Archive for the ‘Wildlife’ Category

Morning moose

Thursday, August 5th, 2010
Morning moose

I was awoke one morning to the sound of Daniel’s voice, saying, “There’s a moose in the backyard.”  Since the only moose we have ever had actually in our yard were cows and calves, I was slow to get up and check the moose.  Michelle hardly budged – she certainly was not going to get up at that hour to look at moose.  Of course, in her waking hours, if she ever sees a moose she calls me up – no matter the time of day, no matter where she is or where I am – to let me know she just saw a moose.  But, she withdraws from her role as the “Moose Whisperer” when there is sleep to be had.

When I got up and saw this handsome bull resting in our freshly installed sod strip (laid to replace the empty ground where the pointless cement sidewalk existed previously), I quickly increased my pace, got dressed, and set up a large tripod with large lens in Daniel’s bedroom – the best vantage point for the moose.  Plus, I also thought it was appropriate for me to set up and use his room as a blind, as he is the one who woke me anyway.  But since it is later in the summer, even after jacking up the ISO to 3200, and opening all the way up to f/2.8, I still was getting low shutter speeds and fuzzy images.  After about ten minutes, I left Daniel in charge of watching the moose, noting that I would try again later, closer to sunrise and my usual time to get up.  Daniel proceeded to watch the moose, then video tape it on the loaner digital camera I let him use while he is visiting.  In a while, the moose got up, laid down a couple of spots of new fertilizer in the backyard, browsed for a little bit on our new aspen grove that is growing by the shed (I encourage him to eat as much as he can of that stuff), then cross through the front yard and off our property.

We have seen that very bull at least three times since, passing through our yard from back to front and exiting at the southeast corner, and always at around 5-6 a.m.  We are on his irregular morning route, which is rather exciting.  Who knows, maybe we will get lucky and he will start to develop a harem in our backyard.  Probably not, but one can always hope.  But, for some reason, he like the other moose who pass through, find our property appealing as they move from the wetlands to the north of Jewel Lake and on through the neighborhood to the south.  I consider it one of the many wonders and gifts of living where we do, not only in this city, but in this particular part of it.  We get all the benefits of some wildlife encounters, like the moose, bats and our many avian visitors, and none of the drawbacks like troublesome bears.

Whatever his future plans, I hope he has a good rutting season, our visiting moose.  And best wishes for a healthy winter, although we are going to have to cover our new apple and cherry trees to make sure it is not too good of a winter.

Denali never disappoints

Monday, August 2nd, 2010
Denali never disappoints

We took Daniel up to Denali National Park & Preserve for another three-day camping excursion at the Teklanika Campground this year.  Unlike last year, it did not rain, we did not sleep in a crappy tent, and he had his grandparents along for the visit.

When you secure at least three nights at Teklanika, you are eligible to receive a road permit that allows you to drive out to the campground, which is at mile 29 on the park road.  Normally, personal vehicles are only allowed up to the Savage River bridge, which is about mile 13 on the park road.  The permit allows you to drive out to the campground and return at the end of your reservation – no driving around in between.  You cannot even start the engine of your vehicle once you are parked.  That’s all well and good, because you really do not need your car to enjoy Denali National Park & Preserve.

The green buses are the way to see the park.  When you go online to the park website, you can be connected with the bus system, run by Aramark, that can take you anywhere in the park.  You only have to be on a particular bus the first day you ride the buses in the park; from then on out, you can come and go as you please, hitching a ride with any green bus (the tan buses are run by specific tour operators, and the lodges in the Kantishna area also have their own buses).  Most of the bus drivers are eager to share useful information about the park and have become pretty good over the years at spotting wildlife.  Granted, you don’t always end up with good drivers.  Our first driver told us about the seniority system, and how it takes a long time to work you way up to being the driver of the camper bus, which is the ideal because you did not have to serve as tour guide – all the passengers were just hitching a ride to go camping somewhere in the park.  He basically said that he hated everything about having to talk to us.  Then, he had rules, like the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld, refusing to stop for a golden eagle along the roadside because the passengers, while very excited and animated, did not use the magic word, “Stop!”

