While my friends on the east coast are getting pummeled by a record blizzard, here in Fairbanks, Alaska we’ve finally hit “seasonably cold” temperatures. As the mercury dropped On January 25th – 26th to 40 below, the clear skies were coupled with good looking aurora data. The humidity was only at 5% which for me meant perfect clarity to the stars! As I stepped out of the truck I sucked in my first breath of the cold air; it’s always the hardest one! The sting is from both the cold air and the dryness.It bursts into the lungs and bites the nose.
Although this was not my first 40 below night walking around in Alaska, it was the first time I took my camera out into those temps! Shooting at 40 below presented some unique challenges. First, battery life is depressingly short and I could only take about 300 images in contrast to over 1000 on one battery. Second, anything metal is extremely dangerous to the bare skin, and when you are out shooting metal is a common thing! I was carrying a magnesium alloy camera, and aluminum tripod with an aluminum head. Dealing with these items meant wearing liner gloves which resisted the cold like an ant resists a lollipop – I’ve never seen an ant that could resist a lollipop. The result is that I watched the aurora play across the sky in beautiful patterns on several occasions while warming my fingers! Of course, the disadvantage of that is I cannot print my photographic memory, but I still enjoyed a great show as my digits warmed up. Third, clumsy mits made adjusting a cold, stiff tripod head quite difficult! What did I learn: future cold excursions will include a better pair of gloves!
With my petty whines aside it was a glorious night of aurora and aurora photography. I really focused on composition of shots, and although I did shoot a very short timelapse, most of my night was spent wandering through knee deep powder in the black spruces. Through the night the aurora shifted from an overhead band to the northern skies and danced in vibrant colors. Now that I am indoctrinated, I am looking forward to more auroras in the -40 club!
This is likely my best aurora image to date! I was really focusing on composition all night, and this one has all the pieces of a great image!!
Tracks in the snow indicate where I came from as I moved along the firebreak.
The aurora is just starting ‘heat up’ in this great image looking through the black spruces.
Anytime you see pinks in the aurora it means there is quite a bit of activity coming in. The pinks came and went quickly in smothered by curtains of green.
Panorama from 2 images stitched in PS6.
A second image with the sentinel pine – do you like the square crop, or vertical crop better?
Bundled up for that -50 below windchill! Temperatures hovered at about -35 and a slight wind plummeted the “feels like” temp to -50
A lone, scraggly pine tree stands sentinel on along the fire break.
The other side of the story is the temperatures when I back to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I was hoping their thermometer would read an official -40, but couldn’t quite reach that. Although at 8:00 AM the sign read -40, so close enough! I’ve included a screen capture of the temperatures and humidity as a some proof as well 🙂
On Martin Luther King day I got to take a new ride out for a spin.This ‘ride’ was not like many you find in the lower 48! It had 16 legs and accelerated like a drag racer; when the dogs at Black Spruce Dog Sledding take off they do so with gusto! Check out the video below for an excerpt of an afternoon of mushing!
This actually wasn’t my first dog-sledding rodeo, but it was 11 years ago that I was on a on a dog sled. Some things I remembered well. For instance, I remembered the excitement! As you stand on the rear of the sled and the dogs are baying and pulling against the gangline the feeling of thrill builds! When the quick release (a rope and pin tied to a non-moving object) is pulled the team takes off like a race car. Rule #1 is to hold on! From the kennels we headed out with our tag-sled team for a 13 mile loop. The dogs settled into a rhythm of about 7 mph on the uphills and ~10 mph on the flats. That is the pace that Jeff tries for when racing his dogs for mid-distance (300 mile) and longer races (1000 mile Yukon Quest or 2000 mile Iditarod). The constant pace of the run is essential for the dogs, they perform the best by establishing that pace.
On this particular trail it’s not long before the beginner’s baptism-by-fire comes into a view. A 90 degree turn after a road crossing was looming and my senses were keen as I considered how to navigate the obstacle. Jeff coached me by telling me to lean into the turn and try to stand on one ski while peddling one foot on the outside of the turn. He deftly performed the lesson he gave to me and I deftly tipped the sled into the snow bank! “I’m Down!” was all I had to call before Jeff had put on the break and I righted myself. Rule #2 – hold on during a fall! Fortunately, it was the only time I dumped the sled on our tag-sled tour. However, that doesn’t mean other section did not feel harrowing! On steeper down hills it was critical to keep plenty of weight on the drag to slow the sled and the team down. Zipping between black spruce trees we hurtled over snow drifts, wound through tight corridors, and leaned around turns. It’s amazing to me how mentally active you have to be when riding with a dog team in those conditions! Anticipating the turn or terrain ahead was essential to placing my weight correctly in the sled. Being centered, on the left ski, or the right ski changed how well I coped with the turns and the terrain.
