Thursday, October 5, 2017

Cold As Ice

Towards the end of each trip I take, there comes an inevitable "taking stock" moment, an in-process assessment of how great the current trip has been and how I might best remember my experiences. Usually that moment includes a decision about how many blog posts each vacation is worth and a mental sequencing of those blog posts. After the last landing on our Alaska cruise, and knowing that I'd be for sure writing a post about my pending visit to Denali National Park, I decided Alaska would get three blog posts and that would be it. Not very many for a trip of over a week in length but it would be what it was. The very next day, we sailed (using that term loosely) past the Hubbard Glacier. Now there's a fourth (and last) Alaska post.

It feels weird to be writing what I'm about to write but in a way, I was sort of no stranger to glaciers by the time I reached Hubbard. In December of 2013, I spent the better part of an Icelandic winter day walking on one; the day before I laid eyes on Hubbard, I'd spent all too short a time gazing at the Mendenhall Glacier just north of Alaska's capital of Juneau. But what I saw from the boat on that Thursday early morning blew Iceland and Mendenhall away. By a lot.

I remember two things pretty vividly from my 2013 glacier walk. First, our guide describing the glaciers as entities in motion and not just solid blocks of ice sitting in one location. Second, the incredibly beautiful and otherworldly blue color of the ice. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, think the color of blue on the white walkers. It's a perfect match to the hues in a glacier. Visiting Hubbard reinforced what I remember from December 2013 so clearly.

Small icebergs dotting the sea on the approach to the Hubbard Glacier.
I awoke on Thursday morning, August 17 in my cruise ship bed with great anticipation. Finally there was something to see from the boat itself. If I thought my first ocean cruise experience taught me anything, it was that your vacation sort of gets put on hold once you get back on the ship. That day of sailing was about to be different, at least for a few hours. There's no way I could have had the same experience on land that I was about to see from the sea.

Stepping out onto the balcony of our room that morning was cold but not overly so. Not like I needed a heavy jacket or anything. But scattered about the sea were a few icebergs. Yes, icebergs! The water was so cold that chunks of ice were not melting in the water. I'm not talking Titanic sinkers or anything here but looking down at that milky green salt water I could imagine it was close to freezing. As we headed further and further north, we picked up more and more icebergs around us.

Perhaps a little background about glaciers is in order? These things are essentially giant slow-moving freshwater frozen rivers that flow downhill based on their own weight. Along the way they erode the surface of the land by picking up chunks of rocks and flowing those down to wherever the glacier happens to end. I could tell some of the icebergs around our boat had broken off from Hubbard because I could see pretty good sized chunks of rock embedded in some of them. Yep, I was on a boat watching rocks on top of ice floating by. Pretty wild!

The Hubbard Glacier is approximately 76 miles long from beginning to end. If that seems like a long way, it is but not so much really by glacier standards. Glaciers cover approximately 10% of the Earth's land and the world's largest glacier, Lambert Glacier in Antarctica, is 60 miles wide and 270 miles long. Having just poo-pooed the size of Hubbard, it still takes the ice in the glacier approximately 400 years to travel the full 76 miles. That meant that the ice we saw at the edge of the glacier had been added to the flow in the second decade of the 1600s.

Close up look at the face of Hubbard Glacier.
While I'm speculating about just how gorgeous the entire 76 miles of the Hubbard Glacier might be, the face of the glacier where the ice met the sea was spectacularly beautiful. Glaciers are blue for two reasons: (1) they lack air bubbles which generally causes ice to look white and (2) water molecules absorb colors of the spectrum other than blue much more efficiently that they absorb blue. This is the same reason why large bodies of water often appear to be a bluish color.

The variations of blue in the face of Hubbard are amazing and you can see the layers of ice that have formed on top of one another and the debris the glacier has carried with it throughout the four centuries it has flowed to the ocean. Look at the pure white snow on the mountains in the distance to understand just how blue the palest of pale blues are. It also has these incredible vertical cracks splitting the horizontal layers. The amount of pressure the ice must have been under to make those kinds of cracks must be immense.

When we finally got as close as we could get, we were staring at a wall of ice probably (and I'm guessing here because there was nothing really to give it any sort of scale) about 50 feet high. In some spots it was barely clinging on to itself where the horizontal strata clearly showed some signs that it looked to be collapsing into the ocean.

A portion of the glacier collapsing into the sea.
And indeed sitting and watching that's exactly what happened. In the hour or so we sat on the boat close to the glacier, piece after piece fell into the ocean to be reclaimed by the sea and let more of the ice behind get ready to do the same. If you had asked me what I expected the face of a glacier to look like, I would have thought it tapered into the land or sea at its end. The view of pieces breaking off a sheer wall was unexpected but likely way more impressive than an edge tapering to nothing and slowly drip-melting into the sea.

This sounds stupid but standing and watching, it was obvious the glacier was moving. Not so much by the fact that some of it was actually collapsing into the water but by the sounds you could hear. Glacier watching is very much an aural experience as well as a visual one. The sounds we were hearing were described as "white thunder": creaking, squeaking sounds caused by the ice compressing itself and moving and cracking under its own weight before releasing the pressure and moving again. Between these creaking sounds, every so often there were sounds that I imagine are just what an avalanche sounds like: slowly building rushing sounds like a lot of fine powder is descending from a great height.

