Alaska Coastal Brown Bear Tour Video
This tour departs from Kodiak Island via private charter flight to our home for the next week. A 70′ boat. We’ll use this boat to move up and down the coast of the incomparable Katmai National Park. You’ll get to explore world famous Hallo Bay, Kukak bay, or head over to Geographic Harbor. Katmai National Park and the Alaska Peninsula simply offers the world’s greatest brown bear photography.
This mobility has 2 benefits to our photography.
1) Variety. We’ll even have the freedom to look for nesting eagles, different backgrounds and locations, behaviors, and different bears.
2) Flexibility; we can move with tides, weather patterns, etc, to give ourselves the best opportunities at some great photography.
Mother nature doesn’t work on my, your, or anyone else’s schedule. So the flexibility to move is important to a successful photo tour. We move where we need to with tides, winds, weather. We can rest during the day, or do some sight-seeing, looking for seals, sea otters, eagles. Last year we even saw 2 orcas.
Where are we going?
What this photo tour offers is an incredible diversity of photography opportunities. there’s simply no other way you might spend a week and be able to shoot in so many different locations, with so many different bears. nothing beats being mobile for photography.
Another advantage over many of the other bear tours offered is the sheer number of bears here. Instead of heading to a comfortable lodge for the week, with maybe 5-10 bears around, we’ll see countless bears; possibly as many as 30 or 40!
Early in the season means bears are hungry, they’re active, and they’ll concentrate on the first available food sources; coastal sedge grasses and protein rich clams on the shoreline. There’s a good possibility of catching bears mating, as well as playing and fighting, etc. The bears gather here in incredible numbers, and the shooting will be absolutely fantastic.
Any wildlife photo tour leader who guarantees a subject is probably not doing the right thing by his/her clients. That said, this tour we will aim to photograph a variety of other species as well as the great brown bears. Typically, we’re able to get great photography opportunities with sea otter, Harbor seal and bald eagles, a variety of gulls and other coastal birds and, frequently (but not always) wolves. On some trips we’ve spotted orca and moose, as well. In 2020, we’ll schedule this tour to afford us some opportunities to photograph puffin, as well. Should be awesome!
My intention is to run this trip much more as a “general wildlife” photo tour than a straightforward brown bear tour. We’ll plan our time to maximize our opportunities with all those species available to us. I think that’s a better option than spending all the time with the bears. Weather and countless other factors will, of course, play into those decisions as we go.
Chuck Keim has been running his charter business for 20 years now. There’s simply no one in the business who can come close to his experience.
He’s the person so many of the world’s foremost wildlife photographers and filmmakers and researchers turn to when they need great brown bear photography. He runs a first class operation with a touch of Alaskan charm.
Chuck’s absolutely my “go to guy”.
I bring a wealth of backcountry and photography experience to this tour. I’ve photographed Alaska’s brown bears intensively for well over 15 years now and have solid experience with bears and bear behavior.
Group size is limited to a maximum of 8 people. We can divide into 2 groups of 4 with one guide each at times, other times it will be better to shoot as one group with both Greg and myself. The small group size is fundamental to the ‘in ‘your photo tour’.
Both your own and the bears’ safety is paramount. We take the extra step to make sure your photo tour is a safe one. We pay close attention to the bears and their behavior and follow their lead on what’s OK and what’s not OK for us to do. No exceptions.
We'll bring for you
First rate food and accommodations, in the field photo advice, and first class local guiding experience. Sat phone, emergency equipment. We also provide hip boots if you don’t have a pair of chest waders, though I’d recommend waders. I’ll provide you with a detailed information packet upon booking.
Food will often include fresh seafood, such as Halibut or Tanner crab, caught and prepared while we are on shore photographing.
You’ll want to bring your enthusiasm, your love of wilderness, adventure and good times, and a sense of wonder. Your camera gear, and clothing for a week. Good raingear and warm clothing is essential in Alaska at any time of year. You’ll want to be in decent shape for short day hikes and jaunts along the beach with your camera gear on your back.
I’ll stress again the benefit of heading out with an Alaskan company. You simply can’t beat local experience when it comes to nature photography, and particularly wildlife photography. What you get here is 2 Alaskan guides working with reknowned photo tour leader Greg Downing to offer you the best in brown bear photography.
You’ll arrive in Kodiak the night before the trip starting date. Overnight lodging can be arranged for you, but is not included in the trip cost. We’ll meet this evening for dinner and a chat and then enjoy breakfast the next morning before our chartreed flight to the Katmai Coast.
We’ll settle in to our new home, Chuck’s awesome boat, “Coastal Explorer”, where we’ll stay the rest of the week.
Meals will be on the boat, and we’ll spend mornings and afternoon or evenings on shore with the bears.
We’ll also explore some of the bays in the area where we typically get reliably good photo opportunities for seals, sea otter, bald eagles, various other species of shorebirds as well.
