Tom Walker's Alaskan Blog


Alaska Magazine Cover Photo Controversy


The May 2014 issue of Alaska Magazine boasted a wonderful cover image of harbor seals on ice taken by a well-known photographer. The photographer, whom I count as a friend, is well-known for his unique trips, workshops, and high regard and concern for wildlife and involvement in conservation issues.  Instead of a moment to savor, the moment faded quickly when letters to the editor arrived critical of the image and declaring that the photographer must have harassed the seals to get the shot and broken the Marine Mammal Protection Act. How? According to the letter writers the seals were looking at the photographer! And furthermore the bow of his kayak was visible in the picture, “a clear violation.” Oh, my. (As many of us know, and for the record, there is no regulatory approach distance established for seals.)


First, no animal – unless dead or somehow severely impaired – would fail to look up if it heard or sensed something or someone approaching. Robin, ram, bird, bear, seal or elephant, all creatures will look if something is approaching them and then make a decision as to what to do. Bird watchers, photographers, wildlife watchers, all have had animals stop feeding or whatever, look up, assess the situation, and either leave or go back to whatever it was they were doing in the first place. In the situation depicted in the now controversial photo I personally detect no distress and suspect that the seals just flopped back down to rest after they assessed the situation. I base my judgment on nearly 50 years of wildlife photography in Alaska. I will say however, that absolutely no one knows what happened after the shutter clicked besides the photographer and his companions, if any. I take him at his word that the whole event did not result in harm to the animals.


The magazine editor apparently contacted the NOAA Fisheries Services for comment. (NOAA is responsible for enforcement for the Marine Mammal Protection Act.) Spokesman Jon Kurland in Juneau was quoted as saying it was difficult to assess from the photo if “harassment had occurred” but that the animal’s “heads up posture reflected vigilant behavior,” which can be a sign of alertness to an impending threat. Harassment is illegal as we all know Kurland reiterated the basic rules. (However, this cover photo shows nothing other than animals looking up with the tip of a kayak extending somewhat into the foreground. It would be a huge stretch to label this proof of harassment.)  After explaining that there are no federal distance rules established for seals Kurland went on to be quoted as saying that “humans and animals should keep a respectful distance.”

Much of the criticism levelled by the letter writers seems to be based on a false understanding of the law, as well as an unrealistic understanding of animal behavior. The photographer has 20-years of experience in Alaska and when he says he moves away from wildlife at the first sign of distress or discontent I, again, believe him. This whole incident is a good reminder to review the rules for approaching animals and be careful around wildlife so that our actions can not be misconstrued. To paraphrase the Bard, this event seems to have been a “tempest in a teapot.”


Katmai Coast Bear-viewing


September 29, 2013 KATMAI COASTAL SUMMER

This past summer I sent two weeks camped in the heart of brown bear country, the outer Katmai coast. While several brown bears were present, night and day, we never had any trouble or unusual incidents. I set up an electric around my camp and kept my food in bear-proof containers. The location is the same general area that Timothy Treadwell used to camp in; times have certainly changed since he was the only one camped there.

Up until a few years ago only boat-based tours visited the coast to view and photograph the numerous brown bears. More recently, the number of bear viewers brought in by airplanes from Homer and Kodiak has expanded greatly. Now it is not uncommon in peak season to see ten wheel planes parked on the beach, with other viewers, though a much smaller number, dropped off by floatplanes. In peak season there can be 40 to 50 bear-viewers wandering the main marsh of Hallo Bay! (Including a handful of campers.)

The impact on the bears, I think, has been significant. For the most part all of this bear-viewing activity has gone a long way in habituating bears to people, and reducing risk of dangerous interactions. However, there does seem to be a change in the number of bears seen and a change in age/sex classifications; plus some altered resting, mating, and feeding behaviors. But that is purely my subjective observation based on what I saw there 30 years ago.

