24 Hours as a Traveling Wildlife Photographer

July 21, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Midnight at Tern LakeMidnight on the summer solstice at Tern Lake, Alaska This is what midnight in Alaska looks like.

Not much sleep goes on up here unless you prepare your bedroom with heavy blackout shades and curtains. RVs are hard to seal all of the light out of so I am thankful I am a sound sleeper, but those curtains certainly help. 

I am more than halfway through spending the summer in Alaska. The nights have been getting darker since the solstice on June 21 when there was less than four hours between sunset and sunrise, but the skies never truly turned dark.

I prefer sunrise for my photography. I think the skies are clearer, the temperatures are cooler, there are fewer people out and about, and the animals seem more active. Yet, since being in Alaska, I find I am out until sunset every night, which occurs around 11:15 p.m. in mid-July. My body just doesn't want to shut down. As a result it can be really hard to get up when the alarm goes off at 3 a.m. to get to a sunrise location.  Bald_eagle_Valdez_2016_1Bald_eagle_Valdez_2016_1An immature bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) sits on an old log at low tide in Port Valdez, Alaska.

So we thought about investing in FitBit watches to see what our sleep patterns truly were like (Thank you, Richard, for the gift.) 

And that is what has inspired this blog post. I am now seeing in digital lights on my wrist and through the app on my phone that I exceed my step goals every day yet have only met my sleeping goals twice since tracking the information over a week ago. 

As a wildlife photographer, I walk a lot, which is great. I follow animals, look for animals and just explore new locations to see what animals might live in an area. I do all of this on my two feet. It is a wonderful thing to have a job where I walk rather than sitting behind a desk all the time. But it is a business and there are many hours behind the desk. 

Salmon_Gull_Sea_Lion_Valdez_2016_1Salmon_Gull_Sea_Lion_Valdez_2016_1A gull flys in to try for a salmon that a sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus) just pulled under with only his whiskers showing above water in Port Valdez, Alaska. So here is a glimpse into my day as a wildlife photographer on Monday, July 18, 2016.

12:00 a.m.: I just finished packing up my gear and settling it back into the truck. We were told a brown bear had been down at the fish weir at the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery in Valdez, Alaska the last three evenings. The first two nights he showed up around 7 p.m. The third night he didn't arrive until 11:30 p.m. The sun set long ago behind the distant mountains in the Talkeetna Range to the west but we thought we would stick it out and just watch him, even if it was too dark to shoot any photos. No luck. He was a no-show so we packed up the gear and headed back to the RV. 

1:30 a.m.: After downloading the photos (we did have an amazing few hours photographing sea lions fishing for salmon before the sun set), I walked my dog, Sage, and got ready for bed.  Steller_sea_lion_Valdez_2016_3Steller_sea_lion_Valdez_2016_3A pod of steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) relaxes in the calm morning water at low tide in Port Valdez, Alaska.

2:11 a.m.: My FitBit app tells me that I finally fell asleep at this crazy hour after I watched an episode of "Big Bang Theory". I find the laughter is always a great way to wrap up the day, and this hysterical show makes me laugh more than any other sitcom. It also keeps my mind off of the fact that I know I will have less than four hours before my alarm goes off for my morning shooting.

6:46 a.m.: After playing games with my snooze button for 46 minutes, I finally rolled out of bed and quickly dressed into my photo-shooting gear: hiking pants, Muck boots, long-sleeve t-shirt and my new Buff complete with permethrin in the fabric - an ensemble completely designed for a fashion plate in the magazine article about how to not get bit by the flies, gnats and mosquitos in Alaska.

