In 2012, Simyra Taback of Homer and Hallo Bay Bear Camp found herself in an elite group of tour guides from around the world: one of more than 1,000 nominated for the Wanderlust World Guide Awards, a global effort by Wanderlust, a travel magazine based in the United Kingdom, to honor the efforts of tour leaders and guides. The circle got even smaller Oct. 4, when it was announced at an awards ceremony of the Royal Geographic Society in London that Taback had taken second place in the competition.
Last week, Wanderlust came to Hallo Bay, Homer and other points in Alaska.
“We like to do follow-ups with the guides and I knew this was one I wanted to do,” said Lyn Hughes of making the trip to Alaska with photographer Simon Chubb from the magazine’s headquarters in Berkshire.
The follow-up offers Wanderlust a first-hand opportunity to see the guides in their environments. Not only was this Hughes’ first trip to Alaska, something she said has been on her wish list for years, it also provided her “an extraordinary experience with bears at Hallo Bay.”
On one occasion during the visit, Taback led Hughes and Chubb into an empty clearing where they took their positions and waited. They were not disappointed, especially when a sow, aware of the human presence, bathed in a nearby stream and then laid down near the group.
The follow-up visits also are a way for Wanderlust to see how guides have used their award winnings. In addition to a pair of binoculars from competition sponsor Swarowski Optik, outdoor gear and clothing from Nomad Travel Company and books from travel experts and wildlife photographers, Taback received a bursary, financial support, that converted to approximately $3,500 US.
“I have donated a portion of the bursary to the Homer Food Bank. I donated a portion to the Homer Animal Shelter. I also started the Bear Hugs Project,” said Taback, of inviting clients to bring teddy bears from their point of origin to be given to South Peninsula Haven House, a shelter for families impacted by domestic violence and sexual assault.
“During the interview process, when a child arrives at the shelter, they are allowed to choose a teddy bear to hug and hang onto,” said Taback, who had made it her goal to provide 300 teddy bears each summer, with the help of Hallo Bay clients, for the Haven House program.
“We had quite a few guests that have brought teddy bears from their home countries and donated them to our project,” said Taback. “This is pretty sweet and makes us smile that our guests take the time to bring a teddy bear all the way here to Homer from where they live.”
After several days with Taback at Hallo Bay, Hughes and Chubb spent a day in Homer, visiting the Pratt Museum and other points of interest before continuing with a full schedule of activities provided by Cooper Landing, Anchorage, Girdwood and Seward.
“A story on Hallo Bay and Homer will run in the (Wanderlust) November issue,” said Hughes.
Winning the award left a lasting mark on Taback and Hallo Bay Bear Camp.
“We realize that each guest is so unbelievably important and no matter what the weather or situation the guests are in, there is no reason that you should not give 100 percent of yourself so that every guest can have the best Alaska wildlife experience possible,” said Taback.
Hughes and her husband, Paul Morrison, co-founded Wanderlust in 1992. Morrison died in 2004 and Hughes serves as the magazine’s editor in chief, in addition to writing about and photographing her own international traveling experiences. The magazine is printed eight times a year and has a circulation of more than 100,000 readers in 112 countries, as well as a presence on the web. While the magazine’s biggest market is in the U.K., the United States is in second place.
“We are looking for the authentic experience,” said Hughes, defining “authentic” as experiences that allow travelers, mostly those who explore by walking and hiking, to become immersed in the local culture, learn about its history and become familiar with the wildlife of the area.
The awards program was established by Morrison as a way to recognize those who create just such an “authentic” experience.
Selecting outstanding guides begins with nominations. Taback’s came from a client from the U.K. who was familiar with Wanderlust and the awards.
“We then create a short list, publish it and invite further testimony,” said Hughes. “Each guide usually gets about 100 testimonies. In Taback’s case … she got a lot. Dozens and dozens. More than 100.”
Taback attributes her second-place win to what she has learned about bears, the environment and guests, her sense of humor to make up for less than perfect weather or fill in when wildlife viewing is slow, and putting it all together to offer clients “a memory of a lifetime,” she said. “I am also a Leave No Trace Master Educator and help educate people on low-impact and ethical wildlife viewing practices.”
Hughes sees tourism as “a force for good, benefiting local communities, wildlife and the natural world.” Asked for her views on tourism, Taback said it “benefits everyone in the community, not just the tour operators. For every guest that comes to visit, that takes the tours and stays at the hotels and B&Bs, the grocery store, plumbers, contractors and all reap the benefits somehow in the long run.”
From a wildlife perspective, Taback added, “For every guest that visits the Homer community and goes out on a bear-viewing trip, we hope the experience helps dispel the rumors of blood-thirsty killer bears. We hope the experience shows guests how one can co-exist with bears quite peacefully if we learn to understand and respect them. … We can only wish that the guests take home with them not only photographs, but ethics they can instill in their own community to ensure bear safety in urban and rural environments.”
For more information about Wanderlust, visit www.wanderlust.co.uk.
For more information about Hallo Bay Bear Camp, visit www.hallobay.com.