Admittedly, watching a glacier is not too exciting and staying out on our balcony and later on deck for a time that lasted maybe two and a half hours total I didn't see a whole lot happen. But it's not like I will ever see this much again in the future. I don't have too many cold weather destinations on my list and I certainly don't have a lot of boat rides planned in those places that get that cold. Spending a small portion of one morning in my life watching this was worth it. And a total unexpected surprise for a time when I expected my vacation to go back on hold. Watching this wall of blue ice and hearing it move and tear and splinter against the backdrop of Alaska's mountains was a good morning.

The Hubbard Glacier from afar with the cold cold sea in front and the massive mountains behind.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Totem Poles

A long time ago, Raven and his two slaves built a camp at the mouth of a river. Towards the end of the year, they went out fishing to stock up for the winter but could catch nothing to keep them fed through the cold months. One day a woman appeared to them out of the fog that had set in that day. Neither raven nor his slaves saw her approach. She knew they were hungry so asked raven for his hat, which she then turned upside down and out of the fog in the hat drew some salmon. These were the first salmon ever created.

Raven took the woman back to his camp and married her and she produced salmon for him and his slaves every day. Eventually raven started to take his wife for granted and became critical of her. In a moment of anger one day, he argued with her and hit her and she fled from him. He followed and tried to grab her but each time he closed his arms they went right through her, like she was made of fog. She ran until she reached the water and then kept going into the sea where she disappeared and took the salmon with her.

There are variations of the story of fog woman up and down the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Canada and Alaska. In some versions, fog woman is a chief's daughter who grants raven the right to marry. The story explains the origin of the salmon that are a critical part of the diet for peoples who have lived in that area of the world. Every spring when the fog returns to the land from the ocean, it is fog woman returning along with the salmon who start making their way upstream to their traditional spawning grounds.

Fog woman with salmon. Raven sits above her; the two slaves are below. Totem Bight State Park, Ketchikan.
When I was a kid growing up in England, I played with toy cowboys and toy indians. I'm not placing any value judgment on that activity; I'm just stating it as a fact. Back in the 1970s in England, I was fascinated by America and that for sure included the old west. I loved watching western themed shows and movies on the limited television we could get back then. At some point I'm sure I couldn't get enough of cowboys and indians.

Among the sheriffs and braves and outlaws and chiefs in my toy collection, there was a totem pole, something I probably at that time assumed was placed in the middle of every native American camp back in the 1800s or whenever I imagined the battles between these two sides were happening. I am fairly positive that the toys I owned as a kid were intended to depict the native Americans that lived on the plains of the central United States, nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples who lived in tepees. I believe this because I know I owned a toy tepee for my toy indians (I promise that will be the last time I use that term) to stand outside and fight off the cowboys.

Sometimes it takes a while for you to erase the beliefs you held as a child. Over the past almost four decades I've lived in this country I've been to a number of former or current native American communities, mostly the pueblo cultures in the American southwest. Not once did I ever see a totem pole in any of the places I visited. I wasn't particularly looking for them but they for sure weren't there. They never existed. Not in that part of the country. My toys were wrong.

In the last 40 years, I didn't question the toys I played with as a child because I probably just wasn't thinking about whether totem poles were carved by the Sioux or the Zuni or the Iroquois or whomever else I supposed I was playing with back then. Now I have. It took a trip to Vancouver and Alaska to make me think of this again. The reason my toys were wrong is simple: the native Americans who carved totem poles weren't on the great plains or the deserts of the southwest or the forests of New England. They were in the Pacific northwest. And that's the only place you can find true totem poles in their original locations today or at any other time.

Salish Grandparents and Grandchildren Gateway, Stanley Park, Vancouver.
Among the First Nations peoples, the carving of totem poles was a practice limited to six native American groups: the Chinook, Coast Salish, Bella Coola, Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit. The range covered by these peoples stretched from present day southern Oregon or maybe northern California in the south all the way north to just above the top of the Alaska panhandle. I've listed the tribes in order from south to north in this paragraph. 

These people didn't live in tepees like the toys I owned in England; they lived in long wooden communal houses called plank houses which held about 40-50 people or so usually associated with a single clan. In the center of these houses was typically a fire pit around which the family would gather on cold nights. A village would be comprised of a number of these plank houses. Their lifestyles and living habits were shaped by the geography and climate where they lived. It was cold in winter which required sturdy dwellings that could be heated in winter. And cedar, a most durable wood building material, was plentiful for building these houses. 

In front of their plank houses, you would frequently find a totem pole. In some cases the house itself might have a totem pole integrated into the construction and maybe used to hold the roof of the house aloft or denote the entrance to the dwelling. Or sometimes the poles would be shared in between houses or erected in a village for a festival. 

I admit I am fascinated by totem poles, so a trip up the Canadian and Alaskan coast had to include a visit or two or three to see different types of poles in the area of the world that they were first invented. Before I set off for the beginning of our trip in Vancouver, Canada, I admired these things as works of art. On a basic level these poles are composed of graphically striking and brightly colored animal and human figures stacked on top of one another (not really stacked, but carved out of a single tree to resemble that). On a deeper level they must have some sort of symbology to them. I was determined to find out more by the time I disembarked from our boat at the end of our journey.

Seven totem poles at Brockton Point. Stanley Park, Vancouver.
Our totem pole journey started in Stanley Park, a large green space just to the northwest of downtown Vancouver. Towards the eastern tip of the park, known as Brockton Point, there is a collection of a dozen or so totem poles and gateways of various origins, or more accurately, carved in a few different styles. Totem poles don't last forever, so the poles in Stanley Park are not works from a hundred or more years ago but are instead either copies of earlier poles or original works in the style of a particular tribe. If you are staying in downtown Vancouver, Brockton point is a good 45 to 60 minute walk depending on where you are staying, but it's an easy flat stroll and totally worth the effort.

