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My McNeil River Experience

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My trip to McNeil River, Alaska actually started in November of 2014 when I read this PetaPixel article describing it. In the article they mentioned that, due to the tremendous interest in McNeil River, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game has instituted a lottery system.

In a typical year, thousands of applications are received and only 185 are granted. They are given to groups of ten for four-day stays. They also mentioned that you will be closer to the bears than anywhere else in the world (the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website says you will average between 75-200 feet). Having now applied and won a coveted permit, I can assure you, as this video attests, there is nothing “average” about this experience.

We came upon this momma bear and her cubs first thing on our second day. As the guides always work to make sure the bears have at least two ways to “escape” from us, she could have easily walked away from us. The problem, however, was that another high-ranking female was approaching from the other direction. Thus, she chose to go by us.

At this point, it is worth talking about why it is safe to allow the bears to be that close to us. As the guides repeatedly instruct you, there are a number of factors at work, but the primary mode of safety comes from “repeated predictable benign interactions with humans.”

Predictable means that we are trained to travel in one close-knit group and to always make way for the bears. Benign means that we do not talk to, feed, touch or bother the bears in any way. At McNeil, there is no darting, tagging, or collaring of the bears allowed so their view of humans becomes of some large mass of beings that basically leave them alone.

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We do not offer a threat or a food source so they just leave us be. Repeat this process dozens of times a day for 40 years over multiple family generations and you get a bunch of bears who look at us and go “meh.” You can actually see that happening in the video (Note that the momma bear barely looks at us while the cub, who is still being habituated to us, glances at us repeatedly). That cub is learning now that we are nothing to be concerned about.

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Setting out from camp, we visited two sites, Mikfik creek and then the more famous “River of bears” at McNeil River Falls. Mikfik is the far more intimate of the two. In a tight group, you sit on the ground at a bend in the creek. As the salmon start to run, the bears start to appear.

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The bears also bring eagles, ravens, and seagulls.

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Mikfik is a ground level, quiet experience. The creek runs so quietly, you can hear the bears walking through the creak and also hear the chomping of salmon quite clearly.

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In order to keep this article from devolving into a “what I did on my summer vacation trip,” let me tell you about how I went about making my gear choices. This is important because among all the articles I read to research McNeil, I really didn’t find any that, when finished, had me thinking I knew exactly what I needed. I am hoping this article helps any photographer headed to McNeil in the future.

The first thing you need to figure out is how much reach you need. As I mention above, the “average” listed for bear viewing is 75-200 feet. Knowing we could be a lot closer, and a lot farther, I opted for a two body and lens configuration: a rented D4s attached to my 70-200 f/2.8 and my own D800 attached to a 200-400 f/4.

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My thinking was that a 70-400 range should cover just about all situations and for those situations where I needed more than 400mm, the D800 would provide some cropping power. My thinking on ranges turned out to be just about perfect. The only modification I would make would be to also take along an 80-400. The 200-400 is great but it is heavy. Since, for my trip, we had really sunny days, it would have been a great weight savings to leave the big glass back in the tent.

For support, I went with a Gitzo tripod and a gimbal head. These were great choices as well since the 200-400 could be easily controlled on the gimbal.

A picture of me at the “Cook Shack," the only enclosed structure (other than the outhouses) that the campers can go into.  For safety, all food is stored in there and that is where all meals are cooked and eaten.
A picture of me at the “Cook Shack,” the only enclosed structure (other than the outhouses) that the campers can go into. For safety, all food is stored in there and that is where all meals are cooked and eaten.

Two things I did bring but never used were 1.4x and 1.7x teleconverters. It was just too much trouble to be swapping lenses and there was more than enough action to be had with the native range of those lenses. To carry it all, I got a Lowepro trekker 450 AW and it was a real champ. Fully loaded with bodies, lenses, food and clothing, my pack weighed in around 40 pounds. Given that we walked 7-10 miles a day that was quite enough for me.

Also, regarding a two body configuration, you want that for redundancy as well. Yes, I speak from hard-earned experience. Returning to camp on the first night out, crossing the lagoon, the D4s and 70-200 followed me into the water and were taken out of commission. Thank heavens I had the D800 backup.

Losing the D4s was traumatic but, on the plus side, not having it is why I got the video of the momma bear and cubs. Also, having just the D800 and 200-400 made me have to be a lot more deliberate in my shot choices which probably resulted in a higher keeper ratio and better overall shot selection. Although, convincing yourself that dropping a D4s in a lagoon had an upside is probably a lot like wrapping a Ferrari around a tree and telling yourself you are better off because now you can’t speed.

All the photos above were from the Mikfik creek area. From there, you move on to the McNeil River Falls and what one guide, Drew Hamilton (the man who took the video in the original article that got me started on this journey) terms “Industrial Bear Viewing.” This is the area where up to 78 bears have been seen at one time. We topped out at around 40. It is a frenetic place with bears above you, bears below you and bears to the left and right.

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Two bears, Not Elvis and Braveheart in a tremendous fight that took place eight feet from me. While others were screaming and thinking of jumping off the viewing platform, I grabbed my camera.

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This bear, Plunger, is my favorite. His preferred fishing style is to look under the water, spot a fish and then “Plunge” in after it. He does this for hours and has great success.

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There are many bald eagles flying about. This is a juvenile.

Overall, this is a trip that will challenge you physically, mentally, and as a photographer. There are so many photographic opportunities, it would actually be easy to become overwhelmed and just get the same shot 100 different ways. I was constantly reminding myself to pull away from the viewfinder and look around and behind me. Also, I made sure I was using different focal lengths. I made sure I tried various apertures so I could experiment with different looks.

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Ultimately, this is one of those rare experiences that lived up to its billing as life-changing.

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If this seems like something that would interest you, please head over to the Alaska DFG website and apply.


About the author: John Daley actually has a day job that has nothing to do with photography; he is the head of quality for a fortune 500 company. Despite that, he lets his passion for photography take him wherever it can.


Image credits: All photographs by John Daley and used with permission

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