Salmon_Valdez_2016_1Salmon_Valdez_2016_1The pink salmon arrive in the milions in July to to return to the hatchery where they were born in Valdez, Alaska. 7:03 a.m.: I was on the beach with my camera backpack on and tripod with camera slung over my shoulder. It was low-tide in 18 minutes and I was hoping to photograph bald eagles on the beach and brown bears in the shallow water working on the fish left behind by the receding waters. Although I missed sunrise at 4:46 a.m., the light in Alaska stays really warm for several hours since it never truly rises directly overhead - it kind of moves on a pattern through the northern sky - so I still had some time with nice light. Unfortunately the bear was no where to be seen and the eagles didn't seem comfortable sharing the beach with visitors so I looked for other subjects. I found a pod of sea lions - 32 total when I finished counting each individual - wading in the shallow water. They were biding their time until high tide when their large bodies could swim through the deeper waters near the fish weir where thousands of pink salmon were bunched up at the mouth of the gulch. I had some great photo opportunities with these massive sea mammals, which are quite curious about photographers willing to sit in the water with them. 

9:20 a.m.: The tide was coming back in so I headed back to the truck. The long walk back was across a minefield of mussels, slimy sea plants and smelly, rotting fish carcasses. It also was a very low tide at -0.8 feet so the walk back to the parking lot was going to give me lots of steps towards my daily FitBit goal.  Brown_Bear_Valdez_2016_7Brown_Bear_Valdez_2016_7A brown bear (Ursus arctos) peeks out from the thick alders in Valdez, Alaska. You never know what might be watching you!

10:15 a.m.: After a quick drive to Crooked Creek to check on a tip about black bears, I was back at the RV and at my computer. It was time to get to work and I had an important project I was working on finishing. A friend and fellow photographer asked me to produce a video of my photographs about the national parks. But this wasn't a video to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service. This video was to help his 15-year-old niece experience each of the national parks. She has terminal cancer with an outlook of less than a year. Her dying wish is to see all of the national parks and her family is worried she may not have the opportunity. I was so flattered he asked me to be part of such a special gift.  Brown_Bear_Valdez_2016_2Brown_Bear_Valdez_2016_2A brown bear (Ursus arctos) walks alon the rocky embankment near the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery on a sunny afternoon in Valdez, Alaska

5:30 p.m.: I worked all day on the video and unfortunately still have yet to finish it. The project is giving me proof that I need a serious overhaul on my filing system. Now granted I am traveling in an RV so I don't have the option of leaving my hard drives out all the time so I have to search for files on individual hard drives. I thought of going the route of keeping files stored on an online service but Internet connection can be so sporadic while traveling that I can't rely on that either if I want to have quick access while working. The project is also giving me the opportunity to look through many photos I haven't reviewed in a long time. But it was getting to be low-tide, and that meant bear time again. This is what I am here to do in Alaska - photograph the wildlife that calls this beautiful state home. So off we went to see what we could find. 

Fisherman_Valdez_2016_1Fisherman_Valdez_2016_1A fisherman carefully brings in a salmon he caught at sunset in Port Valdez, Alaska


7:22 p.m.: There he was, the single brown bear finally made an appearance on the far side of the hatchery. No one spotted him coming down but he was there, in the cove fishing for salmon. He didn't stay long - my last photo was at 7:52 p.m. as he crossed the road and headed up the steep mountainside. There were just too many people and it was still quite warm for him to stay very long.


9:50 p.m.: After a bite to eat at a local burger joint that was way too slow and not very good food, we had a beer with another couple from Michigan who were also photographers before we returned to our RV boondocked on the side of a nearby road. It was an enjoyable conversation about this and that regarding photography, traveling, RV living and experiences in Alaska. But I had more work to do.


11:59 p.m.: At the end of the day I was still at my computer working on the video. But overall it was an amazing day traveling in an RV in Alaska. I saw sea lions, sea otters, harbor seals, a brown bear, spent every moment with a great boyfriend, met new travelers (including a couple that lives in Valdez every summer, two couples driving VW buses from Argentina to Alaska, and a great couple from Michigan), and met my steps goal on my FitBit. Now if only I can figure out how to squeeze in the time sleeping time! Steller_sea_lion_Valdez_2016_1Steller_sea_lion_Valdez_2016_1A steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubataus) catches a salmon in his mouth on a sunny afternoon in Port Valdez, Alaska.


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