Archive for the ‘Wildlife’ Category

Agony and Slapstick in Kukak

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015
Agony and Slapstick in Kukak

As our group was gathering at the main lodge to head out for the morning, we heard the call come in from a radio in the kitchen: there was a sow and spring cubs out on a rocky point near where our boats waited for us to board. I recognized the voice of Perry, the manager and our host here at the Katmai Wilderness Lodge in Kukak Bay of Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Soon, I was following my fellow guests down the “Short Trail” to two boats waiting to take us out for a morning of wildlife viewing. There was a group of four friends from the United Kingdom, a couple from Israel, and Alaskan writer Nick Jans, there to get fresh experiences to write about for Alaska magazine and for my book, Where Water is Gold. As we walked, we overheard more updates on the radio that Angela, Perry’s wife, was carrying with her. It turns out there was not a sow, but a pair of potentially orphaned spring cubs. While we all continued in the same pace down to the beach, it was clear that the mood of some of us had changed.

As we arrived at the beach, we could see the cubs on the rocks down the shore. I climbed onboard the boat with Nick and the Brits, Perry cast us off and we headed over to view and photograph the cubs. At first, they appeared to be merely sunning on the rocks, cuddling together as cubs often do. After a while, they came to notice us and stirred a little bit, shifting their positions. We hovered off shore for a while, but no sow came to ensure that her cubs were safe, that we posed no threat. The discussion increasingly turned to the likelihood that they had been abandoned. The closer we got, the more they looked lethargic to me, somewhat thin, with seemingly sunken eyes. Perry assured me that their physical appearance was typical for young cubs. And while they perhaps may still be physically healthy, I could not help but see a sadness in them, a resignation that all they had was themselves.

Had these cubs been found almost anywhere else in Alaska, a call would have been placed to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For safety reasons, it would be inadvisable to attempt to gather the cubs. But it would also be illegal under Alaska law to be in possession of wildlife without the appropriate permits. Then, the Department would likely have delivered the cubs to the Alaska Zoo, where they would have a temporary home until placed with some zoo or game reserve somewhere in the Lower 48.

But unfortunately for the cubs, they were found on lands managed by the National Park Service. The park service’s usual management practice is to manage for natural biological diversity and have a “hands off” approach to nature that precludes intervention. As we talked about the cubs’ predicament, I became increasingly saddened by what I was seeing before me. Adorable and vulnerable, isolated and alone, they continued to huddle together, shifting positions, seeking solace in each other. I wondered whether they would possibly be adopted by another sow, which has happened on rare occasions, even in this park. As we increasingly became convinced that we were watching the beginning of a slow death for these cubs, we decided to turn away and head out into the bay for the morning.

Later into the morning, further into the bay, we came across a three-year bear, who apparently was on his own for the first time. Soon, we came to realize that he had a companion; a young red fox. Over the next hour or so, we watched as the two played a bit of banter on the beach. The bear would settle in to chew on or play with some bit of trash on the beach – a tarp, a storage container – and the fox would linger nearby. When the bear wasn’t looking, the fox would get closer. The bear would pause and look at the fox, and they would both take a moment. The bear would move slowly, in a non-threatening way, toward the fox, and the fox would hold his position until the bear got really close, and then dart off. Later, the fox found an old shoe on the shore and chewed on it for a while until the bear came by and chased off the fox, only to take the shoe and chew on it for its own pleasure. Back and forth they went, like a comedy team playing out some sort of skit. At one point, while I was shooting video, I heard Nick say, “This beats the shit out of watching baby bear cubs starve to death.” I couldn’t agree more. For a full accounting of these two, read Nick’s piece in the September 2015 issue of Alaska Magazine.

After the two disappeared behind a hill, we continued along the shore, only to find a sow with two yearling cubs. They were scouring the beach, eating blue mussels and grasses. After some time, the sow moved down to the shore, checked the waters and slid in. For a swim. She headed straight out across the water, toward a shore maybe a mile away. She did not even look back to see if her cubs would follow. And she did not have to, because soon, they reluctantly headed out into the water after their mother. The sow seemed to have a steady lead on the cubs, but eventually they started to gain ground, catching her around halfway across.

She initially tried to shrug them off – they were getting a little big to catch piggy-back rides on mom these days. But the cubs were insistent; they were not going to let go. So mom kept them on and kept going. After a while, she began to tire. She tried to shrug them off again; this time, much more insistently. She threw them off, violently, growling and snapping at them. One of the cubs was shoved under the water, disappearing for a few seconds. It came back up, rejoining the struggle for life, with a mother fighting to stay alive even at the risk of killing her own children (who were in the process of killing her). But her desire to stay alive could not overcome her protective instinct; eventually, she relented, allowing the cubs to climb back on her back, shoving her down into the water, with her mouth barely above the waterline. It was time to turn back.