I think it took me about five miles to start to feel comfortable in the sled. I no longer felt that I was going to tip at each turn and I began to feel my body relax. The smile which had not left my face since take off was still glued on. The joy of running with the dogs is infectious and the beauty of the scenery was unforgettable. During the night and morning a heavy ice fog had built up scales of hoar frost on the trees. The encapsulated trees glinted in the sun that burned through the fog bank. We concluded our 13 mile tag sled run (2 sleds pulled by a larger team), and then I took my own 4 dog team out for a short, local loop. It was great to test my skills with my own (albeit smaller, but more manageable) team! By the time I left that day the sun, now low in the sky, ricocheted through the gem-encrusted limbs in an orange light ending a truly great day!
When I was home for Christmas break one of the questions I got asked fairly regularly was “what’s it like to live in Alaska in the winter?”. I always grin, which seems to be what people expect because they grin back, but I think I disappoint them by explaining that a lot of times the winter conditions are not as desperate as you think. Yes, 40 below is cold, but in Fairbanks the wind rarely blows making the cold very tolerable. 20-25% humidity ensures that it is a ‘dry cold’ (think of someone from Arizona explaining the dry heat). In the eyes of many, the hardest thing to adapt to is the short days in the winter. Although we are gaining length now, the dark days at bottom of winter make getting out of bed hard and sleeping easy. In Alaskan winters I celebrate and cherish the sun because I miss it! The darkness lately has been compounded by cloudy skies, so when the sun was out this morning I knew I wanted to be outside for it as much as possible! I gathered together my gear for setting burbot lines (more on that soon!!) and headed to the Tanana river. But, my trip to the river certainly was not linear, all along the way I found things to swing my camera lens at in that beautiful sunshine. So, today I give you a snap shot of January 17th in Alaska, a beautiful day! Photos are time-stamped and in order of occurrence. Hopefully you’ll see that not all winter days are so bad in Alaska!
It’s incredible that one 36th of the year is already gone as I type this. Weren’t we just clinking champagne glasses as the ball dropped in New York just last night? As 2015 begins, I wanted to take the time to thank all who support this blog and my writing. I would not just write to myself; your comments and input are much appreciated!
I am incredibly thankful for my time here in Alaska. My travels have taken me to hundreds of miles south to enjoy the coastal ranges in Anchorage and Seward. In the opposite direction, I have beaten the punishing gravel of the haul road to cross the Brooks Range onto the Northslope three times. Within the Alaskan wilderness I have hunted big game, fished its rivers, and enjoyed bears, fox, and wolves, along with a plethora of bird species. During the dark skies of winter I have been graced by the dancing Northern Lights and cloaked in inky darkness. I have found there is always something to do in Alaska, and I feel that in the last 365 days I have had the adventures worthy of two year. It has indeed been a good year!
Below is a small gallery of the hundreds of photos that have been taken in Alaska during 2014 and featured in the blog. I have opted out of any captions, but if you would like to know more about an image, leave a comment. Thanks again everyone, and here’s to 2015!
For months we have been losing daylight. June 21st marks a daylight decline which has defined cultures and natural systems in Alaska for millenia. The short days of winter psychologically effects the mind and physically alter the body. As it we roll out of our beds the morning after solstice we know that today is just a little bit longer the last! It is uplifting. Until that moment when the days lengthen, the waning light indoctrinates residents into the darkness. You simply get used to doing things in the dark! The changes of daylight we experience now have been celebrated by the traditions of the Inuit and Athabascan people of Alaska; their traditions are symbolic of change and new times. The Athabascan name for the solstice is “dzaanh ledo” which means “the day is sitting”. This description of the actual phenomena that defines solstice is fitting, the day is not gaining or losing time; it is stationary (ttp://goo.gl/cFN613). The Inuit of far north Alaska experience times of no sun at all, and during solstice communities held feasts where shamans prayed for the communities. Meat was eaten by each individual at the same time, and each person eating the meat focused on Sedna. Sedna is a diety of the Inuit underworld and a god of marine animals. After the meat was consumed, water was drank one person at a time in succession, and each person stated the time and place of their birth. To the Inuit this distinguished the summer and winter people. After a trading of gifts, the festivities ended by extinguishing lights in all of the homes which were kindled by a common, newly-lit fire garnering a new relationship with the new sun (http://goo.gl/aRyByZ). Inuit people were able to indentify the solstice when the star Aagjunk (literllaly “sunbeam”) lay directly below the sun which, although unseen, was just below the horizon (http://goo.gl/Rzzttg).
