7 Awesome Primitive Camping Spots

First published on Red Bull's Red Bulletin.

AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS ARE OUR BELOVED TREASURES. BUT SOMETIMES THEY CAN EVEN GET A LITTLE BUSY. HERE’S THE BEST PLACES FIND A LITTLE ELBOW ROOM IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS.

Most who seek adventures in the wilderness do so to find peace away from the fray of busy urban life. And while a visit to any of the national parks provides an escape of sorts, nowadays the parks can also be quite busy and finding solitude isn’t always easy. 

During our quest to explore all 59 of America’s national parks in 2016, we found that the best way to escape the crowds was to set off on primitive camping experiences in the backcountry. It was those adventures that blew our minds and allowed us connect more clearly with the natural world

The loose definition of primitive camping is to plop down anywhere in a place of wilderness — free of water, electricity and nearby people and/or civilization; where you are left to rely solely upon the gear you brought with you, the company in which you keep and the mercy of wild nature. 

We wanted to share our favorite off-the-beaten-path campsites where you can pitch a tent, explore your surroundings, challenge your body, create beautiful photographs and sleep soundly beneath dark, starry nights. 

7. PICNIC KEY BEACH CAMPING, EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, FLORIDA

In Florida’s Everglades, primitive campsites scattered throughout the 10,000 Islands area of the park offer excellent beaches to pitch a tent and relax after a long day of paddling. During a three-day canoe adventure, we camped on a chickee nestled in the mangrove trees, on a beach at Jewel Key and, finally, at Picnic Key — our favorite of the three. There you can gather wood for a fire, and kick back after a day of exploring the confluence of fresh- and salt-water waterways that earned this park the designation of a marine sanctuary. Every moment is incredibly peaceful as the songs of abundant birdlife remind you that you are a guest in an important wildlife habitat.

 

6. OLYMPIC COAST, OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, WASHINGTON

This backpacking adventure is the quintessence of beach camping, Pacific Northwest style! Marine weather, rocky beaches decorated with massive hunks of driftwood, active tide pools, crashing waves of the Pacific and mysterious forest lining the beach are your surroundings at Rialto Beach in the coastal area of Olympic National Park. Waking up to seabirds soaring over symphonic waves makes for a peaceful setting. As Washington state is positioned in a wet climate, adventuring there is always a rain-or-shine event. The great thing is that you can gear up and head out to the coast and experience one of the area’s local treasures almost any day of the year.  

 

5. GREAT SAND DUNES, COLORADO

Just a little over four hours driving south from Denver brings you to one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets and home of the highest sand dunes in North America, situated at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. From the Dunes parking lot, set out on foot with your backpacking gear and trek over mountains of sand to find a secluded place where you can camp for the night atop untrammeled sandscapes. Hiking at high-altitude (base elevation is 7,500 feet) is no easy feat, but the reward is epic when you find yourself ready to rest under dark starry skies in complete isolation. 

 

4. BEAR GLACIER, KENAI FJORDS NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA

If there is ever too much of a good thing, you might find it on your quest to explore the area surrounding Bear Glacier, the largest glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. Every aspect of the entire experience brings you into the fold of the picturesque Alaskan scenery — like the three-mile stretch of Bear Lagoon Beach where you will sleep aside the Aialik Bay or sharing breakfast with bald eagles that call the beach home. After arriving and setting up camp on the rocky beach, you can head out on an all-day paddle (stand-up or kayak) through an iceberg-filled lagoon where harbor seals and other marine life seek safety from larger predators found in neighboring waters. It’s an immersive experience with a true taste of Alaska that is of dream-like proportions. 

 

3. DONAHO BASIN, WRANGELL ST. ELIAS NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, ALASKA

If you want to conquer some of the toughest (and most rewarding) hiking terrain in any of the national parks, head to Wrangell St. Elias National Park. A multi-day backpacking adventure across the Kennecott Glacier is the ultimate way to experience the region. After a day of hiking across the famed glacier in crampons, you’ll come to the serene Donaho Basin where the purest alpine lake is surrounded by majestic tundra and mirrors the spectacular Wrangell and St. Elias mountain ranges that rise above it. It’s almost unbelievable how many unique environments you can travel through on one journey through America’s largest national park, and every inch of will challenge you while taking your breath away with its wild beauty. 

 

2. TURQUOISE LAKE, LAKE CLARK NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, ALASKA

Just a 90-minute flight from Anchorage is primitive camping in its truest form. After being dropped off by floatplane, you instantly realize that you are truly in the heart of the Alaskan bush. We brought foldable kayaks that were easy to tote and set up, which enabled us to experience our surroundings in an adventurous way. All we wanted to do was to paddle and photograph lingering sunsets over pristine glacial waters — and, here, we were able to do both to our heart’s content. 

1. CHESLER PARK, CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK, UTAH

n southeastern Utah, we stumbled upon one of the coolest places to camp in the lower 48. Site CP1 (Chesler Park 1) has insanely beautiful views in both directions. On one side, the Chesler Park area looks as if it’s from a storybook. And on the other, a perch overlooking the Elephant Canyon is full of geologic needle formations. After a monstrous day of hiking, we celebrated with a sunset that gave way to an angelic ring around the moon, slept soundly and rose early the next day to catch the sunrise. We wouldn’t change a single thing about this camping experience.

 

WORDS: STEFANIE PAYNE
PHOTOGRAPHY: JONATHAN IRISH

 

America's 10 Best National Parks for Wildlife Viewing


From Grizzlies to Gators, America's National Parks Are Holding

First published on Red Bull's Red Bulletin.

WORDS: STEFANIE PAYNE
PHOTOGRAPHY: JONATHAN IRISH

In 2016, we visited every every U.S. National Park — 59 parks in 52 weeks — on a quest to explore and document the unique characteristics of America’s wilderness that have, over the course of a century, earned federal protection. These parks are the best places in the nation to encounter animals in their natural habitats. So out of all 59, here’s the best-of-the-best wildlife viewing parks that make journeying into the backcountry that much more exciting.

10. THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK, NORTH DAKOTA

This is one of those fantastic sleeper parks that’s home to a world of wildlife that make a healthy and happy home on the American prairie. Black-tailed prairie dogs pop out of holes in “towns,” howling as they alert their mates of predators - such as coyotes, which can be found everywhere on the landscape. American bison, deer and pronghorn are easy to spot. As are elk, who travel in large herds but tend to scatter in the presence of humans since this area has long been a big-game hunting ground. Perhaps the greatest draw to the park in terms of animals are wild horses, which are protected as a cultural resource. 

Driving the 36-mile paved road, you’ll wind through beautifully colorful badland formations and areas of dense vegetation interspersed with sprawling grasslands - a most unusual landscape collective. When the park was established in the 1940s, many native species of animals were rare or displaced from the region. Through reintroduction efforts over the last 50 years, wildlife populations continue to grow each year as the original ecosystem returns.

9. U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS

The allure of the Virgin Islands as a tropical paradise comes from the clear, blue ocean - where giant sea turtles glide through the turquoise Caribbean sea and sting rays skate the sandy ocean bottom. The coral reefs in the area are home to more than 300 species of tropical fish that dance in front of the GoPro strapped to your PFD. The park has even preserved an underwater trail complete with markers that help guide snorkelers to important oceanic wildlife locations. 

On land, butterflies flutter, lizards scale ancient sugar cane plantations’ walls and 144 species of birds watch over from above. This U.S. territory off the southeast coast of Florida offers one of the best samplings of marine and terrestrial wildlife, born into the nutrient rich waters where the Atlantic and Caribbean converge. 

8. BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, TEXAS

If you want to get to know the rugged American west, Big Bend National Park in Texas is your jam. Next to the Rio Grande River on the border of Mexico, the wildlife of the Chihuahuan Desert knows no boundaries. Species unique to this area of the world captivate and transcend park visitors. Looney Tunes cartoons spring into mind as roadrunners scamper across the rugged dirt roads. Chuckwalla lizards scurry among the crevices, coyotes trot the landscape and, at the higher elevations, black bears live in the trees. Ringtail, bobcat, deer, jackrabbits and many other species prove that a water source hides somewhere in the desert. And no trip to the American west could be complete without the flight of the raven - the native American symbol for magic - soaring through the canyon walls above the desert landscape.   

7. EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, FLORIDA

Welcome to the bird mecca! The Everglades are an aquatic park that was the first of its kind in the NPS - one devoted to water, and the birds and animals who make their homes there. Here, the salty ocean and fresh inland water sources converge creating an environment where all kinds of wildlife flourish - especially birdlife. Pelicans, roseate spoonbills, flamingo, egrets, heron - wading birds, flying birds, hydro-dynamic birds - abound in habitats of mangrove trees and sandbars, both on the shores and in the skies. Beyond the birdlife, there’s manatees, saltwater raccoons, opossums, amphibians, insect, snakes, grey fox, deer and, of course, the Florida alligator.

6. GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA

Glacier Bay is renowned for the marine wildlife that lives in and around Bartlett Cove. On the water you’ll witness sea otters, harbor seals, porpoises and a variety of whale species, the star being the Humpback that congregate here each summer to feed after breeding and calving in Mexico and Hawaii. Park rangers consider the Humpback to be the unofficial park mascot. On land you will see porcupine, black bear and grizzly bears. And in the sky, there’s the beautiful American bald eagle, which locals call “Alaskan pigeons” since they’re so common in the region. 

No point inside of the park is located farther than 30 miles from biodiverse waters that intertwine land mammals and aquatic species. While walking on land, you’re viewing wildlife in the water. When paddling the icy blue coves, you’re spotting animals on the shore. Virtually everywhere you go in this national park you’re surrounded by wildlife.

5. GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA

Not to be confused with Glacier Bay in Alaska (above), this park was established in 1910 and is home to a vast number of thriving species who’ve enjoyed more than 100 years of protection. In pockets of the dramatic mountains, lynx, wolverine, mountain goats, mountain lions, wolves, elk, moose, big horn sheep and, of course, grizzly bears roam the landscape. This area in northern Montana has one of the highest grizzly populations in the lower 48 and they’re one of the major draws to the park. 

One reason that the grizzly bear population remains strong in Glacier is that the park shares a northern border with Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park allowing a larger area for wildlife to roam freely without boundaries. Together, these two parks form the world’s first “International Peace Park,” a joint effort in the preservation of a shared wild ecosystem - one where large fish populations inhabit rivers and streams, and where more than 260 bird species soar above one of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet. 

4. ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, COLORADO

Colorado’s gateway to the sky is Rocky Mountain National Park. Home to a wide variety of wildlife, none are more expressive than the elk who bugle their way through rut every fall. (“Rut” is the term used for mating season among ruminant animals like deer, camel, antelope, etc.) The male displays of dominance over their harems and melodic calls are so fascinating that the event has earned the nickname “Elktober.”  

While elk are the star of the show at Rocky Mountain each fall, there are plenty of other species to captivate visitors 24/7/365. Moose, deer, Bighorn sheep and coyotes can be seen across the vast meadows from dawn ’til dusk, as can small animals like marmot, pika, chipmunks and squirrels. You’re less likely to see black bear and mountain lion, but they’re out there. Count on racking up your birdlife-list with more than 270 species recorded to be either residents or migrators of the park. 

3. YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA/IDAHO/WYOMING

America’s first national park, established in 1872 in an effort to preserve its enormous wildlife populations. Today, wildlife continues to thrive and that’s the number one reason that more than three million visitors plan trips here each year. The park’s well-mapped and paved roads make spotting animals that much easier as you auto-tour sections of the two-million-acre wilderness. 