From our vantage point on the boat, the decision made no sense. It looked like the sow and cubs were already past the halfway mark – all she had to do was keep going to the other side and it would have been a shorter swim. There is no way to know what was going on inside her head, but she made up her mind and started the long, slow paddle back to the shore where they started. Her progress seemed imperceptible for a long time, as if she were paddling in place. Even at our distance of several hundred yards away, we could hear her grunting, hear the sound of water gurgling in her throat, hear the sounds of spitting as she struggled to keep the water out of her lungs. Either she or the cubs gave out periodic, loud huffs.

She kept a steady pace for some time, and it was clear she was making progress. But at some point, she must have realized that she could no longer bear the load. She made one last effort to expel the cubs from her back, force them off so she could survive to see land again. She succeeded in getting one of the cubs to get off and stay off – it swam ahead of its mother toward the shore. It made shore several minutes before its mother did, with sibling cub still clinging. Grunting, huffing, and struggling, the sow eventually made it to shore and all were reunited. From beginning to end, the ordeal lasted 45 minutes.

In the same day, we would encounter harbor seals with pups, including one pup who, when calling out to its mother, sounded just like it was saying “Mom!” All-in-all, a heart-wrenching, exciting, fun day of wildlife viewing; just the sort of thing that makes wildlife photography challenging and rewarding.

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The lynx hunt

Monday, May 7th, 2012
The lynx hunt

It all started with some caribou.  It was our first morning in Denali National Park & Preserve – I was there with fellow photographers Chris Beck and Matthew Brown.  We had overslept because someone who was in charge of the morning alarm thought he would sleep in for another five minutes, which turned out to be nearly an hour and a half.  We gathered our senses and headed into the park.  Somewhere about halfway between the park entrance from the Parks Highway and Savage River, we saw another vehicle pulled over, and a photographer out of his vehicle.  Sure sign that there was wildlife afoot.

We saw quickly he had focused on three caribou that were grazing in rocky wash, downhill and to the south of the road.  I captured a few images, but was really waiting for the caribou to do something other than grazing.  Heads up, perhaps profile shots, even better looking toward the cameras, but not as much grazing and certainly not the classic “butt shot.”  Then, Chris’s rather intensive whispering and gesturing got my attention, and I looked ahead of me on the road to see an adult lynx, just sitting upright, taking in the morning’s events.  He was maybe about a hundred yards down the road from us.

I quickly ignored the caribou and turned my 500mm toward the lynx.  Slowly, the other photographers started to follow suit, and then it was just a bunch of shutter clicks and mirror slaps as we all captured this beautiful animal, just sitting there without a care in the world.  Then, something got his attention, and he went into stalking mode – something I have seen my own cats do on countless occasions.  I could not see what he was after, but he was focused, on a mission, ignoring the world around him.  Once the lynx got a little more than halfway across the road, he just … stopped.  Then he dropped to a crouch, and just sat; watching, waiting.  I saw what had drawn his attention, the thing that is top of the menu for lynx in Alaska – a snowshoe hare.  Nibbling on some willows on the edge of the road, this hare was completely oblivious to the photographers, the caribou, and the lynx that had its sights on a morning meal.

As the lynx waited, Chris, Matt and I worked to get closer, closer and yet closer to the lynx and hare.  We would move twenty feet, then stop and wait, capturing a few more images.  Then we would get up, move closer and stop.  Neither the hare nor the lynx noticed or cared.  Then, from behind us came what seemed like a cacophonous electronic squeal – the other photographer ( we came to call him “DB” for the rest of the trip) had opened his car door with the key in the ignition, letting out the “your key’s in the ignition and your door is open STUPID” warning sound that we all know so well.  But never had I ever heard it seem so loud before, nor had it ever had such adverse consequences.

Immediately, the hare started, stood up, realized it was in peril and ran into the thick of the willows, spruce and alder that lay just feet beyond the road.  Disappointed, the lynx got up, crept toward the edge of the willows where the hare had disappeared, and then lept into the thick of it, hoping to still have some success with his hunt.  One minute we were all waiting with the lynx for the expectation of the hunt, elated to be in the position to watch such a dramatic natural event, and then, because of the complete cluelessness of another photographer who had captured the images he wanted, it was over.

As much as we lamented the loss of the kill, it was hard to be disappointed for the opportunity to watch and photograph the lynx in action.  And it likely would not have happened had we got out of bed on time.

The dark side of nature photography

Monday, February 20th, 2012
The dark side of nature photography

Not all good nature photography is pretty.  If you believe, like I do, that nature photography should be used to highlight issues of environmental or conservation concern, then it cannot always be pretty.  There are a variety of things, from toxic waste dumping to deforestation, that need to be captured in photos so that people can see the consequences of those actions.  The aggressive predator control measures currently underway in the Lower 48 is a prime example.

I captured this image of a poached coyote during a visit to Montana in 2006.  I was with my friend Nick Fucci at the time, and we were on our way back to his home in Big Fork after visiting the eastern part of Glacier National Park.  We saw this fence on the edge of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and thought it would provide a nice leading line to the sunset and mountains in the background.  We got out to capture some images, and I saw this coyote on the ground.  Seeing the rope around its neck, I instantly thought of the aggressive predator control measures of the West.

