With 590,000 square miles of land, choosing where to view wildlife in the state of Alaska can be a daunting task. There are, however, some basic tips and guidelines to follow for wildlife viewing safety no matter where your Alaska trip takes you.
Even on short day trips, it’s a good idea to let someone know where you’re going, what route you’ll take, and when you plan to return. Even more important, be sure to let them know when you return so they know you are safe and accounted for. Also check in with local land managers (state and national parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management, etc.) for specific information on your destination and to find out if there has been any recent wildlife encounters. Another important tip: When hiking or boating, particularly if you’re going solo, always let someone know where you’re going and when you plan to be back. When you return, check in and let that person know you’re safe and accounted for. And always pack more food and water than you think you’ll need in case you wind up spending more time outdoors than you bargained for.
Another important tip:
Packing the right gear will make wildlife viewing all the more comfortable and successful. A waterproof outer layer, boots or shoes included, pairs nicely with fleece or thermal underwear as a base layer. Bring extra tops and bottoms in your pack so you can add a layer if necessary. Binoculars and cameras are a must, but take a minute to review the owner’s manual so you know how to turn off the sound functions on your camera. You’d hate to ruin a perfect shot with beeping and flashing. Water purifying supplies are a good idea even if you plan to carry all the water you’ll need – you never know when you might need more. Throw in a first aid kit and insect repellent and you’re all set to stay safe and comfortable while wildlife viewing in Alaska.
Understanding the rules and etiquette of wildlife viewing is vital to a successful trip. When out on the trail or viewing animals in their natural environments, give the animals plenty of space. Always keep an eye out for signs of alarm. It is vital to your safety and the safety of those around you to give animals an avenue for retreat and to never chase an animal.
Familiarize yourself with the area in which you are traveling. Some of the most beautiful spots in the state are the denning areas, rookeries and calving grounds of Alaska wildlife. While it may seem harmless at the time, touching or going into any of these places may cause wildlife parents to leave and not return. This could leave young animals vulnerable to the elements or predators. Animals rely heavily on smell so it is important to protect the young and avoid contaminating any of these areas with your scent.
Though it may be difficult, leave “orphaned” or sick animals alone. While they may appear to be alone, young animals usually have parents nearby and they may quickly become aggressive and protective of their young. This is especially true of moose and bears – mothers are extremely protective of their cubs and calves.
Never share your food with wildlife. It is illegal to feed some animals such as bears and moose in Alaska, except under the terms of a permit issued by Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Feeding animals often creates a relationship where the wildlife becomes dependent upon or used to handouts from humans. This can lead to unhealthy dependency, which in turn can lead to aggressive behavior toward humans, particularly in highly populated areas, such as near neighborhoods or parks. You will not only be putting yourself and others in danger by feeding Alaska wildlife – you may be putting the animal in danger as well.
If you’re interested in learning wilderness survival skills from Alaskans, consider signing up for a survival skills tour. Guides lead guests through basics like building a fire, establishing a shelter and foraging for wild edibles. Some even allow visitors to participate in scientific research projects in the wilderness while applying their new skills. In Ketchikan, visitors are helping assess the threat from invasive green crabs, which are making their way north to Alaska waters in increasing numbers.
Above all else, it is important to remember that wildlife viewing in any setting is an amazing gift to be cherished. Always walk lightly and stick to trails. If you do choose to venture off established trails, remember that you are a guest in the natural habitats of the animals you are seeking out. Do not disturb other wildlife viewers and if you come across hunting and fishing camps, be sure to respect peoples’ privacy. These camps are essential to the subsistence lifestyle and should not be disturbed.
For more on wildlife viewing in Alaska, check out the comprehensive list of resources available including wildlife viewing guides and information about Alaska’s wildlife species.