Fortunately, we still had a good wildlife day.  A sow with two cubs (our driver incorrectly identified them as spring cubs but they were clearly yearlings – not only were they too big but one of the cubs had the same distinctive markings of a spring cub I photographed last year), dall sheep, caribou and several wolves.  But it was cloudy and we did not see the mountain.  Most tourists who visit the park will not see the mountain, approximately 70% of them.  But there is so much wonder in the grand vistas and abundant wildlife, that Denali pretty much never disappoints, even if it is cloudy, rainy or smoky from summer fires.

On the second day, my dad and stepmother stayed back in camp while Daniel, Michelle and I decided to head for Polychrome Pass for some hiking.  We worked our way to the north of the road onto a ridgeline, stopping to pick berries and enjoy the scenery.  On our way back to the road, we encountered a female caribou that was more than willing to let Daniel get fairly close to her so I could photograph him in the frame with her.  When we caught the bus that would eventually take us back home, but first to the Toklat River, we were able to get a great view on several Dall sheep resting on a ledge with a tremendous vista behind them – a classic Denali shot.  Most people do not know, but Denali was originally established as a park not for its views or other wildlife, but to protect the Dall sheep, which were being over hunted by market hunters to support the mining community of Kantishna.

On our final day, it was sunny and clear, providing all of us a wonderful view of the mountain on our way out of the park.  Even had it not been fully clear, the weather had still been wonderful and the wildlife abundant.

The Swallow situation

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010
The Swallow situation

After hearing the Violet Green Swallow chicks in the bird house above our side door for the last couple of weeks, and seeing parents fly in and out to feed them, we finally got our first glimpses at the chicks on Friday evening.  They had reached the stage in their growth and boldness to be sticking their fuzzy little heads out into the opening to speed up the feeding process.  On Saturday, I had a bit more of a chance to observe and photograph them as Michelle and I were outside working on the yard and house.

I set up my 500mm manual with my Nikon D300 on a Gitzo tripod with the Wimberly Head for greatest stability.  I simply wanted to frame the shot, then sit back and wait with a cable release.  My cue to start the shutter clicking was when the chicks would open their mouths – that meant a parent was on final approach.  At the stellar burst rate of 8 frames per second I get with my D300 in RAW mode, the entire feeding transaction would typically only last about four frames before the parent was off again.

But it was not until I was able to look at the still images and zoom in on the feeding parent that I realized how much food was being brought each time.  In one count, I saw as many as ten mosquitos in the mouth of the parent before it literally stuck its head inside the mouth of its chick to, presumably, spit out or regurgitate the food quickly and take flight again.  I had to wonder how the parent kept so many bugs in its mouth while still going out and catching more.  Of course, I knew it was one of the reasons why we like having swallows on our property; their propensity for eating mosquitoes.  It is the same reason we installed a bat house as well; no bats yet, but it can take a couple of years.  But when they do move in, they, too will contribute to the mosquito abatement by eating up to 5,000 mosquitoes per bat in a day.

Every once in a while, after the parent fed the chicks, we could hear some furious beating of wings from inside the house.  The chicks were building up strength in their wings, getting eager to fledge.  I knew they would not be ready to go on Saturday, but imagined it would happen sometime in the next week.   Later in the afternoon, I think the parents were starting to get a little tired of the constant hunting.  They started to take turns taking a brake on the peak of the roof top, just a few feet above and out of sight of their chicks.

On Sunday afternoon, we had some friends and family over for a little grilling in the back yard.  Later in the afternoon, one of the kids noticed a fledged swallow chick in the grass.  She wanted to tell the boys – oh, how cool they would think THIS was!  NO!  We advised.  We certainly do not want the boys to know there is a vulnerable animal in the yard, that is, if we want it to survive.  It seemed calm resting in the grass and clover, and we wondered what to do with it.  Soon, it was decided we would try to put it back in the nest.  We simply assumed it had come from the bird house above the door, as we were not aware of any other nests nearby.  Michelle put on gloves to handle the bird and I positioned the ladder and took a look inside the bird house – both chicks were there.  Michelle tried to put the swallow chick in the bird house, but it wouldn’t go – perhaps realizing that it was best not to invade a foreign nest – and flew/glided back down to the ground.