Predator control has been around for centuries.  It was transplanted to North America with the colonization of this land by western Europeans.  Predators, especially wolves and coyotes, have long been seen as competition for food by humans.  But there has also always been a primal, irrational fear of these animals that has been a driving force behind efforts to eradicate them.  Wolves have always been depicted as cunning, blood thirsty savage animals – even with an enlightened knowledge that this is not the case, they are still depicted as much, as the new Liam Neeson movie “The Grey” shows.

So, despite scientific study after scientific study showing that wolves or coyotes will not deplete a prey population, and that they have minimal impact on livestock populations, western states have dramatically increased predator control measures.  Alaska is among them, as I noted in a previous blog post.

And while people discuss and argue about predator control, waging media campaign wars and exchanging barbs on editorial pages across the western United States, it’s easy to talk about the consequences of predator control programs when they are in the abstract.  It’s much harder to actually to favor predator control when you can see the impact of such vehemence.  A campaign of hatred only breeds hatred.  Here, a coyote that once bounded about in western Montana, spending its days hunting for voles or hare or whatever it could find, met an untimely end because it was unfortunate enough to live in a place where the wanton killing of others like its kind was not only allowed, but encouraged.

Best of 2011

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012
Best of 2011

In 2011, I was fortunate to have many travel opportunities, from familiar places to new places here in Alaska and to new continents.  This made for a rather challenging effort to come up with around a dozen images that reflected my best images from 2011.  With Michelle’s help, I narrowed it down to 13.  With this post, I will tell a little about what is behind each image.

Canoes at Dusk.”  The feature image was captured during Michelle’s and my visit to Maui in late December to mid-January.  I had been wanting to capture an iconic beach with palm trees sunset photo and found this beach with outrigger canoes in North Kihei.  After capturing sunset, the canoes, and a paddleboarder, I was loading my gear back into our rental car when I saw how the colors of dusk were developing.  I set up literally next to the car and captured the elements of color, shape, and canoe.

Rainbow Eucalyptus, Maui.”  Michelle and I decided to give ourselves a whole two days to explore the Hana side of the island of Maui.  On our way across the top, northeast portion of the island, we spotted what I would later learn is an oft-photographed Rainbow Eucalyptus grove alongside the Hana Highway.  I photographed the trees both on the way down to Hana and on the way back to Kihei.  I found the lighting better on the return trip due to the overcast skies.

Grasses and Snow.”  I have increasingly come to enjoy venturing out onto the flats of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge in the wintertime.  On this particular day, I accessed the coast through Kincaid Park, and started to hike out to the water’s edge, where large boulders of ice had been accumulating.  Along the way, I looked to my right and to the north and caught this view of grasses and snow drifts with Mt. Susitna in the background.

Mesa and Sunset.” I was in the Page, Arizona area attending a landscape photography workshop led by Alain Briot.  After an evening of working some hoodoos on a cliff overlooking the Lake Powell area, we were starting to head back to our vehicles when I noticed this tremendous buildup of clouds.  Knowing that they would capture the sunset’s colors well, I scurried over to where I could set up a composition that included this mesa I had spotted earlier in the evening. 

Framed Rock.”  Still in the Page area for this Alain Briot workshop, we were exploring some rock formations over in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the Utah side of the border.  I was maneuvering to capture this balanced rock I had been eyeing for a while when I happened upon this natural frame created by fallen rocks.  It took a while to position the tripod and camera, and to select the right lens to fulfill my vision of this balanced rock.

Worn and Weathered.” In May, I had the pleasure of joining the Tony Robbins Platinum Partners as they ventured to Africa for a five day, three-country excursion.  My primary purpose was to provide photographic instruction, both through lectures and one-on-one interaction at various locations.  But, I also took many, many pictures, paticularly on the day we went to the Nakatindi School in Zambia for a contribution day that consisted of repairing doors, desks, floors and windows, repainting rooms, and planting trees and other plants. While in the school’s cafeteria, I spotted this older man, who I had seen earlier out in the school yard, and simply loved the texture on his face and how it seemed to reflect the aged texture on the walls.

Lincoln Memorial, Sunrise.”  When I was in Washington D.C. in May to attend the Nature’s Best awards reception at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, I spent some time getting up early to photograph the memorials on the mall.  Here, the early light of the sun lights up the face of the Lincoln Memorial.  I previsualized this as a black and white because of the great contrast and textures.

First Toss.”  While out in the Bristol Bay region to begin fieldwork on my Bristol Bay/Pebble Mine book, I spent a couple of days on the driftboat F/V Chulyen, skippered by lifelong Naknek resident Everett Thompson.  Our first opener was right after sunrise, and I wanted to capture the first toss of the buoy that would secure one end of the gill nets in place.  Using a graduated neutral denstify filter to balance out the exposure and give more drama to the clouds, I waited until the desired moment and just started clicking.  The end result was a gorgeous image that has turned out to be a powerful representation of the life of a driftnetter.