For those comfortable with outdoor exploration, wandering off on foot in the backcountry provides superb opportunities to see animals that are more elusive. Over the course of a century, many species who prefer to be left alone have discovered that roads equate to people. Traveling the expansive landscape on foot, you can spot black bear, grizzly bear, wolves, lynx, coyotes, wolverines and mountain lions. Plus, there’s the ungulate species that they prey on such as white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorn, mountain goats, elk, moose and bison — the last of which is prominently displayed on the National Park Service arrowhead logo insignia as a representation of all American wildlife. Not only does Yellowstone have the highest population of wildlife in the contiguous 48, it also allows guests to witness the vital predator-prey relationships that persist and impact the greater ecosystem inside the park and beyond.   

2. DENALI NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA

While Denali is best known as a place for mountaineers yearning to experience “The High One,” the national park was originally established to protect an immense population of wildlife. Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley National Park) is home to countless species of animals, rightfully earning its comparison to an African safari. These are America’s Big 5: grizzly bear, moose, wolf, caribou and Dall sheep. 

You can find moose in the lowlands, along with ptarmigan (the state bird of Alaska), the elusive lynx, the arctic ground squirrel, the snowshoe hare and the red fox. A more populous concentration of grizzly bears live at higher elevations with dense blueberry bushels and sedge grasses to feast on while anticipating the occasional lost moose or caribou calf away from its brood. At the highest elevations, you’ll find Dall sheep and caribou, who each find their way to mountain hillsides where bears’ hunting behaviors are more challenged. And finally, wolves — the most elusive animal of all American wildlife have a rather large population in Denali, making it one of the best places to see the fabled creature in its wild environment. While you wait for that sighting, train your eyes to the sky where 160 bird species live, including the majestic golden eagle.  

1. LAKE CLARK NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, ALASKA

This is one of the least visited national parks due to its challenging-to-explore interior. However, it’s without a doubt one of the best places on Earth to interact with coastal brown bears. All summer long on the Cook Inlet, coastal brown bear sows, cubs and males walk the beaches in search of razor clams and other shellfish to beef up on calories before hibernation each fall. To wander among them in a safe way, you can team up with expert bear naturalists who have surveyed their behavior and activity seasonally for decades. 

While Lake Clark is mecca for bear viewing, there are plenty of other animals to see in the four-million-acre wilderness stretching across southeastern Alaska. In the park interior, you’re in the home of large mammals such as moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and smaller animals including porcupine and the beautiful red fox. The wildlife ecosystem extends to the waterways, of course, where 25 species of fish live. And soaring above the spectacular landscape are migratory birds that return to the area each summer to cash in on the ample food supply. But what cinched Lake Clark as our number one pick is the diversity and sheer number of sightings you’re all but guaranteed when visiting the park. It’s an incredibly wild place that’s full of life. 

6 Places to be in Love in Our National Parks

Whether your idea of romance is relaxing in a serene lake setting, watching a technicolor sunrise or sunset, wandering among trees that reach into the heavens, swimming with sea life, or enjoying a paradise beach that has been called one of the ten most beautiful in the world—there are plenty of places in America’s national parks that will stoke anyone’s romantic heart. Here we offer six wilderness places where love is all around…  

 

Sunset at Delicate Arch

Visitors to Arches National Park in southeastern Utah gather every night of the year at sunset to watch the desert sun warm one of the most iconic sights in all of the national parks: Delicate Arch. The amphitheater-like setting provides an ideal perch from where you and your sweetie can cuddle up and watch the sunset colors slowly illuminate the Delicate Arch with the stunning La Sal Mountains in the backdrop. 

Sunset at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah. Shot with FUJIFILM X-T1.

 

Sunrise Atop The Haleakala Crater

At the top of the Haleakala Crater, you will find yourself above the clouds looking upon one of the most unique sunrise views in any of the national parks. It is one of those extreme places that makes you wonder where on Earth you are… a place so enchanting that hundreds of people wake up at 3:00am every morning to make the drive to the top of the crater. Romance abounds at Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui—on one December morning we witnessed a marriage proposal as the sun burst over the horizon (she said yes!) and wedding photos being taken a short time later as the golden hour kissed the landscape.

Standing atop the Haleakala Crater in Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui, Islands of Hawai'i. Shot with FUJIFILM X-T1.

 

Swimming With Sea Turtles in The Virgin Islands

Being on a beautiful beach and swimming in warm Caribbean waters is already romantic—adding an experience snorkeling with graceful sea turtles makes it even more so. At Caneel Bay's Turtle Beach in Virgin Islands National Park, you are in the perfect place to get up close to those beautiful creatures while swimming aside the one you love. Afterwards, grab some beach chairs and share piña colada on the beach to celebrate the experience. 

Swimming with sea turtles at Caneel Bay in Virgin Islands National Park. Shot with FUJIFILM X-T1.

 

America’s Most Beautiful Beach... American Samoa

On the island of Ofu in the National Park of American Samoa, you will find a four-mile stretch of pristine paradise beach which has been touted as one of the top ten beaches in the world in terms of beauty. Given the isolation of these islands you are likely to have the entire place to yourselves. It truly is the kind of beach that postcard dreams are made of. 

Perfection at Ofu Beach on the island of Ofu in American Samoa. Shot with FUJIFILM X-T1.

 

Wandering Among The World’s Largest Trees in Sequoia  

At Sequoia National Park in California, you can experience the romance of John Muir’s beloved forest that became the first of its kind in the park system, while exploring with your heart’s desire. There is something fantastically mysterious about strolling through cathedral-like columns of trees that are the largest in the world… and where there is mystery, there is romance. 

Wandering among the largest trees in the world at Big Trees Trail in Sequoia. Shot with FUJIFILM X-T1.

 

Sitting Lakeside at Lake McDonald

When you think of the most serene and peaceful lake setting your imagination can dream up, you probably place yourself in that scene with someone who makes your heart skip a beat. At Glacier National Park in Montana, Lake McDonald is that perfect place, where quiet moments are met by a mountainous backdrop rising 8,000 feet from the landscape. It's peaceful, it's beautiful, it's a perfect place to be in love. 

Among the most peaceful settings in the national parks, Lake McDonald in Glacier NP, Montana. Shot with FUJIFILM X-T1.