The solstice occurs at 8:30 PM in Alaska, but occurs at different times throughout the world (http://goo.gl/G6QEvw), and rekindles hope that winter is ending and that the new day will be longer.
I shot this timelapse of the Solstice sun on December 19th to give you a feel of the solstice sun (fear not, we only lost 2 more daylight minutes by the 21st). In Fairbanks Alaska, it barely crests the Alaskan mountains (Mount McKinley/Denali visible) before dropping below the horizon again. You can always check out the timelapse of summer solstice when it it never sets in the land of the Midnight Sun. Happy Solstice!
Ice fog and hoar frost greeted me as I stepped into the inky-darkness on December 1st at 7AM. I was snowshoeing up the Pinnell Mountain Trail in search of caribou. Specifically I was hoping to harvest an individual from the “Forty Mile Herd“, because the hunt opened on December 1st, and would be closed by December 2nd due to a high amount of animals near the road. The goal of the hunt was to harvest 283 animals, and it was projected that hunters would achieve that in one day. In short, it was expected to be a zoo of hunters steaming around on their snow machines. I wanted to skip the crowds and headed north over the snowfields where most people head south. Robert Frost would declare I took the one less traveled.
The sun finally broke over the horizon in 10:15, and I glassed over the shrubs again in the drainage that I sat high above. The sled that I drug made an excellent seat; I was anticipating filling it with caribou! However, 60 minutes of glassing used up 20% of my available daylight, and I decided to move to the next basin. After looking into the nooks and crannies of the next valley, it seemed the drain had been pulled in this basin, if there had ever been caribou there they had emptied out! By the end of the day I had traveled over 7 miles over mountains, and through the snow, but no caribou to be found.
However, on a beautiful day like this one, there is always a silver lining. Each mountain side was filled with hoar frost encrusted spruces and the day finished with a great moonrise/sunset combination. So, rather than pictures of a trophy, I bring the pictures I shot of the Alaska Winter Wonderland!
By the way, let me know which shot of the moon with trees you like the best, I would love to hear!
This last week has been really amazing in regards to the weather in Fairbanks, Alaska. While my Minnesota family and friends hunted whitetails in 20 degree weather, we enjoyed temperatures nearing 30 degrees all week. To boot, it was sunny, you betcha! The Geophysical Institute forecasted high aurora activity starting on Friday night the 14th and extending all the way through Monday! With the warm weather, and aurora forecast it was just a matter of deciding where to go!
Panav, Logan and I arrived at the gates of Denali National Park at 9:30 PM. The winter regulations only allowed us to drive in 3 miles, and from there we packed our gear another 1.5. We located a place where the black spruces were shorter, and the mountains stood tall around us. The heart of Denali Park was absolutely dark, and as far as I know we were the only ones in the park that night! Meteors from the Leonid meteor shower flashed overhead leaving their long trails and thrilling the watchers on earth. This shower peaks on 11/17/2014 – so be sure to check it out if you have some clear skies tonight! Over the mountains, the aurora was already building as our three shutters started popping, and we did not have to wait long for the lights to explode around us. Energy of the northern lights always seems to originate from on horizon, and on this night the jagged horizon in front of us swelled with an intense green light that erupted overhead throwing pinks and greens in racing lines overhead.
The building aurora over Denali had a real treat in store for us! It was almost a year ago that I posted about my first “incredible” (I use quotations because they’re all pretty amazing) aurora, and I tried to explain the corona of the aurora. Officially, it is defined as “a circle of light made by the apparent convergence of the streamers of the aurora borealis” (MW Dictionary). My analogy was to think of single beam of the corona as a pencil, which you balance on your nose and then concentrate on the eraser; the corona is made of hundreds of green, red, and pink ‘pencils’! It is fast moving and pulses with energy. I am happy to say that I’ve captured a corona on timelapse for the first time!
