Although there is no particular pattern to where I travel, I haven’t generally revisited locations I’ve been before, not because they don’t necessarily appeal but because there’s still a whole lot of places that are still calling me. This particular trip, however, was booked before I made the last-minute visit to Alaska in June 2012. In many ways, it meant I knew the drill – the distance involved both to Alaska and up and down the Dalton Highway (approximately 500 miles from Fairbanks to the top… then back again), our leader, Hugh, what was involved in terms of accommodation, flight allowances, etc.. What I hadn’t experienced though was an Arctic “Fall”, or “Autumn” as I know it (apologies to my US friends). The Arctic summer contains great changes in temperature – I’ve experienced 24C, but also -4C – so have known to take suitable clothing for both. Likewise Antarctica. In fairness, the temperatures in the UK at some points of the summer can be colder than the Arctic or Antarctic, although there have been few complaints about this particular summer which has been one of the finest in years.
After a quick detour to Vancouver Island to stay with cousins and a visit to Seattle, I flew up to Fairbanks and from there I joined a group of six driven by Hugh up to Prudhoe Bay and beyond. The two key objectives of the trip were to photograph the Northern Lights and polar bears. There were a couple of modest nights of the aurora in Fairbanks and a better night in Wiseman, but by and large we had a lot of cloud cover which actually afforded good photography conditions during the daytime, but little of excitement at night.
Of particular interest of course were the polar bears. We flew to a native village where the bears gather in anticipation of the freezing of the sea ice and feast on whale bones discarded by the local Inupiat. They have an annual quota of three whales, and there is a very delicate symbiosis where man respects bear and vice versa. These particular bears were consequently in great condition, but they still showed curiosity, so we had to be careful to dissuade them from getting too close to us. Nevertheless, it was clear that they were wandering the village overnight as was evidenced by the dogs barking and large pawprints found on walls and snow outside the buildings. Part of me hoped to find a furry face at the window, but in reality, I was quite glad not to put my adrenaline through such a workout.
Although I don't believe the bears are generally given names, one of three mothers with cubs we saw generated particular interest. She had broken her leg last year and those observing her thought her days would be numbered. She went on to prove everyone wrong and had two very healthy "cubs of the year" at heel... apart from those times where their natural curiosity was piqued and like any youngsters, they'd be off to explore the world around them, never venturing far away. It would take just one small growl from Gimpy and they'd be back by her side again. She and the other two mothers were remarkably attentive - the key to survival in a world where cubs are particularly vulnerable to a hungry adult male bear.
The other fauna along the Dalton Highway was much the same as in the summer, but with a much-changed terrain and light, with the first flurries of snow. Predictably, there were fewer birds as most of the migrants had left. We had a number of sightings of rough-legged hawks who were starting to head south. A few snow buntings were up at Prudhoe Bay, as were Pacific and Common Loons, long-tailed ducks, scaup, white-fronted and Canada geese, and tundra swans. We saw spruce and sharp-tailed grouse and grey jays, plus of course lots of gulls - mainly glaucous. Of the mammals, we saw a small herd of musk oxen with calves, a red fox (which is apparently the 6th-fastest mammal in the world, and this one showed us a fine turn of paw), caribou, one very distant grizzly bear, red squirrels, ground squirrels and a rather misshapen female moose (it wasn't the right time of year for her to look so fat, or pregnant). Alas no Arctic foxes, lynx, wolves or large bull moose.
What we missed in animal sightings we gained in colours. We generally get a good array of autumnal colours in the UK, but not to the scale or diversity of this part of the world, and my travels aren't usually made so late in the year. Sweeping landscapes of trees with hints of change on our way north turned into palettes of colours by the time we returned a few days later. One of those on the trip has commented on the possibility that I might have used the saturation feature in Lightroom when editing my pictures. In fact, I barely touched it - the colours were naturally as vibrant as they appear in the pictures.
It was a good trip; a good gang and a lot learned in observation - that of behaviour patterns, both human and animal - and photographically. Always learning...