31 August 2013

Trying to leave Alaska

After our trip to Lake Clark we started to head back to the lower 48 (states). Lindsay had rung the Fisheries and Wildlife office at Haines and found out there were six bears fishing in the river, so we were pretty excited. While going through Tok, Lindsay decided to weigh our trailer which came in at 11,000 lbs! The guy at the weigh-station noticed that our truck looked a bit lopsided and on closer look we realised that a suspension airbag had collapsed. The local RV repair place couldn’t help and we rang the place that had installed them – 3 time zones away. Yes they were under warranty but Utah was a little too far away right now and their nearest store was in Juneau – 438 miles and a ferry trip away; so not an option. It was 200 miles back to Fairbanks, 4+ hours in the wrong direction. I was a little worried that a sign on the highway said “no studded tires before 15 Sept” which meant that it could be snowing in two weeks! During the last couple of days I had noticed that the leaves have started to turn, so Fall (Autumn) was arriving, but it’s probably a very short season and they may just skip straight to winter up here. Of course this happened on a Friday, the tyre company reluctantly fitted us in on Saturday to have a look as it might have been just a hose fitting, but no such luck. Three months old and it has a hole in it. And of course there’s a public holiday on Monday so we had to wait until Wednesday to have the new one fitted.

A week later and we are going through Tok again and we ring the Haines Fisheries office and they say there are only a couple of bears around at night. So we decide it’s not worth a 300 mile detour.

The road from the Canadian border to the Canadian Customs still had 20km of roadworks, they are constantly fixing the roads up here, then there is bad permafrost all the way to Destruction Bay. We saw what happens if you drive too fast and loose control. The bumps and lumps in the bitumen are even more exaggerated if you are towing a trailer, and just as you think its safe to increase your speed, here comes another one. A car had become airborne and landed in a side ditch a fair way off the road and every panel of the car was bent. They were still trying to pull it out when we passed, and it was a sobering thought about how treacherous it can be out here. A lot of the camping areas have closed down as the season has ended but we knew a great spot well off the highway where we couldn’t be seen from the road. Being self-sufficient opens up a whole lot of free camping opportunities that we just didn’t have last year.

24 August 2013

Grizzlies on the beach

Lake Clark, AK

About 18-months ago I researched where we could go to photograph some bears, and decided on Silver Salmon Creek Lodge at Lake Clark and booked it; so it has been a long anticipated wait. The booking included flights from Soldotna to Lake Clark, accommodation, food and a guide to take us to photograph the bears and a boat trip to photograph the puffins. We chose August as this is when the bears are fishing for salmon and our whole trip has been based around this holiday within a holiday.
Prior to our flight from Soldotna to Lake Clark it pretty much rained for two weeks, apart from about four days, which we spent looking around the rest of the Kenai peninsula with day trips to the towns of Kenai and Homer. 

On the way to Homer you see a number of beautiful snow capped mountains, with glaciers and mountains greeting you as you drive into town. 

We also went down to the Russian River an hour away a number of times as we were told that we would definitely see bears fishing in the river. Unfortunately we were either too late (by an hour) or at the wrong part of the river on the few occasions that this happened.  So we spent the days chatting to the locals, learning about the salmon, watching the fishermen and enjoying the sunshine. There is a walkway a couple of metres in from the river hidden behind thick undergrowth, which you then have to go down other walkways to get to the river which are numbered. The stairways are also marked with the name of the carpark that you came from, so you don’t waste time and energy (it’s a steep walk up). Like Haines, all the fishermen and women (and there are lots of females) stand in the river in waders to fish. The salmon are very tired by the time they get to this part of the river and most of them are starting to decompose, having spawned and being the end of their lifespan. The fishermen are hoping to catch (more like snare as the fish don’t eat at this stage) the younger fresher fish that are still silver on the outside. When they are red, they are no good. There are so many fish here that you could scoop them up in a net but only the natives are allowed to do this. There were some women from the same family fishing in the river in long skirts – their father said they were used to this which makes me think it is some religious thing (that they can’t wear pants)

On the day we were due to fly out the cloud cover was too low for safe landing, which wasn’t a great start. We had moved our truck and trailer to the carpark of the company that was flying us over, so we were able to spend the waiting time in comfort instead of their waiting room which we would have to share with the two boxers; one of whom needed constant entertainment (which consisted of annoying me). The pilot did another test run at 19:30 but it was still unsafe.

time to fly
The following day was bright and sunny so we were able to go, yay! We landed on the beach and were taken by a little trailer attached to an ATV to the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge. This lodge is visited by fishing groups, photographic groups and of course individuals like us. This time there were two photographic groups and a group of five independent travellers – so we became the group of five. We were given a guide just like the photographic groups who took us out to find the bears. As we had found in numerous places on this trip, there just weren’t very many bears around this year which was disappointing. We really wanted to get a picture of a bear catching a salmon, and we both did, so we were both really happy. We were lent gumboots as we would often be standing in or walking across water or marshy land. David had said to Lindsay that he didn’t need to bring his new lens as the bears would be too close. But it turned out he did need it, so it was lucky that we had brought it anyway. We probably saw four or five bears altogether but never at the same time, so there was no interaction between them. Lake Clark is tidal and we had to go across creeks to get to the beach, with the full moon the tide was 27 feet, so time spent on the beach was restricted depending on the tide. We would have to come back across the last creek at a certain time or risk being left out there for six hours.

