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Tundra swans winging their way over marshes of the Great Salt Lake (with Arctic wilderness dripping from their wings)

Tips for tours with wildlife

Story by
postedOctober 5, 2019

It is a profound experience to have things wild touch our lives.

In the 32 years I spent working for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, I had some truly amazing nature and wild lands experiences. I also had wonderful interactions with people on the “adventurers trail” about the things that they saw along the way. I hope this article will offer insights to help you safely and effectively enjoy natural wonders during your own outdoor adventures.

Just recently I met a nice couple at a Roosevelt elk viewing area in northern Oregon. They told me of an amazing experience they had while hiking on a trail just off the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

They said they had seen wild sheep and other animals along a very steep and rocky trail. On their way back the husband turned to his wife and said, “You know, it’s a good thing we haven’t run into a grizzly bear on this trail because there would not be room for either one of us to get by.”

Those were fateful words, for in the next moment, a grizzly bear appeared on the trail! And truly there was no alternative path for either the couple or the bear to take. The man and woman began yelling and waving their arms to alert the bear, some 50 yards away, that they were there and to perhaps make it turn around.

It kept walking toward them, though, so they decided that their only option was to retreat—and to retreat quickly. They backtracked quite some distance till they found a place where they could get off the trail and let the big grizzly bear pass.

Even then their dilemma had not ended. As the grizzly bear came to the place where the couple had scrambled up the hillside to what they thought was safety, the bear stopped and sniffed … and sniffed. This left my new friends thinking they were going to be the next statistic in grizzly bear encounters.

But as luck would have it, the bear continued on the trail and they were free to continue their hike back to the trailhead, which was now, because of the unexpected bear, quite a distance away. This leaves a few questions to ask ourselves:

If we were in their shoes, would we be prepared to spend extra time on the trail?

Would we have enough food and water?

Would we have shelter and sufficient clothing to keep warm and dry in case the weather changed?

They described their encounter with the grizzly as both exhilarating and frightening, and that is the case with many wildlife experiences. What makes the difference is expecting the unexpected and preparing for it.

I’ve always said that luck favors the prepared mind, and my new friends were adequately prepared, so they came out unscathed physically, but they had a harrowing and memorable story to tell.

During my time with the Utah Wildlife Department, we had a sign that read, “If you don’t go far enough, you don’t get the data. If you go too far, you don’t go home.” Exploring is exciting and exhilarating, but it is also dangerous.

Sunbathing seal on Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Sunbathing seal on Vancouver Island, British Columbia

My own ‘wild’ life

The experiences of others can be a useful tool, especially when it comes to safely exploring places where wild animals are the masters of their wild domains.

My own “wild” experiences came very early in my life. I will never forget the sights and sounds of wild swans winging their way across the northern Utah marshes over the Great Salt Lake.

My dad told me they were flying south from their nesting grounds in the Arctic.

From that time on, whenever I see migrating Tundra or Trumpeter swans, it seems like they are dripping Arctic wilderness from their wingtips. For more on birds and swan sounds go to

From this early experience, seeing and hearing swans became a celebration in my life. My love of things wild fueled my career choice, and when I became the outreach manager for the Utah Wildlife Department, I was excited for the opportunity to help others explore and experience nature through wildlife events. I was especially excited to create Utah’s Wild Swan Celebrations.

In northern Utah there are 60,000 wild swans that migrate, rest, and refuel at the marshes of the Great Salt Lake in November and March. Each year during those months I delighted in talking with people about these swans and to learn about their experiences with swans at these marshes and at other places throughout the world.

How, when, and where

If you’re looking for an initial experience to become excited about animals and their habitats, check with your local wildlife department and see what kind of events take place in your area. In Utah there are many good places to go for tours, and professionals in your area can provide information about how, when, and where to see and experience more wildlife.

It’s possible that your own yard is another great place to gather experience in seeing and discovering wildlife, especially wild birds. Putting up bird feeders in your yard can allow you to learn more about the birds right from your window.

The book “Backyard Birds” by my late friend Bill Fenimore is a tremendous starting point for people who want to learn about the birds in their area. This series of books is available for many U.S. states, and I’m sure you can find helpful books if you live elsewhere.

Bill was passionate about giving people great tools to help them develop a love for birds, which starts with identifying and attracting birds to their yards.

The next step is to explore and gain experience and confidence.

My interactions with wild birds, animals, and lands have added richness to my life. These creatures and experiences have touched and expanded my soul, and I hope it can be the same for you.

Phil Douglass retired from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in 2018, having served for 32 years as a wildlife and habitat biologist and wildlife programs educator. He is now a guide and tour director for Southwest Adventure Tours, specializing in photography and hiking tours of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, northern Oregon, and Alaska.

Top photo: Tundra swans winging their way over marshes of the Great Salt Lake
Photos by Phil Douglass