Turnagain Lichens.” While heading out one morning in July to go for a sunrise hike with my friend John Pope, I asked if he wouldn’t mind if we bypass the trailhead for a few minutes to go check out what the morning light was doing on the Turnagain Arm.  I found the perfect spot to capture the morning light on the Kenai Mountains and their reflection on the calm waters of the Turnagain Arm, then found an even better vantage point that offered this patch of organge lichens.

Anaktuvuk Pass, Sunrise.”  After spending a few days for my weeklong visit in Anaktuvuk Pass in August, I had scouted what I hoped would be the perfect sunrise location.  There was a large patch of crimson red bear berries on the hillside, a row of mountains to the west, and a great overlook view of the village to the east.  While the sun did not rise and shine in the way I had originally anticipated, I ended up very much liking how the sunshine turned out.  This is perhaps one of my most shared images of the year.  The greatest compliment I received came from a village resident who stated that she never knew her village could be so beautiful. 

Moose over Anchorage.”  This autumn marked the tenth year I have been going up to photograph the moose during the rut as they gather in Chugach State Park near the abundant trail system in the hillside area of Anchorage that spawns from the Glen Alps trailhead.  During those many years, a great several of which I have spent with my good friend Nick Fucci, I have envisioned capturing an image of a large bull moose in the foreground and the downtown skyline of Anchorage in the background.  Not only did I finally find the perfect vantage point this last autumn, but found a cooperating bull moose as well. 

Fall Colors and Denali, Sunrise.”  I spent Labor Day weekend up at the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna.  It was my third time there as a presenter, and sixth time to the lodge in a ten-year period.  But it was Michelle’s first time at the lodge.  On our way out of the park, we stopped to watch and capture sunrise on Denali (Mt. McKinley) just past Wonder Lake.  The light was perfect, the fall colors were at peak; it was perhaps the best morning I have ever had for photographing The Mountain at sunrise. 

Collared Pika Snack.”  While Nick was up visiting for his annual fall moose safaris and Redoubt Mountain Lodge bear workshop, we spent some time up in Hatcher Pass in September climbing amoung the rocks in a boulder field to capture the elusive collard pika.  We had a great day with some bright diffuse light and several active pika, giving Nick and I plenty of opportunities to photograph the enjoyable rodent.  While Nick has countless superb images of pika in his library, this was the best day I had experienced yet in photographing the collared pika.

These images are all available for purchase in the new “Best of 2011” gallery on my website.

Old Friends in the Landscape

Friday, September 16th, 2011
Old Friends in the Landscape

Many species of wildlife are rather territorial.  Birds nest in the same place each year.  Caribou chose particular locations to return to again and again over the years to calve.  Bears pick particular locations to gather and hunt their food, covering the same territory year after year.  If you visit the same location to photograph often enough, you start to see familiar faces in the fur and feather.  You start to see old friends in the landscape.

First, there were the swans.  Every year, in the summer and in the autumn, you could count on finding a mating pair of trumpeter swans hanging out in a large pond and wetlands area near the Parks Highway north of Talkeetna.  In the early summer, I would pass by on my way up to Denali and see them out in the water with their signets, feeding along the reeds and grooming themselves.  But in the autumn, the couple would again be alone, with the kids having flown the coop to go on and forge their own relationships.  But I have not seen the swans in the last four years or so, and I wonder what has become of them.  Did one of the pair succumb to old age or meet an untimely death, or did they simply decide it was time to find another pond to hang out at during the autumn migration?

Then, there is the brown bear sow who frequents the Thorofare Pass region of Denali National Park & Preserve.  Some years she has twins, others, triplets, but I have been seeing her frequent the area since at least 2004.  As with many brown bears in Denali, she has a blonde coat that shines against the autumn alpine tundra.  The first time I saw her was during a particularly smoky August after a raging summer fire season took 6 million acres of Alaskan landscape.  She was browsing blueberries along the hillside with her yearling triplets.  This year, she had a pair of two year old offspring, browsing for blueberries in almost exactly the same spot where Michelle and I saw them last year when we were in the park on a road lottery pass.

Earlier on the road in Denali, you can also enjoy the “boys” of Polycrhome Pass.  For the last two years, I have enjoyed seeing a group of Dall sheep rams hanging out very near the road.  As with most wildlife, they are more active and more likely to be seen in the morning.

Wolves are less consistent.  While they tend to remain within a certain distance of their den sites, those den sites are subject to change.  Prior to this year, there was an active wolf presence in Thorofare Pass in Denali due to a den site not far from the road.  However, this year, for reasons unknown to park biologists, the wolves moved their den.  In years past, the Toklat wolf pack frequently provided superb opportunities to observe and photograph a wide variety of wolf behavior, from play among pups to an epic take-down of a bull moose that took almost an entire day.

But perhaps the most frequently observable friend in the landscape is the Anchorage hillside moose.  Thanks to my friend Nick Fucci, I have been visiting those moose for over a decade.  Every year, you can always count on finding them along the Willawaw Lakes Trail across the stream from the South Fork of Campbell Creek in a stretch of lowlands and taiga forest.  While you always have to keep on your toes and be mindful of where the moose are (you can easily find yourself surrounded by a harem of a dozen cows if you are not paying attention), they generally ignore you and carry on with their business, from rooting in wallows to sniffing and challenging each other.

