The Northern Frontier
At more than 20% of the size of the other 49 states combined, Alaska is simply immense. From the temperate rainforests and tidewater glaciers of the panhandle in the southeast, to the coastal expanses of the southwest, to the northern “bush,” to the vast south-central core that includes Anchorage as well as Denali, Alaska is a land of contrasts and variety. I’ve been going to Alaska for many years now, each time to photograph the majesty of its scenery and wildlife. Yet I have never found two trips the same. It seems the only thing constant here is the unexpected. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I love this place.
This year’s adventure was no exception. No matter where in Alaska you may travel, the first challenge is that of getting there. A “plan” here is, at best, a “prediction.” The Alaska Peninsula in the southwest, home of Katmai National Park, is one of my favorite places to experience coastal brown bears, up close and personal. Over the years, I’ve been able to recognize individual bears; I’ve experienced mothers with their young, and years later, those same young, all grown up, yet their personality, face, nose, ears and eyes never change. However this year was different. Almost none of the bears I’d come to know in the past 11 years were to be found, until my last evening, when in the distance coming down the stream, I immediately recognized the rotund body and beautiful blonde coat of one of my favorite females. She skillfully fished her way down stream in front of me, continuing a bit further and then quietly disappeared into the brush behind me. I suspect the displacement of the dominant male of the past 8 years by a new rival played a part in the changes, along with the lull in the salmon run between the pinks and the silvers. And for the first time since visiting this remote and wild place there was vivid evidence on some of the bears of pepper spray from the fisherman at “Big River”. I can’t help pondering how changes such as these are part of the continuing cycles and rhythms of life on earth, and that only my ways of seeing could label “something wrong.”
Denali National Park’s vastness, autumn colors and scenic vistas offered awe-inspiring beauty at every turn. The weather pattern for late August and September is always unpredictable as the seasons are in full transition, however this year was by far the most dynamic with a few glimpses of sun, mostly overcast and clouds, to two days of snow and other days with winds gusting to 70 miles per hour. A few days here and I realized that here, too, the land and its flora proved far more reliable than the wildlife. Along with many other long-time visitors, I noted less wildlife than during any of my past 11 years. Another of nature’s cycles at work, I trust.
There were very few wildlife gifts offered by Mother Nature this year but simply being out there in one of the most remote and picturesque parks of North America for 12 days was a gift; including adventures like sleeping in the 4-Runner, drying out with the heat on full blast, after standing in the pouring rain for three hours waiting on a moose that was bedded down.
There were those brief windows of opportunity; a grand bull moose, bull caribou, a couple of sow grizzlies, wolves and the dall sheep. But as one window closes, others open. I saw my first wolverine, the largest, and perhaps most ferocious, member of the weasel family. Wolverines are known to kill prey many times its size. As luck would have it, no opportunity for an image, but the hike down the Savage River and the sighting filled me.
Alaska remains one of those places where, as John Muir once said, “going out is really going in.” I’m entranced.