Archive for July, 2010

Another float on the Kenai

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010
Another float on the Kenai

Not too long ago, I posted a note about floating the Kenai River with some colleagues.  I took another float down the river; this time, a slightly shorter route and with family.  As before, the weather cooperated nicely, and we had some rather nice luck with the wildlife.  Rather than taking our own boats, we went for the full-on guided river trip option, courtesy of the good folks at the Kenai Riverside Lodge operated by Alaska Wildland Adventures.  I was first introduced to Alaska Wildland Adventures in the autumn of 2001, when I went on a trip to the Denali Backcountry Lodge, located at the end of the Denali park road in Kantishna.  I have been to DBL several times over the years, including two visits as a guest presenter.  I have also been to the Riverside Lodge many times; it was the place I took Michelle on our first “away” date.  Needless to say, I think that Alaska Wildland Adventures offers some of the best service, best facilities, and best food available for adventure travel in Alaska.  For our float on the Kenai this time, they did not disappoint.

Aside from seeing the pleasure on the faces of my dad, stepmother and nephew Daniel as they enjoyed their first-ever float down an Alaskan river, the highlight of the trip was seeing a pair of double-crested cormorants.  I had never seen them before, and was not aware that they came so far inland.  My only previous experience had been with a cluster of Pelagic cormorants out on a rock in Prince William Sound.  Of course, I also have to note that the other treat of the trip was that it did not rain on us.  Given the record rainfall we have had in southcentral Alaska this summer, particularly Anchorage, it was quite a treat to spend a day without rain.

I get it, but my mayor is clueless

Sunday, July 18th, 2010
I get it, but my mayor is clueless

I have lived in two rather large metropolitan areas: the Twin Cities, with its two million people, and Los Angeles, with, well, way too many people. I chose to move to Anchorage eleven years ago not because I was looking for urban, but because I was looking for wild with just the right amount of urban. I have grown in my knowledge over time that I had made the right decision, enjoying many years hiking, biking and Nordic skiing on Anchorage trails, enjoying fishing for salmon in its streams, savoring moments paddling in my canoe on its lakes, and enjoying picking berries in its forests and alpine slopes. Most of all, over those years, I have enjoyed photographing in the wild places of Anchorage, in its greenbelts, watersheds, valleys and coastal areas.

I have lived here only eleven years, but I get it. I get why Anchorage is a special place. I get what makes it stand out against Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York … all the cities where I have been. Anchorage has actual, real wild habitat within the confines of the actual city, and most of that is accessible by the public. You can see bear, moose, red fox, coyote, even wolves within the confines of the city. You can fish for salmon only a five minute walk from downtown. You can enjoy the call of a loon in the evening if you live near a lake. You can be on a mountainside picking blueberries after only a twenty minute drive or so.

I get it. But our mayor, Dan Sullivan, sure as hell does not.

About two years ago, I made contact with the Great Land Trust to put my photography to use in helping them to secure wild places so they could be set aside for conservation purposes. Simply put, the Trust works with private landowners who have property of some greater value to habitat, public use, or some other aspect that makes the property worth while in preserving for public use or conservation.  The Trust raises money to purchase the land, then either maintains ownership of the land and makes it available for public or conservation benefit, or donates the land to the state or local government, with the caveat that the property is preserved in a conservation trust, often in the form of a conservation easement.  The Trust will also negotiate with private landowners to obtain a conservation easement over the owner’s land, allowing access to public lands that are otherwise not easily reachable. Sometimes that involves purchasing private land outright so that existing parks and preserves, like Chugach State Park and the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, have more public access.

Last year, I met up with someone from the Trust to go photograph the Campbell Creek estuary in the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. Not that the estuary itself is not already protected to some degree, but the purpose of the visit was to highlight the estuary to assist in fundraising for purchasing private land that would provide public access to the coastal refuge in that area and ensure greater protection for the estuary by limiting development. You see, there is no legal public access to the coastal refuge on the west side of Seward Highway from all the way down by Potter Marsh to all the way up to Kincaid Park. Why not? Because half of the land is all privately owned, and the other half is blocked by an easement for the Alaska Railroad. The Railroad, a State-owned entity, considers it trespassing to cross the tracks to access the Refuge, and I have been threatened by Alaska Railroad security before for, God forbid, trying to access public land so I could photograph it.

