Monthly Archives: September 2018

Aurora borealis

Aurora borealis

Aurora borealis

It’s 11pm and the temperature is close to freezing point and I am outside like a kid with a new toy enjoying and photographing the wavy green lights in the night sky. It is a moment to savour and a moment of luck as only two hours earlier the sky was blanketed in thick cloud. I had two objectives for this trip. The main one of course was to see and photograph grizzlies in the wild. My research did not let me down and Katmai delivered in spades. To round my short trip I decided to try my luck at seeing and photographing the aurora something that fascinated me from childhood. These are produced by solar storms interacting with the earth’s atmosphere and attracted to the magnetic poles. There are a lot of variables that must be satisfied before we see one so they are elusive and a rare prize. My research for this online pointed me to Bettles in Alaska so here I am! Bettles, population now down to 8 only just retains the status of a city within the US and is the smallest in the country. If it wasn’t for the fact that we are 35 miles north of the Arctic circle there would be tumble weed blowing down the main street. There is no road access and the few dwellings tend to hug the gravel airstrip which is the lifeline of this place. Occasional barges do make it up the river to deliver supplies and, fascinatingly in the winter with snow covering the tundra the people here carve a road 30 miles through the forest to meet up with the Dalton Hwy allowing road transport down to Fairbanks some 200 miles away. This is a place that is truly “off the grid” and the few remaining locals like it that way. As my host Eric puts it “I was born in the wrong century, I should have been here 100 years ago”. Hopefully my photos capture the essence of this faded wild west wannabe town and the last couple of pictures feature the aurora. Mission accomplished, I am coming home soon! BRR_9976

Original air terminal

Original air terminal

Bettles Lodge

Bettles Lodge

Old Bettles 15 miles downstream where the barges could land

Old Bettles 15 miles downstream where the barges could land

Old Bettles

Old Bettles

Old Bettles outhouse

Old Bettles outhouse

New Bettles derelict school

New Bettles derelict school

New Bettles

New Bettles

New Bettles derelict meat store

New Bettles derelict meat store

Bettles cabin

Bettles cabin

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Tundra

Tundra

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Aurora borealis

Aurora borealis

 

Bear feed

This series of pictures shows the sequence from a catch to kill to feed for a grizzly. Remember that these animals hibernate for around 6 months of every year. Hence during the warmer months top priority for bears is to stuff themselves with as much food as possible. They need to gain hundreds of pounds in weight at this time to survive the hibernation. Bears are omnivores but clearly the best chance of gaining the required weight is with oily, fat rich salmon which swim from the sea upstream for hundreds of kilometres to spawn before dying.

This is where Katmai is so special. The river here is close enough to the sea to sea massive numbers of salmon here, Then there is the small but significant interruption to their passage that is Brooks Falls which further concentrates the salmon numbers resulting in a veritable smorgasbord for bears.

Finally there is a pattern to eating these fish that is common to all of these bears. Once caught the first bite will be to the head to extract the fatty brain tissue first. Then the skin is stripped off and eaten as all the fat is beneath the skin and that’s what they after. Early in the season there is so much fat on the salmon that they will often discard the meat. Later in the season all of the fish is consumed.

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Valley of 10,000 smokes

The year is 1912, coincidentally the year of the Titanic sinking but a bigger disaster befell the planet with the second largest ever volcanic eruption on the planet occurring right here. The source was Katmai volcano erupting through a side vent a few miles away now known as Novarupta volcano. The resultant ash cloud went 20 miles into the air and was visible from Europe. Millions of tons of ash were dumped for miles around and the extra carbon in the atmosphere lowered global temperatures by 2 degrees celsius for the next 2 years. In 1918 this area was proclaimed a national park to preserve and study the area of the eruption. Paradoxically national park status has nothing to do with the bear show.

For the next 30 years the devastated area all around sported over 10,000 fumeroles belching out sulphurous gas hence the name. Sadly that has petered out but the day trip out here does not disappoint. Sadly the weather is not kind but I did use the available sunshine to the max yesterday and I can’t complain. At least the rain did not interfere with walking and photography. The cloud, while obscuring the ring of volcanoes was at least high enough to allow for some pictures of the moonscape like lava ash fields.