Most of the poles in this location have a plaque explaining its origin  or style, what exactly is carved and the meaning of each different symbol or animal or figure. In reading each plaque and studying each totem pole, we started to notice similar images on more than one pole: ravens, eagles, thunderbirds, halibut, killer whales (or orca), bears, wolves, beavers and frogs. In addition to the birds, fish and mammals that are indigenous to the area, there are human figures: tribal chiefs; or symbols of men or women or children; or figures from mythology of the region like fog woman.

Each pole generally tells a story, whether it's of a particular tale with a plot like the story of raven and fog woman or the history of the family or individual who commissioned the pole or in whose honor it was carved and erected. Families were usually associated with particular animals and in some cases the members of the family believed they were descended from the wolf or the bear or the raven or some other creature. It would all be laid out in the totem pole.

Three totem poles at the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary, Ketchikan. Spot the octopus, beaver and snow crab.
Stanley Park is a great place to start a journey to learn about all these symbols because there are a significant number of poles of different origins and functions together in one spot. There are modern and ancient poles. There are poles that were self supporting and those which held up part of a plank house. There are also special purpose poles, like a mortuary pole which held the remains of a great chief. You can appreciate the breadth of meaning of both the poles and the individual characters on each pole.

From Vancouver, you might want to head north to Ketchikan, Alaska (we did!) which is located on Revillagigedo Island several hundred miles to the north of Vancouver. A drive will take you about 25 hours or so. The best way to get there may be by boat or plane. When you arrive you will find an area which boasts more totem poles than any other spot in the world. 

Totem poles are seemingly everywhere around Ketchikan. Take your pick of wandering around downtown and looking at the few located in that area (including the totem pole from the page numbered 25 in the U.S. passport) or spending time at the Totem Heritage Center about a half a mile northeast of town or one of the couple of parks located on the Island dedicated to totem poles. There are buses running through Ketchikan and to the north and south so all these spots are accessible via public transportation for free (in the downtown area) or a couple of bucks each way (if you are headed further afield).

We opted to head north on the Silver Line bus for 40 minutes or so to Totem Bight State Park, a spot on the west coast of the Island with a walking trail and 14 poles of Haida or Tlingit origin or tradition as well as a replica of a Tlingit clan house or plank house, which gave us an opportunity to understand the places where the carvers and their families traditionally lived.

Tlingit clan house with a totem pole serving as the front entrance. The pole in the foreground shows a halibut and otter.
As a second major stop on a totem pole pilgrimage, Totem Bight was fantastic. The couple of days separation from Vancouver along with maybe a little reading on the subject picked up at the Legends of the Moon gift store in Stanley Park gave us a little time to process what we had learned from our first stop. We were able to spot eagles and orca and beavers pretty easily in the poles. We were even able to pick out fog woman in one of the poles, identifiable by the salmon she held in each hand.

So what do these things all mean? Well as you might expect, the different animals typically have multiple meanings. The eagle is a symbol of peace or friendship. The raven is a trickster capable of help or harm but is also a symbol of the creator. The orca or blackfish is a symbol of the sea and strength. The appearance of these creatures in totem poles either tells parts of a story or symbolize characteristics or origin stories of the families who commissioned them.

The walking loop at Totem Bight is a leisurely maybe hour long stroll, leaving enough time to study the poles, check out the clan house (entered through a hole in the front totem) and look out over the water and shoreline for maybe some bear or orca (we didn't see any). There are different types of imagery at Totem Bight from that we found at Stanely Park in Vancouver. We saw the devil fish (or octopus) in one of the pcles and in another found a man wearing a brimmed hat, which was traditionally worn at occasions where stories were told. The more you see of these things, the more you can appreciate the depth of meaning and connections to the past.

One thing we didn't expect to see on our trip to Ketchikan was the actual carving of a totem pole, but here we were wrong. 

The first thing we did when we got to Ketchikan was head south to the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary where we planned on spending a couple of hours trying to spot black bears and bald eagles fishing for salmon in the stream running through the property. In addition to getting some amazing looks at these animals and a family of river otters, we found the workshop of Wayne Hewson, a Tsimshian who has been carving totem poles for almost 20 years.

Admittedly, not a whole lot got done in the 15 minutes or so we watched Wayne work but you could get a sense of how much work goes into these things and just how big the single cedar trees they are working with are. There were clearly some non-traditional images in the pole he was working on the day we were there, including some very large mosquitoes which we had heard before we set foot in the state referred to tongue-in-cheek as the state bird of Alaska, which caused a good deal of concern to us about the size of these insects (we saw pretty much zero mosquitoes in our almost week in state).

If I was fascinated and curious about totem poles before I went on this trip, I remain more so now that I've scratched the surface just a little bit on what these carved poles mean and have meant to the people who carved them. What before to me were pretty striking works of art now have a depth of meaning that I didn't understand before setting foot in Stanley Park earlier last month.

I have been buying knick-knacks or tchotchkes or whatever you want to call them wherever I've been in this going on five year journey. Right behind three small alien figures (from Roswell, NM) and a model of Hohensalzburg Fortress (from, you guessed it, Salzburg, Austria) sits a very small totem pole with a raven figure sitting atop a beaver (the protector, by the way). Like all the other items on my desk that I've accumulated over the last 50 or so months, my tiny totem pole is a reminder of where I've been, specifically my time in Vancouver and Alaska. It is also a symbol of how travel has enriched my knowledge of our planet's history. 