I never have exclusively been a wildlife photographer.  There are some photographers who exclusively or primarily photograph wildlife, some even specializing in one particular category, like birds.  But, I am a location photographer.  And one of the advantages of getting to know a location well is knowing when its natural residents are out in the landscape, foraging, traveling, mating, or whatever else is necessary to survive and thrive.  Understanding those residents greatly enhances the experience of the place and deepens the meaning of being there and capturing its wildness.


A stop in Hatcher Pass

Monday, September 20th, 2010
A stop in Hatcher Pass

On our way back from Denali National Park & Preserve, Michelle and I took the detour through Hatcher Pass rather than following the Parks Highway through the Strip Mall Hell that is the town of Wasilla.  We pulled over at one spot with a large rock slide so I could photograph the fog moving up the valley.  As I was getting my camera set up, Michelle noted a small rodent running around amidst the rocks in the slide.  From what she described, I hoped that they would be collared pika.  I took a look and confirmed that they were, so I pulled out my 500mm lens and spent some time with one of them for a while.  As I photographed the pika and then the landscape, Michelle decided to go pick the plentiful low bush blueberries that were all over the hillside.  On our way out, we stopped at a new parking area and trailhead near the now-defunct Mother Lode Lodge.  We also stopped at one point so I could photograph something I had been seeking for many years, something that I know I had seen before but had not found again, until now – a “no shooting from the road” sign riddled with bullet holes.  Gotta love those Mat-Su Valley people and their obsession with guns.

Denali Road Lottery

Sunday, September 19th, 2010
Denali Road Lottery

For the first time in the eleven years I have lived here, I finally drew a permit through the Denali road lottery.  I have applied off-and-on over that time, grumbling every year when I learn that I did not draw a permit but hear of others who did and had just applied for their first time.  Given the date that we drew, September 19, Michelle and I decided that it would be a nice way to celebrate our wedding anniversary (September 20).  One of my goals was to make it out to Wonder Lake and photograph the sunset there; something I had not had the opportunity to do in seven years.  I had no idea that I would get out to the lake as quickly as I did, forced away from the wildlife from the unruly crowds on the road.

Staying at the McKinley Chalet Resort in “Glitter Gulch,” because it was the only lodging open and Michelle has a rule about not camping when there is lodging available nearby, we got up early enough to be at the Savage River bridge right at the earliest time we could enter the park – 6:00 a.m.  We arrived at the bridge just a few minutes after six, already behind a line of about a half dozen cars.  It was well before sunrise, but I had hoped that we could get to Broad Pass by sunrise to capture the light falling on that expansive landscape.  As it turned out, by the time we got there, it became apparent that the sun was not going to favor that landscape the way I had envisioned, so we continued on to Polychrome Pass.

Shortly after arriving at rest area at Polychrome Pass, Joe Connolly of Chugach Peaks Photography arrived with some wedding clients to do a one-year anniversary portrait session.  The clients had drawn a road lottery permit, so they planned on spending the day at various locations photographing.  After having breakfast as we sat and enjoyed the view over Polychrome, we started to head up the road, stopping within a minute to get out and photograph a group of Dall sheep rams that were grazing and resting on rocky ledges and slopes near the road.  We were the first to stop, but within a half an hour, a crowd of a dozen vehicles had stopped, facilitating a crowd of people gathering at various points on the road.  As more people arrived, the more people tended to disregard the norms of behavior, approaching the wildlife too closely and parking all over the road.  Fortunately, a pair of Park Rangers arrived and told people to put more distance between themselves and the sheep, and directing traffic.  After a while, we continued on down the road.

The next series of encounters involved a pack of wolves that was scattered throughout one area, with single members of the pack traveling off and on along the road.  Rather than stopping and allowing the animal to do whatever it was going to do, cars kept following the wolves, forcing the wolves to keep walking down the road.  I got out of the car and tried to get a view of one of the wolves, but the constant moving caravan of over a dozen cars following the wolves made photography impossible.  We soon came upon a wolf that was standing right on the edge of the road, right next to a car that was parked in the middle of the road.  I got out of the car about two hundred and fifty yards away from where the wolf was, trying to capture a shot of him with my 500mm.  I managed to get one decent photo of him standing on the road, with Denali looming in the background.  After a while, the wolf headed off the road and proceeded off into the land to the north.  It was a difficult shot, as there were about fifteen people outside of their cars and a dozen or so cars in between me and the wolf.  I walked the distance up to where Michelle had parked right behind the vehicle that was there sitting next to the wolf.  It had been about five minutes since the wolf had left the road, but the occupants of the parked car started yelling at me and Michelle, telling me to get off the road and back in my car or else I would “ruin it for everyone else.”  I told him to chill out, that I was well outside of the 100 foot required distance of wildlife when I was over two hundred yards away when the wolf was out in the open.  The guy continued to accuse me of all sorts of affronts, acting as if this was his personal wolf and I had no idea what I was doing.  I just got back in the car, and Michelle and I drove around the car and continued on our way.

