we sometimes eat out of the car, we have learned that first we must go then we worry about the bill later (not 100% true, but you get my drift).
One of the first things we do when we arrive at our destination is to find a Walmart or small country store where we can buy a drink cooler, we used to buy the cheap foam ones ($5), but soon realized keeping the lid on those is a pain in the butt. Now we just buy a proper cooler (about $20), fill it full of water bottles, soda, milk and ice. It stays in the hire car for the duration, the better cooler keeps the ice for much longer and is easier to manage, if we are going in the woods or after bear or moose, I always buy two canisters of bear spray (one for me and one for my wife). Bear spray is expensive ($30-$40) per canister, but I have resigned myself to the fact they are an evil necessity for what I do, better safe than sorry, I don’t carry a firearm and never will when I do photography. Its very handy to have drinks available at anytime during the drive, lots of places don’t have easily available small stores or gas stations, also it’s a lot cheaper to do it this way. We always find someone at the end of the trip who wants the bear spray and cooler. Not always, but quite often we also have a spoon and plastic bowls carried in the car we can put cereal in, this often serves as a mobile meal. When you are out photographing (especially wildlife), you are often out before dawn, to get to your shooting location on sunrise, that usually means breakfast never happens, or happens three to four hours after you got up, this is where carrying a box of cereal and milk from the cooler really comes in handy. We will also bulk buy some energy bars and snacks like jerky, we keep in the car and use in those moments, and for us there are many times, when we forget to eat a proper meal. Photography seems to have that effect on us, it’s the only time we regularly wake up before dawn and go to bed at midnight – lol. It shouldn’t be needed to be said here, but you have to be out early (at or before sunrise) for wildlife photography, the old saying “the early bird gets the worm” couldn’t be any truer in this instance.
The Plan Might Change
So I chose Chugach after my research (Google) revealed the kind of moose experience I wanted could be had at that state park. We went, and using our Garmin mobile GPS to direct us to the park, we were photographing moose on day one and two in Alaska. Then we met some locals and asked them questions about other possible places to see moose, they guided us to other local areas and we got to see and photograph even more moose in a more woodsy environment. It got to be that by day 4 we had gotten many awesome moose photographs and experienced the most amazing moose encounter we could possibly have hoped for. Because we felt good about where we currently were as far as getting good moose photos, we decided to change our plans and include a 3 day trip to Denali NP.
One of the things you have to watch out for when planning is limitations in the way you book. For example: we couldn’t have changed our hotel booking if we had booked through a travel site like ‘Expedia’, but because we had phoned and booked everything ourselves, the hotel allowed us to cancel three nights, which allowed us to go to Denali.
In my previous Part 1 article I mentioned items we always carry, two of those items are a Garmin GPS for the hire Car and a laptop for reviewing photos taken and looking up stuff on the internet in our hotel room. We used the laptop to research Denali from our hotel room, we used the GPS to plot a route from Anchorage to Denali NP. Now, let me just tell you there are not a lot of roads in Alaska and there was only three turns involved in getting from Anchorage to Denali, but a GPS still was invaluable in driving distance and time, comfort in going to the right place, helping us bookmark important “points of interest”, helping us get to our hotel in Denali.
Because of this change in plans, we got to see much more of Alaska, it was a 5.5hr drive from Anchorage to Denali NP and the drive is so beautiful, its eye candy all the way. The new drive to Denali now became part of our lifelong experience and memory of Alaska, we are so glad our plans changed and allowed us to do this.
Changing plans midstream can be good or bad, the results might not work or you might end up having additional amazing experiences to bring home with you. In this case the plan worked out, but I can easily see how it might not, we got lucky in Denali NP, we could easily have ended up with no keeper photos from that 3-day trip.
Don’t be Afraid to Experiment or Alter Plans
Our plans actually changed twice, but only because we chose to do that and because we had gotten great moose stuff and awesome moose experiences early in our trip. If we had it our way, we would have added more time in our plans, but our time is limited both by budget and by real day jobs that pay the bills. In the future we would like to do a month or two in Alaska, as Alaska is so big and there is so much to see and experience. We only got a small taste of what is there, we didn’t get to photograph the famous Alaskan bald eagle because of timing, we got to see wolves because of changing plans, we got to see the aurora because we changed our plans a second time and also drove to Homer. These changes and what we saw during those travels opened our eyes to better planning in the future and also opened our eyes to other photographic trips to Alaska. During our time there we spoke to lots of locals and learned information only locals know, this information will also be used to fine tune future trips. We already are thinking of going back in 2016, we are almost certain we will do it again later this year.
As I said, the change in planning allowed us to see Denali and more importantly we got to see four big Denali moose in that short three day visit, and we got very lucky, the moose shown in the above photograph crossed the road right in front of us. What an amazing sight to see – absolutely unbelievable.