So I took these photos of the Campbell Creek estuary in hopes that the Trust would be able to meet its goal to purchase the land. I saw the value of having the access, of making more of the coastal refuge accessible to the public. There is no reason that a handful of property owners should be able to block access. I had not heard of how the Trust was progressing in its effort to secure funding. Until yesterday.

I felt my stomach sink when I saw the headline on the Anchorage Daily News website yesterday: “Mayor turns down deal for park at Campbell Lake.” I read the article, and became increasingly furious as I read. I will not reiterate all of the idiocy that spewed from the mayor’s lips and translated to a few statements in the article, but the most egregious were his assertions that there is not enough money to manage the parks as it is, and the land would be better used to plant thirty or forty homes anyway. But the worst, the absolute worst, is his claim that we have too much parkland already. Among the too many parks that the mayor identified is the Lake George Preserve, which can only be accessed by float plane. Yep, I bet a lot of people can freely get out there.

I have to wonder if our mayor even uses the parks. Has he ever been to Jewel Lake on a hot day? How many families enjoy just that one park over a weekend? I will bet you anything, because I have seen that park on busy days, that it is a lot more than thirty families. The whole point of having parks is that they are enjoyed by the many – by whoever wants to – not just the few. They provide recreation, solace, peace and enjoyment to anyone, regardless of their station in life. They add VALUE to a city that a subdivision never could. When you look at national listings for livable cities, do you see a category for “Developable Land”? Or, do you see a category that highlights park and recreational space in the city? I think we know the answer to that question. Anchorage has not been named an All-America City four times because of the amount of its developable land.

And, I am sorry, but it is a lame, pathetic, hollow and convenient excuse to say the city cannot afford to maintain another park. The main point of this property purchase was to provide public access to the coastal refuge. You know what that takes? A trail. I have maintained hiking trails before. It is not that challenging, and certainly not rocket science. Given this mayor’s financial decisions to date, the fact that there is not money in the budget to maintain more parks, or maintain the existing ones better, is not for lack of money. It is for lack of respecting the value that those parks and open spaces provide to our city.

Instead, the city is more than willing to throw all sorts of tax breaks for developers to tear up the land and install ugly, gaudy, rapacious strip malls or other monstrosities, with little or no control over aesthetics. If our mayor wants sprawl, he can move to the Midwest. I would prefer if he moved to some smalfl suburb that really is a city wannabe, and he can sprawl and develop to his heart’s content. I just don’t want him to do that with our city. Providing $2.7 million to set aside this land along the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge would provide more long-term value to far more people than any other expenditure of $2.7 million for private development could. And that is really the problem here, our mayor has no interest in the public good; his interests lie more in how much money someone can make on selling land to build thirty homes.

And let us not forget that it was a private landowner who made the decision to partner with the Great Land Trust to set aside this land for the public good. If we are so respectful of the rights of landowners to make decisions on the disposition of their land, why does our mayor not value that decision when it benefits the entire community?

I share images from Alaska with people from all over the world, whether on my website, my blog or my Facebook fan site. Quite often, the most feedback I receive are from images I have captured right here in the Anchorage bowl. People are often so amazed that so much beauty in the land can exist in an urban environment. They share their envy when I show them images of wildlife I have captured within Anchorage’s many suitable habitat areas. They tell me how lucky I am.

There is a reason that the Anchorage Convention and Visitor’s Bureau chose “Big Wild Life” for its marketing slogan. Anchorage is not great for its restaurants, its museums, its live music, its theatre, or all the other things you can find in other cities. That is because you can find them in other cities! I cannot think of another city this size in the United States where you can do all of the things you can do, see all of the wildlife you can see, in the outdoors, that you can do in Anchorage.