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Looking toward valley

Looking toward valley

Looking toward valley note the fall colours

Looking toward valley note the fall colours

Looking up the valley the pink is the 700 foot deep layer of ash from the eruption

Looking up the valley the pink is the 700 foot deep layer of ash from the eruption

Prior to eruption the wooded foreground stood where the ash is now

Prior to eruption the wooded foreground stood where the ash is now

Ukak river has carved its way through the ash

Ukak river has carved its way through the ash

Canyon formed by Ukak river

Canyon formed by Ukak river

Ukak falls

Ukak falls

Ukak falls

Ukak falls

Ukak falls

Ukak falls

Looking up Valley of 10,000 smokes

Looking up Valley of 10,000 smokes

Looking up Valley of 10,000 smokes

Looking up Valley of 10,000 smokes

Cloud covered Mt Magieck with glaciers coming off it

Cloud covered Mt Magieck with glaciers coming off it

Bear cam

Throughout August in the lead up to coming here every day I would log onto the live bear cam feed online before starting work each day and then having a quick look at what was happening between patients. August is said to be unimpressive yet every day I would see at least 3 bears at the Brooks Falls camera. I booked for the month of September as that has better bear viewing and as I logged on to bear cam in September bear numbers seemed to have doubled or tripled and the bright sunshine was obvious. My first afternoon here was bright and sunny and I made the most of it knowing that the forecast for the next 2 days was for rain.

The walk from the lodge to Brooks Falls takes around 20 minutes. Walking alone has me at a disadvantage and I follow the rangers advice that human noise is a deterrent and I talk mindlessly out aloud to noone as I go there. I arrive at Brooks Falls around 1 in the afternoon and there is one massive bear at the far end of the falls. Finding a nice front row spot on the platform I enjoy watching this well fed guy bide his time before wandering to his favourite pool and catching a large deep pink salmon in his mouth and wandering to the shallows to eat up. I watch him repeat this ritual over and over again. Secretly I was a bit disappointed that there was only one there but what the heck, I had never seen one in the wild before so I was not going to be greedy.

Grizzly bears are crepuscular animals, are active around dawn and dusk, but this park with its high food environment changes those rules. The wild salmon run from the sea upstream to spawn before dying. The peak months here are July and September in those months bears are here feeding all day. My log on time for bear cam in Sorrento was 9am which is 3 pm here. Come 3 pm the number of bears here had increased to 7 and the bears were all over the place, mainly fishing but wandering over and under the falls, jostling for position. Wow, what a show, under brilliant sunny skies the camera got a real work out.

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Eventually after over 3 hours of bear watching and sated, I determined to make use of the brilliant sunshine and do the walk up Dumpling Hill to get the panoramic view of the lake and the mountains. Walking solo, through the forest past lots of smelly bear scats and in the late afternoon it is anxious couple of hours of chatter and song up and down the mountain but the views and pictures more than make up for it.

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Pristine wilderness

Hot on the heels of 30 hours of cattle class flying with only 4 hours of sleep in a real bed. I am again gazing out through a plane window. This one is a small twin prop flying from Anchorage to a tiny town called King Salmon in far west Alaska. The countryside below is sparsely wooded with lots of waterways and lakes. Jutting out through the sea are stark rocky outcrop islands with green grassy carpets. Is it just the flying fatigue? Something is odd. Suddenly the penny drops, there is something missing in the landscape, mankind. There are absolutely no roads, tracks or any sign of human habitation. This is pristine wilderness and, by all accounts, Alaska is absolutely covered with it.

The final leg involved a 90 minute seaplane flight landing on Lake Nanuk deep in the heart of Katmai National Park at Brooks Lodge. Back on terra firma my nostrils were assaulted with the smell of decomposing fish emanating from the many bear scats all around. We are ushered from the sea plane straight into the ranger’s office for our bear briefing. We are told that the bears here are used to seeing humans, but, of course they still remain extremely dangerous. We are not to get any closer than 50 yards to bear (100 yards to mother and cubs). What to do if approached by a bear and the essential instructions about having no food or drinks out in the open.

Infused with confidence (or is that trepidation?) its off to check in and lunch before heading off for bear viewing. I wander out of the lunch room to be confronted by a big brown bear who, perhaps 20 yards from me ambles over a grassy hill right in front of me and continues down to the beach. At that moment it suddenly occurred to me that this place with the log cabins in the woods reminds me of Wilson’s Prom but instead of wombats wandering on the grass we have massive grizzlies here

 

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Unfinished business

Nine years ago Suzanne and I enjoyed an amazing wildlife experience getting up close and personal with polar bears at Churchill in Canada on the shores of Hudson Bay. Two yeas later we decided to repeat the dose with grizzly bears and went to the aptly named “Grizzly Bear Lodge” deep in the southern Canadian Rockies. For four days we were up at 5 am and out at dusk waiting for any encounter with a grizzly. On that occasion nature chose to remind us that it is she who calls the shots and we saw nothing. It was on the trip home from there that my further research threw up the name Katmai National Park as an alternative to see these magnificent creatures Finally many years later I booked over 12 months in advance to secure a cabin in this unique place.

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