Knowing the number of outdoor cats in the area, we thought it best to take the chick and put it up someplace high.  We chose a corner of the roof over our large storage shed.  Our friend Joe go the idea to try to feed it an ant … no success.  The little chick, which Michelle and I later named “Icky” (short for Icarus), kept a tight beak.  We decided to build him a nest consisting of a small terrarium, a towel and some grass, and covered it with a towel to help keep in warmth.  After our guests left, Michelle and I wondered what we could do to help Icky gain his strength to where he could survive on his own.  Clearly he had been abandoned.  He soon stopped chirping out to his parents, perhaps succumbing to his fate.

We decided we would try to figure out how to feed him, then perhaps investigate whether the Bird Treatment and Learning Center could take him in.  I could not find anything using Google on feeding abandoned swallow chicks (just when you thought you could find anything using the Google), so I found the Bird TLC website and called their number.  As luck would have it, they have a relationship with the PET Emergency Treatment center.  PET takes in all abandoned or injured birds that need care after Bird TLC’s hours.  So, we called PET, learned what we needed to do, and took Icky over there.  They would feed him and keep him warm until Bird TLC could take him in on the next business day.  Eventually, he will be strengthed and cared for until he is strong enough, then released into our neighborhood so he could return to his original habitat.

The last time we had been to PET Emergency was under some very unhappy circumstances, so it was nice to be able to go there for a good reason.  And while we did not aid in natural selection by helping Icky out of his pickle, Michelle and I discussed on the way home how it is our ability for compassion and empathy that truly sets us aside from the other animals.  In the wild, it is unheard of to accept even animals from the same species into your care if they are not from the same family unit.  Yet we as humans have the capability to accept and care for all sorts of animals from various species, and have even spent thousands of years in genetically modifying wild animals to make them more compatible as companions.  Natural selection still has plenty of opportunities to take care of business.  There was no need for it to have success with our little feathered friend.

Hartney Bay is for the birds

Sunday, May 9th, 2010
Hartney Bay is for the birds

Hartney Bay is about five miles out from downtown Cordova to the south.  If you are going to Cordova in the spring to view shorebirds, you go to Hartney Bay.  At low tide, the mud flats extend out for quite a distance from the small parking area (fortunatley equipped with a porto-potty) and the end of the public part of the road.  When viewing the shorebirds, the best time to get out to the Bay is about an hour before high tide.  The key, especially when photographing the shorebirds, is to find a spot and sit down in the mud and wait.  (Not directly in the mud; we are Alaskans, we have blue tarp for that sort of thing.)  After watching the birds long enough, you tend to notice where the birds congregate, so you can generally find a good location to wait.  If you find the right spot, you can sit and watch (and photograph) the birds as they walk and fly right around you.

There were three types of shorebirds in the bay when we were there, two of which are southcentral Alaska favorites: Western sandpipers and Dunlins.  There was also a group of five Whimbrels stolling the beach, picking worms as they moved along.  They were definitely a group, because they all took flight together and traveled as a group.  Michelle and I are convinced we saw them later in the afternoon on Sunday as we were out on the Alaganik Slough.  Unless, of course, whimbrels generally travel in groups of five.

Of all the birds I have photographed, I enjoy watching and photographing Western sandpipers the most.  They are very focused as they skitter along the mud, looking for worms and other grub, and will spontaneously take flight in large groups, moving and flashing like schools of fish as they search for a new location to settle down and repeat the cycle.  Mostly, they fly in smaller groups, but occasionally several groups will join together to combine as a combined mass.

But while everyone is out there with their scopes and binoculars watching the shorebirds, they can often miss many things.  Like the group of white-fronted geese moving about and grazing along the way, or the colors of the evening sky reflecting in the waters of small streams working their way out to sea.  I can appreciate that everyone is so focused on the shorebirds, but sometimes you need to take a moment to look around as well.  As a photographer, I don’t feel like I am doing service to a location unless I explore all aspects of it.

Out on the Copper River Highway

Sunday, May 9th, 2010
Out on the Copper River Highway

The primary reason why the area near Cordova is such a draw and hot spot for wildlife is the Copper River Delta. Identified as one of the top spring birding locations in the United States, the Delta offers both shorebird and waterfowl opportunities galore. But most of the people who visit Cordova during the Copper River Shorebird Festival stick pretty much closely to Hartney Bay. But, the best time to watch the birds is around high tide so the timing is particular from day to day. But, when the weather is right, every morning is a great time to be out on the Copper River Highway.