Lets Talk a Little About Alaska
We don’t have a huge experience in Alaska, two visits totaling approximately twenty days do experts us not, make (Yoda speak).
What we can say is this, Alaska is an experience, its full of beautiful and magical places, some of which I have researched like McNeil River, Katmai NP, Brooks Falls, Homer, Denali NP, Chugach NP, Seward and the Glaciers.
There are many places to see, but we have also heard from many of my wife’s patients that have been to Denali NP and didn’t see that much, and I would suspect Chugach State park could also be the same at various times.
This is where planning and timing matters, it matters when you go, it matters how much effort you put into the destination and your persistence at getting the shots.
When we went to Denali, there were two ways to see it – the fall season allows all cars to drive only the 1st 30 miles and you will need the shuttle bus service to access the park beyond, there is a third “hiking”, but that is not realistic carrying lots of photo gear. Denali is Big, and you could easily fail to see wildlife if you don’t time it right or give it enough effort. You can hike anywhere, but most see what they see from the road, via shuttle bus or car, which when you think of it is very limiting. When we were there, we chose not to do the shuttle bus as the moose rut happened in the beginning section of the road that we were allowed to drive, in that three days we probably zigged back and forth a 8mile stretch over 60 times hoping a moose would come near the road. During the rut you are not allowed to walk off road in that section of road, so you are absolutely limited to photograph from the road. In other times of the season, you can hike and wonder anywhere. This limitation during the rut, can get very frustrating, long days spent in the car, with very little photographic opportunities, on the upside, if and when you get lucky, the moose are huge, they don’t care, they walk right out in front of you, they are amazing – but you must do the time in Denali to get the shots, its part of how that park is. Travelling and shooting from the shuttle bus can also be very limiting, you really need to research this aspect of Denali NP before you go. We will be going back, because we have never seen moose like that before and we just love moose, next time we go, we will be better prepared to spend the time going back and forth and we will allow a longer time slot.
In Alaska the highway roads can be dangerous, lots of tourists and sightseers whom sometimes pay attention to everything but driving, but the roads are great, the scenery is amazing and there are lots of things to photograph everywhere.
Katmai and McNeil river are two amazing places to see the big bears reasonably un-inhibited and up close and personal, this experience cannot be explained in words alone. To see a grizzly bear up close with cubs and it has no interest in you was a life altering experience.
Maybe you can see from our photos (wet), it rains a lot in Alaska, come prepared. If we had not brought wet weather gear for us personally and for the camera and lenses, we would have been in bad shape when we went to Katmai, it rained mostly every day we were there, some days harder than others. On our last September 2015 trip to Anchorage and Denali, it rained for 6 days out of 11, we only had a clear night two nights of the trip (for Aurora) and we only had one fully sunny day. Now normally we don’t want sunny days so much, you can photograph (especially animals like moose) for much longer on overcast days, light rain is also awesome, heavy rain can get overwhelming and wet, sun is good for certain things, but also brings out the bugs by the bucket load.
Trips to what my friend would call “exotic locations” can be very rewarding, both in experience and wonder and the number of keeper photos one might come home with. At the end of the day, we don’t plan and go on a trip with the view, that, the photos we will get there are somehow going to make lots of money and pay for our trip, or that we are going to get all these amazing photos without effort. We go for the opportunity these places provide and the hope that we come home with some awesome keeper photos, the combination of this and the experience is what drives us to go.
We go on these trips for several reasons:
- 1st and foremost to experience wildlife and nature in its most natural state – we want to see these places and come home with wonderful memories
- To try and photograph in these locations, and hope to come home with shots we feel are the best we could manage in the opportunity given
- The act of trying to get these photos is what drives me and my wife. When we get a photo we love or video, we feel great, we feel the same as being on drugs.
- What we remember most about the trips, is how beautiful nature can be, when man hasn’t totally screwed it up.
- A trip like this is an experience, a memory, sometimes a life altering event – worth considering for everybody.
- Places like I have talked about offer the opportunity to photograph wildlife without it running away, this might not be possible in many other places
I hope everybody who has wanted to go somewhere special, takes the opportunity and actually goes, if its been a dream of yours, do it, find a way to do it. It took us many years to go to Katmai, it was always “next year” or “too expensive”, we procrastinated about it for five years, finally we went and it was worth every penny, it literally changed our lives and our view of nature. Our only problem, we really want to go back now, but will have to wait until we can get the funds again.
On a serious final note, learn your animals, learn their danger signs, learn how to act when you see the danger signs, carry and know how to use pepper spray, keep it in on your belt, not in your back pack. Be prepared, don’t go into the woods without researching or know something about the animals you are going to photograph, a photo is not worth a trip to the ER or worse the morgue through stupidity.
Get out there, get into it, enjoy your photographic journey and where it takes you.