Old Friends in the Landscape

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.


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