 

Date Night Alaska-Style in Lake Clark

Summer is the bet time to do this adventure, when the Alaska wild opens up to warm weather. A backcountry journey awaits at Turquoise Lake in Lake Clark National Park. After getting dropped off by bush plane, it is just you and your beloved, whatever gear you brought with you, and your own shared company. Wilderness backcountry travel forces you to think as a team, communicate well, and rely on each other. For the adventure-loving couple, this is an ultimate date night.

Kickin' it lakeside in our Oru Kayaks and sipping some wine in Lake Clark National Park in Alaska. Shot with FUJIFILM X-T1.

Happy Valentines Day!

Softening the Human Footprint on Rocky Mountain NP

Wandering through the delicate grasslands in Rocky Mountain National Park in fall, 2016. 

Rocky Mountain National Park is perfection, but far from pristine. Between fall foliage, elk rut, and the general gung-ho nature of travelers and area locals who want to get into the park, even shoulder season is packed with people. All of that traffic has quite an effect. We stumbled upon this press release and asked one of the lead park rangers if we could share it on our site. “Yes! Please do,” she replied. For those who want to know a little more about how visitation effects one of our nation’s busiest national parks and how to become a better steward when you head to any of America’s 59 parks, have a read. It’s really interesting! 

Please Help Your Friends Behave Better To Protect Rocky Mountain National Park

News Release Date: July 27, 2016

In 2015, Rocky Mountain National Park was the third most visited national park with over 4.1 million visitors. So far this year, Rocky is experiencing a twelve percent increase in visitation from last year. Over the last 100 years, the reasons people visit are the same: to experience nature, to seek solitude, to enjoy scenic grandeur, to watch wildlife, and to partake in outstanding recreational activities. National parks are special places for all of us and for future generations too! 

Most visitors know how to behave while enjoying their national parks. Some do not. Park staff continue to see a large increase in behaviors that do not protect the park or visitor experiences. Plan to visit Rocky Mountain National Park with friends who need some tips? Here are a few of ours! 

When your friends suggest you visit the park between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., propose instead the importance of planning ahead. Coming to Rocky between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. during the summer and fall can mean full parking lots, congested roads, busy trails, and long lines and wait times at entrance stations. This year the park has restricted vehicle access numerous times in the Bear Lake Road Corridor and Wild Basin Corridor due to congestion and full parking lots. Instead recommend hiking early or late. Check the weather forecast before you arrive at the park to better plan your day and destinations. If you plan to hike later in the day, it is critical that you know the weather forecast for the elevation of your destination. If possible, avoid weekends.  

When your friends say, "Let's have a campfire," please let them know that Rocky always has fire restrictions in place: campfires are prohibited except within designated campfire rings in picnic areas and front-country campgrounds.  Last year, the park saw a significant increase in illegal escaped campfires.  In the fall of 2012, the Fern lake Fire started from an illegal campfire.  That fire burned over 3,000 acres, caused evacuation of a portion of Estes Park, and cost more than 6 million dollars to suppress. 

Do your friends create parking spaces where there are none? If their next door neighbor was having a garage sale would they accept customers partaking in this garage sale to park in their front yard? On their prized rose bushes? Encourage them to park in designated parking spaces in Rocky Mountain National Park. These include durable surfaces like asphalt and gravel, not on grass, meadows, bushes, or alpine tundra.

When your very close friend indicates they need to potty, first and foremost suggest an established restroom facility. If you are on a trail and a restroom facility is not nearby then leave no trace of your activity or "business." Do not step off the trail and leave your "business" for others to see, including the park's trail and wilderness crews as well as other visitors. If peeing, recommend to your friend to "drip-dry" or if toilet paper is necessary then take the toilet paper out in a baggy, backpack or pocket. If your friend is a frequent pooper, suggest taking care of that before hiking. If nature calls, plan ahead – bring a waste bag, or research tips on how to poop in the woods. Friends don't let friends go to the bathroom near water sources. Just think, you might be drinking from that water source the next day! 

When your friends ask, "How close can I get to that elk, deer, bobcat, coyote, badger, bear, marmot …?" suggest they ask a different question, such as "How far should I stay back?" Let wildlife be wild and observe from a distance. Your friends might get closer to wildlife, until the wildlife reacts to their presence. When that happens, it's too late, they have reached the threshold. The elk, deer, bobcat … might leave the area because of them, affecting wildlife viewing opportunities for others. Let your friends know that approaching wildlife is illegal in Rocky Mountain National Park and it doesn't matter if they are doing it to take a photograph. There are no exceptions. Recommend investing in a good telephoto lens. Do they feel it's only a good photograph if they are in the photo with the wildlife? Suggest they take a photo of Rocky Mountain National Park's entrance sign, followed by great distant photos of wildlife. Their friends on social media will realize that they are having an adventure in a national park: being eight feet from an elk is dangerous, illegal and not necessary to demonstrate an adventuresome spirit. 

When your friends ask, "Can we take our dog, cat, bunny… on park trails?" let them know pets are prohibited on ALL park trails, alpine tundra and meadows.  Their leashed pet can only accompany them on established roads, parking areas, established campground and picnic areas; basically where cars can go. When they express that their dog is small and can be carried, that their dog is huge and can fend for itself, or that their dog is better behaved than your child, remind them that Rocky is wilderness. Dogs are predators that can chase, scare, and transmit diseases to wildlife. Their dog could also become prey for wildlife like coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats and Great Horned Owls. Park visitors should be able to enjoy native wildlife in their natural environment at Rocky Mountain National Park without disruption from other visitors' pets. 

When your friends want to take a rock, antler, bouquet of wildflowers, chipmunk or anything else from Rocky Mountain National Park, suggest they take a photo instead and leave what they find. What if, in 2015, 4.1 million visitors took an object from the park with them? 

A few extra tips: camping in Rocky Mountain National Park requires a permit; it is illegal to feed wildlife in the park, big or small, this includes chipmunks and birds; stay on existing established trails, the increase of social trails is damaging the park's incredible resources; please leave no trace, this includes taking apple cores, orange peels and everything else you and your friend brought into the park with you, along with wonderful memories of your visit! 

