Successful viewing isn't as easy as it might sound. Even viewers who select sites with a great reputation may go away frustrated and disappointed. Either they don't see any bears; or the sightings are all too brief. Or the bears aren't doing anything more interesting than grazing or sleeping. Or, maybe the bears are perfect, but viewers can't get within 300 yards of the animals, or fog and rain are so heavy that viewers can hardly see the bears, much less make great photos.
Don't let that happen to you. And don't let a tour company waive off your complaints by telling you something like "Nature isn't predictable. That's why we call it 'wild'.
True, there is always an element of luck in finding viewable bears. However, the annual peaks (and pits) at each site are reasonably predictable, plus or minus a couple of weeks. Any guide familiar with a site should know its peaks. But tour companies need to stay in operation even during slack periods. So don't expect them to turn down your business during those pits and recommend that you look for bears in another area, with another tour company.
If you really want to have the time of your life watching bears, don't depend on luck or on recommendations by friends, much less on glib sales pitches. Depend on preparation and on information.
Worldwide, there are over 100 popular viewing sites -- most in North America, especially Alaska. Others are in the contiguous 48 dates, Canada, and the Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia. At many of these sites, you can watch bears fish for salmon. But at only a few sites can you watch them dig for clams or court or mate. Fishing occurs all summer long; but fishing at any given site may last only a week or few. Arrive at any other time of the season, and you might be lucky to even glimpse a bear. There are countless sites where you can happen upon a bear and watch it from hundreds of yards away for short periods. But there are only a few of dozen sites where you can reliably find bears and watch them for hours on end within 100 yards. There are only a handful of even mediocre viewing sites that can be reached by road, plus a short hike. Most can be reached only after a long hike and/or by boat or aircraft.
With so many sites to chose from, and so much variation in viewing opportunities between sites and seasons, how do you pick the site and times that best meet your needs?
Defining your goals is a good way to start -- for instance by asking and answering a standard series of questions (listed below). Then use your answers as criteria for evaluating the suitability of each site during the weeks you will be viewing.
What do I want to see bears doing? What is it about them that interests me the most? o Catching salmon or other fish; o digging for clams or ground squirrels or plant tubers; o bears preying on caribou or moose or other hoofstock; o males vying with other males for dominance or mates; o courting mates; o mating; o a mother nursing cubs or playing with them
What other wildlife do I want to see? o Other carnivores: wolf, fox, coyote, sea otter, river otter, wolverine, mink, martin, o Ungulates (hoofstock): moose, caribou, Dall sheep, mountain goat, o Marine mammals: baleen whales, orcas, dolphin, sea lion, seal, otter, polar bear o Birds: eagle, puffin, etc.
Do I want to photograph them, and if so, what quality of images would I like to have? Purposes:Will you be content with snap shots, for instance taken with a cell phone or tablet? Or do you want higher quality images or even professional images for commercial sale or for submission to photo contests. Your purposes will determine the minimum quality of camera that will meet your needs, and the maximum distance from which you can shoot photos. The sharper your lens and data processor (e.g., megapixel count and chip size), and the greater the power of your lens (10X is pretty much the minimum for bears), the farther away you can shoot and still get adequate quality images.
Lens power: Even using a good quality zoom lens, and viewing bears from within 50 ft (15 m), getting images sharp enough to distinguish individual hairs on a bear requires at least 10X magnification. Keep in mind that most bear viewing is done from distances of at least 50 yards (meters), which will require at least 15X magnification, a sharp lens, and probably a tripod to be able to distinguish individual hairs.
Stability: A stabilizer can be essential for sharp photos, especially if you have a long, heavy lens. Built-in stabilizers help with tiny tremors, but not enough to counteract the multiplying effects of lens length and power. So you might want to carry a good tripod or monopod. Tripods are especially stable, especially if you hang a 5# (2 kg) weight from the tripod; however, the extended legs can get in the way when you pan, for instance while videoing a running animal. Tripod legs are especially bothersome when you are lying down on your belly. So we sometimes carry a 1 ft (30 cm) tall tripod or a camera mount on a C-clamp that can be attacked to a solid surface like a tree branch.
Natural history and science:What do I want to learn about bears, other wildlife, their habitats, and their ecology? Wildlife tolerance (habituation): The more that you want to learn by watching wildlife, or checking the ground for spoor, etc., the more important it is view animals that are comfortable having people close by for hours or days on end.
Guides:Equally important, if you need a guide to find bears and to help keep you safe, or to tutor you on the animals and their environment, don't depend on whatever guide each tour company has on staff. Scan the Bear Viewing Association list of guides (click on the link below) and compare their qualifications. Some are bear experts with graduate degrees; others are merely pilots whose primary skill is driving a boat or airplane; or your guide might simply be someone with a nice personality and enough natural history knowledge to entertain the typical viewer, but not enough to meet your needs.
