Keeping it wild

I know it's confusing for people when they see images of wild animals up close and in detail. What they don't see is the giant lens held at a safe distance from wildlife on the other side of the photo and how the photographer captured the photo. Some photographers spend weeks hiding in blinds while braving weather just for one great photo.

Cameras have now become available everywhere, from phones to small handheld cameras. These cameras require you to get very close to your subject for that captivating image. However, that puts the photographer at unsafe distances when photographing wild animals.

How we got our photos in Denali

My husband and I took a shuttle bus in Denali National Park and learned the full context of “Leave no trace.” I took a 500mm lens and my full-frame Nikon camera on the bus with us.

Denali National Park receives the highest level of protection designation in the parks system as a wilderness area. Most of the road is only accessible through a bus shuttle or tour system. This meant that we shared our park experience with 34 other passengers, but we also didn’t experience the crowding of vehicles at wildlife sightings I’ve seen in other parks. Unexpectedly, we also learned about the wildlife in a way that would help us with our photography for years to come.

When we boarded the bus, our driver Kim shared important educational information. She provided information on building good habits that enriched our experience and helped protect one of our last great wilderness areas.

Our photography blind

The bus served as our photography blind for the day. By keeping a flat profile in the bus with no arms, faces, or lenses protruding from the windows, wildlife we encountered and stopped to see was able to ignore us and continue with their natural behaviors.

Being quiet

By being silent when we stopped to view wildlife, we did not startle the animals, disrupt their behavior, or disrupt the person next to us also trying to experience the wildlife. It was important for us to be quiet when we stopped even if we didn’t see wildlife, because wild animals could have been near us, even if we didn’t see them.

What about food

While the grizzly bears especially were still able to smell us, and even smell our food on the bus, they did not learn that our human food was edible and did not learn to associate us with our food. This meant they would not approach future hikers in search of food either. We ate on the bus so that even our crumbs did not feed wildlife. Even small animals like arctic squirrels are wild, and by not habituating them to people, they won’t approach people, bite people, or climb up their legs. It is important for their survival that they do not learn humans carry food or be associated with food.

By never leaving a trace of food outside, whether an apple core on the ground or crumbs that fall from a sandwich, we protected wildlife and other humans. Packing out everything that we packed in meant that all trash was deposited outside of wilderness areas, even the seemingly harmless “biodegradable” apple cores. In fact, we stopped to pick up an apple core that an unknowing person left behind, so that we could help protect the wildlife by not introducing them to our food.

What to do when on foot

Encounters with wildlife while on foot are rare. Wild animals require a larger amount of personal space than humans need. Bears need 300 yards (900 feet) or more and other wildlife need 25 yards (75 feet) or more. Wild animals are more comfortable and don’t feel threatened when we respect their personal space. We won’t encounter them when we are properly traveling on foot because they will be able to avoid us or we will be able to stay a safe distance from them. Some animals like moose expect us to keep our distance, while bears will try to avoid us. Approaching wildlife is dangerous. Most wildlife viewing is done through the bus. In a crowded bus that stopped for only moments at a time, we were still able to experience and learn about wildlife in a meaningful way.

Knowledge keeps everyone safe

I am concerned for people who do not have the benefit of the educational experience we received. In our journey, we also observed the 15 mile section of road accessible to all visitors. There, we saw a family taking a photo of their 7 year-old son 20 feet from a caribou. Our bus driver informed them that they were in danger and that the law and the animal needed them to return to their car. While animals may seem approachable, and it may be possible to get close to them, if they become aware of you and feel threatened, they may react.

Earlier this year, groups of people took turns standing next to a moose with two calves. Once the mother moose tired of being approached with her young, she started kicking people who approached her. When an animal reaches its point of stress is unpredictable if safe behavior is not practiced.

Keeping it wild

I am excited that I was able to help keep wildlife wild. See the photography I produced from the bus. The sea life I captured was taken from a boat at safe distances. The underwater photography was created when I completed my 49th state dives in Alaska.

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