 

Flying in Alaskan Bush Planes

Alaskan bush pilots are the wise owls of the 49th state—they are the first to see it all. They know when rivers are flooding, when glaciers are retreating, when wildlife migrations are occurring; rockslides, mudslides, erosion, first freezes—they see it all first from their homes in the skies over the roadless geography of Alaska. They are uniquely equipped to provide essential search and rescue operations in remote areas and do so willingly even though it is outside of their mandate; and for explorers, they are our passport into the Alaskan wilderness.  

We took 24 flights (and one helicopter) to get into the belly of eight Alaskan national parks this year and wanted to pay homage to the bush pilots who make exploration of Alaska accessible to all of us who wish to see it, while offering our warmest thanks to all of them for keeping us safe while hugging steaming volcanoes, ducking cloud streams, dipping sideways for unexpected wildlife sightings, and altering their flight-plan manifests to show more of it to us than was required.  

We also wanted to extrapolate some of the romance of bush flight into useful information that others due to travel in small aircraft might like to know...

An overview—Bush planes are used mostly in areas that don't have the infrastructure for cars, including the African bush, the Canadian North, the Australian Outback, and on the Alaskan tundra... where roads end, bush flights begin. Typical fleets are comprised of classic mid-century and modern machines alike, including Beavers, Havillands, Cessnas, Gophers, Piper Super Cubs, Otters—and are outfitted either with "tundra tires" (large all-terrain tires equipped for landing on rugged landscapes,) or skis which are used to land on water or ice or snowpack.  

The ride—Because cabins are not pressurized in small planes they must fly low to the ground. Expect near-mountain fly-byes, sharp turns, and bumpy landings. It’s all part of the adventure! You'll wear a headset that enables you to converse with the pilot and other passengers. Some planes seat just two and some gear; some seat up to 16. Cost varies greatly depending on distance of travel and the amount of gear you carry. 

Weather—While weather reports are useful planning tools, most bush pilots can attest that the most useful report is a look into the sky for real-time weather information and to ask around. They make a lot of their decisions based on experience, knowledge of the climate, reports from other pilots, and what is appearing right there and then. 

Security—There is no standard "TSA" operation aboard Alaskan bush flights. It typically goes something like this: put all of your pointy stuff in a pile, including bear spray which the pilot will strap to the external wing... if the bear spray were to discharge inside a plane while in flight, it would essentially blind the pilot subjecting all onboard to emergency landing/crash. Hop on the plane, fly. 

Are these small planes safe? The risk of flying in small planes in Alaska is inherently greater than it is in the lower-48 due to fickle weather, unreliable weather reports, and rugged terrain and landing locations. The good news is that according to reports from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, accidents in the last ten years are on the steady decrease as emergency preparedness measures continue to improve flight safety operations statewide. Truthfully, we didn't research this criteria too heavily prior to traveling through Alaska because we knew we would spend a great deal of time in small aircraft, and lets get real—in some cases, ignorance really is bliss... food for thought if you are planning travel through remote Alaska.     

Who are the pilots? Alaskan bush captains are sometimes referred to as "pilots’ pilots" because they operate planes manually at all times—different from commercial airliners who fly almost exclusively on autopilot. Several of our pilots told us that it is this fact alone that made them select Alaska as a place to live and work. They are a fascinating collective of souls with amazing stories about their voyages in flight, and part of the beauty (and sometimes strife) of this kind of travel is that you never know who you are going to get in the cock pit. Sometimes you will hop aboard with a 60-year old veteran who has been flying the skies his entire life; sometimes, you will get your safety briefing from a pilot who looks no older than your teenage son... sometimes, you might not even receive a safety briefing at all. You can take some bit of solace in the fact that pilot licenses are available to young adults aged of 14 years—two years younger than the legal age of operating a motor vehicle in this country…so that teenager flying? Even at 19, he might have been up there in practice for five years already. In any event, you really don’t have much say in the matter. But it’s not entirely out of your control—you can put yourself in the hands of the best small aircraft operators in Alaska. Here are some companies that we flew with who are regarded as some of the best in the business: 

Wrangell Mountain Air. Based in McCarthy, your jumping off point in Wrangell St. Elias National Park.

Wright Air. Based in Bettles, this is the outfit to bring you to Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic National Parks, both located in the Central Brooks Range north of the Arctic Circle. 

Lake Clark Air. Based in Port Alsworth, your gateway to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve

Wings of Alaska, the top company flying from Skagway to Glacier Bay National Park

PenAir, service to Brooks Falls in Katmai.

Andrew Airways, based in King Salmon, your jumping off point to the Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Our bush pilot Willy Fulton from Andrew Airwaysone of the most experienced pilots in the business. You might recognize him from the Werner Herzog documentary film "Grizzly Man" which documents the life of Timothy Treadwell's experiences in Katmai National Park & Preserve. Willy was one of the regular resuppliers to the area where Timothy Treadwell, AKA "Grizzly Man," lived and filmed. Sadly, he was also the one to find the remains of his friend in 2003. 

Holiday Gift Giving for the Outdoorsmen

While we will be sitting out the holiday season in traditional fashion this year, we know that many of you are starting to consider what to gift during the holidays. In that spirit, we wanted to share with you what we think are some really smart ideas of what to give the outdoorsmen in your lives. Full disclaimer: many of these products have been provided to us by our project sponsors, however, know that if it is included in this list we have determined it to be a piece of gear we don't want to live without. We’ve done our best to address a broad price range. Happy holidays everyone! 

Some of the awesome gear we've been lucky to use this year.

 

For the digital outdoorsmen & the constantly connected...

Anker device chargers (Amazon $55.00)

Anker 6-port USB wall charger (Amazon $30.00)

Vinli mobile wifi

 

For the picture takers...

For the social shutterbug:

Fujifilm Instax Wide 300 (Amazon $94 not including film)

Fujifilm Instax Mini (Amazon $55 not including film)

 

For the serious photographer:

Fujifilm X-T1 Mirrorless Digital Camera ($1,300)

Really Right Stuff tripod ($720 - $1,480)

LaCie Rugged external hard drives (Amazon: $70 - $230)

ThinkTank Photo gift card (selecting a camera bag is a very personal decision!)