Spiritual/Mystical Experiences: Am I seeking a sense of acceptance by bears or even of spiritual kinship with them? Am I seeking recreation or 're-creation'?
Native Americans traditionally saw bears as kin to humans and as the dominant wild animal. Bear Spirit was thought to control the availability of harvestable game (e.g,. deer and bison), upon which the Natives depended for their survival. Bear Spirit was also seen as a dream-stalker -- moving through the minds of Dreamers (e.g., shamans) bequeathing wisdom. Vision quests imitate a bear going into its den to spend the winter dreaming on a spiritual plane. Some bear viewers seek to glimpse bears through the eyes of Native cultures. Only a few guides can mentor you in achieving such experiences.
Communion:do you seek a sense of rapport with bears and acceptance by them? Do you want the bear to be aware of you and responsive to you? There are only a few viewing sites or situations where you are likely to have such opportunities, and then perhaps only after spending days or weeks camping with them. Even then, you are likely to need tutoring by a bear expert who has already achieved this for him- or herself. Such guides are rare, but a few are included in the Bear Viewing Association guide catalogue, which can be accessed below.
Am I hungry for the thrill of encountering animals that seem ready to kill someone with a single swat, but have never done so? How much of an adrenaline rush do you want? Or are you after a comfortable, low key visit with easy-going, peaceful bruins?
Transportation: Do I want to hike several miles through rugged country to reach a site that few people ever visit? Or would I prefer a short walk or boat ride to reach your viewing site -- or perhaps to watch bears from the comfort of a boat?
Observatory: Would I be satisfied with viewing along a road or even from an elevated viewing platform? Or would I prefer being in a bus or boat, or on foot in the wilderness?
Group size: Do I want to be alone or part of a small group? Or would I be content being among twenty or even fifty other viewers? Am I after a 'true wilderness experience" where our group doesn't see any other people?
Weather and Bugs:Am I prepared for unpredictable extremes of weather? What are the harshest conditions I am willing to face, and under which I'm prepared to keep myself and my photo gear warm and dry? Could I cope with several hours or even days of rain and overcast, high winds, or clouds of mosquitos and noseeums?
Ideally use a camera that is weather proof so that dust and moisture cannot penetrate into either the camera body or lens. Even if your apparatus is supposedly weatherproof, carry a plastic bag in which you can store the camera whenever you come from cold outdoors into a warm building with even moderate humidity. Otherwise, that warm moist air might condense on the camera and work its way inside where it will eventually condense again and fog your lens or foster corrosion of electric junctions. This is especially critical near the ocean where tiny airborne water droplets can carry salt. We have lost several expensive cameras to salty fog, despite our precautions. Now we also carry a porous sack containing a dehydrating substance that can suck moisture out of the plastic bag where our cameras are stored. We also carry a plastic bag that is stiff enough to be used as a tent over the lens to keep rain off the lens surface.
Photographic challenges of each site: How can I learn the special challenges of photographing at each site, and means of meeting those challenges? For example, will I be in a boat that never stops rocking or where there isn't room enough to set up a tripod? Will I have to face into the sun or cope with strong glare off water?
Verbalizing what you hope to accomplish, and identifying the constraints under which you can operate, provides criteria for assessing each bear viewing site. But where can you find so much information about even a few sites, much less a broad selection of them?
As you define your goals, compare them to the BVA summary chartsBear Viewing Sites. Those charts contrast viewing sites according to which species of bears and kinds of bear activity can be seen; means of access to the site (e.g., by road, boat or aircraft), availability of on-site lodgings, and other factors. Further details on sites that interest you can be read in narrative descriptions in that book.
What techniques can a view use used to minimize disturbance of wildlife?
What techniques can be applied to minimize personal risk?
Under what circumstances would you need the assistance of a guide? How can you find one with appropriate qualifications?
If a boat or plane is required to reach a site, can you use your own boat or plane?Can you charter one or buy a seat fare; or must you join a commercial tour?
Which sites require a viewing permit? How is it obtained? How long in advance need you apply?
If you want to watch bears on more than one day, do you have to travel back and forth between town and the viewing site each day? Or can you overnight nearby, for instance in a wilderness lodge? Is camping allowed and reasonably safe? What equipment and supplies are needed for camping in Alaska, that are seldom required for camping else-where? (e.g., electric fence and bear-resistant food containers).
How does your choice of transportation affect opportunities to watch wildlife on the way? Each form of transportation, including hiking, has advantages and disadvantages, including hazards, that you should keep in mind when planning your trip. For example, take a boat if you want to see whales and photograph whales, seals and other marine mammals and sea birds.