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Getting Wild in Alaska

The air is fresher up here. The breeze is filled with salt and ice and possibility, making one instantly feel like an adventurer. I was invigorated by this feeling which permeates this state, so different than anywhere else in the country. With a twinkle in my eye, I went off in search of the wildlife of Alaska.

Barely out of Anchorage, I had to pull over in a quiet section of the fabulous Potter Marsh which, even from my car, I could see was teeming with bird-life. Terns swooped about catching insects, a variety of fowl paddled about the waters and, in the reeds just a few feet away from me, a fluffy tern chick squawked loudly for its mama, waiting to be fed.

The mother tern dipped and dived and brought a juicy dragonfly for her baby, who accepted it greedily. This did not satisfy the chick however, and the mother went off again, determined to satisfy her youngster’s insatiable appetite. Perhaps in jest or spite, the mother returned with a fish which, to my eyes, was way too big for this tiny little chick. “Still hungry, are we, you little parasite? Let’s see you finish this!”

To my great amazement, the tiny tern got the fish down and, though I moved on, I hoped its poor mama was able to get a well-deserved break from hunting. Meanwhile, in another corner of the marsh, a two terns had an affable debate over who caught the biggest dragonfly that day.

If you ever get the chance to drive down the Seward Highway–do it. It is pure magic. That is, if you can avoid getting in an accident as you gawk at the views. The road winds along Cook inlet, with mountains reaching up out of the deepest blue waters, ominous and majestic all at once. A train track runs along this wondrous landscape, treating riders to this glorious scene, but I felt sad for them as they were trapped inside and unable to stop every few miles, as I felt bound to do, to get out and feel the crisp air and breathe in the wonders all around.

We stopped at a little dive in Girdwood for dinner and, sitting at the bar, chatted with a local fisherman as we sampled the local beers and enjoyed our first meal in Alaska. The fisherman was immensely friendly and eager to show us photos of the biggest fish he’s caught and share tales of how his little town has changed over the years. At 10pm, the midnight sun still shining, we continued down this glorious highway toward Seward. Waking up in this seaside haven, I was eager for our day on the water. I booked a long day at sea, 8.5 hours, in a smaller boat which goes all the way to Northwestern Glacier and is notorious for causing a boat full of seasick passengers. Despite not having issues with motion sickness, I gulped down two dramamine just to be safe. I was not going to let anything get in the way of my enjoyment of this beautiful day on the water. Even the harbor area was stunning before embarking, with eagles soaring between the masts peppering the harbor. I already knew this was going to be a perfect day.

The sun was shining and I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect day to be out on the water. We saw countless humpback whales, and even one minke whale. We navigated through a stunning cove where bald eagles perched and puffins zipped about. Although the sea was calm, I struggled to hold my balance as I looked skyward through my camera, trying to capture these adorable birds which resemble flying penguins.

As we advanced into the open ocean, the shining sun could not compensate for the icy sea air, and my cheeks and nose delightfully began to freeze, misted by the boat’s wake. In my steel blue Fjällräven jacket, I imagined myself a daring seafarer, emboldened by the glacial air and in awe of it all. We entered the fjords, the sea still as glass and the mountains reflecting perfectly on the water. As we advanced closer and closer to Northwestern Glacier, the peace was broken with a thud, thud, thud as the boat struck countless chunks of floating ice, which had recently separated from their parent. Thankfully, our boat was built to withstand such adventures, and the ice bobbing gently in the water did nothing but add to the surreal atmosphere of this chilled wonderland. We stopped our boat just shy of the glacier, and sat in peace admiring the shocking blue ice slithering between the mountains.

A pod of harbor seals lounged contentedly on a particularly large chunk of ice. Like a crack of thunder, the glacier began to calve and a massive waterfall of broken ice fell into the sea. The seals did not so much as look backward, familiar with this natural phenomenon and perfectly happy to while away the hours on their own little island of ice.

When we began to sail away, my attention was caught by one piece of ice, floating peacefully in the water. It resembled a swan carved from fine crystal.

We took a brief detour through a cove, which at first glance looked like any other cove, but as we approached, the air filled with the sweet white noise of a waterfall, and as we neared the cliffs towering above us, I saw that the face was covered with hundreds of waterfalls flowing into the sea. The turquoise water, the soaring cliffs with lush vegetation, and the cascading falls were more reminiscent of Hawaii than Alaska, and the juxtaposition of this strange place was simply wondrous.

We explored the cliffs and found common murre that look remarkably like penguins, sea lions mating, puffins, and cormorants. This marvelous place is just brimming with wildlife. We advanced back to the open sea, the largest stretch of open ocean on planet Earth, with only the Hawaiian islands separating us from Antarctica.

I stood at the bow of the ship, enjoying the icy wind on my face and the salt-scented air and sunshine. The day had been satisfyingly long and full, and it was time to return to harbor. As we approached beautiful Seward, a bald eagle landed on a jetty nearby, picking at the mangled remains of a puffin, the circle of life ever present in the wild.

One of my favorite things to do in a seaside town is stroll along the docks and, after disembarking, that’s just what I did. Seward harbor was packed with boats of every shape and size. Fishermen assessed their catches–all pretty impressive in my book– while gulls circled about hoping for a treat. I turned down one branch of the dock and to my great delight, a romp of sea otters (Had to look that one up!) was playing in the water nearby. Otters love to play and wrestle, and I could have easily watched them all day long. One would tackle another and I had to keep guessing with my camera where they would emerge from the water once again. Teeth bared, they almost looked ferocious, but not quite. Other otters tried to sleep amidst the antics, and I have to say that there is nothing cuter on this planet than a sleeping otter. They tuck their little front feet under their chins and stick their back flippers straight up out of the water in a most charming fashion. I would have loved to join them in a nice float. It looks wonderful to be a sea otter.

As if belly-up sleep floating isn’t cute enough, sea otters are fastidious about cleaning their faces. They hold their little hands up to their delightfully whiskered cheeks and rub vigorously in a circular motion, as though lathering up for a shave.

In the water, the sea otters look fairly petite, but when one decided to leap up onto the docks to enjoy some mussels, I was shocked to see just how enormous they are.

In the morning, we headed out for a hike to Exit Glacier. The bugs in July were rampant and mosquitos attacked me with glee as we made our way toward this natural marvel. Standing next to the glacier, I could fully appreciate its immensity and, as I watched the power of the glacial melt feeding into the river, I’ll admit that I was awe-struck.

We enjoyed being out on the water so much the previous day that, on a whim, we decided to do it again, this time on a shorter, wildlife-focused journey. While sunny, a dense fog hung over the inlet lending a mysterious quality to the waters as ships emerged from the nothingness.

This was a day filled with humpback whales and pelagic birds. One particular cove held a nesting colony of kittiwakes, and one of the most extraordinary scenes of nature I had ever witnessed. Thousands upon thousands of these gulls swooped and dove in seemingly random patterns. There were so many that it was difficult to see through them all, however, with sharp eyes (thank you, contacts) and a little luck, I was able to see the source of the commotion. The gulls were not swooping for the delight of it, but rather to disorient a predator in their midst. A juvenile bald eagle was hunting and, sadly, we witnessed a kittiwake chick fall victim to his expert attack. The eagle landed on a rock face and crunched upon the body of the little bird as the adults flew frantically about, trying to protect their colony.

Puffins proved to be my white whale this trip. While I saw a countless number, they were always zipping about in the air and boy are they fast! I did manage a few shots as they were taking off from the sea, and I love how they run across the surface, leaving watery footprints in their wake.

As we approached Seward harbor, I noticed an Indian woman wearing a striking red sari staring dreamily out at the water. I was completely taken by the contrast of these bright colors against the white fog and whitecaps of the water.​

I stopped briefly by the seaside to bid farewell to this marvelous place. A family of Red-breasted Mergansers swam by and the mother flapped her wings as if waving farewell. One of the ducklings stretched up mightily on the water, attempting to mimic her mama, and waggled her tiny little immature wings in a most adorable fashion.

It was time to say goodbye to Seward, and so we began making our way south toward Homer. I pulled over abruptly (as I am wont to do) upon seeing a stunning field with a gorgeous mountain backdrop. I swapped out my lens from my telephoto to my wide angle, popped on my filter kit to help capture those blue skies, and bounded off into the field, where I was swiftly surrounded by a swarm of hungry mosquitos. I think it was worth it.

I had researched birding locations and found a recommendation for Tern Lake. I arrived to find a still pond surrounded by reeds and wildflowers, reflecting the soaring mountains on its glassy surface. I had the pleasure of seeing a Scaup (Greater or Lesser, I do not know) reflected in this natural mirror as well.

The road to Homer winds about next to the Kenai River. The striking turquoise water was irresistible, and I again pulled over to explore. Walking down a faint path in the woods, we found a spot which has clearly been used before by fishermen, both human and bear, most likely. Up-river, fishermen stood ashore and several groups of rafters leisurely passed by. Gulls were congregated and I watched in fascination as they dove into the gorgeous teal water, fighting over scraps of salmon discarded by the fishermen upriver. Bald eagles periodically swooped in, stealing from the gulls who had stolen from the fishermen.

The drive to Homer was such fun. Volcanos appeared in the distance and as we got closer to the seaside, the more apparent their massive size became. We stopped for lunch at the most charming little restaurant, next to a miniature sized Russian Orthodox church, and a cliff with unbelievable views.

The next morning, I woke at 5am brimming with excitement because it was finally the day I had been waiting for–the main reason for this trip–bear day! I looked out the window at dawn to find another heavenly day and, to my shock and delight, a family of sandhill cranes casually poking about the backyard. You cannot help but see bucket-list wildlife in this amazing state.

At last, it was time to head out in search of bears–brown bears. I boarded a little Cessna, seated in the copilot's seat. We took off in this wonderfully noisy little aircraft and ascended over beautiful Homer. Mountains, as always, stretched up into the sky right from the sea. Alaska truly is nature’s work of art. All of the nobs and dials were very tempting to play with. Thankfully, the scenery distracted me enough from messing with things I know nothing about. We viewed distant volcanoes and swooped down over glaciers, getting a unique perspective of the ice fields from above. The glaciers resemble rivers frozen in motion, winding there way through monumental cliffs and crevices. Other mountains in the sea were lush and green temperate rainforests, in stark contrast to the ice-laden worlds in close proximity.

After ninety minutes of the most beautiful flying imaginable, we sighted Hallo Bay, the same remote area of Katmai National Park where Timothy Treadwell famously lived with and died at the hands of the bears he so loved (watch the documentary Grizzly Man to learn his story). We landed rockily on this beautiful half moon beach, which sits in front of lush fields of coastal grasses and a river flowing into the sea. A mountain range hugged by glaciers creates the most superb backdrop any photographer could ask for, and I knew, happily, that in those kelly green fields were bears.

Our pilot was also our guide, and he led us onward–brave wayfarers in waders–into the thick coastal meadow. I had my equipment at the ready, telephoto lens on, aperture and shutter speed set at a good estimate, tripod in hand, legs extended somewhat, knowing that any moment we could come upon our target. The bears like to nap in this field, Mead said. We came upon the river that flows to the sea, and trudged across merrily. Just on the other side, we crouched down in the grasses to show that we weren’t a threat.

Our first bear sighting had begun–and what a sighting it was! A male brown bear was trying to mate with a female, who was clearly not interested. They stood up on their hind legs in battle mode, and the male aggressor kept trying to get her down. I had the natural urge to want to help my fellow female, but nature is crueler than the human world, and interfering would have been my last good deed on this planet. Besides, this lady could handle herself. They bit and backhanded and grappled and, once, he got her down, but she fought her way back up. Their might and power were evidenced in every swipe of their paws and every bite of their teeth. Oddly enough, I find when looking back the photographs, the bears look cute standing on their hind legs, even in battle, and that half the photos are good candidates for caption-this contests.

Did you know that all grizzly bears are brown bears, but not all brown bears are grizzlies? These are not grizzly bears, but coastal brown bears and, believe it or not, they are even bigger than grizzlies.

The battle could have raged on for hours–and it had already been extensive. All fighting was put on hold, however, when an even bigger brown bear was spotted to my right, approaching the squabble. Would this bear fight for the right to mate with this female? It was the very end of mating season, and the last chance of the year for these bears to pass on their genes. The approaching bear was enormous and breathtakingly beautiful, with a golden-hued coat that Fabio would have envied. This bear, however, was not interested in battle, and just wanted to munch on the crunchy coastal grasses that were surrounding us. As he approached, the two fighting bears took off at a run, and I see now why they say to never try to out-run a bear.

This massive golden bear was peacefully feasting upon the richly nutritious grasses surrounding us, and his path of eating was leading him straight toward us. Strangely, and perhaps something to think about, I did not feel afraid as this massive, deadly animal approached closer and closer. I was too enamored with photographing the great bear and admiring his beauty. I guess I had a bit of a Timothy Treadwell moment, feeling like I was one with the bears and at peace with nature. The bears of Katmai National Park have never been exposed to human food so they, unlike some bears you may encounter in the continental U.S., are mostly disinterested in humans. They clearly knew we were there, crouched in the meadow–they are neither blind nor stupid–but they do not see us as a food source, competition, or a threat, which is a lovely thing for a photographer. The bear continued his path of feasting, closer and closer until my 150mm-600mm lens could not even photograph him anymore. He was less than 10 feet from me, face on, and may have casually continued approaching had our guide not decided he was close enough, stood up and said “alright bear, move it along.” The bear obliged.

We moved on, hiking around Hallo Bay in our waders. There were bears everywhere in these coastal fields. The grasses alone provide enormous nutritional value. The river provides salmon, seasonally, and the ocean provides shellfish. It is truly a wonderland for these animals. As I was walking, I snapped the below shot of some of our fellow photographers, who were shooting a different set of bears than the ones in the photograph standing right beside them. The bears look as though they are part of the same group of photographers, or asking “whatcha looking at?”

The next bear we watched doesn’t have much of a story, yet. He was just a great big bear, who looked as though he’s been through some things in his day.

And onward we hiked. Now, you’re in for a real treat, because next set of bears I photographed include what must be the most adorable baby bear in the world. This cute three-year-old cub belonged to the beauty queen of all bears. His mother was one of the lucky bears born with that gorgeous golden coat, and he (I presume he–he looked boyish) had inherited that gene. She was robust and healthy looking, with big chubby cheeks and a luxurious coat, much like a great big ferocious teddy bear.

Enter into the story the big scar-covered male from earlier. He, too, found the mother bear incredibly beautiful and was hoping for a union. He approached with slow, deliberate steps, huffing in excitement, his lower lip hanging down. Male bears will sometimes kill a female bear’s young in order to mate with her, so she was noticeably worried about her cub. She sent the cub off to wait at a distance. The worry on his face was overwhelming and adorable and heartbreaking to witness. He didn’t want his mama to get hurt, but didn’t know how to help. He’s still just a baby, after all.​

Mama bear charged at the male, not allowing him any advantage. She was enormous, but this male towered over her. Her charge was mighty and intimidaing and, after a brief squabble, the male backed down. He looked forlorn and goofy, and actually laid down in an admittance of defeat. I felt kind of bad for the big guy.

The mother turned her back on the male with a confident swagger, and returned to her cub, whose facial expressions relaxed markedly. These were my favorites of all the bears we saw. I just fell in love with this little cub, who was clearly in his awkward stage of development and every single move and facial expression made me go “aww” and want to hug him. By the way–I say “little cub” respectively. This brown bear cub is the size of an adult black bear.