Safety First: Know Your Wildlife Before You Head Into the Wild

Ah, the call of the night. I get goosebumps thinking about locations, moon phases and opportunities to create something in concert with nature.

But nature has other creatures besides night photographers. Such as bears. And coyotes. Some are dangerous to humans, some are not. Knowing your wildlife and their habits before you head out is vital. Safety first!

A Story

I want to tell you a tale about last night. ... We'll get to the safety part toward the end, so come along with me for a spell.

I was scouting a location near National Parks at Night's (NPAN) headquarters in the beautiful village of Catskill, New York. To the west and into the mountains is New York state's tallest two-stage waterfall, Kaaterskill Falls. It's in the northeast corner of Catskill State Park, and well worth the effort to visit. Must be why it's so popular ;-)

I read all about it on blogs, the official Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) website and some hiking books I have that detail adventures in the park. I was mostly focused on the difficulty of the hike, how well marked the trail is, and how long it would take.

I consulted the PhotoPills app to see when the half moon would scoot around the lip of the gorge. It happened to be not so long after dusk. Perfect. I decided to hike up during twilight to see the trail markers and note them mentally, and to identify places where I could make a navigation mistake on the way down. Fortunately for the traveler (not for the environment), I noted that this trail is well-worn and marked.

Image uploaded from iOS.jpg


... helped me plan the shot.

My 30-pound backpack weighed on me as I made my way along dry and wet earth, stone and mud. The 330-foot elevation gain from the trailhead was fairly easy, except for some aggressive staircases (covered with mosquitoes waiting for fools like me wearing no insect repellent).

I made it to the bottom of the topmost stage of the falls. I took a breather, and noticed the trail broke left (away from the falls). Honestly, I was not happy about that. I wanted to get a good view of the tallest portion and it looked like the yellow trail just ... kept ... going.

I kept thinking to myself about the biggest mistake I’d made that night. I was alone.

I tried it for a while and gave myself a pass. Turning around and coming back down, I was feeling silly, coming all this way only to turn back. But there was one area off to the left (toward the falls) I had not tried yet. So I followed this side path and voila! I was exactly where I wanted to be.

It was civil twilight by then, so I relaxed, meditated and waited for stars to appear. When they did, I set up to test for exposure and focus, and to find a spot dry enough to shoot (at the bottom of the falls there is a ton of mist blowing away). I chose a spot that gave me a good peekaboo look at the entire waterfall without standing in the rain-like wind.

I had a wonderful "What if?" moment while shooting my way toward the moon cresting the gorge edge. I asked how orange light painting would look against the deep blue of the night sky. See Figure 1 for the best image.

Figure 1. 8 minutes, f/4, ISO 100. Nikon D750, Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8 lens, Coast HP7R with Light Painting Tools Universal Connector and orange cone, plus a half moon.

Wow. Complementary colors are amazing. I decided to ride that train and work the scene with fiery water below and cool, icy blues above.

Here are a few more images that made the trip worth it. The last one is from after I hiked down and moved to another location. But...

During the shoot, I kept thinking to myself about the biggest mistake I'd made that night. I was alone. Figures that I ignored my own advice and not used the buddy system. So, my vivid imagination being what it is, I started hearing noises. Animal noises! It wasn't really happening, especially over the roaring din of the waterfalls. But the worry stayed at the back of my mind. I solo night stuff all the time, right?

In the end, I packed up and began my way back down the steep staircase. Slow. One step at a time. Safe.

I know it's important to stop and look around, even though it bugs me out. So I continued to do this, focusing in and out with my headlamp. I'd scan the trail for markers first, scan the surrounding bushes for movement or sparkly eyes (yeah, I do that), and the trees for ... and then I saw it.

About four feet up on a tree in the middle of the path was heavily scratched bark. Bear markings. Yup, the survivalist in me started clamoring inside. Yet I stayed calm and chose to be even more aware. (I did not stop, take out my tripod and take a photo complete with beautiful light painting, forgive me. Enjoy these instead.)

I kept moving at a safe pace. I started saying, "Hey bear!" loudly and clapping my hands.