Ketchikan was one of the two best days we spent on this trip (along with our full day in Denali National Park) and one of the big reasons for the fond memories of that day is our stops at the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary and Totem Bight State Park learning about and deciphering totem poles. I can't imagine I'm setting foot in Alaska any time soon again. Don't get me wrong, it's on the list somewhere but there's a ton of stuff ahead of it including like three California trips. If I do ever get back there, Saxman Totem Village and the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan are way high up on my list.

Thunderbird, Stanley Park, Vancouver.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Alaskan Wildlife

If visiting Denali National Park was the primary objective of our Alaska trip (and it was!) then getting a quality look at a ton of wildlife both at Denali and elsewhere in the state was one of our primary secondary goals. Alaska has a collection of wild animals that is probably unrivalled by any other state in the union and we were determined to see as much as we could see in our time both on land and on the water while there.

To that end, we made two decisions prior to embarking on this trip. First, we made sure our focus at every stop we made on our trip up the coast from Vancouver, British Columbia to Seward, Alaska was to make animals the number one priority. So before we made landfall at Ketchikan, Icy Strait Point, Juneau and Skagway (in that order), we made sure we had some kind of wildlife viewing excursion planned and booked.

The second decision we made wasn't related to the destination, but how we might get better looks at, and photographs of, the animals we hoped we'd see. Quite simply here, we bought a new camera.

Two harbor seals along the Lynn Canal near Skagway, including one doing his best rock impression.
Since I started this blog in 2013, I've been photographing pretty much everything everywhere I've gone with an iTouch, iPad, iPhone or the old Blackberry Torch that I clung to for far too long like some really weird security blanket (it's still to this day my alarm clock at home). In other words, I've been working for the last four plus years with some pretty low horsepower cameras. For most posts I've written on this blog, this hasn't mattered. These portable devices are good enough in most circumstances for me to get by.

But I really felt the deficiency in the camera department when we visited Africa in August of 2015. The kinds of details I wanted to get in photographing the gorgeous wild animals we saw on that trip just wasn't possible with the hardware I brought along. We also saw briefly the power of using a real camera to get closeup views at animals a long way away when a family we were on safari with us showed us just how good their camera's zoom was. They got some incredible shots of a lion yawning that we could barely see with our naked eyes.

So with a second safari trip on the horizon (so excited!!!) and our Alaska trip immediately in front of us where we hoped to get great views of bear, moose, wolves, whales and all sorts of other stuff, we decided to spend a little money on a new camera. What we ended up with was the Nikon COOLPIX P900. I don't usually promote products through this blog but we think the results are pretty incredible. It made our experience in Alaska so much better by allowing us to see and photograph details of animals at a distance that we couldn't possibly make out without the camera. To that end, all the shots on this post were taken with our new camera. Enough about that for now.

The best look we got at a coastal brown bear in the Spasski Valley. Thanks to our driver, Buddy, for the spot.
If you thought you could see all the wildlife in Alaska in Denali National Park, you'd be wrong. In fact, we didn't see any significant wildlife (magpies don't count) outside of Denali that we saw inside Denali except for a single moose by the side of the road. And that was on the drive south from the Park to the Anchorage airport. There are two main reasons for this: (1) there's no ocean near Denali and there are some creatures that just can't live away from the sea and (2) Denali has no salmon, and there are some animals that rely on those fish returning to their spawning ground to survive.

If there was a quality wildlife sighting we got in profusion all the way up the Alaskan coast, it was the bald eagle. There are an estimated 70,000 of these birds in all of North America with 30,000 of them being in Alaska. Consider that these birds need to be near places well stocked with fish like the sea, rivers or lakes, and it's no surprise there are a ton of them along the Alaska coast. We saw so many, in fact, that by the time we got to our last port of Skagway we were almost ready to ignore them, move on and see something else. Spoiled, I know.

If there's one thing we were taught early and often about bald eagles on this trip by our wildlife guides, it was how to spot them. The universal instruction at each stop was look for "golf balls" in the trees. Remarkably, this worked. Find a small white speck in the tree that makes up the Alaskan rainforests and nine out of ten times it will be a bald eagle. Do the zoom thing on the camera on a white spot and it usually ended up being one of these birds.

Bald eagle in the Alaskan Rainforest Sanctuary in Ketchikan.
Bald eagles are territorial, meaning you will only see a pair in about every mile or so of coast, although based on what we saw a bit inland, territories either overlap or are just plain ignored when it comes to scavenging for salmon heading upstream somewhere. Eagle pairs mate for life and keep returning to the same nest year after year. They also manage to supplement the materials used to build those nests every time they come back. We were told by our guide that picked us up in Icy Strait Point that after a while these homes can get to weigh a lot, like over 1,500 pounds, and can even collapse from their own weight. We saw a few pretty large ones on our way up the coast and I'd believe they can get to be pretty heavy.

In addition to bald eagles all along the length of the coast, our two best wildlife spotting days were on a whale watching trip just outside of Juneau and a stroll in the Tongass National Forest just south of Ketchikan, although we did manage to see one coastal brown bear very quickly in the Spasski Valley and got a great look at a number of harbor seals in the Lynn Canal (which is not a canal at all; it's a fjord) near Skagway.

