McNeil Notes - tips for the trip

The following is for those of you who plan on going to the McNeil River.  These tips can make your trip more enjoyable as well as more productive.  If you have been to McNeil and would like to add to the list feel free to leave me a comment or email me. See the update list at the bottom of the page for the latest tips on McNeil. - mark hardgrave

Here are some things I learned while on my visit to the McNeil River in Alsaka. I searched the web prior to my trip and ended up with very few tips to help me out. I was sent some information from the Alaska Fish and Game that was very helpful in planning the trip, but from photography prospective; I did really know what to take. Hope these tips will help you plan your trip to the McNeil River.

Water - bring your own water. Water is provided at McNeil by means of a water collection system that collects rainwater from the roof of the cook shack and funnels it to a 55-gallon drum. The other source of water is by a creek about 1/4 mile from camp. Either way, you must treat your water and use a filter to make it safe to drink. We spent about 2 hours a day making water though not a hard task; it just took lost of time away from other things we could have been doing. Most of the other campers brought enough water with them to last the 5 or 6 days they were there at McNeil.

Bring a cooler - a cooler to put your food in is a great idea. You can store all your stuff in one place and it is easy to move in and out of the plane. You could also put some ice in it and have you some cold beer waiting for you at the end of the day. I would not count on the cooler to preserve all of your food for the trip, but it would work for a day or so. Not a necessity, but a convenience in the wild.

Lots of warm clothes - I did not bring enough warm clothes and slept cold most of the time while I was in Alaska. Plan on layering during the day while hiking to the falls, it can get very cold and the falls. Bring a warm sleeping bag also, one that will keep you warm if the temps drop to the low 30's.

Rain gear - is essential in Alaska no matter where you go. I would invest in a good jacket made of Gore-Tex form someone like "The North Face" or "Columbia". Gore-Tex will also keep the wind off you. The wind blows hard at McNeil. There are no trees or any other landmass to block the wind as it blows across the bay. A good warm hat is another must to make your trip to McNeil a pleasant one.

Tent stakes - extra tent stakes and rope are a MUST! You will need to tie down your tent to keep it from blowing away. We experienced 38-mph winds one night while at McNeil. One camper lost her tent, the rest of us wondered throughout the night if ours would last. The dome type tents work best in high winds. If you have an expedition type tent, you have nothing to worry about. It is not unusual to see 80 mph + winds at the camp area at McNeil. The weather can change in a heartbeat.

Camp fuel is provided at the cook shack so that is one less thing you need to bring.

Zip-Lock bags - are great for keeping things dry as well as packing your lunch in for the day's hike. You are gone all day, zip-locks work great for your snacks and sandwich.

Storage - there are storage areas in the overhead of the cook shack to store your extra gear and camera stuff. All food and personal hygiene items must be stored in the cook shack. The last thing you want is a bear in your tent in the middle of the night. All other items must be stored inside your tent. No items are allowed outside the tent. Bears will get them and chew them up!

Sauna - the only luxury at McNeil. The most popular spot after a long day at the falls. This is the only way to clean up while out in the wild. Primitive, powered by a wood stove and some pond water, it is a real treat while out in the wild.

Hip waders - is a MUST! You can't get to the falls without hip waders. Once you get to the viewing pads, you can shed the hip waders and put on your hiking boots (Gore-Tex recommended) for the rest of the day. I would recommend a boot made of Gore-Tex and Thinsulate to keep your feet dry and warm throughout the day.

Camera pack - a backpack is the only way to carry your equipment for the four-mile daily round trip to the falls. There are a lot of manufacturers of quality camera packs. I like the ones from Lowe. They have one for about every budget. It can also be a regular backpack, just have enough room in it to store camera, lenses, film, food, water, and raingear. After your first day out, you will be lightening your pack for the next day. You will find out you brought too much. I did this each day and finally figured out what to take on the last day.

Camp stools - there are plenty of campstools at the upper falls. Most people brought their "Crazy Creak Chairs" to sit on.

