Read where to go to capture wildlife photos in Alaska.
Eagle call – Haines, Alaska.
The Bald Eagle Preserve along the Chilkat River offer some great close-up shots of eagles sitting in trees overhead.
Bears, puffins, seals, sea lions, moose, eagles, caribou–sounds like a list of animals at the zoo. However, in this case, the zoo is Alaska where not only these animals but also some of the best scenery in the world can be seen. Just because Alaska is far away doesn’t mean it’s impossible to reach, as is proven by the thousands of visitors each year.
The hardest part about planning a trip to Alaska is determining where to go. The “when” isn’t much of a question if you want to avoid the inclement weather of winter. Also, in the snowy months, wildlife is more difficult to locate (the exception being a trip to Haines). The best route is to fly in through Anchorage or Juneau and then travel by car, bringing many out-of-the-way locales into range. While definitely not the only places to view wildlife, the locations listed here offer a combination of wildlife with a glimpse into the history and culture that shaped Alaska into what it is today.
Located south of Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula offers plenty of areas ripe for photographic exploration. Wildlife viewing begins on the drive south from Anchorage along Turnagain Arm. One of the pullouts is called Windy Corner, where Dall sheep gather on the hillsides throughout the year.
Eagle flight – Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Flight shots of eagles up close is the main draw for action on the island.
Once you reach the Kenai Peninsula, two attractive options are available. If you continue south to Seward, you’ll spot moose at the various lakes along the road. In Seward, you’ll want to take a trip through Kenai Fjords National Park on one of the charter boats that provide views of the glacial fjords. You’ll see a variety of wildlife en route, sometimes at close range. The smaller boats don’t cover as much ground as the larger passenger boats, but they come closer to the wildlife found on the water–including sea otters, sea lions, puffins, humpback whales, and seals.
The second option, the western route leads to Soldotna and Kenai and then south to Ninilchik and Homer. While on the road in these areas, keep an eye out for moose, as they own this land filled with marshy lakes and streams. You’ll see a herd of lowland caribou along the road between Soldotna and Kenai beside the Kenai River. These animals, usually found in the northern climes, can be spotted off the side of the road as they graze on grasses and shrubs.
North of Kenai is the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Many species of wildlife roam this nearly two-million-acre refuge. Those most often seen include bald eagles, moose, trumpeter swan, and other waterfowl. The best locale for viewing these and other creatures is the Skilak Lake area.
Silver Salmon Creek, Alaska.
The bears in the area tend to pay no attention to human visitors and will walk nearby as they move from place to place.
In Soldotna, you may have a rare opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with bear and puffin. While these two species might seem like an unlikely pairing, they’re available on different outings offered by the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge (located on the western shore of Cook Inlet, which can be reached by air). Brown bears reign over the area, and it’s not uncommon for people to look through the windows in the lodge to see several bears ambling by. Depending on the time of year, bears can be seen nibbling on grasses, digging for clams, or chasing salmon down the creek. In addition, the lodge provides a boat trip to a puffin rookery where it’s just you and a thousand or more birds. Several species other than puffins use the island throughout the summer, so you can count on viewing a variety of birds.
Haines is the one exception to summer-only travel plans. Although a trip there during the summer will provide glimpses of plenty of resident eagles and bears, November is the time to view the largest gathering of bald eagles in the country. A late-season salmon spawn on the Chilkat River brings in more than two thousand representatives of our nation’s symbol. The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve offers several pullouts designed specifically for eagle viewing. Also, you can stroll beside the river compliments of a boardwalk installed for that purpose. All of these areas are handicap accessible. During the salmon spawning, the eagles become accustomed to having people in the area, and it’s not uncommon for a person to walk beneath a tree in which an eagle is perched only ten feet overhead. Cottonwood trees with a dozen or more eagles sitting in them seem normal.
Silver Salmon Creek, Alaska.
A pair of three-year-olds try showing signs of dominance over each other.
Located in southeast Alaska, Haines can be reached from Juneau by small commercial aircraft or by the state-run ferry. Either way provides great scenery. If the weather permits, pilots will fly over the glacier fields along the Lynn Canal, giving their passengers one-of-a-kind views. The more leisurely ferry ride passes a picturesque island lighthouse.
Dutch Harbor – Unalaska in the Aleutians is becoming a popular destination because of the birds found in the area. Bald eagles can be found almost everywhere on these adjoining islands. In June and early July, you can watch eaglets taking their first flights from their cliff-side nests. The vast fishing industry in the area attracts so many year-round resident eagles that the locals refer to them as buzzards. When the fishing boats return to port, the eagles can be seen flying overhead and sitting on trees, light poles, and rooftops, looking for scraps.
Silver Salmon Creek, Alaska.
A nearby puffin rookery allows for a unique opportunity to go on the island with puffins and other birds.
In addition to eagles, the area is populated with more than a thousand other bird species as well as sea lions. Some of the birds are unique to the Aleutians, including the whiskered auklet, one of the rarest birds. While you can easily spy eagles and other birds while you’re driving around, you may need to select one of several tour boats excursions to nearby islands to view other species–especially the auklets and puffins.
History buffs will also enjoy a trip to this area that boasts an airport with flights from Anchorage. Dutch Harbor played a major role in World War II, and remnants of the struggle can still be found. This is the only place on continental North American that was bombed by the Japanese, and structures used by the U.S. military still remain. You can even walk into shelters where scouts sat with binoculars scanning the ocean horizon searching for Japanese ships.
One warning: if you have a chance to explore even a small portion of our largest state, you’re sure to be infected with “Alaska Flu”–a symptom that won’t go away. Once you visit Alaska, you want to go back again and again. In fact, you’ll need to enjoy multiple trips in order to see what the lower forty-eight states were like a hundred years ago when the animals had room to roam and not all of the environment was cluttered with buildings.
First Light offers workshops to prime photographic locations in the country.
Each year new locations as added as 20-year professional Andy Long travels the country finding great spots. All trips are educational with hands-on help in the field and instructional slide programs. Visit www.firstlighttours.com for more information.
By Andy Long