Before leaving you with the the timelapse and images from the night I would like you to know I now have a page on Facebook, come check it out and follow along : www.facebook.com/ianlww. Thanks all!
The incessant baying of sled dogs, a starlit night, and a beautiful red aurora. When I went out to Black Spruce Dog Kennels to capture the aurora I was waiting for the effects an X-flare to hit the earth. Two days before the sun had let loose one of it most powerful class of flares. Even though the flare was not directly headed to earth, the ejected plasma was expected to react with our earth’s magnetic field and cause some auroras! My goal for the night was to tie together two cultural pieces of Alaska – dog mushing and the aurora. Incredibly, the aurora started showing up on my camera at 6:00 PM on my camera along with the moonrise. On an ‘ordinary’ night the aurora will begin at 10PM – the early aurora was a good omen for what was to come!
From a technical standpoint this is one of my favorite auroras I’ve captured. The stars were pin-point sharp and as you’ll see the pan over a dog-sled adds a ton! Shooting over the activity of the dogs was a lot of fun – but I had to leave so they would kennel up. If you have ever been around a group of sled dogs they bark, bay, and howl when strangers are around!
Artistically, the reds are some of the nicest colors I’ve captured. They only appeared for about 25 minutes during the night, but it was stunning! Sitting under the aurora, I thought of the old adage “Red Sky At Night, Sailor’s Delight”, and thus the title of this post was born!
I arrived home at 5:00am and the aurora was still dancing over the Sustainable Village. I snapped a couple of captures for finally calling it a night, which you’ll see below. Overall the aurora was visible for 12 hours due to the x-flare activity!
The timelapse video here captures the reds of a beautiful aurora and a little slice of life at the Black Spruce Dog Kennels.
I have spent my last couple of days in Fort Yukon, Alaska. I was gathering data for my thesis as well as some data to fulfill some granting deliverables. As proof of that I offer you this key piece of evidence:
This was my first time into truly remote Alaska. In fact, Fort Yukon has no roads into it. It is far from the system of pavement which means your options are dogsled, snowmachine or airplane. I chose the latter. An interesting tidbit – villagers do drive cars, and the cars get there by barge when the Yukon is open and flowing. The flight up to Fort Yukon was very special because I got to experience the sunrise coming over the mountains. I attempted to capture the sunrise in my flight to Fort Yukon video. I will just warn you that the technique I used was a bit ‘experimental’. I wanted to shoot the video as a timelapse so I could get the sun rising as well as the plane in flight. That part worked; the sun definitely rises and the plane certainly moves. However, I didn’t account for the jerkiness of the plane when using a timelapse. I’ve done my best to edit to a smoother product, but you’ll still get tossed around a bit! It isn’t for the weak stomach :p. For a ‘smoother’ version of the flight, have a look at the flight from Fort Yukon to Fairbanks at the bottom which I think is a very cool video.
Small Antedote. For those who know my woes with laptops. I got off the plane in Fort Yukon and jumped into a vehicle with a stranger. Her name was Hannah. She thought I was someone else and I thought she was just picking me up for the office. So, off we went, but neither of us knew where we had to go :S . It didn’t take me long to figure out that I should head back to the airport and meet up with my actual pick-up. I had extra incentive though, I had left my laptop ON THE PLANE wedged between the plane and the seat. I talked to the Fort Yukon office and they weren’t able to contact the plane, but did put in a contact to the next village. That was lucky enough. On top of that I was fortunate that my plane was to return in 1.5 hours to pick up some freight before heading back to Fairbanks. When they arrived at 11:25 (and yes, minutes count when you are watching the time so closely) I was OVERJOYED to see the pilot step out of the plane with my laptop. Crisis averted!
THE FLIGHT TO FYU (Smoother flight at bottom 🙂 )
MY GRADUATE WORK
The purpose of this trip was to gather data for my graduate work. I’ll put down my current proposed thesis, so someday I can look back and read this. I’m sure I will have a good laugh. Currently I’m looking at competition between humans and wolves for the common resource of moose, in the Yukon Flats of interior Alaska. In this area moose populations are as low as anywhere in the U.S. or even the world. These low moose densities are unexpected, with exceptional habitat existing throughout the Yukon Flats. Moose in this system are thought to be controlled by wolves, which keep them at densities well below the carrying capacity of the land. This has been dubbed the ‘predator pit’. To get at competition I’m utilizing a collared wolf dataset through collaboration with the Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) from the Council of Athabascan Government. Those data – which comprise the purpose of my trip to Fort Yukon- were collected during interviews in the mid-2000s and serve as a useful tool to understand landscape usage by the villagers. My intent is to understand where they harvest moose. By comparing the two datasets using resource selection functions in GIS I am hoping to gain insights into competition based on how humans and wolves use the landscape when pursuing moose. I can’t thank enough CATG and FWS the opportunity to work with their data.
