Archive for August, 2010

Another Turnagain-Colony Circuit

Thursday, August 26th, 2010
Another Turnagain-Colony Circuit

I had no idea until I started flying locally exactly how connected everything is near Anchorage – the Turnagain Arm, Prince William Sound, the Knik Valley.  I first discovered this during a flight last winter, where one minute we were soaring over Prince William Sound and the next, we were gliding down over Colony Glacier in the Lake George Preserve near Knik Glacier in the Mat-Su Valley.

This evening, I went for a similar jaunt.  Starting with a Campbell Creek Departure from Merrill Field, we headed over to the Turnagain Arm and paralleled the Seward Highway all the way down to Twenty Mile River in the Chugach National Forest.  Along the way, the clouds were hanging over the mountains and the Arm, but there was light ducking under the clouds from the west, scattering golden light across the textured, varied surface of the Turnagain Arm, with its wild tides and mud flats.

The skies would not provide much to offer for sunlight in the Prince William Sound, so we turned and followed up the line of Twenty Mile River to its source.  Upon seeing Twenty Mile Glacier and the lake it creates, I was amazed at its beauty, and surprised I had not seen any photos of it before.  It’s a spectacular glacier, nestled up against the mountains, with a decent-sized lake and another adjacent lake just around the corner.  I imagined what it would look like in better light and did what I could to capture it successfully under the conditions.  A graduated neutral density filter helped to knock down the clouds a little and allow for more detail to show in the land.  Then, with a little hop over the mountains, we were coming down over Lake George Glacier and over to Colony Glacier.  I photographed patterns – patterns of braided streams, patterns of crevasses across a river of ice, patterns of black in with the white with the rocks and the ice.

After spending some time soaring over the chaos of three glaciers spilling down into one location, we headed west along the Chugach Mountains, passing nearby Pioneer Peak and over the Knik River Bridge of the Glenn Highway.  Like before when we were heading up Turnagain Arm, the sun was peeking enough under the clouds to create a scattering of golden light on the surface of the water; this time, the Knik River.   With better light, we certainly would have stayed out longer, but as always, I still found plenty of magic to work with the landscape.

Up to Ruth Gorge

Friday, August 20th, 2010
Up to Ruth Gorge

This evening I went up with my nephew, Daniel, in a Cessna 172.  We headed up north, following the Susitna River for a good part of the flight.  Storm clouds dropped rain to our east, providing rainbows and dramatic lighting for great aerial landscapes.  As we approached Denali, it was clear that we would not get great light for all of our flight, as the mountain was partially obscured with clouds.  Fortunately, the clouds were above where we were planning on flying into the Ruth Glacier Gorge, so we headed up the gorge in the shade.

There are few areas to fly in Alaska where you can photograph so much diversity of rock, ridge, glacier, gorge, river, lake and whatever other dramatic feature you want to capture in such a small geographic area.  The diversity of lines and textures is pretty amazing, such that even in the not-so-best of light like we had, it is still possible to come away with several superb images.  I was certainly happy to merely be taking photographs and not trying to fly in what seems like such close quarters after the usual open space that is available in Alaska’s airspace.  We followed the basic route of flying up the gorge, then turning around and going back out the same way.  Due to the high number of small planes that fly in the area, mostly commercial aerial tour operators, there are several way points where a small plane is required to report its position and direction of travel.

On our way out, we took one little detour over the backside of a small lake on the edge of the glacier, then headed back down to follow the Susitna River on the way back to Anchorage.  The evening light was low, casting long shadows on agricultural features in the landscape and sending sparkling shards of light off the braided surface of the river.  Pockets of rain on all sides produced rainbows and yellow glows in the air, keeping me and my shutter busy until well after we landed.



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.


Sunday, August 15th, 2010

If you recall, we adopted a couple of new cats last November, adding to our feline family. One of those cats is a large orange Tabby named Jynx.  For the longest time after we first adopted him, he would sit up in the cat tree, looking out the window into the world.  Since this was during the winter, we did not fully appreciate why he was doing that.  Was he being anti-social?  Was he unhappy?  After a while, he gradually moved away from spending a lot of time on the cat tree and interacting more with the other cats.  This summer, we came to realize what he was doing when we first got him – he was longing for the outside world.

It started out subtle; the usual eagerness found in cats to be near open doors or windows, taking in the fresh air from the outdoors.  It moved up to standing vigil at the door, regardless of whether the door was open or closed, or perching atop the tall freezer by the door.  Eventually, he started to make escape attempts, working to force his way out the slightest opening.  One time, Daniel even obliged his longings and let him out for a supervised jaunt outdoors.  We eventually took another look at Jynx’s adoption paperwork from Animal Control, and the form indicated that he was previously an indoor/outdoor cat.

Michelle became convinced that the right thing to do was to let him start to be an outdoor cat.  He had noticeably gained weight, and he seemed to be unhappy, forced to remain indoors while longing for the freedom of the wild.  Think of him as a feline “Buck” wanting to run with the other outdoor neighborhood cats.  Oh yes, Jynx has to watch them every day from the picture window in the dining room as they prowl the perimeter of the property, looking for the next small thing to kill.