Our next encounter was with a sow and two cubs that were coming down a drainage.  The first location where we parked was not a good position, so we moved back down the road to park among a group of vehicles that had parked on the north side of the road.  Park rules require that all vehicles park on the same side of the road.  Yet, by the time the bears crossed the road to continue following the drainage there were cars on both sides of the road.  As vehicles kept arriving, we needed to adjust our location a couple of times to still be able to view the bears.  At one point, a Park Ranger approached us and told us that they were going to have everyone park on the south side of the road, rather than the north side.  That was fine with me, as the bears had moved to the south side of the road and it would allow us better viewing.  But, when we moved to where the Park Ranger had directed us, we were yelled at by a woman who was complaining about us blocking her view – she was parked on the north side of the road.  We explained that this was where the ranger had told us to park, and she said that the other ranger had told her to park on the north side of the road.  Great.  Two different rangers giving conflicting direction on where to park.  After I managed to take a few pictures and Michelle was able to finally get a decent view of the sow with her cubs, we decided it was time to get out of there and make our way to Wonder Lake.

We stopped at the Eielson Visitor Center to use the picnic tables for lunch.  I think it is fair to say that it is one of the best views for a picnic lunch in the state, looking out at the moraine of the Muldrow Glacier and the full, unobstructed view of Denali as it rises above the foothills and lower ridges of the Alaska Range.

On the final, flat stretch out to Wonder Lake, we noticed a large group of migrating sandhill cranes flying against the backdrop of Denali.  After we stopped and I set up the camera, I noticed that the flock was starting to fly in circles.  But soon I noticed that they were not just flying in circles, but, with each circuit, flying higher and higher in altitude.  It reminded me of the technique that I know pilots use to gain altitude when they want to remain at the same location, taking large, slow turns while climbing higher and higher.  I also noticed that they were merely gliding, not flapping their wings.  Michelle and I surmised that they had found an updraft, and that the cranes used the updraft to gain altitude while conserving energy for the long flying ahead.  We would encounter another dozen or so groups of cranes, some passing overhead, some using the circling, altitude-climbing technique.  In each instance, though they were miles away or thousands of feet overhead, we could hear their distinct call.

We arrived at Wonder Lake several hours before sunset, so we switched into relaxation mode.  We picked a nice spot on the tundra with a view of the lake and the mountain, sat down and relaxed.  We both read for a while, and then I took a nap while Michelle explored for berries.  Off and on throughout the afternoon and evening, we ended up picking two liters of low bush cranberries.  Later on, we went on a little hike around Blueberry Hill over to the point where the road passes the northernmost tip of Wonder Lake.  As the sun progressed toward evening, we selected our spot on Blueberry Hill where we would have dinner and I would photograph the sunset.  There was a man there with his family, taking some pictures, but no other actual photographers in sight.  I suspected that they were all back in the heart of the park, fighting the crowds for a good shot at a wolf or a bear.  You can photograph wildlife any day of the year in any weather conditions.  You cannot get shots like this of the landscape on any day.  One of the shots I set up was something I had never seen before – a panoramic shot that covered the expanse of the entire lake and included Denali and its adjacent peaks.  The end result – a 41-image panoramic that, in full size, would be an eight-foot print.

For dinner, I set up my MSR whisperlite stove, heated up some water and added it to some Mountain House backcountry dinners and sliced up some fruit we brought along for the day.  We enjoyed a bottle of wine – Pinot Noir – and some chocolate to compliment the wine and have for dessert.  After the sun started to get low, we headed back down to our car, parked near the Ranger station, so that I could photograph the mountains and their peak alpenglow from Reflection Pond.  On the way back, we stopped a couple of times so I could photograph the moon with the landscape.

I think the lesson to learn from my first Denali road lottery experience is that, even when you can drive your car, you should still enjoy the park the way that is always the best way to enjoy it – by getting off the road.  We decided that next time, we would not get up so early, and we would find a spot that had active wildlife, park, and then hike away from the road to get away from the people.  The experience left me with a solid sense of gratitude for the wisdom of not usually allowing people the opportunity to drive into the park, because they simply lack the situational awareness or consideration to share the park, the road, and the wildlife with others.  The explosion of photography as a common hobby in the wake of the digital age has exacerbated this phenomenon, I imagine, as everyone thinks they are a photographer, and everyone HAS to get THAT SHOT so they can put it on their Facebook page, or Tweet it to someone, or whatever.  And then you have the pro-wannabes, like the dude parked next to the wolf who was barking orders at me like he owned the place, who add a certain special quality to the experience.  It was telling to me that I was the only photographer at Wonder Lake for the evening, and I was happy to be able to share that with Michelle in peace to put a calming, relaxing finish on an otherwise chaotic day.

