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Located to the southwest of Anchorage and Denali National Park & Preserve on the Alaskan peninsula, the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary is home to the world’s largest gathering of brown bears each summer. Spawning salmon return to the McNeil River and nearby Mikfik Creek, attracting the bears that gather to feast on salmon. More than 70 bears have been sighted at one time! In order to limit the number of visitors, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game controls access to McNeil River with a lottery system. At any one time, only 10 permit holders are allowed to view the bears. Visitors have access to bear-viewing areas in the company of armed Alaska Department of Fish & Game guides, who are experts in the ways of the bears and other wildlife, as well as plant species. They go out of their way to keep visitors and bears safe. Visitors are responsible for bringing in all of their equipment and supplies. McNeil River is accessible only by floatplane from Homer, King Salmon, Kenai/Soldotna or Anchorage. There’s neither electricity nor phones, and facilities at McNeil are limited to a campground and a cooking/food storage cabin.
Photographers should be prepared for all types of weather. Rain and strong winds are common. Wind-resistant and waterproof tents are essential. Clothing should be worn in layers, and good rain gear and hip waders are required. Warm gloves and hats can save the day when the temperature dips. Tides combined with frequent rain mean that the trails are sometimes very muddy. Since some viewing locations require crossing tidal flats or creeks, waterproof packs and plastic bags are needed to keep equipment clean and dry.
The thing about photographing McNeil is that you walk to the bears. Carry only the equipment that you can handle easily. The two most useful pieces of gear are a high-quality telephoto zoom and a good tripod. Extenders are a great way of increasing your reach with minimal weight. You might walk several miles a day wearing hip waders, and remember that in addition to photo equipment, you’re carrying water, lunch and extra clothing. One of the benefits of digital cameras is those wonderful 16 gig or larger memory cards. Carrying a few large-capacity cards means that you can photograph all day and never worry about storage space. Carry extra batteries, since there’s no electricity to recharge batteries or power gadgets. Don’t forget the rain covers or plastic bags. In addition to brown bears, you may see bald eagles, red fox, arctic ground squirrels and ravens; a variety of waterfowl, songbirds and seabirds are frequently observed. Soft light and hillsides covered with wildflowers offer more photo ops. McNeil is an amazing location in which to photograph because it’s never overrun with people.
McNeil’s season begins in early June and ends in late August. When you enter the lottery, you can choose the dates that suit you best. Early in the season, red salmon are returning to Mikfik Creek. Bears wander the length of the creek, fishing opportunistically and grazing on sedges. Brush-covered stream banks, hilly terrain and confined spaces offer more intimate photography. Later in the season, usually mid-July, chum salmon migrate up McNeil River to McNeil Falls, where a concentration of bears awaits them. The wide-open area around waterfalls often contains dozens of bears and offers a different perspective. Contact: Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game to apply to visit the sanctuary, www.adfg.state.ak.us.
Conditions can change rapidly, and when photographing unpredictable wildlife, you don’t want to be slowed down by your memory cards. With fast read and write times and huge capacities all the way up to 32 GB, PNY offers a complete lineup of CF, SD, SDHC and xD memory cards for storing and transferring images and video safely and securely. Contact: PNY Technologies, (973) 515-9700, www.pny.com.