It varies from year to year how far you can go in the spring. This year, the Copper River Delta experienced a stronger spring snowfall then we did in the Anchorage area. At Mile 27, there was a nice wall of snow just beyond the near tunnel-like passage of plowed snow reaching at least fifteen feet high on both sides. A couple of hunters who were walking the road told me it would be a few more days before they brought out the next plow to open up the road some more. Had I been able to go farther, I would have continued across the large span of the Copper River Delta and up to where the Copper River comes out of Miles Lake, right where the Child’s Glacier reaches its icy span across the bank of the river and calves, sometimes rather spectacularly, into the water.

Even on the shortened drive, the highway offers many opportunities to view a vast variety of wildlife. If you enjoy watching beaver, there are several active lodges right near the highway. Moose? I have seen several off in the distance, but with wonderful backdrops of mountains and glaciers. Not to mention waterfowl, which, in the spring time, is plentiful; particularly Canada geese and trumpeter swans. The best place to view waterfowl is down the Alaganik Slough Road. The Alaganik Slough is a massive collection of wetlands buffering the many braids of the Copper River as it flows its way toward the Prince William Sound. There are several pullouts along the road, and near the boat landing at the end of the road is a long boardwalk with several viewing blinds.

I made a trip down the road each morning we were in Cordova for the shorebird festival. Each morning the skies were either clear, or mostly clear with scattered, beautifully textured clouds. I stopped at two beaver ponds each morning, one to photograph with the landscape, the other to watch the very active and busy beaver. When I stopped at the boardwalk at the end of the Alaganik Slough Road, I was disappointed to see that the boardwalk was closed. Apparently, the rather moist and soft environment did not treat the supports for the boardwalk very well as many had collapsed, causing the boardwalk to list seriously to one side. Fortunately, plans are in the works to fix it this summer, so it will hopefully be there next spring. On my second morning, as I crossed a bridge over one of the many braids of the Copper River, I saw an eagle swoop down out of the trees, catch a fish, and land to eat it. I literally parked my car on the bridge, set up the tripod and waited. Over the next twenty minutes or so, he caught another four or five hooligan (eulachon), landing each time to feast on a short stump in the river. When he was done, we threw his head back and let out a celebratory series of chirps. Then, he would go back to watching the stream, hop down, catch a hooligan and go back to the stump again. After getting a few good images, I continued on down the road.

While being a wildlife hot spot, the drive down the road is also a landscape photographer’s dream. It provides both a perfect morning light opportunity as well as an evening light, as the road lies on a straight north-south direction for most of the trip. The mountains to the east of the road are very craggy and jagged, with glaciers spilling out to join the moist landscape. Several braided rivers with gravel bars flow through the landscape as a result. I have often seen dew or frost on the ground in the mornings, adding yet another element to a good landscape or macro composition. Once in a while a thick fog bank, when combined with a rising sun, adds a spectacular but challenging element to include in the viewfinder. The numerous ponds also provide superb reflections. I paused at several along the way, shooting them straight, some with a graduated neutral density filter, others taking several exposures for an HDR composite using Photo Matix.

With as much as people rave about driving the road in Denali National Park & Preserve, there are so many equally wonderful opportunities to capture scenic and wildlife images along the Copper River Road for any inspired photographer. Additionally, there are several hiking trails lead away from the road, giving even more chances to explore more into this magnificent landscape.

A new Homer

Saturday, February 13th, 2010
A new Homer

For the last couple of decades, one of the prominent features of winter in Homer, Alaska was a woman that everyone called the “Eagle Lady.”  Jean Keene had been feeding bald eagles from her trailer on the Homer spit since shortly after her arrival in 1977.  What started out as a pair of eagles grew to a feeding frenzy of a couple hundred up until when she passed away in January 2009.  She was known and revered by many for her generosity and what she did to care for the bald eagles in the wintertime.