FORT YUKON AT NIGHT
Fort Yukon is a really cool place. Due to its location (the middle of nowhere) the night-scapes that occur there are second to none (but probably tied with many). I went out into the night and wandered around Fort Yukon passing through snow covered trees and by quiet houses. The full moon lit the landscape up so that in these pictures it appears to be daytime. You certainly could have read a book by it!
Unfortunately I did not get to partake or see much of life at the Fort Yukon. I spent most of my time indoors going through data and maps. However, before leaving I got a small tour of town. Here’s just some of the things to catch my eye.
By the way, I had this pronounced to me many times. If there is someone reading this who could phonically write it out for me that would be a huge help. I’m having a hard time getting it.
THE FLIGHT TO FAI (smoother video! :D)
The flight home was a much different flight. It started out clear, but then below us a cloud bank formed. However, just after we got past the Yukon Flats (as denoted by a rising mountain range) the skies cleared again and created a beautiful juxtaposition of clouds, light, and shade.
On the way home I met a really unique and talented individual. His name is Donovan Felix and he is currently on a mission to revive native tanning practices (brain tanning) in the interior. He was pulling on a chunk of moose hide while the flight was happing to make it supple part of his cargo for the trip was a caribou hide he had just been given. He specializes in caribou, but in recent years has started tanning moose asl well. Donovan is obviously very passionate about what he does and his mission. He was constantly giving me tips on how to tan hides, and what he was doing with the hide. In fact, what he is is doing is so novel that he was covered by www.culturesurval.org . Click the link to read the story. Also, if you are interested in learning about brain tanning UAF holds a workshop! http://www.uaf.edu/iac/traditional-learning/animal-hide-tanning/. This is certainly something that I will be looking out for this spring. I ended up giving Donovan a ride to town after we got off the plane.
The planes that bring people back and forth are not that big. They are carry as much freight and cargo as they do people. At each stop cargo is loaded and unloaded quickly and planes do not stay around long. I must say though their service is excellent and is needed by the villages. During my ride to Fort Yukon I sat next to Dr. Pepper and milk. Here’s a picture of the plane that got me back to Fairbanks.
Here’s the last bit. I’m really happy how this video turned out of the flight to Fairbanks. Have a look and let me know what you think!
So, this is actually a post that has been a long time in the making. I’ve been back-logged a bit on posting this one. Did you know that’s why the call a blog a blog? Blog just stands for Back-logged. Anway, bad joke. So here’s the background on this post. A majority of the pictures and tales come from Kass’ and my journey up here in August. We visited the park then as part of a trip to the Anchorage region and is the part that I’ve meant to write about for some time. The other part of the descriptions and pictures come from a field trip I took to Denali the last weekend in September to observe moose rutting behavior. And then, to top it all there’s some events observed outside of the park that were cool and noteworthy, so there’s some pictures of that too. So, here we go!
When Kass and I got to Denali we were in for a big surprise: you cannot pass mile 15 of the park road with a personal vehicle. I had no idea a national park would restrict access like that! So, the only resaonable way to get in is on the tour buses and those trips had varying different lengths along the road. We decided to take the Wonder Lake bus tour which was 10 HOURS on the bus, but did bring us into the park almost as far as you can go. I will just say now that, although a 10 hour bus ride is long, and we didn’t get to stop at destinations long enough to truly appreciate them, we both agreed that we were happy we made it all the way into the park even as just ‘tourists’. I certainly have plans to return there with a bike and trek the entire park road. Hopefully whenever ‘summer’ comes here again, not likely until July.
So, without further ado, here’s a short natural history, based on my learning, of Denali National Park. I will be grouping the different aspects of the park visit in the blog rather detailing each mile.
Of course there is one really big reason to go to Denali national park, and that’s to see Mt. McKinley – also known as Denali. Denali is KoyukonAthabaskan for “The High One”. It is the largest peak in North America and rises up over 18,000 feet from the base to its summit. The rise of Denali is what makes it so extraordinary. However, not a large percentage of the visitors in the park each year actually see the peak as it hides behind clouds often. We actually found a day when the sun broke through the clouds and we could see it! For us it was a fortunate break, as the weather had been cloudy the days preceding our trip, was cloudy most of the day we were on the trip (except for the 1 break) and was cloudy after that. I guess we were meant to see it!