Go Pro Hero4 Silver (Amazon $279)

 

For the outdoor artist!

Apple Pencil ($94) for iPad Pro ($814 for 128GB)

Kayti Fan Design stencil tote ($28)

 

 

 

For the adventurer seekers...

 

For paddlers

Oru Origami Kayaks ($1,175)

 

For hikers

Danner hiking boots (REI $360)

REI trekking poles (REI $29 - $220)

 

For backpackers

Mountain Hardwear Ozonic OutDry waterproof backpack for her ($199)

Mountain Hardwear South Col OutDry backpack for him ($300)

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Sky 3 Tent ($530)

Mountain Hardwear 5-20 degree sleeping bags ($82 - $195)

Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus sleep pads (REI $90 - $120)

Cacoon sleep pillow (REI $27)

Black Diamond Apollo Lantern (REI $50)

 

For campers

Mountain Hardwear Optic 6 tent (a true 6-person tent! We like to call it "the gymnasium") ($299)

Stanley coffee thermos (REI $33-$50)

Coleman National Parks Edition electric lantern (REI $149)

ENO Hammocks (REI $69)

 

For the indoors outdoorsman...

Pendleton National Parks themed blankets ($149 - $259)

USAOPOLY National Parks Edition Monopoly ($31)  

Hitting sunset with a National Park themed Pendleton blanket! 

 

For the Airstreamers...

Airstream themed gifts

 

Stocking stuffers!

National Park Service Annual Pass (NPS $80)

Petzel headlamps (REI $20 - $499)

Neck gaiters (REI $9 - $45)

Little Hotties hand and foot warmers (Amazon $10)

Motorola Walkie Talkies (Amazon $65)

Backpackers Pantry dehydrated food ($7 - $17)

5 Hour Energy (Amazon $50 for a 24-pack)

La Colombe Cold Brew Draft Coffee ($12)

Books about adventure!

If you give only one gift this year, make it a really good gift!

Whether you #OptOutside for Black Friday this year or kick-start your holiday shopping right away, we have the same message for holiday shoppers—gift this in 2016: Fujifilm Instax Wide 300

After spending nearly one year with this camera, we are certain that it is a gift that anyone would want to receive. It’s affordable, costing somewhere between $90-$105 depending on its sale price. It's really easy to usejust load the batteries, film, and then press one button to capture and release the photo. It is an ideal ice-breaker. Have nothing to say to someone but want to connect? Take an Instax of a moment and give it to them. You'll miss the 75 cents it costs in one slide of film less then you will the value of sentiment that it provides. It produces instant gratification and tangible memories that you can give and share with loved ones and people you don't yet know. And most importantly, Instax photos are just super cool, especially for sharing on social media and for creating retro-inspired spaces (see footer photo.)

It may look familiar—most of us who are 30-years and older recall instamatic photography from the dawn of our youth. We then called it "Polaroid" after the brand that produced it; today we call it "Instax", created by Fujifilm. Click the button, watch the photo dispense, then wave it in the air as if helping to expedite the development process (this doesn’t really work by the way)... it the most nostalgic form of photography for Gen-X'ers. It is clear that these cameras are becoming more and more popular with younger crowds as well, proved by countless conversations we have had with people of all ages from all over the world while exploring our national parks this year... "You have the Instax Wide? I have an Instax Mini!"  

During our 2016 travels we've been geared-up to the nines and have plenty of gift recommendations for the outdoors-people in your lives... that list is available in a separate post. In the meantime, we wanted to suggest one stand-alone item that will inspire those who are difficult-to-shop for and/or “have everything and need nothing." So, here you go! Instax, for the best possible price on Amazon. And don't forget to buy film

For more information about the Instax Wide 300, head to the Fujifilm official site. To see more Instax photos from our adventure this year, check out our Instax gallery page.

This is what we are doing with our Instax photos... decorating the Airstream, our home on the road! 

Exploring & Staying Safe in American Bear Country

A boar plunges into the Brooks River to catch a fish for dinner. 

It would make little sense to write about all eight of Alaska's National Parks (as well as parks in Montana and Wyoming) without a special section on this website devoted to the bears that roam free there. After all, it is for their protection that some of the national parks were established in the first place.

The atmosphere of bear country is one of the most popular topics of discussion brought up to us in the context of our Alaskan travels. "Weren't you scared?!" and "Did you carry bear spray?" and "How did you prepare to camp in the backcountry?" are some of the most commonly asked questions. We had many of the same curiosities ourselves before we wandered off into the Alaskan bush for the summer.

Attacks on humans are rare, but they have happened, so clearly it's important to know some of what to do before getting out there. Let's start with these two important things: 1.) most likely, an experienced guide will be with you the entire time (unless you choose to jet off into backcountry); and 2.) it is perfectly rational to be timid about exploring a landscape where bears wander freely. With that out of the way, you can rest assured that having a bear encounter is most often exciting and wonderful as opposed to terrifying and dangerous. The key to having a great experience is in knowing how to act and what to do if you see a bear. 

In this article, we'll discuss general information about bears including their diet and habitat, behavior, how to interact and what to do during an encounter, miscellaneous factoids, and a bit about the species itself which is an important distinction, so we'll start with that.


Types of bears found in Alaska: Black bears; polar bears; grizzly, Kodiak, and coastal brown bears. The latter three are all one species of brown bear, differentiated by geography and diet which affects their size and behavior. 

A sow black bear in Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. 

Black bears – These are the smallest of all bears living in Alaska. Their color is typically black, you may also see black bears with lighter, cinnamon-colored coats. While their habitat in most of North America is commonly associated with high-elevation and thick forested areas, they are roving creatures that can be found anywhere on the Alaskan landscape – on river banks, coastal beaches, in meadows, on tundra, and in valleys. Their diet consists mostly of berries, sedges and other grasses; they also eat fish, clams and other shellfish, moose calves, and other small mammals to pack on weight before winter hibernation. Black bears don’t generally commingle with brown bears, so if you see a black bear, you probably wont see a brown or grizzly in the immediate vicinity.