I never really was a part of that fan base.  When I first heard of her practice shorly after arriving in Alaska, I could not imagine how she had been allowed to violate numerous federal laws for so long.  As a photographer who strongly believes in not manipulating wildlife to get a photo, I could not relate to the photographers who, if you knew her, were allowed on her property to get close up shots of eagles during feedings.  I did not approve of the practice of many photographers who capitalized on the relaxed rules due to Jean’s practice by taking frozen herring to the end of the spit, tossing the fish into the water and capturing a photo of a bald eagle “catching” a fish.  I never saw the feeding as taking care of the eagles, but interfering with their natural life cycles. 

You can no longer see a hundred or more eagles clustered in one place on the Homer spit.  But, there is no dire shortage of eagles, either.  When Michelle and I went out on the spit, we saw around 30-40 eagles at various locations.  They are easy to find on any high point, whether a spruce tree, light pole, signpost, or roof top.  And due to their habituation over the years, they are very approachable.  They will likely continue to winter here in decent numbers for the same reasons that ravens and gulls flock to the spit in the wintertime – commercial fishing activities still provide plenty of food. 

Homer can be a beautiful time in the winter, or it can be drab and gloomy.  Unfortunately, we planned this trip during a bout of the latter.  But even in such conditions, it is still possible to find photos if you look for them.  With broken clouds can come some sunshine to add contrast and detail.  The diffuse light can be great for capturing wildlife, whether an eagle in a tree, raven on the ground, or aging sea otter in the bay.

Moose and frost

Sunday, December 13th, 2009
Moose and frost

We have not seen the sun down here in the Anchorage Bowl for over a week.  It’s not that the sun has not been shining.  It has simply being doing so above a fog bank that, at times, has severely limited visibility.  And with the temperatures lingering in the mid-teens, the fog and cold have sculpted millions of tiny ice crystals in the form of hoar frost on trees, bushes, and lingering plants. 

This wintery wonderland was the setting for a beautiful afternoon of Nordic skiing in the woodlands near the Campbell Science Center.  Michelle and I loaded up our classic skis and drove over to the parking lot near the gated entrances to the Campbell Science Center and nearby BLM complex.  Staying purely on the multi-use trails, which were a little slick from lots of use, we did a wide loop around the area.  It was so refreshing to be out in the frosty woods, burning the muscles while sucking in cool, crisp air, listening only to the silence of the woods and our movement through them. 

As we skiied to the west on the trail that runs along the Campbell Airstrip, we came upon a cow moose and her spring calf.  They were working their way along our trail, coming slowly in our direction.  We moved off to the right to get out of their way and gain a better vantage point for photographing them.  A couple of hikers came along on the trail and were not quite as cautious as we were in giving the moose a wide berth.  The two moose eventually moved far enough along for us to bypass them on a side trail and get back on course. 

The encounter confirmed two things for me.  One, it confirmed that Michelle is definitately “The Moose Whisperer” as I often call her.  She frequently calls me throughout the week saying, “I just saw a moose” or “There’s a big bull moose right outside our office.”  Of course, I am not always in the position to chase down the moose she is calling about, and she knows it; it’s part of her fun in calling. 

It also confirmed that I am lucky to live in one of the best larger cities in the United States.  Anchorage has so many wild places, so much habitat, where such animals can still live out their existences despite the city’s tendency to keep growing.  I can only hope that as the city continues to grow, that the city can continue to resist the urge to dispose of its wild places in the name of development. 

Steller visitor

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009
Steller visitor

Although it is a bit early for us to get our usual avian visitors, we have been getting a few visits lately from Steller’s Jays.  It appears that the meal of choice for these members of the jay family is peanuts in the shell.  And these guys are very particular about the size and shape of shell they are looking for, as they like to place a minimum of two in their mouths at a time.  The first shell has to be small enough to toss to the back of the mouth, leaving room in the beak for at least a second shell.  I have even seen one jay try to fit three.  Once loaded up, the jay will fly off to some nearby location to store the shells, and quickly return for more.

The first time I ever saw a Steller’s Jay was in Mt. Rainier National Park.  I was visiting my friend Ben Hohman, who lives in Aberdeen on the bottom of the Olympic Peninsula, and we were visiting the nearby Cascade Range giant.  It was a clear, sunny day, and we had stopped at a pullout.  The Steller’s Jay was there, hopping around, busily checking out possible food sources on the ground, then up to a rock wall, then over to a branch on a tall pine tree.  The jay froze long enough for me to capture an image of him with Rainier in the background.  For years, it was my only sighting of a Steller’s Jay.  All I had to remember of their vibrant, glistening deep blue feathers was that shot.

