Thursday, July 16, 2009

Da Bears

When I set out to travel to Alaska, the one thing I hoped to do was get some close up photos of Grizzly Bears. For whatever reason, I felt like this was one of the main photo goals of the trip. Unfortunately I only saw Grizzlies at a distance the first 2 trips I took deep into the park, and I had one last chance on my next to last day in Alaska. We had just gotten back from Valdez at around 5am, and I had to grab a couple hours of sleep and get back up at 9:30 to get my gear ready to hop on a morning bus.

This turned out to be the best day of all in the park as I did finally see a sow and 3 first year cubs just about 50 yards off the road. They were traveling further away and moving behind some underbrush before I would be able to try to photograph them. By the time they were in clear view again, they were probably about 75 yards away. I had been using a 40d with a 600mm setup, but this was too close to get all the bears in the frame, so I quickly switched to my Mk2N with 100-400 lens. This allowed me to fit the sow and cubs all in the frame at the same time, but I gave up the opportunity to get close ups of individual bears when I set down the other rig.

Below are some additional photos from this sighting. I couldn't get over how cute the cubs were, and I felt fortunate that I had been able to see them this close.

Other wildlife seen later in the day were several caribou and one moose. I have included one photo of each below.

The bears were sighted just a few miles east of the Eielson Visitor Center which sits at mile post 66. After seeing the bears, and especially the three cubs, I would have been happy even if I had not seen any other wildlife on the return trip. While I would have loved to have also gotten some close ups of the individual bears, I think it was better to do what I did, given the choice. I was unable to manage both cameras in the short time I had to squeeze off a few shots, and I felt more confident with my main camera rather than the less capable 40d.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cruising Prince William Sound

70208 - Humpback Whale
Down in Valdez, we went out on a Glacier / Wildlife viewing cruise with the hope of seeing some whales, and as luck would have it we were fortunate to see three of them as well as several sea otters, tons of sea lions, and a few bald eagles and puffins.
[click on any image to enlarge]
70117 - Humpback Whale
70163 - Humpback Whale
70192 - Humpback Whale
8198 - Bald Eagle

In addition to that, we enjoyed watching dozens of dall porpoises buzzing the front of the boat for about 20 minutes straight as we cruised out toward the area where we would look for whales.

69878 - Dall Porpoise
It was nearly impossible to get a good photo of the porpoises because they moved so quickly and were so close, only popping out of the water or an instant at a time.

From the bow of the 75 foot
Lu-Lu Belle we were looking straight down at them most of the time.

70287 - Ice field near Columbia Glacier
70286 - Iceberg
The ride out was comfortable but got quite chilly as we rode toward Columbia Glacier. Overall it was a great day out on the water, and Captain Fred Rodolf and his crew only added to our enjoyment. I met a young woman working on the boat wearing a Florida Gators hat I and had to ask about it since we are die-hard Florida Gator fans. As it turned out, Brittney is a UF student spending her summer working in Alaska on the boat.
70304 - Fred and Brittney

We had some good laughs and got a photo of her doing the "gator chomp" in front of an iceberg out near Columbia Glacier.
8438 - Brittney does the "Gator chomp"
The ride back was more scenic than the ride out as the skies cleared up a bit and the conditions were more conducive for photography.

70338 -
70352 - View from the Bow

Finally this last photo is "Oscar" the sea otter, who is often seen around the harbor in Valdez. We spent quite some time watching and photographing him as he would dive for mussels and then resurface to eat them.
69202 - "Oscar" the sea otter

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Denali Highway

One of the highlights of my Alaska trip was traveling the Denali Highway on our way from Denali National Park to Valdez, where we planned to go out on a glacier / wildlife cruise on Prince William Sound. From Denali National Park we drove about a half hour south on the Parks Highway to Cantwell, where the Denali Highway begins. The Denali Highway is a 135 mile road that extends from Cantwell in the west, all the way to the Richardson Highway at the town of Paxon in the East. It is a dirt road except for the last 20 miles near Paxon, which is paved. It is suggested that vehicles travel at a speed of 30mph, and on most of the road that's about as fast as you can go. It's such a beautiful drive that one would hardly want to travel any faster anyway.