Where you will find them: From Sequoia and Kings Canyon in California to Shenandoah in Virginia to the Kenai Fjords in Alaska, black bears live throughout North America can be found in too many of our national parks to count! 

 

A sow polar bear near Kaktovik, Alaska. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Polar bears  These bears live only on the far reaches of the northern polar coastlines (you wont see a polar bear in interior or lower coastal Alaska.) As polar ice caps melt and their habitat dwindles, food sources become more scarce and as a result, they are considered to be the most dangerous species of bear to human beings. Unlike brown and black bears who generally aren't bothered by humans unless humans bother them, polar bears will hunt humans for food. 

Where you will find them: Polar bears do not live in any of the U.S. National Parks. In Alaska, they can be found only on the northern coastlines. 

 

A grizzly roaming the tundra in Denali National Park.

Grizzly – Grizzly bears are found in interior Alaska (as well as Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, the Yukon Territory, and British Columbia.) They are the smallest of Alaskan brown bears due to a more scarcely available food supply found inland, and also to the greater exertion they spend on obtaining essential calories. They feed on berries, grasses, root bulbs, insects, small rodents, and tree nuts; and when they can find a kill, moose, caribou, sheep and goats. The name “Grizzly” was coined because they tend to be the most aggressive of bears, as they have to fight harder for food sources. They can be found on the Alaskan tundra, in meadows, by streams, and in forests. 

Where you will find them: In our national parks, grizzly bears can be found in Denali, Wrangell St. Elias, Kobuk Valley, and Gates of the Arctic (all in Alaska); and Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming. 

 

Kodiak bear at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Photo credit: Wikipedia.  

Kodiak – With a tremendous food supply of protein-rich fish always available to them, Kodiak bears are the largest of all brown bears. These are the heavyweights—some have weighed in at 1,500 lbs. They are found only on Kodiak Island, an amazing wilderness habitat, the second largest island in America next to Hawai’i’s Big Island. 

Where you will find them: Kodiak bears do not live in any of the U.S. National Parks; they only live on Kodiak Island. 

A coastal brown bear sow and her three, 2-year cubs looking for shellfish on the shores of Glacier Bay. 

Coastal Brown Bears – As the name suggests, coastal brown bears live in the coastal areas of Alaska. With a wealth of food sources at their disposal—mainly fish and shell fish unearthed at low tide—these bears are known to be relatively docile towards humans so long as they are eating abundantly. Coastal brown bears are also known to provide the best viewing opportunities for travelers to Alaska as they frequently meander the shores (which can be viewed easily from the safety of a motorized boat or kayak.)

Where you will find them: In our national parks, coastal brown bears can be found in Katmai, Lake Clark, Glacier Bay, and Kenai Fjords (all in Alaska).  

 


Two large boars feed on salmon at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. 

Gender and age: Adult female bears are called sows. Adult males are called boars. Baby bears are called cubs. Young bears who have just separated from their mothers (this typically happens in their third year) are called juveniles

 


With expert bear naturalists from the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge in Lake Clark at our side, we are able to sit among coastal brown bears for days at a time watching them in their natural habitat. Stay tuned for more on that experience (park #37, coming up!) This bear sow is named Crimp Ear, a very social bear and a favorite to many who live in that area. 

Bear viewing etiquette: Seeing a bear in the wild is an awesome and unforgettable experience. Outlined below is some general etiquette to observe while bear viewing: 

Never approach, clap or shout at, or crowd bears to get their attention... and never forget that in the wilds of Alaska, you are a guest in their home. Observing their comfort and space (for your safety and theirs) should be your first priority.

Trails in established bear viewing areas were created for a reason. Stay on them whenever possible. 

The National Park Service advises that humans stay 100 yards away from bears whenever possible. In some cases, like in the picture shown here taken in Lake Clark, Alaska, they might approach you and enter into your space. It should be acknowledged here that situations always vary, and as such, adaptability to your surroundings is necessary equipment while bears are near. 


This bear, with its scowl and drool, is displaying stress as our boat nears its environment on the Katmai Peninsula. We quickly moved away!

Bear behavior and aggression: It is essential to have an understanding of bear behavior before exploring in bear country. Outlined below are some common behaviors to watch for. 

When a bear stands on its hind legs, it is most likely trying to determine what you are—bears have poor eyesight.

Bears do, on the other hand, have very good sense of smell—they can smell humans from three miles away when positioned downwind. 

If it is popping its jaw, snarling, growling, breathing heavily, coughing, sneezing, or drooling, it is experiencing stress—and indication that you are agitating it and are too close. 

Sows with cubs in tow are likely to be aggressive toward humans, as sows are extremely protective of their young. If you see a sow with cubs, maintain an even greater distance. Never get between a mother and her cub.

Bears tend to be at their most aggressive near the time that they hibernate, during late October and early November, when they are vying for every calorie they can to see them through the long winter sleep. 


Avoiding unwanted bear encounters: They say that “one of your best defenses against bears is your brain.” In other words, the more you know, the better the chances of you have of having an amazing experience among bears in the American wilderness. Some ways to minimize close bear encounters include:

Hike in wide open areas where you (and the bear) have clear visibility of the landscape.

Hike in groups of two or more. The sound of voices and the reverberation of foot traffic helps to alert bears of your presence, which will usually drive them in another direction. 

IGBC-approved bear-storage containers...we're decorating ours with stickers from places we've used them. Snazzy!

IGBC-approved bear-storage containers...we're decorating ours with stickers from places we've used them. Snazzy!

Maintain constant conversation, and/or sing on the trail to alert bears of your presence with the sound of your carrying voice.  

Observe proper food storage at all times while in bear habitat by using bear cans; and freeing tents, cars, and your general surroundings of food and scented items. Never sleep in clothing that you cooked in. 