The mayor has simply reached a new low in his total and complete disregard for the values of green and wild spaces, wildlife and habitat in this city. If he does not see value in greater public access to designated park and refuge lands, if he does not see value in protecting and celebrating our wild and green spaces, if he does not see the value of our wildlife (see earlier comments this summer on brown bears by our mayor), if he does not see value in promoting what makes Anchorage great, then he is the mayor of the wrong city. I urge everyone to call, write, email, fax, or even make a personal visit to City Hall and tell the mayor’s office to reverse his position and allow the funding to go through for the purchase of the land to provide the access to the coastal refuge and provide even greater assurances that the Campbell Creek estuary will be protected and enjoyed.


Saturday, July 17th, 2010

I was up in Turnagain Pass last weekend, with a goal of working the flowers in the landscape.  I spent the night with some other photographers at the Granite Creek campgrounds in Turnagain Pass, just a short drive toward Seward from the actual pass itself.  During a recent drive through the area to go rafting on the Kenai, I noticed that the flowers were in abundance.  It turns out, they were just getting started.

A few years ago, my wife Michelle and I went down to the legendary Texas Hill Country near Fredericksburg to photograph the wildflowers.  Blue bonnets and Indian paintbrush dominated the landscape, with the occasional white poppy and other flowers.  What we had blooming at the time in Turnagain Pass rivals what I saw in Texas those years ago.  A dense mixture of wild geranium, chocolate lily, yellow paintbrush, northern yarrow, and scattered lupine provided a rich carpet of color.  While it was overcast, the textures in the clouds helped to add some interest to the sky other than a flat white backdrop.  As much as I would have preferred sunshine and some blue skies in there, I was glad it was not raining.

We spent time photographing a cascading waterfall along Bertha Creek, then photographed the meadows for the rest of the evening and again in the morning.  We stayed up late, chatting over a nice fire, enjoying the peace of the woods.  Although we could occasionally hear sounds from the Seward Highway, it was much quieter and removed from the confines of home, where so many devices and distractions can turn quiet into chaos.  Somewhere around 1:30, we turned in, each going to our separate campsites.  The sky was mostly clear by then with the occasional scattered clouds.  I set my alarm for 5:30, hoping that the clearer skies would remain.

When I awoke to flat overcast, I decided it was not worth it to get up and went back to sleep, occasionally waking to see if the skies had improved.  I eventually got up at 7:00 to still flat skies and woke the other photographers.  I had promised them coffee and a breakfast of eggs, bacon and blueberry pancakes.  It was time to get to work.

By the time we left, the skies were starting to again show some texture in the clouds, so landscapes would be possible.  The key to photographing landscapes with cloudy skies is to use a graduated neutral density filter to darken the clouds enough so that they are not blown out and show texture.  We went back to the meadows at the pass for about an hour or so, then headed down to the lily pads near Placer Valley.  Since I had photographed the lilies recently under overcast light, I tried a few new things this time, like photographing a group of leaves floating in the water or capturing some Infrared photos of the scene.  I learned that lily leaves are highly reflective of Infrared light.

And since the lupines were looking good along the Twenty Mile River, we stopped there for one last photo session on the way back to Anchorage.  The Arctic lupine patch that grows there along the highway had been in some decline in recent years.  The last good blooms were before I started shooting digital, which was back in 2004.  This year, however, there was a thick, solid line of lupines along the edge of the tide line, mixed up with the driftwood logs that had taken station along the high tide mark.  As much as the lupines themselves make great accents to any landscape photo, I enjoyed shooting the wood and the slough that runs through the mud from the river.  Again, the slight texture to the clouds helped to make several of the scenes really work nicely.  I keep hoping and waiting for an evening when the sun is out and reaching back into that far corner of the Turnagain Arm, but so far, no luck.  If I miss my opportunity this year, I can only hope that the flowers will be just as good next year.

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.