Our trip to watch whales near Juneau was not my first whale watching trip. I've done that as recently as last year in Hawaii and before that off the coasts of Iceland, California, Seattle and Boston. Whale watching is above all an exercise in patience. Be prepared most trips to see very little and wait a long time between sightings that can ultimately be disappointing. Every once in a while you may get lucky and see some splashing or a full body breach or a feeding frenzy (which quite honestly is awesome!) but if you are humpback watching, you will likely have to settle for some back arching and then some flukes every once in a while before a deep dive. If you are unlucky (like we were in Iceland), your whale watch will ultimately end up just being a ride on a boat.

Two whales coming up for air near Juneau.
We were not unlucky in our whale watching off of Juneau. In fact, we saw a ton of humpback whales in the couple of hours we were at sea. The humpbacks come to Alaskan waters in the summer to feed on the enormous schools of krill and herring that populate the ocean just off the coast during the summer months. They arrive from, of all places, Hawaii, having spent the winter months mating, giving birth and beginning to nurse their young calves.

The problem with Hawaii? There's absolutely nothing for these whales to eat. So they just can't stay down there for very long. As soon as their newborn kids are ready to make the 3,000 mile journey to the feeding grounds they set out for the long trip north. And yes, they do it without any food. Well, not the newborns; they suckle on their mother's milk during the trip. But the adults go without and simply live off their fat reserves that are built up during the prior summer's feeding off Alaska. Must be awful and nice at the same time. As much as I love food, I'd love to be able to live off my personal fat reserves some days instead of bothering to eat. And rest assured, I have fat reserves.

Most of the whale sightings we got in our couple of hours at sea were fairly typical humpback sightings. That is keeping an eye out for spray emanating from the water then watching around that spot for some more spray and maybe the tiny dorsal fins that the humpbacks sport (see the photograph above for the typical look). There were clearly a lot of whales in the waters along with our boat which was exciting. We got some great looks at some flukes when they decided to dive, like the picture below and saw groups of up to three whales together, which was pretty cool. Although as usual, you don't get to see much of the whale at all.

Humpbacks can get up to 50 feet in length, which on a cold rainy day at a good distance is difficult to perceive. Whales are the largest mammals (or animals for that matter) on the planet. See one of these creatures up close and you really get a sense for how huge these things really are. At the distance we were at that day, we didn't get a chance to appreciate that.

A great look at the top side of a humpback whale's fluke. These are the signature looks on most whale watches.
Most whale watching trips usually get you a look at some other species of marine fish or mammal and our excursion that day was no exception. When we were heading back to port we got an awesome look at some Steller sea lions lounging on a buoy. These sea lions are the largest variety in the world (apparently walrus do not qualify as sea lions) and got their name (which is not misspelled) from, Georg Wilhelm Steller, who was the first (white man) to describe them in 1741.

I'm guessing the seven animals crowed onto the buoy below are likely younger males who are not full sized. Either that or they are further away than I realized or on a much larger buoy than I perceived because they don't look larger than some of the sea lions I've seen in other parts of the world. Sea lions are a great bonus animal on a whale watching trip. I've seen other species on other trips but never the Stellers, which are apparently in near threatened status, which is troubling but probably not alarming since sea lions all look similar but also appear to be all over the place.

Steller sea lions crowded onto a buoy in the waters off Juneau.
As exciting as our looks at whales, coastal brown bears and eagles (I think the picture of the eagle near along the Lynn Canal near Skagway at the top of this post is my favorite; I love the eye) were in our last three stops in Alaska, I think our favorite day was the few hours we spent at the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary just south of Ketchikan on our first day ashore. The rainforest's signature residents are their black bears, which would be the only black bears we would see on this trip. We got some fantastic looks at these creatures on that day, along with some other mammals and birds (and of course more bald eagles).

The Sanctuary is privately owned and just 10 acres in size but running through their property is a river which is a salmon spawning run. That means the land attracts both bears and birds looking for some food during the time of the year that the salmon are heading upstream to their birthplaces. The property had an existing sawmill which is still in place (although no longer used for that purpose) and the folks that bought the property have installed some elevated wooden walkways to allow humans to wander (with an escort) around the place while keeping them separated from the bears, which is good. As cuddly as black bears look, I'm in no hurry to surprise one of them in the woods. 

Other than the couple of new walkways, the place has been left as to allow the wildlife to have freedom to roam wherever they please, including off property if they so desire. It's not a zoo and it is not fenced.

Black bear siting up after a feed on some fresh salmon. 
The Sanctuary offers two tours. We signed up for the Bear Country & Wildlife Expedition which totaled about a little more than two hours on site with about a 30 minute bus ride from downtown Ketchikan on each end. It was one of the best things we did on our Alaska vacation, including being in Denali National Park.

I think it's always good to keep your expectations low on wildlife viewing excursions, especially when dealing with solitary animals rather than herd animals. Bears are for sure solitary; you will not find a pack of bears roaming around the woods together unless it's a mother and a couple of cubs and even then three probably doesn't constitute a pack. It's difficult to say whether we got lucky on this tour or whether the kind of sightings we got occur every day but the bear viewing was fantastic. As soon as we showed up we caught a glimpse of a female bear catching a fish before retreating purposefully but quickly out of sight. Without a chance for even a quick picture.

Turns out there would be plenty more opportunities that morning. This bear was obviously hungry, because we watched her come back for two more salmon later in the day. The last of the three provided us probably the greatest pictures. Not only did she walk right below the edge of the elevated walkway (you can see the claws in pretty good detail in the photograph below), we also got to watch her pick up a salmon and take it into the woods and eat it about ten feet from us. That feast didn't yield a great picture because the trees were in the way, but it was an opportunity to watch a bear feeding in a way that you don't encounter every day. At least I don't.