What concerned me, however, was what I thought to be some very questionable flying practices. Flights from Homer require a long flight over open water, basically from the Barren Islands off the tip of the Kenai Peninsula to Cape Douglas on the west side of lower Cook Inlet, followed by a flight south along the coast. There is no margin for error in a wheel plane and appropriate altitude must be achieved to allow gliding distance to land. Overcast conditions limit VFR altitudes.

The Katmai coast can be stormy, cold, windy, and wet. It was unnerving to see wheel planes flying in at low level, in stout wind, and sometimes dodging fog, to make wheel landings on the beach. Exiting the plane, the passengers on occasion donned rain gear and bent into the hard wind to hike out to view the bears. The two viewers that I talked to expressed concern for their safety around the bears but apparently did not realize that their flight might have been potentially more hazardous.

Alaska flying is much safer than it once was, the old Bush Pilot-Go in Any Weather days are quickly disappearing. The Alaska Medallion Foundation (, in concert with concerned parties, has worked hard to promote safety in Alaska aviation. Unfortunately, this year Alaska has experienced a very high rate of flying-related fatalities. One bright spot in Alaska’s aviation industry in 2013 has been the safety record In Denali National Park. Through the climbing and tourist seasons, there have been no accidents, an impressive achievement. (The last fatality in the park vicinity occurred in 2009.) If only the record was as good elsewhere. Remember, passengers have RIGHTS and a little research before an Alaskan trip can make a trip all the more safe and enjoyable. Just ask yourself: is a photograph of a bear, or a photo of anything, worth a life?


Hiker Killed in Denali Park by Bear


Here are a few thoughts about the hiker that was killed by a grizzly on the Toklat River on August 24: First, it is inaccurate to call the deceased a "photographer." He was a HIKER with a camera. That does not make him a "photographer." If owning a device that takes pictures makes a person a photographer, then every single visitor to the park then qualifies for the label. Serious photographers should be cautious about using this label.
He was using a Canon Rebel T3i, with 55-250mm lens, said the park information officer. The Chief Ranger believes that based on the types and quality of his photos, he was a backpacker with a camera, not a serious photographer.  The first images of the unsuspecting bear were taken from a distance of about 75 yards, according to the Chief Ranger, the last images were at about 60 yards, the bear now aware of, and looking at, the hiker. The images will not be released by the Park Service as the images are private property and the Park does not have the right to release them. What is dismaying is that much of the information concerning the photos comes from a bogus photo album that appeared on ABC's Good Morning America in the days following the attack. The bears in that photo album were stock images with no relationship whatsoever to the incident.
Next, here is possibly a little insight into the bear that killed the hiker from a former ranger:
"We saw a large male bear kill and eat a cub on the last stream coming off Highway Pass into Grant Creek on the 20th. He was the largest bear I've ever seen on the north side of the range in the park. When he attacked the cub, he ran full out for about 300 yards, hit the cub before the female was even aware he was there. On the 21st, he was staying around the same area, then we saw him head down towards the Toklat. From the description of the bear they killed at the hiker's body, we think it was the same bear we watched."
Recently, three large bears have been caught and weighed on the Toklat River. There is a salmon run downstream at the Toklat Springs, outside the old park boundary. These bears are unusually large because of fish as a food source. Bears normally are not that large inside the park. We do not know if the salmon run failed or not this year, but most of the Yukon-Tanana drainages were substandard runs.
The Park Service does not believe, however, that the bear that attacked the hiker is one and the same with the bear that killed the cub because the bear that was shot at the scene was NOT injured and bore no sign of wounds. Apparently the bear that killed the cubs, they say, was wounded by the attacking sow when she tried to protect her cub and had sustained noticeable, visible wounds. Private individuals dispute that assertion but I lean toward the park's analysis.
In addition, it is quite unusual to see large, male bears near the park road. Almost all the "usual suspects" that hang near the road and buses are juveniles or females with cubs, groups that tend to tolerate human activity better than mature males.
Next, my ex-ranger friend said he saw "abundant berries." I, and local berry picking fanatics, disagree, finding blueberries very scarce. Hunger may be one likely trigger for this attack.
I am sorry a bear was killed but I have great sympathy for the victim's family and 21-month-old daughter. The hiker was not an "idiot" or "fool" any more than all the other dozens of people who have done the same thing this summer without incident, or the hundreds over the years. Not long ago, for example, a female hiker had a bear actually sniff her boot and then walk away...her experienced companions having run off and leaving her alone!