Moose hunting with Nick

Friday, September 10th, 2010
Moose hunting with Nick

Long-time friend and superb photographer Nick Fucci was up visiting again for his autumn Alaska photo tours, a combination of one-on-one moose safaris into the Chugach Mountains or other photo sessions in Hatcher Pass, and a bear photography workshop out at the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge.  As always, he stayed with us, taking advantage of our spare bedroom and engaging in his annual feline fix.  As is often the case during his visits, we found a day where both of our schedules were open and headed up to the South Fork of Campbell Creek in Chugach State Park and along the Willawaw Lakes Trail to check out two of the main wallows where moose tend to mingle in the pre-rut.

We got up to the Glen Alps parking lot at around eight, well before the sun had come up over the ridge to sweep down into the valley.  We made our way down the Powerline trail, across the South Fork of Campbell Creek and over on the Willawaw Lakes Trail to the “knob” that marks the eastern turn to Willawaw Lakes.  That was our stopping point, the location of two primary gathering areas for moose.  Unfortunately, we had not spotted a single moose during the entire hike.  It was now 9:30, and light was starting to hit the valley.  Nick went out to explore in a little more detail, while I waited and worked on some macro possibilities.  Shortly into photographing some dwarf dogwood and crow berries, Nick signaled: he had found some bulls.  It turns out, they were two younger bulls that had recently shed their velvet.  One had a serious limp, perhaps a healed broken bone or a recent injury, we could not tell.

Later, as we continued to follow these two bulls, we encountered a larger, older bull who was starting to gather his harem.  So far, only two cows, but they were enough for him to get rather territorial and fiesty when one of the younger bulls got too close and started sniffing around one of the cows.  The cow let out a mewling sound that let the older bull know she was not happy about this interloper.  The older bull did not have to get aggressive, he just slowly made his way toward the younger bull with a thousand-mile stare and menacing posture that said everything he needed to say.  Granted, the younger bull did not quite get the message, because he came back a few minutes later to try again.  This time, the older bull was faster in his response, moving more directly at the younger bull than the slower, wider route he took before.  This time, the message sank in, and the younger bull headed back the way he came.

As always, the moose pretty much ignored us.  We got so close that most of the photos I took were with my 70-200mm lens rather than the large 500mm that I had dragged along for the trek.  Being able to interact with moose so closely, where they are not threatened because they are in a safe area, truly is what makes this part of the Chugach State Park one of the best places to photograph moose in the world.

On our way out, that heavy 500mm lens came in handy.  We looked behind us, and a few hundred yards to the south, right where we had first spotted the moose, where a pair of coyote.  They just stood there at the knob, surveying the land.  I set up my camera, got them in the frame and started to focus when one of the coyotes darted away, with the other one starting to move.  I managed only two shots before they were both completely gone.  With so little time, the picture was not perfectly in focus, but I keep it anyway because it documents that moment in time, the fleeting coyote on the hill.  I quickly hiked up to the knob to see if I could spot them again, but no luck.  What I did see, however, was what caused them to spook in the first place: a woman with her three off-leash, larger dogs that were bounding up and down the trail with no control whatsoever.  Thanks, lady, for ruining the moment for me, and for making those coyote feel less secure in their own home.

Finding our way along Campbell Creek

Friday, August 20th, 2010
Finding our way along Campbell Creek

The weather finally let up so that Daniel and I could have a good outing.  After exhausting his appetite for mountains, I decided a good trek would be biking along the Campbell Creek route.  Except, this time, I wanted to take the route all the way to the University, where we could hook up with the Chester Creek system, take that to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, and then back down to home.  Yes, it was quite an ambitious route.  But my preconception of how ambitious it was fell far short of reality.

The beginning part of the route is an area I have grown to become quite familiar with in the last couple of years.  After a short jaunt down 88th Avenue, we intersected with the Campbell Creek trail system and headed toward Taku Lake.  From there, we followed the trail, with a slight diversion because it was unclear which path would take us on our intended course, until the Seward Highway.  At that point, with Campbell Creek flowing right next to us, the trail disintegrates into a jumble of rocks and mud leading under the very low hanging highway.  At this point, you have to get off your bike, duck and walk under the bridge.  As Daniel and I were doing this, a group of college students went by – three in a canoe and one in a kayak, wearing a Captain’s hat and a blue blazer over his topless body.  Now there’s a moment when I really wish I had my camera at the ready.

Once we finished our scramble under the highway, we found ourselves back in touch with the Campbell Creek trail system.  It was a treat to explore this area, which runs south of and parallel to Tudor Road.  It was a completely new area, marked with complex metal framed bridges and viewing platforms over the creek.  Although I did not see it on the ride, we passed right near the point where the North and South Fork of Campbell Creek joined to form the main stem of the creek.  Someday, I will go back to this area specifically to find and photograph that convergence.  After a couple of wrong turns, we found ourselves at Elmore Road, leading to the bridge that crosses over Tudor Road and leads to University Lake.  It is the same bridge that dog mushers use during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod as they mush on their way from downtown to the Campbell Science Center to load up their dogs for the trip up to Willow and the official start the next day.