Close up look at the first bear we saw at the Alaskan Rainforest Sanctuary...
and walking with a salmon in her mouth. Yes, the salmon is huge!
That bear was the first of two we would see in our time at the Sanctuary. The other was a little larger and spent her time walking along the side and middle of an inland forest stream before retreating into the woods with a fish she just caught. We did get some pictures of that bear also but the best bear pictures we got were clearly of the first bear so I have not posted any here. 

As excited as we were about the bears, we were equally thrilled to see three or four bald eagles and a family of river otters. It was our first look at bald eagles on our vacation and we probably got some of our signature looks at these birds at this location, including the one below of one of these birds standing on a rock in the rain.

The great thing about the bald eagles we saw at the Sanctuary was that they were doing something fundamentally different than we observed at other locations. Instead of nesting, sitting in trees and flying over the open water, the eagles near Ketchikan were scavenging in relative comfort, meaning they felt at ease on the ground feeding on half eaten salmon, some of which were possible bear kills. It was the only time we ever saw them on the ground so we got to see how they moved on their feet rather than by using their wings.

Bald eagle in the rain. I love how the rain is captured on camera.
So about that camera again...

Our visit to the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary and all the other stops all the way up the coast were just amazing opportunities to spot wildlife up close or from afar but I wouldn't have the memories I have now without our new camera. I've decided to show the best few on this post but we for sure have tons more of eagles, bears, whale tails and the same river otter family in addition to the animals and birds we saw in Denali later on in the week.

Just a couple of more plugs for this camera before closing. Obviously we are thrilled with the performance. It was cold and rainy some days we were out looking for wildlife and it stood up to these conditions well. It is also super light and super easy to use after a bit of practice. This for sure is going to serve us well on our early 2018 safari in East Africa.

But sometimes it's the small things that put you over the top in situations like this and one of the best features of the camera is that it has its own wifi, meaning we can (and did) download pictures from the camera to our phones and iPads on the fly, allowing us in the case of the iPad downloads to check out how good the pictures we were taking turned out in an instant. I'm definitely looking forward to getting a lot more use out of this thing in the future. It's going to make blogging a whole lot more fun too knowing I can get some really great images to go along with my writing. I'll stop endorsing now. I hope you like these pictures as much as we do. Many more to come.

River otters. Check another species off my "never seen" list.

Monday, September 4, 2017


When I published the initial post of this five year blog on my 45th birthday, I made some commitments to myself. One of those commitments was to make it to either Alaska or Hawaii or both. Four years and a couple of months later, I've made it to both. 45 states down, five to go!

When I first committed to the idea of going to Hawaii, I had one destination on my list: Volcanoes National Park on The Big Island. When I first decided it was time to head north to Alaska, I also had one destination on my list: Denali National Park. I wanted to go to Volcanoes because I wanted to see lava flowing over the cliffs of the island and turning instantly to rock when it hit the ocean. I didn't get to see that. Instead, I saw the glow of the bubbling molten rock in the Kilauea Caldera from a distance of about eight miles. I wanted to visit Denali because I wanted to see how massive the mountain is and to get a good look at the amazing wildlife in the Park. Consider this paragraph some foreshadowing. Remember that I wrote "some".

When we landed on The Big Island last February, we headed straight for Volcanoes National Park. It took us about 45 minutes. When we landed on mainland Alaska last month, we headed straight for Denali National Park. It took us about seven hours. If you are planning on stepping off a cruise ship in Seward and heading straight north to Denali, be prepared for a long ride. And make sure you fill your gas tank before you leave Anchorage. You might regret leaving Anchorage with less than a half a tank. Just saying.

Before I continue with this post, perhaps a quick stop is in order to provide some background and clarify some terms. Denali National Park and Preserve is an area of Alaska about 4.7 million acres in size set aside as the third largest National Park in the United States (number one and number two are also in Alaska). I'm going to refer to it in this post as Denali National Park or just the Park. Running throughout the south portion of the Park are the Alaska Range mountains which includes the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet above sea level. That mountain was called Denali by the Athabaskan peoples but was named Mount McKinley by a gold prospector in 1896 in support of then presidential candidate William McKinley, who went on to win the office. The name Denali was restored officially by the Obama administration in 2015. I will be using Denali for the mountain name and not Mount McKinley. If you are somehow a McKinley supporter and object to that, get over it or just hit the close button.

Day one's best wildlife sighting: a snowshoe hare. Seriously. They'll turn white in the winter.
Driving north to Denali gives you a lot of time to take in the gorgeous scenery and watch out for moose at the side of the road as advertised about every two miles. After a few hours depending on your point of departure, you'll reach Denali State Park and a pull-off called Denali View South. You might want to get off the highway at this point and see if you can see the peak if it's a sunny day. Remember it's Alaska.

Because we were anxious to just get there and we'd been driving long enough already, we skipped this stop on the way up and kept going to the National Park, which is north of the State Park. But from the point we skipped Denali View South until almost the time we got to the Park, we kept trying to guess which mountain was Denali. It's a difficult task on a cloudy day (read: a typical Alaskan day) because the top of just about every mountain around you is shrouded in mist. And that's considering you already know in which direction the mountain lies. Which we really didn't.

