Alaskan Brown Bear, Katmai National Park
National Parks,  Nature,  Travel,  Wildlife

Backcountry Journeys’ Kenai Peninsula Alaska Photo Tour Review

I recently returned from a 7 day tour of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula by Backcountry Journeys (7 days is a bit misleading, day 1 consists of only a kickoff meeting and dinner).  The tour covered a large portion of the Kenai Peninsula, included 2 boat tours to photograph marine wildlife and birds, and a bush plane trip to photograph Alaskan Brown Bears.

I generally hire a guide or tour company for their knowledge of the area, and for when and where to get good landscape, wildlife, and bird photographs.  The tour company also takes care of all of the logistics (hotel, meals, etc.) so that I don’t have to.  I do plan and arrange the majority of my photography trips myself.  So, was it worth it to hire Backcountry Journeys’ to photograph Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula?  Read on to find out.

I’m not going to do a day by day itinerary because you can read that on Backcountry Journeys website.  I am going to give you my thoughts on the experience and the quality of the photo opportunities that I got on the trip.

Favorite Photography Highlights

There were a lot of photography highlights on this trip, and I took a lot of photographs.  I would say this was primarily a wildlife and bird photography tour with some good landscape opportunities mixed in.

Brown Bear and Cub foraging on Sedge Grass in Katmai National Park
Brown Bear and Cub foraging on Sedge Grass in Katmai National Park

Bush Plane Flight for Brown Bears 

We flew into Katmai National Park to photograph Alaskan Brown Bears.  The planes landed on the beach and we hiked about 3 total miles thru the grass and over 2 small rivers.  The company provided waders for each passenger to wear.

There were brown bears every 150 yards or so, including a mother bear and her cub.  The highlight was a Brown Bear that walked within 15 yards of us while feeding on Sedge Grass while we were sitting on a log.  The bear hardly seemed to notice we were there.  The pilots were trained as guides and coached everyone on how to behave with the bears.

The pilots also flew close to Mt. Douglas, an active volcano in Katmai National Park with a lake in the crater.

Photography Boat Tour out of Seward

Cruising Resurrection Bay, this tour not only gave an abundance of marine wildlife and bird photo ops, it also had landscape opportunities of Holgate Glacier and the Cove of the Spires in Kenai Fjords National Park.

At Holgate Glacier, we got to witness and photograph Glacier Calving and large chunks of the Glacier fell into the water.

We photographed Humpback Whales, Stellar Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, Sea Otters, Tufted Puffins, Horned Puffins, and Dall’s Porpoise on the boat tour.

Sea Otter, Kachimac Bay, Alaska
Sea Otter and Pup, Kachimac Bay, Alaska

Boat Tour out of Homer

We photographed many of the same birds and mammals as we did on the Resurrection Bay tour; however, Gull Island provided a cool photo op with thousands of Sea Gulls on this small rock island.   There were also Cormorants and Puffins on the Island.   We also saw more Sea Otters on this tour.

The tour also takes you to Seldovia, a small village accessible only by boat or plane.  The main photo opportunity in Seldovia are the houses along the inlet built on stilts.  We also had lunch in Seldovia in a restaurant overlooking the marina.

Eagle Beaches

There are several beaches between Homer and Seward that had terrific Bald Eagle photo opportunities both feeding on the beach feeding in flight.  There were dozens of eagles on these beaches giving plenty of good photo opportunities.

Portage and Byron Glaciers

It was an early morning (3am) leaving the hotel to photograph these glaciers for sunrise. But it was worth it as the early morning sun lights up the mountains around Portage and Byron Glaciers for a beautiful landscape photo opportunity.

Juvenile Bald Eagle Strutting on the Beach
Juvenile Bald Eagle Strutting on the Beach

Photo Guide

Our Photo Guide, Tom is a professional photographer and Alaska resident.  Tom knew the area well and always had a back up plan when the conditions weren’t right for Plan A.  Tom also helped photographers out when they needed assistance with their camera settings or getting the right composition.  His first priority was to ensure the tour participants had a memorable experience and went home with photographs to remember.

