Think of Brian Balik as Loudoun’s own Steve Irwin.
The 26-year-old naturalist and nature photographer has spent years getting to know the ins and outs of wildlife in and around Loudoun. Now he’s tapping into a growing appetite for environmental tourism in Loudoun, offering everything from nature hikes for kids to bear and venomous snake tours for grown-ups.
Balik has created partnerships with several area farm breweries, offering specialized tours for children and adults. These include daytime and nighttime photo tours for photography enthusiasts and regular children’s hikes at Bear Chase Brewing Company near Bluemont so kids can explore while parents enjoy a beer and the brewery’s spectacular views.
Balik is a lifelong Loudouner who grew up in Sterling and remembers his own hikes in the regional parks of Loudoun and Fairfax.
“When I was a little kid, we’d do family hikes in the local parks and that sparked my interest in it all,” he said.
Balik graduated from Park View High School and attended Old Dominion University and Northern Arizona University. He worked for several years for the Fairfax County Park Authority including as a guide at the picturesque Riverbend Park in Great Falls. Balik has been honing his skills as a naturalist since he was a teen and has been working for years to understand and track the habits and patterns of wildlife in and around Loudoun.
“It’s the time and the experience for sure,” he said. “The more time you do it, the more you see.”
For the past year, he’s been sharing that knowledge with nature lovers through his new company, Balik Outdoors, launched last summer after friends and family encouraged him to turn his passion into a business.
Balik still works a day job and leads tours through Balik Outdoors on weekends with a staff of eight guides, but he’s hoping to make his outdoor tourism company a full-time gig down the road, or trail for that matter.
One of Balik’s most popular offerings are his bear tours, which guarantee a bear sighting. The tours are so popular they’re sold out for the current season. Balik’s years of meticulous research and documentation, along with a network of observers sharing information, allow him to accurately predict the best locations for bear sightings at any time of year.
“For the past eight years, I’ve been either photographing wildlife, teaching about it or being outside all the time, so I’ve gotten to know the patterns of black bears: what they do each week, what areas, what towns, what cities, what they’re eating, when they’re mating, when they’re sleeping and that sort of thing,” Balik said. “I put together a week-by-week calendar for my staff. They’re easy to pattern based on all the data that we have.”
Balik has also developed a reputation as a nature photographer, with hundreds of stunning photos of wildlife and gorgeous nighttime star shoots. And while Balik considers himself a naturalist first and foremost, there is definitely an element of creative expression in the photos.
“It does become sort of an art form,” Balik said. “My expertise is more on the naturalist side. I do take what I consider decent photos, but they’re more about what is seen in the photo. It’s not just a cool shot of a sunset, it’s a shot of a sunset where the sun is fading and animals are appearing. It’s the whole story of what’s happening in each photo.”
Balik’s popular “Milky Way” series captures shots of the galaxy from some of western Loudoun’s most beautiful settings. He’s gotten permission from breweries to show up in the middle of the night when conditions are just right, with breathtaking results.
“You’ve got to go on the clearest night,” Balik said. “There are like 10 things that need to happen: you have to have a very clear night with little cloud cover, the pollen count has to be low, the moon can’t be out, and it’s got to be about 35 miles into Loudoun County west or south of Leesburg.”
Balik offers nighttime photo tours for amateur photographers interested in catching similar shots offering guidance on finding the best possible conditions.
Balik started taking photos with his smartphone during his explorations and then moved on to more technical DSLR cameras. He has also used GoPro action cameras, drones, helicopters, airplanes and a network of several hundred trail cameras to capture the secret life of Loudoun wildlife on and off the beaten path. Balik’s photo work presenting a full calendar year in the life of Loudoun wildlife, along with his insights as a longtime naturalist, will be the subject of a talk and photo showcase Thursday, June 27 at Bear Chase Brewery.
With western Loudoun’s extensive outdoor recreational offerings, along with a series of hidden gems in the eastern part of the county, the area has become a haven for nature lovers, and, as Balik’s business indicates, there’s a solid synergy with the winery and farm brewery scene.
According to Visit Loudoun, the county offers 347 miles of bike paths and 85 miles of hiking trails, with access to the Appalachian Trail on Loudoun’s western boundary and a portion of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail near Algonkian Regional Park in Sterling, as well as Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which includes land in Loudoun.
In northwest Loudoun, just a stone’s throw from Harpers Ferry, WV, Harpers Ferry Brewing offers fabulous views of the Potomac and sits right next door to the popular Harpers Ferry Adventure Center, which offers ropes courses, zip lining, tubing, rafting, kayaking and other outdoor adventures.
And just down the road near in Neersville, Virginia approved funding for a new nearly 900-acre state park, the county’s first state park which will offer more opportunities for hiking, camping and wildlife spotting.
Balik offers pre-scheduled tours most weekends in cooperation with Bear Chase and other farm breweries in addition to personalized tours by request for scouts and other groups.
Thursday Night Thoughts with Balik Outdoors takes place Thursday, June 27 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Bear Chase Brewing Company, 18294 Blueridge Mountain Road, Bluemont. Tickets are $20 per person in advance. For more information on Balik Outdoors and upcoming tours and events, go to facebook.com/balikoutdoors or balikoutdoors.com.