Always stay "bear aware" when traveling in bear country. Know that they could be anywhere... you should always be ready to react. 

 

What to do if you have an encounter: If you are exploring the North American wilderness, there is a likelihood that you may see a bear...and it is a wonderful experience to have. Here are some general guidelines of what to do and how to behave if you see a bear: 

Remain calm and stand still.

If you have children with you, pick them up. 

Slowly step aside of the bear's path and stand firmly in one spot, speaking in a calm but firm voice something like “Okay bear, I’m just going to step aside and allow you to pass…”

If the bear is laying down, start to back away slowly and at a sideways trajectory, keeping your eye on the bear until you are a safe distance away. 

 

What to do if it mock charges you: Bears may mock charge humans, running straight at you aggressively if they feel threatened. Scary! If you run - never run - it will be more likely to attack you. If you stand your ground, it will most likely stop about 10 feet from you. It might be the scariest moment of your life, but mock charges are actually a somewhat common response during a close encounter. So what to do? Stand your ground. DO NOT RUN. Running will turn you into prey in a bears eyes. This is a good time to have bear deterrent handy and ready to use. 


What to do if a bear attacks: Bears do not want to brutalize human beings, an attack typically occurs when it is surprised, and/or protecting a kill (a food source) or cubs. Black bears and brown bears have different behaviors during an attack, and your response (heaven forbid you should ever find yourself in this situation) will be different for each. If attacked by a brown bear, PLAY DEAD. If attacked by a black bear, FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE. In detail: 

Brown or grizzly bear: Lay on your belly, spread your legs wide apart to make it more difficult for the bear to turn you over, and place your hands behind your neck then play dead and do not fight back unless the bear continues to attack. If it does, fight for your life. 

Black bear: Do not play dead, instead, try to escape to safety and if that is not an option, fight for your life by kicking and punching the bear's face and muzzle.  

  


Bear deterrents: "Deterrents" are items carried on your person that are used for self-protection in the case of a bear attack. The deterrent that you should first use during an aggressive bear encounter is your brain to determine its behavior and to act accordingly. If that fails—bears are wild animals and wild animals are unpredictable—it is wise to have a second line of defense. The following deterrents are useful in different scenarios, though you don't need to carry them all. Just choose the right one for you and the environment that you are in. And of course, learn how to use them. 

Stef taking off into bear country in Lake Clark Alaska with a can of bear spray, also known as "a can of confidence." 

Spray: The most popular and well known bear deterrent is casually called “bear spray”—Alaska guides call it a “can of confidence.” Bear spray is like mace, its aim is to stop a bear from attacking you by blinding it. If you are standing downwind when you spray it, it will blind you, so learn how to use it. It is imperative that you buy EPA approved bear spray they can be sold in most national park visitor centers.  

Bells:  "Bear bells"—sometimes called the "afternoon snack alarm" are simply jingle bells that you fasten to your pants that make noise while you walk. Noisemakers. It is our understanding that the sound of bells isn't unfamiliar enough to bears to act as a deterrent, and recent studies conducted in Katmai showed that the majority of bears weren't fazed by the sound. They also interrupt the peaceful environment for everyone else there, so we are not huge fans... but, to each his own. 

Flares: Flares are a popular deterrent with naturalists because the sound (like fireworks) will scare the bear without causing them harm, and they are lightweight and easy to carry.

Guns: Guns should only be handled by experienced gun owners and operators, and those who are familiar with bear behavior. Shooting a bear could easily go really wrong... It could also land you in hot water with the State while leaving you with a mountain of paperwork to fill out explaining why you shot a bear. Most top guiding companies in Alaska equip their guides with a gun, as well as training on how and when to use it.  


Keeping bears wild: We as humans are very lucky to be able to observe bears in their natural habitat in America's national parks and elsewhere. It is essential that we do our part to minimize impact on bears so they can continue to roam our planet. Here are some ways that each of us can do our part to help keep bears wild:

Respect a bear's space. Use binoculars or telephoto camera lenses to "get closer." The National Park Service advises that humans stay at least 100 yards from bears if they can help it. If a bear shows any change in behavior when you are near then you are too close. 

NEVER feed a bear. Ever. "A fed bear is a dead bear." When black or brown bears begin to associate food with people, they start to get aggressive; when bears become aggressive with park visitors, they are captured and exterminated.

Drive slowly on our wilderness roads. In the last two years in Yosemite National Park, early 60 black bears have been killed by road traffic. We always try to practice defensive driving, keeping in mind that any animal of any size could bolt in front of our car at any given time. We've not had a collision yet and hope to get through this year (and lifetime) without one! 

Black bear sow and her cub in Yosemite National Park in California.


Miscellaneous Facts:

While the weight of brown, grizzly, and Kodiak bears differ greatly, they are all born as 1-lb cubs.

Black bears live to an approximate 20 years of age and can run 30 miles an hour. 

"Hyperfascia" is a period brown bears go through late in the season just before hibernation when they eat nearly everything in sight in preparation for their long winter snooze. 

When bears hibernate, they’re not asleep. The heart rate of a bear slows to about 10 beats per minute, rendering them in a comatose state. They lose 40% of their body weight during that time. Boars (adult males) are usually the last to go into hibernation because they need to pack on the most weight. 

According to the National Park Service, there are more bears estimated to live on the Alaskan Peninsula than people. 

More people are killed by moose than bear each year in Alaska.

Bears are not social animals within their species, but are tolerant of one another so long that everyone has enough to eat.

Bears are actually very good swimmers but they tend to avoid it unless making a water crossing, like this coastal brown bear is doing at Katmai. 

Bears are good swimmers but it leaves them vulnerable. They typically avoid it unless they need to make a water crossing. 

Bears' only real predators are other bears. 

Sows (mother bears) need to eat enough to be able to nurse cubs in their first couple of years, as well as to survive herself through hibernation. This is why, when food is scarce, they become more aggressive with humans and other animals. 

Bear cubs stay with mama for three years then she chases them off. Young siblings who are newly are their own are called "juveniles," and they usually pal around until they figure out how to manage