Of course there are other mountains within Denali National Park as well. One of the other noteable ranges were the polychrome mountains. The Polychrome mountains are a part of The Cantwell Volcanics and include basalt and rhyolite flows (Wikipedia),There were quite colorful. Although, I must say that the panorama could do them more justice. There are many, many good pictures of the colors of these mountains online. If you are interested be sure to check those out! Think rainbows + mountains. I guess you’ll have to see them for yourself!
Of course the look and feel mountains can change rapidly! Here are pictures from September 29th in the Savage river valley area while I was there for a field trip. Snow covered mountains were layered in fog and clouds. The reds in the front of the mountains was stunning. While we stood there snow started to fly and it continued throughout the night into Sunday morning. They closed the park for the season due to the snow on Sunday, so we were fortunate to get in when we did!
Denali national park is renowned for its wildlife. Part of that renown derives directly from the restrictions placed on tourist traffic- I should quit my griping about long bus rides, as it still beats the throngs of buffalo watchers at Yellowstone National Park. Wildlife in the region thrive due to intact ecosystems and no hunting pressure within the park. Many individuals leave the park boundaries, and can be pursued and harvested at that time. The park has ‘the big four’ of mega-fauna and at any time they may stick their head above a ridge, so observation is essential. Actually it was one of the entertaining parts of the bus ride because we were instructed to yell “STOP!” if we saw anything big. Imagine yelling out bingo because it some ways it was competitive like bingo (who could see it first) and was just as enjoyable. The caveat of the ‘stop’ theory is our bus driver was an older gentleman, named John, and he couldn’t hear well, especially over the diesel bus. So people in the back really had to let him know. Once we were stopped it was an inching game and John did his best to take directions from multiple, camera wielding bus riders looking to line up that ‘perfect’ shot. The rules of the game were to call out anything interesting, but most of the riders there wanted to see moose, dall sheep, caribou or bears. We were fortunate to get all of them. The first of the big four that we came upon was the mighty bull moose. Moose in the park are big due to their protection, and these guys pictured here are no exception! At this time of year the moose were gathering in the valleys for the rutting season.
Like I mentioned these moose were here with a purpose and that purpose was to meet other males and then either scare them off, or if that doesn’t work fight with them. I was fortunate enough to be back in the park during the rutting season and observing bull moose from a distance up and down the Savage River Valley. I got to observe several key and cool behaviors of moose including:
Territorial displays – male moose will stand face to face in an old west shoot-out style and sway their heads back and forth. If one backs down at this point there is no harm done. It’s the least aggressive way to win the cows for a harem
Rut pits – male moose dig pits with their front feet and then pee in them and rub other hormones into them. Did you ever wonder why male moose have the long beard in front under their chin? When they get into the rut pit they make sure to splash plenty of ‘unpleasants’ onto the beard and then will rub those acquired smells on the cows for their approval, effectively basting them. Cows will also sniff the rut pits and it is suspected that they can tell the maturity of a bull based on the hormones that it puts out
Harems- we saw two different bulls with harems. A harem is a group of cows that will breed with the bull that has won them. The bull may lose the harem to another bull at any time up until the cows are bred. Once a bull starts into the rut it will barely sleep or eat and may loose up to 600 pounds in some of the larger bulls. For instance, my professor talked about an instance where a bull was known to start at 1500 pounds and shrink to 900. WOW! 1-800-94-JENNY anyone?
For better or for worse we saw many of these moose from far away – so much for wildlife photographer of the year awards on this trip! However, I did take this one set of a video of a distant, large, bull moose chasing after 2 cows in his harem. I think it gives pretty good perspective on how far away we were and also of some of the scenery. Of note in this video: NEVER TRY TO OUTRUN A MOOSE. I couldn’t believe how fast they were able to travel!!
The next in the list of the big four were caribou. We got some really great looks at these animals. I have actually learned some pretty interesting things about caribou. Did you know the females are one of the few (or only??) ungulates to grow antlers? Females actually use them to fend off other females from feeding grounds when calves are present. Lichen, their main source of food, can be a commodity. So it’s important to protect what you have! The caribou herds were just starting to travel for the wintering grounds when we were on our trip.