Lodging

Overall, the accommodations were very nice.  We spent one night in a hotel right on the marina in Seward.  In Homer, we stayed at the end of Homer Spit with a view of Kachimak Bay from our rooms.  The last night we spent at the Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood.

Dining

Backcountry Journeys made reservations for us at some nice restaurants during our stay on the Kenai Peninsula.  Most of the restaurants we ate at had the local favorites (Wild Salmon, Halibut, and Rockfish),  but they also had other options for individuals who don’t eat fish.  The meals are included in the tour price and the entire menu was available to select your meal.  The only thing not included was alcohol that you need to pay for yourself.

Tom was also really good about having grab bags of food if we had to eat on the run, and there were also bags of snacks and water in the van.

Transportation

All the transportation for the trip was included in the tour price except for your flight into and out of Anchorage.  Once you reach Anchorage, you call the hotel and they will send a shuttle to pick you up.

Once you are at the hotel, Backcountry Journeys has a large van that fit all our gear and luggage.  The boat photography trips and bear photography bush plane flight was also included.

Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin

What I Liked About the Tour

  • Everything was planned and taken care of.  I do like planning my own photography trips but for a long, distant trip like this, it is nice to have your first trip to the location  planned out for you.
  • Dining.  Most of the restaurants that Backcountry Journeys selected were nice upscale restaurants with great food and good selections of the local fare.  The prices of the meals were fairly high, and were included with the tour price.
  • Photo Opportunities.  I left the tour with a lot of quality wildlife, bird, and landscape photo opportunities.  Backcountry Journeys and Tom did a good job of getting us in the right place at the right time for good photographs.
  • The Wildlife.  We photographed Alaskan Brown Bears, Sea Otters, Puffins, Moose, Red-breasted Grebes, Sea Lions, Common Mures, Dall Sheep, and a lot of Bald Eagles.

What I Didn’t Like about the Tour

There is not a lot to dislike about the Backcountry Journey Kenai Peninsula Photography Tour.  But I do have a couple things that could be improved.

  • Dining Reservation Scheduling.  A couple of times dinner reservations were scheduled late followed by a sunrise photo shoot the next morning.  On the last night we had 8:00pm dinner reservations (our table wasn’t available until 8:30pm) and left the hotel the next morning at 3am for a sunrise photography shoot of Portage Glacier.  This amounted to about 3 hours of sleep.
  • The Price.  Backcountry Journeys’ tours are a bit pricey, but I’m convinced that if you add up the price of the meals at nice restaurants, lodging at waterfront and other quality hotels, ground transportation, private boat tours, and bush plane flights for photographing Brown Bears, the price would come pretty close to what you’d pay if you organized the trip yourself.

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3 Comments

  • Cheryl

    Great post Martin with some great pics. I see you went whale watching. I am going out later this month with my OM-1 and 100-400 lens. What settings would you recommend please?

    • Martin Belan

      Hi Cheryl. Thanks for leaving the comment. We did see some Humback’s on the first boat tour but not on the 2nd. We didn’t see any Orcas. For settings, you’ll want to try to keep your shutter speed @ al least 1000 to freeze the motion. I kept my aperture at @f/7.1 to get most of the animal in focus. You’ll need to vary the ISO based on the lighting conditions. I used C-AF, but make sure you upgrade the firmware of the OM-1 before you leave. With firmware 1.2 they improved the performance of C-AF when shooting stills. Subject detection worked great for photographing birds from a boat but Dog and Cat AF didn’t fare as well for marine mammal. Hope this helps. Hope you get some great shots.

  • Cheryl

    Many thanks Martin. Will let you know how it goes. Due to go out on the 19th weather permitting. Thanks for the firmeare tip too. Much appreciated.

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