The scenery is spectacular, and you find yourself wanting to stop frequently to take pictures. We didn't really have a lot of time for that, so we agreed beforehand that we would only make about a half dozen stops. I found myself often shooting from the moving vehicle, taking multiple shots and hoping to get at least one good one of each scene I attempted to photograph.

The terrain is varied along the route, as you drive through forests as well as wide open plains flanked by snow capped mountains. There are places were you are looking down into valleys with kettle ponds which often reflect the scenery behind them to make for an interesting photo. Near the end, there are higher mountains with glaciers sitting between some of the peaks.

When we reached the of the highway at Paxon, we headed south on the Richardson Highway toward Valdez, and we made a stop at the Worthington Glacier, which is very close to the highway.

8066 - Worthington Glacier
The photos posted here are a sample of the views we saw during this amazing drive. I have posted a few more on my photo web page, and they can be seen by clicking here

The next post will describe our glacier & wildlife cruise on Prince William Sound.

Map of Denali Highway

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Hiking in Denali National Park Part 1 - Wildlife

68231 - Goshawk
 Note that I was without internet access during the trip to Valdez and I did not have time to write anyway. So now the plan is to work on getting the blog back up to date over the next few days.

Hiking the trails of Denali National Park proved to be a small adventure, and I had time to explore three different trails during my visit. Rock Creek is a 2.5 mile trail that meanders through forests of spruce and aspen trees and was colored with many varieties of wildflowers and grasses, as well as mostly yellow shades of tundra. Walking on tundra is like walking on 6-inch thick sponge, and it's amazing how it springs back to its original position after each footstep. The stuff would probably make a comfortable place to drop a sleeping bag to camp for the night.

The first part of the trail I only saw plants, grasses and flowers, and no wildlife at all. I will show some photos of the wildflowers later in a separate post. About 45 minutes into my hike I walked up on a goshawk that had killed a snowshoe hare and was having lunch. The biggest surprise was that he allowed me to approach him very closely and sit on the tundra and take photos for about 20 minutes.

68243 - Goshawk

68116 -  - Goshawk
 Another fun hike was a the Horseshoe Lake trail, which features a 250 foot elevation drop down to a lake surrounded by a spruce forest. This photo shows the view of the lake from above.

67130 - Horseshoe Lake
 There is a huge beaver lodge on the edge of the lake and we saw a couple beavers across the lake gathering tree branches to bring back to the lodge. We waited quietly in the woods at the edge of the lake and then photographed them as they went by carrying the tree branches. We had hoped to get photos of them chipping away at a tree such as the one in the 2nd photo below, but we never saw them out of the water.

7145 - Beaver

67137 - Horseshoe Lake

There is a hike at Savage River at mile post 15 near the ranger station that afforded us quite a few photo opps in just a short while. We saw an arctic ground squirrel, a full family of ptarmigans including a male and female and about 15 chicks, plus a coyote that tried his best to make a meal of the ptarmigan chicks or mew gull chicks that were in the same area.

68377 - Arctic Ground Squirrel

68673 - Male Ptarmigan

68861 - Mew Gull

68626 - Ptarmigan Chick

68867 - Male Ptarmigan hiding in flowers

 When a coyote approaches, you can usually tell where he is because the nesting birds in the area will dive bomb the coyote in attempt to keep him away from their nests and chicks. We witnessed this and it was fascinating to watch. The coyote was stalking the chicks directly in front of us across the creek while the ptarmigans were running to the left with their chicks to hide them from the coyote. Then the mew gulls were flying in from left to right and attacking the coyote to try and scare him off. They finally succeeded and the coyote retreated across the stream and up into the thick brush on the mountainside across the creek. We laughed as some startled hikers on the other side of the creek saw the coyote suddenly pop out of nowhere and pass right in front of them on his way up the mountainside. Below are photos of all the players in the scenario I described above:

68387 - Mew Gull Attacking Coyote

68800 - Female Ptarmigan with chicks
If you look closely, you can see 4 chicks in this photo. There were at least 3 or 4 more chicks under the mother's wings and out of view.

68800 - Female Ptarmigan with chicks