Since I have photographed Iditarod mushers along this stretch of trail before, I knew that the trail winded around the east side of University Lake.  What I did not know, was that this trail on the east side did not readily connect with the trail that would lead me back into the heart of the University and connect us with the Chester Creek trail system, which is what we planned to take down to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.  What I also did not know was that this part of the trail was also the notoriously obnoxious dog park I had read about in the paper, where Alaska Pacific University was complaining about unleashed dogs encroaching on its property.  Despite the several signs on the trail forbidding free range dogs, I had to break on numerous occasions for unleashed, unmanaged, free-running dogs whose owners paid no attention to the havoc that their dogs were wreaking upon other trail users.  We passed around the north side of the lake and headed west, looking to connect with the trail and leave the dog frenzy behind.  With one problem solved, another one emerged.

Earlier in the ride, I received a call from Joe Connolly, wondering if I would like to fly up to Denali and do some aerial photography in the Ruth Glacier gorge.  Sure, I said, so long as Daniel could come with.  No problem.  So, I called Michelle and arranged for her to meet us at the Goose Lake parking lot, on the north side of UAA campus near Northern Lights Boulevard.  Little did I know, however, that when we took the trail on the northwest side of University Lake and headed north that we were working our way into a dizzying maze of unmarked mountain bike trails.  At every turn, I took the trail that seemed to be heading in the direction we needed to go, to the northwest.  At one point, we encountered a cow and her two spring calves, forcing us to hang back until they got away from the trail.  There are few worse things to encounter on a bike trail in this town than a cow and her spring calves or calf.

Another phone call, this time from Michelle.  She was at Goose Lake and wondering where we were.  So did I, I told her, mentioning that we were essentially lost in a maze of trails.  After a little while, we found some familiar territory on the edge of the APU campus.  I called Michelle and we arranged to meet over at the UAA Arts building.  But, yet again, we were stalled by a moose, this time a solo cow right on the bike trail.  As we were waiting to clear the moose, Michelle drove by and pulled off to a parking lot so we could load up, head home and shower to get ready for our flight with Joe.  As much as I like adventure, sometimes I just want an uneventful bike ride.  But in Anchorage, so many times a bike ride is more than just a bike ride.

Bird TLC

Saturday, August 14th, 2010
Bird TLC

When I went to college at the University of Minnesota, I learned about the Minnesota Raptor Center when the organization came and gave a presentation at the dorm where I was working as a resident assistant.  The Raptor Center is operated through the U of MN College of Veterinary Medicine – which makes a lot of sense – and “specializes in the medical care, rehabilitation, conservation, and study of eagles, hawks, owls, and falcons.”  As a hazard of human occupation of the former wild habitat for these birds, human-raptor encounters often result in broken bones, wings, punctured eyes, and all manner of injuries to raptors.  The place where they go to receive care is the Minnesota Raptor Center.  If they can be rehabilitated, they are released to the wild; if not, they remain at the Center and are used in public educational presentations. It was the first time in my life I was exposed to such a place.  I thought it was a wonderful idea, and had no comprehension that it was not a unique facility.

Fast forward many years later, and I am riding a ferry from Whittier to Cordova for my first Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival.  I was on the boat with several members of the Alaska Society of Outdoor and Nature Photographers, including one of our new honorary members, Roy Toft, whom Cathy Hart, a longtime ASONP board member and heavy recruiter, had met at a recent annual conference for the North American Nature Photography Association.  Really – this is how people make connections in the nature photography world!  Anyway, during the seven-hour ride, there were several presentations given by the Bird Treatment and Learning Center, the Anchorage equivalent of the Raptor Center.  However, unlike the Raptor Center, the Bird TLC does not specialize in raptors, but opens its doors to all manner of injured birds as well as abandoned fledged chicks.  (If you recall my post about swallows earlier this summer, the Bird TLC helped a fledgling we found in our own yard.)

Over the years in Minnesota, I went to several public events where the Raptor Center would have education on their birds and also release back into the wild some rehabilitated birds.  When I saw a notice that Bird TLC would be having its autumn event, I insisted that we go.  So, Daniel and Michelle and I went to the Bird TLC facility, which sits on the bluff overlooking Potter Marsh.  If I were a rehabilitated raptor, I could not think of a better place to be released but over a wetlands with lots of juicy ducks and other waterfowl for the taking.

It was a great opportunity to see all of the things that Bird TLC is up to, but also to see the expanse of other organizations, both local and national, that address issues associated with birds and birding.  From falconry to parks to Audubon, several organizations and issue-driven booths were available.  Most intersting for me, and I am sure for Daniel as well, was the opportunity to see the birds up close and to handle various bird parts (like trumpeter swan wings) to get a sense of the texture, size and weight.  Of course, Michelle’s favorite part was the owls, and we had some great opportunities to see a Great Horned Owl and Snowy Owl up close.  When Michelle went to purchase a couple of lattes at the stand, Daniel wandered into the woods to pick raspberries.

We were not able to stay for the bird release later in the afternoon, but it gave me great pleasure to see how many people turned out for the program and to imagine the rehabilitated birds gliding out over the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge upon release and return to freedom.