From East To Even Further West

January 08, 2013  •  Leave a Comment


Originally submitted on Mon, 09/07/2012 - 01:47


It's not normally my habit to juxtapose my holidays by a small number of weeks, and it wasn't in the plans this year either.  Just before I visited the Scottish Islands, however, I received an e-mail from Alaska-based photographer Hugh Rose who runs small photographic trips all over the state; small in number of clients, not mileage of course.  A couple of last-minute vacancies had come up on a trip around Alaska in June/July.  


"It's a long way away, and I'm already provisionally booked for 2013", thought I. 


But then I read about the trip.  Spread over four diverse regions of Alaska, from North to South over nearly 3 weeks' duration, it promised so much by way of geography, geology, bird and mammal sightings.  Any mention of the Arctic makes me prick up my ears, and this was also scheduled to take us into Denali National Park, to the coastal waters of Prince William Sound and to Katmai National Park, where the greatest concentration in the world of Alaskan Brown Bears, aka Grizzlies, was to be found.  Of all the bears I've been lucky enough to encounter, I've never seen a grizzly, let alone a bunch of them catching salmon.  And strangely enough, my first Arctic trip to Spitsbergen in 2008 was supposed to be a visit to the West Coast of Canada to watch grizzlies catching salmon, only it wasn't compatible with work, so Svalbard beckoned instead.


It didn't take long for me to make up my mind and after a maelstrom of whirring paperwork back and forth through the ether, I packed my bags and camera equipment and set off to the other side of the world again, longitude-wise.  In fact, it wasn't that many miles from last year's unexpected destination, Chukotka, just the other side of the International Dateline/Bering Sea, more easily accessible, in a language I could understand, and with no more visa requirements than the ESTA necessary to enter the USA.


Anchorage in the summer is a bustling city.  The population of just under 300,000 swells to accommodate people like me who want to make sure of the long daylight hours in the short summer season and who use the city as a gateway to adventures in all directions.  Thus it became a bit of a hub to which we returned between most of the sections of the trip.  From there, we flew up to Prudhoe Bay (or Deadhorse) at the top of the Dalton Highway and a strong-armed stone's throw from the Arctic Ocean which gleamed at the plane as we came in to land.  It is a busy place with some 600 oil workers and it also marks the start of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline which parallels the Dalton Highway for the full 500 miles down to Fairbanks and further down to Valdez on the southern coast.

FEMALE RED-NECKED PHALAROPE, PRUDHOE BAYFEMALE RED-NECKED PHALAROPE, PRUDHOE BAYThere were many of these wonderfully-engaging little waders in various ponds around the area. Their courting displays involved lots of spinning around in the water like little brightly-coloured tops.

Prudhoe Bay also calls itself summer home to thousands of avian migrants and these were our primary interest.  Having met at the airport, Hugh took us to drop our bags at the hotel and out we went into that glorious evening light of the Arctic summer which I have come to know and love.  So absorbed were we by the wildlife that it wasn't until 2.30am that we retired to bed - in full daylight of course!


The drive down the Dalton Highway is a whole adventure in itself.  The road is predominantly unsealed and punctuated by large trucks which bear down on smaller vehicles with the mandatory headlights and pursuant dust clouds.  If we found ourselves on the roadside during such encounters, we had to be careful to cover up camera equipment for several minutes as trucks and uncovered cameras do not mix, however beautiful the carpets of alpine flowers were.  The desert conditions of the Arctic tundra gave way to boreal forest as the latitude dropped and we crossed the Arctic Circle.  This was my 4th crossing (both ways), each in a different country; Canada is the final missing link, but that's for another time...


From Fairbanks, we moved into the taiga terrain of Denali National Park, home to the Alaskan Mountain Range and the tallest mountain in the USA - Denali or Mount McKinley.  Part of the trip incorporated a flight-seeing visit to this magnificent mountain rising some 18,000 feet from the valley floor to its southern peak of 20,320 feet (there are two peaks and the northern one was the first to be ascended, but three miles south lies the higher peak).  Denali spends much of the year curtained in cloud, so we were delighted to burst through it to see the top 12,000 feet bathed in a soft evening light.  Furthermore, it decided to reveal itself from three great viewpoints on our trip out of the park down to Anchorage again two days later.


Mammals and birds became more elusive away from the Arctic regions although that didn't stop us gaining a nearby glimpse of a wolf, an eagle's eyrie adopted by a gyr falcon feeding its three healthy chicks, pika as we'd seen in Chukotka only with darker bodies and longer heads, moose and three individual grizzly sows each with 2 spring cubs.  One sow almost lost her babies to a boar she didn't notice until he was nearly within touch; we saw the drama unfold as she harried them ahead of her up over the hillside whilst he gave pursuit by nose rather than vision.

GRIZZLY SOW WITH SPRING CUBS, DENALI NATIONAL PARKGRIZZLY SOW WITH SPRING CUBS, DENALI NATIONAL PARKA stationary vehicle in the park usually denotes some level of wildlife activity and thus it was we drew up close to a bus, little realising that a scene of drama was unfolding right in front of us. A grizzly sow and her two spring cubs were resting on a large patch of snow, completely oblivious to the arrival of a young boar which arrived just as we did. With only about 100 metres between them, the mother belatedly noticed his presence, gathered her cubs and harried them up the hill ahead of her. Meanwhile, with keener smell than eyesight, the boar decided to sniff around where the family had lain rather than following his eyes to where they were escaping up the hill. This may have saved the lives of the cubs as had he caught them, they would have undoubtedly been killed in order to bring the sow back into season. A week or so later, I met some people who had visited the park more recently and they advised that they had seen all three of the sows with twin spring cubs who frequent the roadside areas of the park, which would imply that the sow and cubs survived the experience.

We boarded the MV Discovery at Whittier in Prince William Sound and spent the next 4 nights cruising around the various inlets, firstly visiting glaciers accompanied by sea otters and harbour seals bobbing on little icebergs or on their backs in glorious sunlight akin to Svalbard, and subsequently in moody broody low-lying cloud conditions which conveyed the hauntingly beautiful rainforest atmosphere of these special fiords.  From Dall's porpoises, which swam around the bow of the boat to humpback whales which were feeding around us to bald eagles which flew past to alight on spruce trees, there was something to suit everyone's tastes.  We even visited the cousins of my Antarctic arch-nemesis, the Antarctic Fur Seals - the endangered Steller's Sea Lions.


Back to Anchorage and the final trip involved a main flight down to King Salmon - named for its industry in packaging the product for export - onto a seaplane down to Brooks Lodge in the volcanic region of Katmai National Park.  This is grizzly heaven and whilst it was a little on the early side for the salmon, both they and grizzlies were in evidence on a semi-permanent basis.  July is the peak season for viewing, but we had fun walking along the tracks where bear scat was oft in evidence.  Although we'd graduated from "Bear School" on arrival, no-one particularly wanted to make a close encounter, so vigilance and noise were important.  It was fun to discover that the BBC was setting up cameras to film this last part of the salmon migration; it may be quite some time before "The Great Bear Stake-out" reaches our screens, but I hope that they manage to get plenty of shots which I didn't - that of a bear actually catching a salmon...


Did we achieve all that was promised in the information?  Have a look at the pictures.  Although we didn't tick every single box, we made a huge number of sightings thanks to our excellent guide Hugh who knew the very best places to take us and vantage points from which to seek and photograph our subjects.  A massive Thank You, Hugh. 


And I got to the end without once mentioning the mosquitoes!


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