Then, many years later, Michelle and I purchased our current home near Jewel Lake in Anchorage.  We had the usual visitors to our bird feeders last winter: black-capped and boreal chickadees, nuthatches, and gross beaks.   The cats came to love this aspect about our new home, a bird feeder ledge just right outsdide the window where the cats could watch, chirp, and sometimes pounce (with no success other than producing a solid “thump” on the glass and scaring the birds away for a time).  Then we started to see the tall, dark blue, inquisitive and very crafty Steller’s Jays.  (Although, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Anchorage is on the outer edge of the  Steller’s Jay range.)  It did not seem to phase the cats that these new visitors were considerably larger than the other birds, and sometimes almost as big as the cats themselves.

Our most recent visitor was particularly busy.  When he nearly exhausted our already-low peanut supply on the ledge, I went out to dump some more on to the ledge.  I was not even back to the window from the inside when he was back again at the feeder, busily picking through the new selection.  After five or six visits, I went and grabbed my camera to snap a few shots.  He came back about three more times before Menshe jumped up to the shelf on the inside of the window, spooking him off.  I expected the jay to return once he realized that Menshe was not a threat, so I stood and waited, hoping to get a shot of Menshe looking out the window at the jay on the feeder.  After about ten minutes, the jay did not return.

I know that winter will soon be upon us, and the myriad of other birds who visit our property will return for their usual frenzy feeding.  In the meantime, I will take comfort in and enjoy our deep blue Steller’s Jay visitors.  I will take comfort in knowing that we are providing them a means of surviving, while they provide us company and great entertainment.  One of these days, I hope to see where it is – and it is not too far away – that they fly to store those peanuts.

Dalton Highway highlights

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009
Dalton Highway highlights

It turned out that I was not quite able to blog while at Bettles.  First, my laptop monitor somehow got broken.  But, even when I was able to slave a monitor at the NPS offices in Bettles, I still was not permitted Internet access due to some last-minute regulation that Bush put into effect right before leaving office.

So, I have a little catching up to do on the blog now that I am back home in Anchorage.

The drive up the Dalton Highway to Coldfoot (mile 175 on the highway) was simply gorgeous.  The weather was sunny, warm, with scattered clouds.  Despite my desire to get up to Coldfoot and over to Bettles to get to work, I stopped frequently to photograph places I had simply driven by in the past.  I would always make a mental note, “I’ll have to shoot that someday,” and keep on going.  But with conditions like these, I couldn’t run the risk that during my next several drives the weather would be foul.

The first place I made a point to stop was the bridge over the Yukon River, named the E. L. Patton Yukon River Bridge.  A unique architectural feat, it is an inclined bridge – downhill as you are heading north – with a 6% grade.  It also has wood for a surface instead of asphalt or cement and is 2200 feet long.  The Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS) also crosses the river at this point, using the structure of the bridge for support.

Next stop was Finger Mountain, presumably named after one of the many natural rock piles scattering the hillside.  It is a classic arctic tundra landscape, particularly gorgeous at this time of year.  I hiked around for a bit, taking time to absorb the scenery.  While I was there, a Royal Celebrity Tours bus stopped, spilling out all sorts of cruise passengers who were returning from their visit to Prudhoe Bay.  They swarmed over the walkways, scattered for a few minutes, then straggled back to their bus.  I stopped and spoke briefly with a Nikon D90 shooter who had some questions about how to improve his macro opportunities with his current setup.  But as his entire busload had already returned, he was not able to linger long and had to get back.  The bus left after about a ten-minute visit and I went off about a mile away from the parking area to explore the surroundings.  Along the way I came upon a small band of Willow ptarmigan, our state bird, already half changed into their winter plumage.

After that, it was straight to Coldfoot, where I found out that my plane and pilot would not be there until the next day.  I stayed the night at a park service staff cabin at the Marion Creek ranger station.  Since I had always wanted to explore further north from that point, I headed back on the road in the evening to explore the area around Sukakpak Mountain, at around mile 204 of the Dalton.  (I would still had to go another 200 miles from that point to make it to Prudhoe Bay.)  I had seen some photos of the mountain, but had no idea how much character it really had.  Most photos of the mountain are taken from the north looking south, where it has a distinctive slanted appearance that earned its name, which means “marten deadfall” in Inupiat.  I found that there were at least three distinct perspectives that provided for great photo opportunities.  Evening is the best time to view the massive, broad, southern face of the mountain as the northern, slanted face is in the shadows.  I returned in the morning after finding a perfect lake for reflection shots, hoping it would be great for first light alpenglow photos.  But, it turned out that the morning light does not hit the mountain fully until about a half hour after sunrise.  Another larger mountain out of view completely blocks its sun, at least at this time of year.

I also explored the town of Wiseman, population of about 20, at mile 188 on the Dalton.  Many consider it one of the true, authentic Alaska towns on the road system.  I don’t know enough about the town to offer an opinion on that, but it certainly had many points of interest for my camera.  I imagine that I will spend more time there over the years as I continue to photograph the area, hopefully getting to know the people who chose to have Gates of the Arctic as their backyard.  One of my favorite features was the outdoor phone booth, well, stand, on a post in a cluster of trees along side the road.  It was my lifeline to Michelle, as there was no other phone available to me for making calls.  There was also an outdoor “mining musuem” placed out along a grassy lawn near the main entrance of the town.

Quick trip to Denali

Thursday, August 27th, 2009
Quick trip to Denali

I took another quick trip up to Denali National Park & Preserve on the 27th and 28th.  This time, I headed up to the Denali Backcountry Lodge to give two evening presentations on my photography.  The first evening was a program entitled, “Celebrating Our Public Lands,” featuring mostly my photography from national parks in the Lower 48.  The second evening was a slide show on my photography in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, “America’s Great Wilderness.”

It was my first time to the lodge since 2005, during our hellacious fire season where we saw 6 million acres of forest go up in flames.  My first time at the lodge, however, was much more eventful than that.  I used to go out with a group of photographers from the Alaska Society of Outdoor and Nature Photographers.  We would go up and spend the last two nights the lodge was open for the season.  That first time, our first night at the lodge was September 10, 2001.  On the morning of September 11, I was with a half dozen other photographers capturing the first light on the mountain at Wonder Lake.  When we returned, we knew that something happened, but information was slim.  The lodge then, and still today, did not have television or radio.  The only phone in the lodge is a satellite phone.  (They apparently have Internet now, but the Wi-Fi signal is intermittent. )  We did not find out until three days later that the towers had collapsed.

Now, four years after my last trip, the lodge is even a better destination than before.  They still have exceptional food – a lodge stay is all-inclusive – and dedicated service.   But they have also expanded the facilities to include a screened gazebo with wood-burning stove and a new day lodge for lunches.  Nestled against Moose Creek in Kantishna, the lodge is surrounded by hills and trees and is a magnificent getaway.  For the other guests at the lodge, it was a getaway to explore and experience an isolated part of a state that is itself isolated.  The lodge offers several guided hikes throughout the day for guests to choose from.  For me, it was a nice chance to relax and work on photo editing and my slide shows without the distraction of phones and the Internet.

The ride out to the lodge was spectacular.  The skies were mostly clear, and the mountain was out and standing tall and spectacular.  The tundra colors were approaching peak, and I was able to capture some good fall colors for the first time in several years.  The wildlife was also abundant, but mostly fairly far from the road.  On the way out of the park two days later, the clouds had rolled in, but the wildlife sightings were fantastic – caribou, moose, bear, wolf, and fox – all close to the road.

It made me really wish I was not bound by the bus I had to ride back to the park entrance.  I wished that I had more time to spend along the road in the park, but so does every other Tom, Dick and Harry with a camera these days.  You would almost think there was no other park in Alaska given how many images are published of Denali.  The beauty of the fall colors made me want to be in the park more, but the nature of photo business and publishable images made me glad that I was dedicating more time to a park where hardly anyone is photographing these days – Gates of the Arctic.  I look forward to heading back up there next week for another week of photography – some aerial, and some on the ground.