We’ve had some opportunities for wolves in this tour before, but that’s not a reliable shoot.
On our final day we’ll shoot in the morning, come back to the boat, and meet our bush pilot for the chartered flight back to Kodiak. My suggestion to folks is to plan on overnighting in Kodiak again, and then depart no sooner than the following morning. it just makes life easier if there is a weather delay getting our flight back to Kodiak.
The following caveat is true for all our remote backcountry activities: Be flexible and do not expect a planned day to day schedule to be laid out for you here. Weather is a huge variable on any Alaska trip, and we play it by ear with what’s happened waether-wise, and also what’s going on with the wildlife. We’ll do our best to provide everyone with the safest and most productive brown bear and wildlife photo tour that we can. In order to do that, be flexible with our plans. Thanks.
Why two leaders?
I prefer a smaller group of people to manage in the field. With eight clients on this trip it works much better to have two leaders. We are a lot more flexible with our plans and operation in the field with 2 leaders. Two guides also bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the trip.
Chuck has a wonderful boat and a great knowledge of all things to do with the area. My knowledge of photography and the bears compliments Chuck’s wisdom.
Put together that means you get an exceptional tour.
What camera gear should I bring?
An impossible question. The more the better but less is more, right?
A big telephoto is always a great tool when photographing, so if you have a 300mm, 400mm, 500mm or 600mm lens, bring it. A 70-200mm midrange tele is a must. Something wider like 24-70mm rounds out a selection.
My favored lens choice for trips lately has been the 80-400mm or 100-400mm range zoom. I prefer the flexibility of the zoom over a fixed prime lens.
Such choices are personal and subjective though. Whichever lens you have with you at the time is the one to shoot with.
You will need a sturdy tripod.
Are we weight-limited for the flight?
You should aim to keep your gear and clothing to 75lbs. I bring one duffel for clothing, one camera pack and one more laptop/gadgets bag.
Are waders critical?
Essentially, yes. You CAN just borrow hip boots from Chuck, he has all sizes available free of charge on the boat.
But my recommendation is to just buy yourself a pair of waders. $150 will get you a perfectly functional pair and life is easier around water.
4 Different Brown Bear Tours; What are the differences?
Well, this could be quite a discussion. And it varies somewhat, year to year. Trips change and situations change really a bit more rapidly and frequently than you imagine. But this post will hopefully help clarify some of the differences between each of our brown bear tours a bit.
I’ll mention each trip and then outline a few of the factors unique to that trip as well as what some of the differences might be:
Alaska Brown Bears and Coastal Wildlife
The Brown Bears and Coastal Wildlife Tour is NOT a camping trip. On this tour we stay on board an 80′ boat and are well taken care of by Captain Chuck and his partner Olga. Great people.
You can charge your batteries, laptop, etc as well as yourself on the comforts of Chuck’s boat.
We travel stretches of the Katmai Coast, going to shore each day to photograph the bears. We typically go to at least 2 or 3 different bays, but this does depend on weather, conditions, bear activity, etc, etc.
This trip we also aim to find some other creatures; primarily marine mammals like seals and sea otter, as well as eagles. We’ve had some decent luck with wolves on this tours as well. Superb backgrounds and mountain scenery.
Hiking and difficulty level is low. This trip works well for most folks, beginners to experienced, and you do not need to be in great shape.
Departs from and returns to Kodiak, AK.
Grizzlies in the Fall Tour
The Grizzlies in the Fall Tour is the most “luxurious of those, with (limited) National Park Service services available, and some infrastructure to help your comfort somewhat. An outhouse, covered shelters, etc. It’s pretty comfortable and easy camping conditions for just about anyone. Being later in the year it is likely to be the cooler of the tours.
We spend some time in the river, but due recent park service changes and increasing visitation levels we don’t do that as much as we used to.
This trip works great for instruction and learning photography. Non-hikers and those with mobility concerns will be OK on this trip.
Great for bear portraits, cubs and great big fat bears.
Yes you can recharge you camera gear.
Excellent for camera and photography instruction and more of a workshop today.
Departs from and returns to King Salmon, AK.
Grizzlies in the Mist
The Grizzlies in the Mist Tour is as remote as remote gets, no infrastructure or services or facilities of any kind. Camping is primitive, not designated sites or anything. No outhouse, etc.
Photography is excellent. Shallow waters, smaller creeks and hungry bears combined with abundant spawning salmon equal excellent photo opportunities for bears chasing salmon. Very, very few people or plane traffic. Incredible mountain backdrops. Have had some luck with wolves on this trip, but not something I specifically promote it for. They’re a treat that appears as they choose.
Hiking is easy-moderate.
Coastal Alaska can be wet, and it can be cold; we’ve had frosts at least twice here.
You have to be battery power independent.
Departs from and returns to Homer, AK.