I saw a couple of holes dug in the soft earth. Another bear sign. They love ants. (Again, I did not stop to take a picture, so look at this.)

The road was near, along with salvation from this possibly dangerous situation.

I kept on moving. Steady and careful. My boot soles were wet from mud and water from runoff that crossed the path. I knew it would be easy to slip, so I slowed down a little.

I saw headlights! Yeah, baby. The road was near, along with salvation from this possibly dangerous situation. Another 100 steps and I came upon a very dark pile of scat. Now, if I said I wasn't alarmed by this, I'd by lying. I was. It was, plainly, bear shit. (Once again, I did not think it was an ideal time to be taking photos, so check this out to aid your imagination.)

So I scanned in a circle, looking for movement or sparkly eyes. Nothing. Good. Move on, baby.

In my increased haste, I did slip once, in plain sight of the trailhead. I was navigating some scree and my wet boot slipped on rock. I didn't tumble—it was just an awkward slide. My heavy backpack actually helped to counterbalance me.

I brushed off some blood from my shin and hustled to the trailhead. I was so relieved to see cars coming. And I was safe at last. I made it to my car and jumped in, locking the doors. I know, it's foolish to think a car window can stop a bear, but it made me feel good anyway.

So the moral of the story is that I can share some tips with you!


1. Read about the wildlife where you will be visiting.

Great sources are the brochure you get when entering a park, the posted signs, official NPS or state park websites, and more.

Learn when they are active, what they eat (so you can avoid being near it), if they travel on human paths (which black bears do) and how to deal with any encounters.

If you are unsure, ask a ranger. Park rangers rock.

When I was warming up in the car after this shoot, I found this amazing page on detailing black bears. All the things I'd learned as a boy in the Adirondacks rang true with their points. And the natural signs I had observed were affirmed when reading this.

So seek out local naturalists and hikers for the area you want to explore and sit under their learning tree. It will be time well spent.

If you  want  to find a black bear, try Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has more of them per square mile than any other place in the U.S. Nikon D3S,  Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8  lens at 200mm. Photo © 2013 Chris Nicholson. (He doesn't have any night photos of light-painted bears. I can't understand why.)

If you want to find a black bear, try Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has more of them per square mile than any other place in the U.S. Nikon D3S, Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 lens at 200mm. Photo © 2013 Chris Nicholson. (He doesn't have any night photos of light-painted bears. I can't understand why.)

2. Use the buddy system.

Bring a friend or two with you. The more noise you make, and smells you offer, the less your chances of surprising any animals that could be dangerous.

3. If it's a short hike, try not to bring food.

If animals don't smell something they enjoy eating, they will most likely stay away. If you have to bring food, try to seal it as much as possible.

If you're bringing food into bear country, the current advice is to use a bear canister, because Yogi is smart enough to know about the food you hang from a rope between two trees. ;-)

4. Assume that most animals don't want to be near you.

As fellow NPANer Lance Keimig always says, there are far more plants that want to hurt you than animals. Animals usually attack only when feeling threatened and especially when their young are nearby. So don't freak out if you see a wild animal. Stay calm. Think.

5. Look for telltale signs.

Do you observe tracks, scat or other markers of animals nearby? Are they fresh?

6. Look around.

When you hike, it's normal to be looking at your feet all the time. Stop or slow down and look around into underbrush, shadows, etc.

7. When the wind is blowing in your face, be even more cautious.

Why? Your smell is not being blown ahead of your travel path.

8. Be aware of space.

If you know animals are near, try not to corner them in a gorge or canyon, because they may choose to escape right through you.

9. Stay Navigated.

This is not specific to animals, but always carry a compass, and know the basics of its use. It won't protect you from wildlife, but it will keep you moving in the right direction.

What animals live near you? What do you know about them? Had any close encounters? Let us know in the comments.

Locals bonus: More info on black bears, cougars and coyotes from the New York State DEC.

Matt Hill is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. See more about his photography, art, workshops and writing at Follow Matt on Twitter Instagram Facebook.