Film - bring lost of it! Depending on how much you want to shoot, I brought 100 rolls of film and that was about right. However, you can never have too much film. Your motor drive will be smoking at times. One particular scene, I remember shooting 8 rolls of film in the course of about two minutes. Some times the actions happens so fast, you just can't keep up. On particular day I shot 24 rolls of film on a mother and cub. They were some of my finest images from the trip. The action is unpredictable, so be ready!

Camera's - I brought way too much for the trip and left most of it back at camp. I took Two Nikon F4s bodies, and one Nikon N90 body. I took one F4s and the N-90 to the falls with me each day. All cameras have an "E" screen for easier composition.

Lenses - this is where I went overboard. I brought too many lenses! My main lens that I used the most was my Nikkor 300 2.8 EDIF. I used this lens 95% of the time at McNeil. About 50% of the time it had my dedicated Nikkor TC-14B attached to it. This gave me a 420mm-f/4 lens. The weather changes throughout the day and a fast lens and some fast film will help out. Let me stress that you can get by with a 300mm-f/4 lens for most of the shots there. To help you out when the light is not good, shoot some Kodak E-200 to gain you a stop of light. We were lucky and had nice light about 80% of the time.

Wide angle - I brought my 20-35 along to McNeil. It looked good at the falls when all the bears were there. Used it for just a few shots.

105mm - used it several times, but a 180mm would have been better. An 80-200 2.8 would work great, but it is a bit heavy to carry along with the 300 2.8.

Bottom line - you don't need an arsenal of lenses to photograph the bears. If you have a 500 f/4 you can alternate it with the 300 2.8 and trade them off every other day. They weigh too much to carry both of them. One note, sometimes the bears are so close that a 500 will be useless to you and all you can do is watch.

Have a second camera loaded with film ready for action when the bears get real close. Put a 35-70 lens on it and have it ready for use.

Carry a point & shoot camera with you. Have it around you neck and ready to use. I got some cool shots with the point and shoot. Use it to make a visual diary of your trip. I had mine loaded with Kodak Gold 100 print film and shot about 7 rolls of film with it.

Don't carry your camera around you neck while hiking to the falls. I can't stress this enough! One person on our trip took a nasty dip into the water when her foot got stuck in the mud and lost her balance. She took a dunk and so did her camera. Cameras and water don't mix. Her camera was ruined, but luckily for her it was the next to last day of the trip back and she had already got some nice pics. If it had been her first day it would have been disaster for her trip. She had no back-up camera. You need a back-up camera.

Hope these little tips will help you with your trip. I will ad some more tips later as time permits. If you have any questions just send them my way!

New Notes on McNeil - from Kevin Ferris 2002

There have been several things that have changed at McNeil since I was there in 1998. Kevin Ferris was there in 2002 and sent me this update about things there at McNeil. I'll post more as I get a chance. I hope this information will help you plan your trip. As you know things can change and it's bets to contact Alaska Fish and Game for all the latest changes.

1) Katmai Air no longer flies to McNeil. There are several air taxi services that do. However, they are more expensive than when we went in 1998.

Also, back in 1998, they were a little lax in charging us for excess weight. We were about 40 pounds over and they didn't charge us for it. However, this time I was charged for every pound over the 75 pound limit. So was everyone else that I spoke with.

2) There is a propane stove in the cook shed. You don't have to bring a stove or fuel.

3) There are several pairs of hip waders that have been left behind. If you forget yours, you can probably find a pair that will work for you.

4) There are also several tarps that have been left behind that you can use for additional protection for your tent.

5) There is a little less room in the cook shed to store your photo gear because the tarps & hip waders that were left behind are stored in the overhead spaces. Many people were just leaving their camera bags on the floor of the cook shed each night.

6) The barrel that collects rainwater from the roof has a much better pumping system (you will still need to get a lot of your water from the stream so bring your water filters & purifiers).

page updated 3/20/2004 by mark hardgrave