After a few mis-fires (maybe that's it? or that? that looks big!) we started to wonder if we'd be impressed at all with how high it was. Would the mountain even appear to be that big if it's embedded in a range? Would we be astounded by something obviously higher than anything else in sight or be faced with a peak just a few hundred feet higher than its neighbor? Clearly we hadn't done much research on this subject and didn't know really what to expect.

Then at around mile marker 214 on Alaska Highway 3 we found ourselves driving towards a massive wall of a mountain, something so wide that it filled the entire windshield. It was also engulfed in clouds at such a point that it seemed like this peak could get really lofty. This had to be it, right? I mean it was just huge.

Nope. Nowhere close. We drove around that mountain and kept going. After that, embarrassed by our failures, we just gave up and drove, convinced we could just ask a ranger at the Park to point it out to us. We were fools to expect this, although we didn't know it yet.

As it turned out, we weren't really anywhere close to Denali at any point along the drive. The visitors center is a good 40 plus miles from the mountain and we never really got closer than that on the way up there. All our speculation was for naught. To make matters worse for us, we couldn't even see it when we got to the visitors center because of cloud cover. We never saw it at all that first day of our two day visit.

Willow ptarmigan. Another of Denali's residents who will turn pure white in winter. Very excited. No sarcasm.
Of the 4.7 million acres in Denali National Park (which is larger than Connecticut by the way), vehicular access is restricted to about 92 miles into the Park. And that's not your own vehicle; if you want to drive yourself, you can only go about 15 miles before you have to turn around and go back. We wanted to explore the Park as deep as possible in our limited time there. To do that, we had two options.

Option one: hop on one of the free shuttle buses that takes you further into the Park than mile 15 and let the driver know where to let us off so we could go hike around some. Now I don't know about you but the thought of walking around in the woods where I could stumble upon a moose in heat (it was rutting season while we were there), a grizzly bear mama with cubs (read: extremely protective) or a pack of wolves (no explanation needed; I mean it's a pack of wolves) didn't exactly appeal to me. Let's take a look at option two.

Option two would be to take one of the paid bus tours available through the National Park Service website. We opted for the seven to eight hour version called the Tundra Wilderness Tour which would take us right to the Stoney Hill Overlook just a bit more than 60 miles into the Park. We hoped along the way we'd get some quality wildlife sightings (see above for the spectacular look at animals we got on our own on day one) and maybe a clear look at the mountain at the end of the drive.

Up at 5:45 a.m., check out of the hotel 30 minutes later, a half hour drive to the Wilderness Access Center, a quick breakfast of a half bag of White Cheddar Cheez-Its washed down with some water and I was ready for a morning and afternoon on a slightly deluxe schoolbus, complete with the almost-impossible-to-open and just a bit more almost-impossible-to-close single hung windows. Ahh the unexpected memories of junior high and high school that this trip evoked.

Four hours later, after passing beyond the public access point and making our way over the one way and totally unpaved Polychrome Pass about halfway on our route that featured breathtaking (I mean that not in a good way) un-guardrailed drop offs about four feet from the bus and I was ready to be shown the highest mountain in North America. Bring it on! After a long drive and a few stops for restroom breaks, I was ready to be awed at Stoney Point Overlook. What we found was fog and the view below.

Spot the Denali. Can you see it? No way, right? Total disappointment.
Yep that's right. A flight from Dulles to Toronto then Toronto to Vancouver, followed by a seven day cruise northward and a seven hour drive and an overnight stay and all I got to see of Denali in the Park was the view above. Bummer. If there's one thing for sure about Mother Nature, it's that she is not one to cooperate every time you need her to. She denied me the Aurora Borealis in Iceland in 2013 and she denied me Denali this summer. According to our bus driver, this year has been especially bad. Instead of seeing the mountain for 20 to 30 days in a summer, this year his days visible count was 11. Told you there was some foreshadowing.

We came to Denali for two reasons, remember? The mountain was obviously a disappointment. But as it turned out we made out pretty well on the wildlife side, although it didn't necessarily seem like that was going to work out at first either.

We entered the Park on day two with a 15 mile drive into the park under our belt and an already seen wildlife list which consisted of about six magpies and maybe a dozen snowshoe hare, which apparently breed like rabbits, or so I'm assuming. Our luck had to change on day two, right? And it did. About five or ten minutes into the drive we spotted a young bull moose on the road. Of course, we didn't get in line for the bus quite as soon as we could have so we ended up near the back of the bus and didn't see the moose well from that position. We certainly didn't get a picture. Bummer on that account, too.

Ten minutes further down the road though, the back of the bus got its look at some willow ptarmigan. Now, I can sense maybe you are feeling some sarcasm but I'm not disappointed with my close up look at these birds. I might have been if that's all we'd see that day but it wasn't. Checking out a ptarmigan or two close up was a treat. If I'd been there about three months later they would have been totally white and the ultimate winter survival bird, able to keep their body temperatures up in outside conditions way below 0 degrees fahrenheit. Cool stuff!

Dall's sheep rams. Not a great picture but considering the half mile or more distance, pretty good after all.
Ultimately though, we didn't come for the ptarmigan and I am happy to say that we got a good look at three of Denali's signature residents later in our tour: the Dall's sheep, the caribou and the grizzly bear. No wolves (sorry to spoil the suspense) but some pretty amazing looks at the other three species. And being at the back of the bus really didn't hurt us after the non-photographed moose. The school bus actually facilitates double sided viewing and photographing of wildlife in a way that shocks me even as I am typing these words. Plus it helps to have some fellow travelers that are interested in getting everyone in the bus a good look at what's outside. Thanks to the total strangers on the bus with us for that.