Silver Salmon Creek Lodge
We never saw any male grizzly bears or cubs unfortunately. Apparently there had been a lot of bears just outside the lodge in the meadow in July, but then a storm came through and they all disappeared. The bears spend a lot of time sleeping, then suddenly decide to get up, do some fishing and then go to sleep again! Then they will go looking for fish, scanning the waters like they are watching a tennis match. If they can’t see any they will walk off, they walk for miles and very quickly, I doubt I could keep up with them without running. Four legs are much faster than two! You spend a lot of time waiting for action, but when there is action it is explosive, the bear sprints through the water after the fish, sometimes catching it, sometimes missing. It makes exciting photography. They look like a dog chasing a ball. This was what we had come for...

Our river cruise

We had a couple of boat trips up the tributaries and one out into the sea to Duck island to photograph the puffins. Puffins are extremely frustrating to photograph; it’s like catching a fly with chopsticks. If you are lucky enough to spot one with fish in it’s mouth, you try and follow it until you can get a shot as it goes round and round in circles from the sea to the rocks. Then you get extremely dizzy and nearly fall over! My camera is great for landscapes but not really built for the speed of wildlife and birds, which made my job even harder. These birds are really fast. If I left the camera on multi focusing the puffin would be blurred, so I had to use a single spot which made it even harder to capture the target. Lindsay couldn’t keep holding his big lens up, it was just too heavy for this type of photography, so he had to use a smaller one. They are so far away that most of them are just tiny specs on our photo and we have to blow them up to see if they are any good or not. I was really pleased that I got a couple with fish in their beak.


Bald Eagle

Grizzly with salmon
Puffin with a herring

The day we went to the puffins was perfect and the sea was as flat as a pancake which made it easier to get off the boat onto the island – we had all been lent waders to walk through the water. On our return trip the tide was out and the boat couldn’t come even close to the beach, so we waded a fair way in to the beach with all our camera gear. I wouldn’t have wanted to do that with waves crashing around me.

We had booked 5 days, 4 nights, with the fifth day just flying out in the morning. Luckily because we were flexible and so were they, so we were able to add the day we lost to the end of our stay. We were extremely lucky with the weather, the first three days were sunny, the fourth was overcast, with no rain on any day. It held off until the night we got back, just perfect!

It was a great trip and we hope to go back there one day.

Sunrise from the balcony

4 August 2013

Denali National Park, AK

We had booked our campground in Denali National Park a few months ago and are two weeks earlier than we planned. For a $4 fee we changed it and only have to wait a couple of extra days. We can use the extra time down south. We were advised to try and get into Teklanika as it is further into the park but it was booked out. You can’t drive around the park yourself, you have to pay for either tours or the shuttle bus. Instead of the usual 100 yard rule between you and an animal, it is 300 yards!
The camping spots in Reilly Creek campground are excellent: large, level and private which doesn’t lend itself to meeting people though. We pay a bit extra for our sized site, but at least we fit. There are people picking blueberries and cranberries at the back of our site. The mosquitoes are not as bad as we were led to believe, we have encountered much worse in Canada, so that is a relief. The first afternoon we listened to a ranger talk on Denali Park, how it came to be, what it is most famous for: Mt Denali aka Mt McKinley and some of the people who helped shaped it’s identity. Denali, means the great one and the mountain is certainly great. Mt McKinley is the Federal name for it and hence what is on all the maps, but the Alaskan government changed it back to Denali in the eighties. You are very lucky if you get a chance to see it, only 30% of visitors see the mountain “out” as they call it. There are only a few places in the park that you can see it from and most of the time it is shrouded in clouds. It is more than 20,000 feet high and is the third largest mountain in the world, the largest in circumference. The top half is covered in snow all year round and the best pictures are taken in winter when it is around minus 40F. So no I’m not coming back for that one. It is the only national park that has a working dog sled team that patrol the park in winter for poaches and to check the boundaries. In summer they do dog sled programs for the tourists. By far the best part of the program was when the dogs knew they were going on a run and they all started getting really excited. The Alpha female is the leader, next to her is her apprentice, the two behind are called corner’s as they have to learn to go around the corners without tipping the sled over, the others behind are just the muscle power to help whatever needs pulling.

We took the free shuttle out to Savage River on the second day and walked the loop trail. Denali was shrouded in clouds, so there was no point in getting out at the vista stop. During the walk along the Savage River, Lindsay noticed a bird going berserk up on the hill and he thought he could see a bear near it; we could only see it’s backside and to me it looked a little small for a bear. The bird was obviously trying to protect it’s nest. On the way back it had moved and we could clearly see that it was a lynx! Which is very rare to see. It’s like a gigantic domestic tabby, except it has a stubby tail and pointy ears with black wispy ends; very mortisherish. We went out again in the afternoon, but didn’t see anything except some moose a long way off the road on the return trip.

We had been told numerous times that we would see more wildlife the further we went into the park. So we booked a shuttle bus to take us out to the Eielson Visitor centre which takes you to mile 66 in the park, giving you plenty of time to see wildlife and see the mountain if it was out. It was a cloudy day, so I didn’t hold much hope of seeing the mountain, but we were lucky and it was indeed “out” or more precisely “visible”. The trip was a slightly uncomfortable 8 hours in an old bus on dirt roads, with one section which is very narrow with steep cliffs which was nicknamed “poison”, one drop and you are dead! The sights of the mountain were beautiful and amazing.

Mt McKinley aka Denali

The amount of wildlife sightings were minimal and disappointing. We saw a couple of moose, one wolf, and one bear quite far away. A couple of caribou were on the road and a few far off into the distance. The mountain goats were just white specs on the hills. I think we have been spoilt with Yellowstone. We had planned on a second trip the next day which would then give us a free trip on the third day, but the long drive to see so little, just wasn’t worth it.