Brown Bears of Summer
The Bears of Summer TourGeneral Brown bear photo tours
All these tours are in Katmai National Park. None of them involve backpacking with camping gear. All can be buggy, but generally none of them are even what I would call “moderate” for bugs. Everything’s relative though.
There’s no way this kind of short post can answer al yoru questions, but hopefully this outlines most of the significant differences between each of these brown bear photo tours.
How much experience do I need?
As a rule these trips are probably most beneficial for the intermediate to advanced photographers. If you’re looking for rudimentary photography instruction what I’d suggest is to consider one of the Day Trip photography excursions where we can work on some of the fundamentals and get things moving.
That said we’ve had some great tours over the years with all levels of photographers coming out and getting some really strong images. I’ve had professional photographers from across the world sign up on these trips and come back for more.
I’ve also had beginners and novice photographers come out and together we made some real inroads into their learning process. That’s just one example of a real benefit that comes with running smaller groups.
What these trips are not is a vacation. You’re more than welcome to come out on a trip for bear viewing or aurora borealis viewing but one of the real strengths of these trips is that they’re tailored for people interested in a focused serious photography adventure.
For the Alaska Landscapes photo tour to Skolai Pass, it’s a similar mix of folks, with the nature of the trip tailored somewhat to the skillset and diversity of the people on the trip. We’ve enjoyed trips with adventurous experienced backpackers where we trekked quite a distance and made some great images and we’ve also done trips for less experienced outdoors folks, being somewhat less mobile, but equally rewarding in both the wilderness experience and the photography efforts.
What makes Expeditions Alaska Photo Tours so special?
I’m a guide. I guide trips for a living. I guide and lead trips for a living with nearly 15 years experience running my own guiding business. I’m a photo tour leader, not simply a photographer. Those are 2 very different things and my experience guiding and trip leadership set what I do apart from many of the other photo tour operators.
— I live here in Alaska. I think one of the most important facets in putting together a photo tour is not simply how well you plan things out but how well you’re able to respond to what you didn’t plan out. In other words what resources do you have available for your plan B, C & D when plan A fails. And as nature photographers we all know how easy it is for plan A to fall by the wayside. The resources here in Alaska available to me to accommodate changing plans, unforeseen circumstances, inclement weather, etc are vastly greater than someone who arrives in Alaska from Florida the day before your tour begins.
— I have my Alaska State Business Licence, insurance and all necessary Park Service Permits, etc. Be aware that in order for ANY business to operate inside Alaska an Alaska state business license is required. Most operators from outside Alaska who lead tours here don’t maintain a current business license from the State of Alaska or permits from the relevant land management agency (such as Commercial Use Permits from the National Park Service). This will inevitably lead to issues. This might not be a big deal to you but it will be to the insurance company you call should anything go awry on your trip.
— I’m a Wilderness First Responder. A lot of times in the field here in Alaska you’ll be photographing far from any immediate assistance. If it were me heading out into the field on remote location, I’d want to have some information on what level of first aid assistance is provided and readily accessible. Look at a map and see for yourself how remote a place like Katmai or Lake Clark is.
— Smaller groups. I keep group size limited to 5 photographers and I think that really makes a big difference to how productive the shoot might be. I see some other bear photo tours out there with 8-10 and even more people all trying to shoot together and getting in each other’s way. Inevitably some people miss out simply because there are too many people all vying for that one special angle or perspective.
— Environmental concern. I don’t know of a single other photo tour operation that has put both their money and time into conservation of the subjects we shoot here in Alaska. I’m currently organizing a photography contribution, for example, to oppose the development of the proposed Pebble Mine near Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks. Pebble Mine is an extractive development project which presents an immeasurable threat to the bears we all so love to photograph.
— I’ve also just had my business certified by Adventure Green Alaska Gold Level Standard (one of only 10 businesses statewide in Alaska to qualify) in environmentally friendly and sustainable travel. Expeditions Alaska is also a member of Sustainable Travel International, and contributor to many of Alaska’s most important environmental organizations. For more information read the Treat Lightly – Our Planet page.
— Location, location, location. I wouldn’t keep returning to these places if I thought I needed to go elsewhere to make good bear photos. I’ve put a lot of time into finding locations that work for photo tours.
— Experience shooting this subject. I’ve been visiting many of the same locations in Alaska for nearly 15 years now. For example, shooting the same grizzly bears, year in and year out. I photographed those bears for over 10 years before I ever led a photo tour there. I know both the location and the subject extremely well. I see a lot of tour operators coming to Alaska who have spent hardly any time at all shooting these bears, in these locations, a year or 2 at most. In some cases, not even that. If you’re looking at other bear tour operators be sure to ask when was the first time they ever headed over to the Alaska peninsula and photographed these brown bears.
— Isolation. Part of the joy of nature photography is being out in nature. Many of the trips we run we’re not staying at a lodge surrounded by a dozen other guests and tour operators and other lodges around the corner doing the same thing.
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