Ever heard of Dall's sheep? Nope? Neither had I. Had no clue there was such an animal. They are sort of like a bighorn sheep (in that they have big horns) except the ones we saw were totally white. We spotted several groups of these animals way up on the slopes of some of the higher mountains at three locations on our drive. Carry a good pair of binoculars or a good camera if you want to get a decent look at them walking calmly and steadily over a landscape that seems to be littered with loose rocks ready to plummet down the sides of the mountains in a rock slide at any time. Dall's sheep were definitely a surprise. Check a new animal that I never knew existed off my "seen in the wild" list.

I don't usually get too excited about sheep, but throw a pair of enormous curved horns on them and I'm all about checking them out. The same sort of logic applies to deer except even more so because even with pretty big horns on them I can't find much to get excited about with deer. I can see some variety of deer species (albeit mostly dead on the side of the road) with horns near my home in northern Virginia. Heck, I saw one running through downtown Washington, D.C. one day on the way to work. I can't see what the fuss is here.
Three caribou grazing on a hillside on the way to Stoney Point Overlook.
Unless...they have like really really big antlers. And caribou have enormous and extremely lavish racks. Caribou are worth checking out.

While the attraction for me about the caribou is clearly their headgear, there are some other pretty notable aspects of caribou life to get excited about. Their herds can get to be enormous. By that I mean like half a million animals enormous. And some species of caribou have the largest migratory range of any land animal, sometimes with individual caribou traveling up to 3,000 miles with the total herd covering a range almost 400,000 square miles.

We didn't see herds as big as this, although honestly that alone would have been worth the price of admission for the bus ride and way way more. We spotted seven or eight of these animals a good distance off the bus on our way out to Stoney Point Overlook and managed to get a closer look at a pair on the way back. The couple on the return trip got us a great look at the sheer size and complexity of the horns these things grow. It's amazing these things even walk around with such horns on their heads, although I suppose the weight of the curved back portion of the antler is somehow well balanced with the two prongs and the fan-shaped appendage on the front. I doubt I'll get a better look at these animals in the wild ever. Their habitat is not somewhere I usually end up traveling.

A closer up look at two caribou on the journey out of the Park.
And then there were the bears. We saw a total of three bears in Denali. That might not seem like very many bears, although it's not like these things travel in huge packs. Yet it was a completely unforgettable experience.

There are five kinds of bears in Alaska: polar bears, black bears and brown bears with brown bears coming in Kodiak, coastal brown and grizzly varieties (listed in order of size from largest to smallest). In Denali, it's all about the grizzlies, which in many respects are the coolest of all the bears despite their smallish (for a bear) size. You can argue with me about polar bears being the coolest and I'd probably concede but I haven't yet seen a polar bear in the wild in real life yet so I'm partial to grizzlies right now.

It had been years since I'd seen a grizzly in the wild. We spent maybe 15 or 20 minutes years ago in Yellowstone National Park watching a grizzly dig in the ground looking for food at a distance of maybe a quarter to a half a mile away. This encounter was closer and cooler. About a mile or two before we got to the turning point on our drive we came across a female grizzly and her two cubs and we were able to watch for a little while on our first sighting and then again on the way back.

Mama bear in search of some food. Or just on patrol maybe.
Mama bear and the cubs finding food together.
Mother grizzlies keep their cubs with them for two to three years. It seemed to me that these cubs were about half the size of mama so I'm guessing they were likely about two years old (there's admittedly some speculation on my part here). The majority of the time we watched, the cubs spent their time eating with maybe a little bit of play under the watchful eye of mom. We were lucky enough to see the mother allow some freedom of movement by the cubs before corralling them back into her immediate vicinity every so often. Grizzly mothers have to be protective of their cubs from the biggest threat to their existence: a full grown male grizzly bear.

We managed to secure some great pictures in our two looks at this bear family and were unfortunately able to tell that one of the two cubs had a damaged or hurt left paw. He kept limping along after his sibling as the family moved through the grass. Mother bear seemed at times that she was aware of our presence on the bus but certainly seemed unaffected by our being there, which is awesome that these creatures can live in their natural environment like this.

One of the cubs on his back playing. Looks like he's got a stick or something in his mouth.
What you looking at, tourist?
It took us a while to get to Denali on our first full day on land in Alaska but it was totally worth it, even if we managed to miss the mountain entirely. Despite the lack of a clear look at the peak, we did manage to gate some awesome (if sporadic) looks at wildlife in the form of three bears; one moose; a dozen or fewer caribou;  plenty of Dall's sheep from afar; and smaller critters like the ptarmigan and hare and one solitary arctic ground squirrel. The only unfortunate part about the ride home (in this case to the Anchorage airport) is once you've driven a while to get to a place, you are going to have to backtrack for an equal amount of time to get back to where you started from.

We didn't see the massive mountain in the Park. It was just too cloudy on the two days we were up there. But after our hurried trip up to Denali, we were determined to stop at the Denali View South we had passed on the way back to Anchorage. It would be our last and best chance to see how high the mountain really is. Unfortunately, we didn't get a clear picture of the peak we drove seven hours to see but we did get our best look of the trip. Glad we stopped here; it was way better to see the base exposed with the top firmly in cloud cover that it was to settle for the fog view at Stoney Point Overlook. You can start to imagine how big this peak is and can I imagine how gorgeous it would be as a single mountain even though it's embedded in a range. I imagine it's pretty impressive with the clouds gone.

This is the best look at Denali we got. From the Denali View South at Denali State Park.