I hope the park staff would take some comfort for the great bear awareness program developed here and the parks long safety record. Denali was key to developing bear-proof-food-containers that have become standard for wilderness users and saved dozens of lives of people and bears. Education and monitoring has greatly reduced negative bear/human encounters.
If  some on the park staff have erred, it is in trying to tie this thing up in a neat, understandable package with clear reasons. We do NOT know, and will never know, what happened between the time the hiker stopped taking pictures and the time when the actual attack occurred. We can NOT explain human aberrant behavior, why then should we be able to explain anomalies like this event? I call this a sad tragedy and accident, and for me, that is all that is necessary


Spring Bear Photography in Alaska


The number one question I get is a variation of "when is the best time to photograph bears." In Alaska, the answer always could be a flippant, "anytime between May and mid-October. The rest of the year the state's 35,000, or so, bears are hibernating." The full and complete answer would take more space than available here but if your desire is to photograph females with cubs, the best time is early spring, which often means JUNE in Alaska and that varies depending on location. Emergence of spring plants has a great deal to do with the visibility and distribution of bears. Females with new cubs, called spring cubs, are the last to emerge from the den, as late as early May in some cases. In the alpine tundra areas along the Denali National Park road, for example, spring growth is just now making an appearance along with the first wildflowers. Several females with older cubs have already been seen but females with spring cubs remain scarce. As plant growth erupts with warming weather, the females with spring cubs will become more visible, yet remain much warier than the more mature family groups. (Horsetail is a favorite spring edible.) Down on the Alaska Peninsula, June is a great month for photographing bears with cubs. Along the coast, as the sedges quickly green up, hungry bears congregate on the tideflats to gobble the new growth. At the end  of June, in places like the McNeil River Sanctuary, the first red salmon of the year migrate up Mikfik Creek and these first salmon are avidly targeted by family groups and big males as well. (May and June is breeding season and lone females attract big males.) Females with spring cubs avoid these big, dangerous males. In my opinion, June is the best month for photographing bears with cubs even though these families can be seen all summer long. Remember, even though bears gather for the peak salmon runs in July, their coats are often scraggly and ragged in the summer heat.


From a book in progress, select pieces


May 19. A furtive movement in the brush. A shadow of gray and tan flowing toward and into a dense tangle of branches at the base of a blowdown. After its passage, a ripple of fur flutters on a twig. Through binoculars the yellow eyes burn through the shadows, through the slight opening in the jumble. The warning implicit, direct. The feral response of a protective mother. I have no intention of going closer but content myself with the sounds of mewling kittens. (Notes: the first lynx den I have ever found.)

May 16. Gone now the days of darkness and cold, a time of fear and testing for the earth people. Now the time of perpetual light, a time when we stride confidently across the earth, but the wise ever mindful of the great bears and mosquitoes. We call the earth people, the ancient ones, primitive and uncivilized, but how many modern people could live on the land, as  they did, and last more than a day or two.

May 5. Under the earth, great beasts are stirring. They shrug and stretch and ease the cramp in gut and limbs. The biggest, the strongest, claw at the loosened soil, up through the damp, cold earth and lever themselves out through the receding spring snow cover and into the nascent spring. The grizzlies blink in the bright light and take their first steps into the day, into their world, into our world.

May 3. The passions aroused by wolves can not be dispelled by "science" or reason. Human response is more visceral, emotional, stemming from bygone epics when dirty, hairy, fur-clad people hunkered in dark caves around pitiful fires, clinging with sweaty palms to their cudgels and spears while listening to terrifying night sounds, the footfalls of dire wolves, cave bears, and sabre-toothed cats.

Alaska outdoor blogs for photographers and Alaska wildlife viewers.

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