But, there were a few things that needed to change before Jynx could have his freedom.  First, we needed to update his microchip and get him some tags in the event he went on a too-long walkabout.  Second, he had to be up-to-date on the important inoculations for outdoor cats, namely feline leukemia.  Finally, there was the matter of the fur.  Jynx is not only a big cat, he has long, thick fur that tends to mat up a bit.  Not that brushing him is much of a help, because, unlike the other cats, he hates getting brushed.  Some of the other cats act more like it is an aphrodisiac – which is a bit disturbing to say the least – than a grooming ritual.  But then again, there always seems to be somewhat of  a sensual component to feline grooming.  I agreed when we took Jynx in to get his teeth cleaned that trimming his fur was a good idea.  When he came home, though, the look of shame on his face matched the horror on my own – the vet had given him a notorious “Lion” cut.

But the big barrier to Jynx’s running wild in the end is my reluctance.  My childhood experiences with outdoor cats did not end well for the cats, and we got Jynx as a “replacement” cat after losing Tash.  The thought of putting Jynx at risk by letting him roam about in the neighborhood sent unpleasant tinglings up and down my spine.  Then, I got an earful from a woman at the Bird TLC event about the evils of letting cats run around outdoors and the senseless slaughter that ensues on the local avian populations.  I could nod in agreement because I like our neighborhood birds and it also seemed like a good excuse to oppose Operation Jynx Liberation.

With the first of his two feline leukemia shots taken care of, we allowed Jynx the opportunity for a supervised visit in the backyard during a rare sunny day in our summer of rain and gloom.  Daniel was in charge of keeping an eye on him, but I sat at our lawn table, eating lunch with Michelle and watching nervously.  Jynx was definitely excited to be outdoors, but also working his way around cautiously, taking in all the smells and sounds with an attention to detail found in a military inspector.  After Jynx became increasingly animated and tough to follow around, I aborted the outdoor visit and back inside he went.

We have provided Jynx a couple more supervised visits since then, and I still remain reluctant to let freedom ring for him.  He now has his second shot, and the only thing between Jynx and the world is me.  Time will tell if my reluctance breaks.

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.

Foggy Flattop

Saturday, August 7th, 2010
Foggy Flattop

Daniel has been itching to climb a mountain ever since he arrived for his visit.  When we drove to Cooper Landing to float on the Kenai River, he marveled at the mountains in Turnagain Pass, claiming how he could hike to the top of one of them in an hour.  When we were up in Denali, we hiked behind the Polychrome Pass stop, down a ravine and up a scree slope to a ledge below a ridge line.  While Michelle and I rested and had lunch, Daniel hiked up to the top of the ridge line.  When he returned, he admitted that he had underestimated how long it would take to get up to the top of those much taller mountains in Turnagain Pass.

Even then, he was still up for a hike up to Alaska’s most frequented mountain, Flattop Mountain in Chugach State Park just above Anchorage.  Easily accessed from the Glen Alps parking lot, Flattop rises – according to “55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska” by Helen D. Nienhueser and John Wolfe, Jr. – a total of 1,260 feet from the parking lot trail head.  The high point of the mountain – 3,510 feet – gives any hiker one of the more spectacular views of the entire Anchorage bowl area.  Well, it provides a great view when the mountain isn’t socked-in by low clouds like it was for our hike.

There is a three-part approach to Flattop Mountain.  The first part takes you around a lower hill called Blueberry Knoll, which is mostly level all the way around once you make the modest ascent from the parking lot.  Once you reach the back side of Blueberry Knoll, you connect with the main trail around the eastern slope that takes you up to what I like to think of as Base Camp.  If you think of a base camp in mountaineering terms, you can understand what I mean.  Base camp is the staging area from which you make your final push up to the summit.  In the case of Flattop, it is a bunch of railroad ties staged as benches on a flat area at the base of the steep final ascent to Flattop.

As we approached the parking lot on the gravel Glen Alps Road, it became clear that the mountain was completely enshrouded in low clouds.  There were periodic bouts of clearing, leading me to hope that perhaps we would get lucky along the way.  Not that having a view is a prerequisite for a hike, but it sure helps to have one when you complete the journey – a little reward like that goes a long way.  It also gives you something to look at while you catch your breath and rest for the challenging descent.

As we worked our way around the eastern side of Blueberry Knoll, I stopped occasionally to photograph the landscape.  There were still abundant flowers blooming along the trail, and the clouds moving in and out around Flattop provided some nice drama to accent the view up to Powerline Pass.  As we started our climb up to Base Camp, we started to head into the clouds.  I noticed several patches of flowers along the way, adorning the base of lichen-covered rock faces, and made a mental note to stop on the way down to photograph.

But as we made the much slower push up to Base Camp, I noticed Daniel’s demeanor change a bit.  Perhaps he was starting to question the wisdom of his desire to climb another mountain.  My perception of his mood was reinforced with each switchback, each turn, each additional steep step (this part of the trail is reinforced with rail tie steps for erosion control), and each stop he took to rest along the way.  I think that he was relieved when I stopped to rest, as perhaps he felt that he would otherwise need to keep pushing in order to live up to his talk about scaling Alaska mountains with little effort.  When we reached base camp, the mountain was still enshrouded in thick clouds; the steep, rocky trail up to the top was only visible halfway up.  We munched on our snack bars we packed and sipped some water.  After we rested for a while with no sign from Daniel in being interested in moving on, I gave him the option: move on, or turn back.  Without hesitation, he indicated he was ready to turn back.  He had seen enough.  That was fine with me, as my left knee was starting to throb from the hike. On the way back down, we stopped to photograph those flowers I had spotted on the way up.  I had Daniel pose for some hiking shots on the trail, where he started to disappear slightly in the mist that still enveloped the hillside.

In the end, I don’t think that the experience doused Daniel’s passion for climbing mountains, but I am certain it gave him a dose of reality that will help him appreciate more what it takes to get “out there” in Alaska.

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.