Another one of the big four in the park were the dall sheep. These sheep were actually hunted to near extinction in history past, so it’s great to see them back in large numbers! It’s important to look waaay up for these guys, as they are mountain extraordinaires and are renowned for their ability to cling to small ledges and make dareing dashes up near impossible slopes. They are always shock white and are known for their impressive horn curls. We didn’t get too close to these sheep, so use your imagination a bit on those white dots you see! At least one of them is the ram. Can you tell?
To round off the big four I would be reminisce if I didn’t talk about the bears! We got to observe bears two times while on the trip. The first time was very close, and you’ll see that below. It was a lone bear, probably a male, that was foraging on berries and anything else in the shrubs. He meandered up the draw before walking mere yards behind the bus. It’s really interesting being in the bus beause the wildlife has less tendency to ‘see’ you. They certainly see the bus, but that doesn’t really spook them. Bears are a little different though, I don’t think they give a d*** either way. You know what I mean? :p. The second bear sighting was at a distance, but a mother and two cubs were running around and playing with each other on a hillside.
In regards to bears a brown bear is the same as a grizzly bear and both of those are actually the same as a Kodiak Brown Bear. Kodiak’s are renowned for their large size (males in the range of 1500 pounds) but their size is entirely driven by the rich fish diet they get in the Kodiak Island region. If those same bears were transplanted to Denali they would shrink to Denali size- about 700 pounds in big males.
Not all of the mammals in Denali are huge. We did come across this fox who was actively hunting along the road. I think he was using the bus to scare up birds, crafty fox! I didn’t see him snag any, but he came awfully close a couple of times. His behavior was to pad along in front of the bus and as birds came out of the bushes to pursue him. He then jumped into a draw which is where he was photographed here, ears perked and still fully on the hunt.
One of the predominant birds in Alaska are the grouse and the ptarmigan. They all can be a bit hard to tell apart. Once you get the grouse vs the ptarmigan you still need to figure out which of the ptarmigan you are looking at, which can be nearly impossible. I’ve found this resource from the AK fish and game. Use it to help me compare the pictures below, and we’ll see if you think I got them right. (http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/hunting/smallgamehunting/pdfs/alaska_grouse_ptarmigan.pdf) I won’t put any captions on the photos other than numbers and you can look up the answers below.
So here’s the answers as far as I can tell. # 1 is a willow ptarmigan. It’s characterized by red breat and those big ptarmigan feet (which you can’t see). She’s all ruffled up here. I know she’s a she because she was surrounded by her chicks, who were about half grown. Willow ptarmigan are VERY hard to discern from rock ptarmigan. In this case I’m going sheerly on the habitat that she was found in, and I’m not sure if that’s valid or not. #2 is a spruce grouse, not a ptarmigan at all! . Did you guess correctly on #3? If you got # 2 then you should get # 3! Spruce grouse! I threw you a little double there 🙂
Another one of the birds in the park is the magpie. They are one of my favorite birds for their curious nature and natural intelligence. When I jumped out of the car this one and several others came pretty close looking for handouts. I wasn’t too impressed by that! But was it was nice to have him close for the pictures. They really are a colorful bird, in the right light that tail lights up green as a ‘go light’!
The last bird I wanted to highlight was the white fronted goose. This bird was actually a ‘lifer’ ( I hadn’t seen one before) so it was pretty special! These geese had managed to raise a family on this lake for the summer. I bet they didn’t hang around too much longer after we left the park. Those lakes would have been frozen soon!
Denali was one of my first exposures tundra plants. I actually don’t have to much to say about these plants because I really don’t know too much about their ecology. Maybe the pictures will tell enough! The best I can give is the name, if you are ready and know some ecology fill me in!
IT’S NO WONDER IT’S CALLED WONDER!
We finally reached wonder lake at mile 84 (I think, or was it 87?) Anway, it was incredible! The lake stretched out before us and was very calm. Kass set about picking berries and I spent my time hunting for birds and pictures to take. I’m looking forward to getting back to Wonder Lake on my own accord and spending some time there. Hopefully the days can all be be like this one was! This will conclude the Denali section. But a few extra pictures are below from different destinations and species. Thanks for reading everyone!!
So the rest of this blog is just dedicated to some nice Alaskan scenery that is found between Denali and Anchorage but that don’t really fit into a blog entry. I will include a little commentary here and there: