Last summer I built a camera trap with one goal in mind – photograph bears in their environments without people. I’m fascinated the insights you can gain into the animals and initially imagined all sorts of dramatic, National Geographic worthy photography. In short, I was convinced that “EPIC!” imagery was a guarantee. While I’m not there yet, I did manage to capture some dramatic moments, some fun ones, and learned a little about managing a camera trap along the way.
For humans there is a lot of ways to “skin a cat”, for bears there is a lot of ways to catch a salmon. Throughout my images I saw bears perch above to look down in pools, snorkel in pools, and charge up pools. I’m sure each of these techniques had their strengths and their weakness.
Family interactions was something I hoped to gather more of. These two cubs with their mother were a special treat with an extra story. I deployed this camera and then walked back to my vehicle along the river and watched with my telephoto lens. About 10 minutes later this mother and cubs strolled down the river and then got spooked by something in the woods – likely a larger bear. They sprinted down river a ways and remarkably went right past my camera trap. Apparently the sow was not too concerned with the larger bear as she permitted her cub to capture a fish.
Bears are very active at dusk and dawn. Next year I’ll be operating a camera with a flash to better capture these bears in the low-light hours. I learned quickly to program my motion trigger to only take images during the daylight hours as to avoid wasting battery on night shots. I do like the context and silhouette of this bear as it strolls in the evening, however
Bears are curious animals and I knew that could pose a risk to my camera. I housed my camera in an ammo can and that sufficed to keep the bears from wrecking it. There were some funny moments when the bears had to get a closer look though! One time a bear tried to eat the camera and another it walked straight up to the camera to smell it and fogged the glass. Photography can be risky business for your gear as I found out in this separate anecdote that always makes me chuckle.
Moments in the River
There were many, many images of bears being bears. Strolling up river, being observant, smelling out salmon and being gregarious. These are those moments and I challenge you to learn what you can from them.
Looking to Next Year
I simply cannot wait to continue to watch bears through my camera traps! This coming season I’m expanding my arsenal to two camera traps with upgraded capabilities. Two cameras will allow me to diversify my shots and provide new angles. I’m hoping to answer some questions such as “How do bears use hot feet” and “how to do bears use scratch poles” among others. Keep your eyes posted! You can always follow on Instagram or Facebook for the latest content.
First off, Thanks to all who contributed to the new watermark. Your input and voting helped a lot, and I was overwhelmed by the response. It was really great!
If this post had a theme, and I guess it does since I’m suggesting it, the theme would be that there’s always a “silver lining” or “blessings in disguise”.
When Aaron and I began our bike tour on the Denali Park Road our eagerness was tangible. Even the first big hill after Savage River could not dampen it. However, the next few long climbs put out some of our internal fires. While we are talking about hills, if you do go to Denali National Park remember, it is known for it’s mountains and one of them, who’s name literally means “The Great One”, is the tallest in North America. Gradients are often 5-9% and can extend for 2 or 3 miles. Getting over or around these stone giants is the name of the game.
The video here does a great job of capturing the incredible wildlife (bears, sheep, ptarmigan, wolves) as well as the joy of riding down a big hill and some of the scenery. For context on the video make sure to read the rest of the post 😉
The first night we peddled into the Sanctuary River Campground which was is located at mile twenty-three. We got a a late start, so when we arrived at camp around 8:30 PM it was time for bed. The next morning’s sky looked promising. Blue sky overhead was allowing the rising sun to illuminate the fall colors. Autumn in Denali NP was in full bloom. White-barked aspens were fluorescent yellow and stubby, dwarf shrubs were dark red. Willows along the banks were a mellow yellow and the bowl of mountains provided a stark, snow-covered backdrop.
Fallen colors in a small creek near Igloo Campground
A shot of yellow.
Mountain and fall splendor!
The flourescent colors of these aspen and red of the aging fireweed were stunning!
An incredible patchwork of reds and yellow in Denali National Park!
A willow ptarmigan surrounded by saturated fall colors.
As we pushed our gear up the road to Igloo Campground the curtains were pulled and the sky when flat gray. It stayed that way for the grueling climb over Sable Pass where we encountered a few inches of snow on the ground, but a clear road. The sky remained gray for our joyride down the back of Sable Pass. By the time we had reached the Polychrome Mountain Overlook rain seemed imminent. The Polychrome Mountains are known for their red-streaked banding which resulted from old volcanic activity. However, on Saturday we could barely make them out, and shifty fog was hanging in the valley and around the toes of the mountains.
At the bottom of Polychrome pass, approximately 43 miles into the park disaster hit. The bike that Aaron was using broke down when the spokes in the rear wheel loosened up. We knew we could grab a bus at anytime, but before hanging our hat on that fate pushed our bikes the 2 miles to the top of Sable Pass. We reached the top and a few minutes later a bus trundled up. The bus driver opened up the door and told us the great news – there were two wolves headed up the pass and would be there in just 90 seconds!! I grabbed my gear, set up, and just a few seconds later encountered my first wolves of Alaska when they popped up 50 yards away. One was a collared animal which I assume is female and was traveling with one of her offspring. Both of the wolves seemed a bit thin. Lately wolf numbers in the park have been way down for unknown reasons, so since approximately 25% of visitors see wolves I was ecstatic to be so close! The encounter lasted for less than 45 seconds before they moved on and were never seen again. It is amazing to think that if Aaron’s bike had not broken down and if we chose to take the bus right away that we never would have had this incredible encounter. What an experience! That’s my silver lining story!
After the wolf Aaron caught a bus back to Igloo campground and I biked through the snow and rain to the bottom. As night fell the sun broke through the clouds and lit the mountains up in coral pink. We were optimistic for great weather on Sunday!
The next morning Aaron got an adrenaline rush right-off-the-bat when he encountered a mature brown bear at the food lockers. The bear did not hang around long, but since Aaron was carrying food to the locker when he came up to it, the experience was pretty electrifying! Without bikes we decided to hike up one of the snow clear summit of Igloo Mountain. We climbed from about 1200 feet and were greeted by sheep, snow covered peaks, a piping arctic ground squirrel and blue skies. Our journey was almost done as we pushed our bikes to Teklanika River where a bear came to the rivers edge to strip berries and flip rocks for insects. We exited the rest of the park on motorized wheels. Trip accomplished with a final count of three grizzly bears, two wolves, loads of sheep, and buckets of memories!
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: