Sunday, July 29, 2012

Being Alaskan - fish’n’, hunt’n’ and camp’n’
Street sculpture - Seldovia
In some ways, being in Alaska feels like returning to an American version of one’s youth. The traditions of family camping are strong and are all centered around fishing and hunting. And hitch hiking is still an acceptable way of getting around. The characters, often quirky and slow speaking, would be the one’s you’d expect to meet in an Alaskan version of a Tim Winton novel.

Camping is something you do just about anywhere. Roadside parking areas will be full of campers side by side, all with their campfires going. The shore fronts in the coastal villages, where we would expect to see luxury apartments or swanky cafes and tourist shops, are allocated to camping, but there is nothing aesthetic about them apart from their million dollar views - basically gravel parking lots with everyone crammed in door-to-door with almost no facilities - a long drop dunny (as we call them in Aus) or a portaloo at best. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if it is a parking area or a campsite!
Parking lot / campsite in Hope, Alaska

Waterfront camping, Homer

...and on the waterfront at Seward
The other conspicuous thing is that camping is definitely a family affair with four generations of campers in many of the sites. Us foreigners, usually travelling as couples, are easily distinguishable from the locals. 
At one lakeside campsite we got talking to an elderly but spritely fellow who was fiddling with his beautiful hand-made boat. “Fixing” the boat was his excuse to escape the tumult of the 21 grandkids and a couple of great-grandkids that were overflowing from the four camping spaces that they had occupied. He said that they had been coming here for over 50 years for their “annual once-in-a-lifetime vacation”. They were a little less adventurous now that his wife was on oxygen, but he and his boys would still go off on a several hundred mile boat trip each year down the Yukon River and its tributaries where they would shoot their three moose to keep each of the family in meat for the rest of the  year - or at least until their next hunting trip. 
Alaska - where fishing is your religion!
And now is the time of the salmon runs, so this brings everyone out to the rivers with all manner of nets and rods and other fishing apparatus, standing up to their waists in the chill water trying to get their quotas. It seems however that the fish numbers are seriously down with the King Salmon catch being closed and others restricted, resulting in the usual political stoush between those who’s livelihood is based on fishing and think they should be allowed to continue in spite of the declining numbers, and the government departments that are trying to manage the populations for the long term. 
Dip netting for salmon at the mouth of the Kenai River
But the general attitude to fishing was captured by a local radio announcer on a (rare) sunny Sunday morning:  “I hope you’re all out there whacking those weeds or slaying those fish.”
Maintaining the tradition

When you see the sheer fishing pressure on the beaches and along every accessible part of the rivers, not to mention what you can’t see out at sea, combined with changing climatic conditions, it’s hard to imagine how these fisheries can be sustained. But the culture is so deeply entrenched that it is unlikely that any real action will be taken until it is way too late, if at all. 

Getting your priorities right! (click to expand)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bear soup - Katmai
Float plane to Katmai
OK, so we’ve gave up on counting bears when we got to 80-something, and yes, we’ve posted lots of bear photos, but when you get to Katmai you realise that you have reached the centre of the bear universe and every bear that you saw before was merely an appetiser. 
Landing hazard
An early start from our campsite in down-town Anchorage (on the train line and under the flight path) saw us flying to a remote village called King Salmon (I wonder if that might be a fishing town?). From there we transferred to a little float plane which took us to Brook camp on the shores of XXX Lake where encountered our first bear on the beach within minutes of arriving. It proceeded to stroll down among the float planes while we were briefed on the rules of how to behave when living with bears. Unlike anything we had encountered elsewhere in the US, this was very much about managing people, not about managing bears.  This became apparent as we set out on the trails where, whenever a bear turned up, people were moved out of the way so the bear could carry on with its bear business without us getting in the way.  Whilst more ranger intensive, this management strategy created an environment where bears were confident to do their own thing without fear of us lot, and fortunately, because they were here to eat salmon, the bears were not at all interested in eating us (presumably we’re less tasty than salmon)....although they did make a point in maintaining a certain level of doubt in the minds of the anglers who were there to share (without invitation from the bears) their salmon.
Bear soup!
After an afternoon of bear watching at Brooks Falls, where over a dozen bears gathered to employ a range of fish catching techniques to harvest salmon intent on ensuring the passage of their genes to the next generation, we returned to dinner in the lodge, with a couple of glasses of wine, before retreating to the campsite to pitch our rented two person tent (for some reason Christine decided that my one man tent wouldn’t do the trick) in the rain. As you can imagine, too much rain, combined with too many wines made the pitching of an unfamiliar tent quite a challenge, so we settled for something that was remotely tent-like and crawled in for the night. 

Apart from my trousers which contained my now soggy passport, we woke reasonably dry and spent another day watching fishing, cavorting and rampaging bears and frantic rangers shutting down and opening parts of the trails and herding tourists whenever the bears chose to come into close proximity - which was reasonably frequently. I would have thought that I would have resented being herded about by rangers, but because it was all about giving the bears, rather than us, first priority, I really came to admire both the  strategy and the skills and commitment of the rangers tasked with keeping us, rather than the bears, under control. This contrasts markedly with our earlier experiences in places like Jasper where, whenever bears encountered people, it was the bears that were harassed (hazed) by the rangers, rather than the people. 
Another day of leisurely bear watching started to reveal the different strategies employed by the different bears. Some would position themselves at the top of the falls facing downstream to catch salmon in mid-leap. Others would position below the falls waiting for those salmon that didn’t quite have enough “oomph” to get up the falls to wash back into their waiting jaws. It seems that the dominant males got these prime spots. A bit further down stream in the riffles, younger bears or mothers with cubs would resort to pouncing on fish passing through the shallow waters. Even further downstream, where the fish left the lake for the stream, other bears would either “snorkel” with their heads beneath the water, or stand upright in waist deep water, trying to get a better view from a higher vantage point.  And all the time, they would watch each other, ensuring they knew exactly where everyone else was, without making actual eye contact, looking away as soon as a more dominant animal looked their way, presumably a mechanism for otherwise solitary animals to deal with the unusually closed proximity forced upon them by the concentrated food source. 
Fishing hazards!

Boxing on the beach

Saturday, July 21, 2012

To the top of America - Denali
Weird wildlife...
 Before heading for America’s highest mountain - Denali (the big one) in the language of the local Athabaskan people - otherwise known as Mount McKinley - we decided to do a tandem Kayak on the Nanana River, which could generally be described as a babbling float, with the exception of a section called the Rock Garden where it narrowed and sped up, making for a quick dash requiring a sequence of rapid maneuvers as I shouted Left! Left! Right! Right! Right! from the stern, generally to good effect with Christine taking all the waves in the front, until eventually the rocks were appearing faster than we could deal with them. When we found ourselves perched atop one of them sideways to the current, we knew it was getting interesting. A quick shove with the paddle set us on our way, the only problem being that we were now facing up-stream in mid-rapids. A quick glance over the shoulder suggested that there was time to do a quick 180 before the next set of rocks rather than trying to go through them backwards, so with more shouted instructions from the stern, and quick responses from the bow, we spun around in time to be spat out the bottom, stirred but not shaken. The rest of the paddle seemed a bit tame after that!
The next day saw us on the bus into Denali National Park (no cars allowed) where we disembarked at Wonder Lake to be greeted by the camp hosts, John and Eve, whom we had met months earlier in a campsite in Glacier National Park. They saw us settled into our camp before we joined them for the evening, sharing stories, wine and food in their confined but cosy camper. John, the only American among us, suffered the chagrin of celebrating Independence Day cooped up with three members of the Commonwealth.
Wonder Lake campsite, Denali NP
Up till now we had seen only glimpses of the Alaska range and the mighty mountain through brief gaps in the clouds so, when I looked out of the tent at 1 AM to see a full moon rising over the snowy peaks under a clear sky, we leapt out to witness what I guess is what they call the Alpenglow - the reflected radiance of the mountains under the clear, moon-lit sky. 
1am moonrise over the Alaska Ranges
Snoozed briefly before getting up again for the 3 AM (!) sunrise to find that the moon had drifted along the top of the range and now was perched directly above Denali - a magical and memorable morning.
Denali (Mt McKinley) at 3 in the morning!
The remainder of the day was spent wondering over the ridges above Wonder lake, following animal trails, as the parks encourages ad hoc cross-country hiking rather than formal trails, and then a walk from Reflection Pond (no reflection - too windy) to Wonder Lake (interrupted by  a snooze in the sun) where the local loons made their first proud appearance with two newly hatched chicks. And then another delightful evening in the camper with John and Eve.

Ground Squirrel - getting ready for next winter?
Our bus trip back down to the park entrance was broken up halfway for a hike up onto the ridges above Eilson to hunt out hoary marmots and picas (google if you’re interested) and lots of wildflowers on the alpine meadows. 
Dusk on the Denali
Back in Fairbanks, the BLM guy in the visitor center gave us lots of good advice for driving the Dalton Highway. The extra bit of advice he gave us was to drive the gravel Denali Highway that runs parallel to the Alaska Range. He suggested setting off from the Western end at 7 pm so that we would have the late light behind us, illuminating the mountains and glaciers to the north - great advice - improved by the fact that the light in the west was battling with storm clouds over the mountains creating a dramatic evening sky.  Stopped halfway and camped just off the road to watch the spectacle. 
View of the Alaska ranges from road-side camp
One of the wonderful things about Alaska is the ad-hoc nature of camping. As long as you are not intruding on anyone else it seems OK to camp pretty much anywhere, and so everyone does, and what is really impressive is that there is rarely a scrap of rubbish to be found, and sometimes the previous occupant will have left a pile of fire wood, or even a made fire, for the next person. Alaskans are fiercely, and rightly, proud of their natural, wild state - a state with patches of (more or less) civilisation surrounded by wilderness rather than the reverse as is the case in the other 49 states.  
Matanuska Glacier
From one scenic byway to the next, we completed the Denali the next morning and then took the Glen Highway towards Anchorage, staying the night under brooding skies at the base of the eerily blue-green Matanuska glacier.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The land of the midnight sun - doin’ the Dalton
Once across the border from Canada to Alaska we descended from the Top of the World towards the vast  Tanana River valley passing many streams where people were still attempting to make their fortunes from gold, equipped with generators and pumping equipment which they would take upstream by boat. 
Not a "chicken"...but the next closest thing - a Spruce Grouse
Our route also took us through the ramshackle mining town / tourist stop of Chicken, supposedly so-called because the early miners wanted to call it Ptarmigan, after the birds that frequent the area. Unfortunately, no one knew how to spell it, so they settled for “Chicken” instead!

More like the Northern Territory in Australia...

...than the northern states of the US.
Alaska Ranges from Gerstle River Bridge
As we approached Fairbanks the Alaska Ranges rose in the  west, providing a backdrop to our first Alaskan camp on the Gerstle River, with a foreground of wildflowers.  Here, we shared our river-side campfire with a couple, Brett and Bettina and their two dogs, whom we had met weeks previously in a campsite in Glacier National Park. 
B&B with dogs
Christine with antlers...Fairbanks
A day in Fairbanks was all that was required to replenish supplies, a process that involved a chat in the supermarket parking lot with a local botanist who gave us lots of ideas of places to hike around Fairbanks and invited us to call them up when we were back in town - Alaskans are like that!

The Trans-Alaska pipeline
After spending the next morning attempting to sort the paperwork for extending our US visa, we finally hit the road to tackle the Dalton Highway, the infamous route to Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean. Prudhoe is considered the northern end of the “Pan-American Highway” which extends (in fiction if not in concrete fact) from Prudhoe to Patagonia. If we can conquer this, then we can set our minds to aiming for the other end! The Dalton is also known as The Haul Road, as it only exists to enable the shipping of lots of big bits of stuff on 
big, fast-moving trucks to Prudhoe which is the source of oil that is pumped 800 miles (1288 km) down the Trans Alaska Pipeline to Valdez where it is then shipped to the south, converted to gas (petrol, for non-Americans) and pumped into cars like ours that then drive it back up again! The Haul Road is probably better known to most of you as the setting for the documentary “Ice Road Truckers.” And, of course, the Exon-Valdeez grounding which released vast quantities of oil that had been pumped through the pipeline, will also be remembered by most of you. Tales of blown tires, rolled vehicles, smashed windscreens and stone chips all over the front of your car prepared us for a challenge, but frankly, it turned out to be a bit of a doddle. The road was in pretty good condition (at least by Australian back-road standards) and the sealed sections were actually harder to drive than the gravel sections. “Frost-heave” caused by the freezing and thawing of the permafrost under the road can be graded out of the gravel sections but not out of the paved bits, so the latter were pretty bumpy but not a problem if taken slowly. 

Northwards from Fairbanks, one climbs steadily through Spruce forest, extensive areas of which seem to be dying off, through high rolling ranges bisected by fast flowing rivers including, once more, the mighty Yukon, until finally we reached the Arctic Circle - apparently defined as the southern most point at which the sun doesn’t set on the summer solstice - traveling is always a learning experience! All we had figured out was that it wasn’t getting dark anymore.
It appears that the Spruce die off is at least in-part attributable to changing climatic conditions with “extreme and geographically expansive multi-year outbreaks of the spruce beetle, which had been previously limited by the cold, moist environment” (Amber et al 2006. Hey, there’s still a bit of the scientist in me yet!).
On the hunt....

...bad day to be a ground squirrel!
As we progressed northwards we emerged from the forests into broad  tundra landscapes - vast expanses of extremely diverse, low vegetation - mosses and lichens, tussock grasses and myriads of wildflowers. The plants (not to mention the mosquitoes) all seem to think that it is summer here, although the temperatures are failing to convince us that this is the case. 

A figure walking off into the remote landscape from their parked car with a backpack full of technical, non-hunting, gear was, obviously to me, an ecologist, so we pulled to a halt to chat to a young lady from Alaska State Uni who was doing her masters on the population ecology of Smith’s Longspur (Google it if you really want to know). She happily took us out to show us their nesting sites, with four day old chicks in the nests (there’s a hint - they’re probably birds), and told us about their banding program and how a significant number of the adults and chicks returned to the same area from year to year after their extensive southern migrations over winter. She also told us where to find a Golden Eagle’s nest further down the road, where a hike up on to a ridge revealed two chicks on the nest, surrounded by a flock of Dall Sheep.

Our northward climb eventually brought us out onto the Brooks Ranges, a strong divide between the arctic tundra plains to the north, and the rolling hills and boreal forests to the south. The cold air coming in off the Arctic Ocean met the warmer (less cold?) air from the south resulting in clouds cascading off the back of the Brooks ranges like vast vaporous waterfalls. 

The Brookes Ranges
Associated with this abrupt change in the landscape was a complete shift in the suite of animals (and, I suspect, plants) with encounters with caribou, musk ox, snowy owls, white gyrfalcons and “red” foxes that were anything but red!
Red(?) fox. Apparently a silver phase. 
Musk Ox enjoying the late evenings
On the banks of the Sag River

Our camp on the banks of the Sagavanirktok (the Sag) River heralded our first midnight sun, waiting till the bewitching hour to watch it skim towards the horizon in a shallow arc before turning upwards once again without going to ground. Put on our airplane eye shields and climbed into bed to arise again at a later version of morning. 
Celebrating the midnight sun
Eventually we rolled into Deadhorse, the publicly accesible face of the adjacent mining town of Prudhoe. A bleak aggregation of functional but totally unaesthetic buildings that did what they were intended to do but no more. One of the remarkable things about these buildings was that they were built on refrigerated slabs - what the?? Surely, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean where temperatures dropped to minus 50 degrees, you would build them on heated pads? But no - they need to be kept cold, otherwise the heating from the building would melt the permafrost that the houses were built on and they would sink into the melting ground (see pictures from the previous blog). It was becoming apparent pretty quickly that this was not a normal place to live! 

Checking to see if it really is the Arctic Ocean
Mini iceberg
Prudhoe oilfields in the ice fog
Now the big problem with Prudhoe is that, whilst it is the end of the Dalton Highway, it is not quite on the Arctic ocean, and the only way to get to the northernmost sea from here is to go on a tour through the very secure oil drilling operational areas. The net effect of the tour was that, while one may not be supportive of the idea of pumping more fossil fuels out of the earth and piping it across some of the most pristine parts of the planet, you couldn’t help but marvel at the engineering feats that were being carried out in these incredibly harsh environments. We were also impressed to find out that our guide, a local Inuit, was making arrangements to fly in / fly out from Hawaii, where the rest of his family had moved to, presumably funded by the profligate salaries that people earn here. 
Our tour finally took us to a little gravelly spit that jutted out into the Arctic Ocean. The ice fog had lifted enough to reveal lumps of floating ice drifting off the shore and the grey silhouettes of seabirds floating on, or skimming above the glassy, misty surface of the frigid ocean. While it was fascinating to get to this point, it was particularly frustrating to be whisked away after 20 minutes, knowing that a longer stay would reveal a remarkable diversity of birds and sea and land mammals that can’t be easily seen elsewhere. Corporate benevolence allows the opportunity for the public to have a taste, but also denies the opportunity for a much richer experience that could easily be had without much more cost to the companies involved. I guess they would argue that they are there to pump oil and company profits, not to entertain indulgent tourists. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have been able to get even this far. And we did use their gas to get here!

A bit dirtier than when we started

We then hit the re-wind button and retraced our steps back to Fairbanks, the scenery no less impressive when viewed north to south. Caught an outdoor concert on the lawns of Alaska State University by The Glass Bead Game, a band name which suggests the vintage of the group and the era of their music (it was a 40 year re-union). Lots of covers of Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison etc delivered brilliantly by the strong vocals of Susan McInnis the lead singer. With a picnic dinner and a beer, it made for a very pleasant evening.
Mandatory burger stop