Sunday, December 31, 2017

Alaska 2017. Part 2.

The trip to Alaska last summer’s principal objective was to photograph walruses which I had never seen in the wild before - and then anything else that came along but ended mostly with grizzly bears. I broke down the blog into sections depending on where the subjects were photographed.  The images were taken with an iPhone as well as full frame digital cameras.

Lake Clark
I visited here last in 2012 and like everywhere else the photography crowds have increased. During the first visit the only way to visit was to fly in and stay for a few days; that has changed. Daily flights are available when shuttles fly in the tourists for the day making multiple trips and returning the customers by the end of the day.  This has changed the peace and quiet due to the plane take-offs and landings throughout the day and worse on weekends. Some families with private planes stay overnight, along with their children who bring another disturbance to the bears. 

 As I mentioned before, lots of people including large photography tours, stay at the available lodges. These bears are habituated to these situations and largely ignore the humans. The problem is with the cubs that approach and even rub against a leg, but in this case, a call from the mother chase them away. This is not limited to bears sightings; foxes are pretty tame too. There are other fauna such as the puffins but these are on islands offshore.

 And even here the eye of the law is watching…using ATB’s that is, All Terrain Bikes.
 Moraine Creek
 It is in Alaska’s Katmai National Park during August/September that the spawning of the sockeyes occurs followed by rainbow trout that feed on the former’s eggs. So it is a big attraction to fishermen, bears, as well as photographers chasing brown bears. It is possible to camp overnight but the logistics are complicated and additional safety precautions are needed at night to protect the camp from the bears.

 The creek is training ground for the cubs that occasionally make a catch but mostly rely on the sows to provide the meals. And there is time to shake off the water, just like dogs do it.

 Cubs spent lots of time sleeping and playing with others as well as annoying the adults when trying to sleep. They are really great entertainment and as with most other mammals, training in developmental skills to survive when time comes to be sent away by their moms.

 Brooks Falls
This was not a scheduled event but due to inclement weather, could not fly to Moraine Creek.  Brooks Falls is probably the greatest bear tourist attraction in Alaska and visits are very controlled.  One view the falls from a double-decker pier and people are allowed in rotating groups for limited periods of time.  Once time is up, one has to leave and for a second chance, you just form at the end of the line and wait your turn again. Most recently tripods were prohibited but monopods are still OK. The iPhone image below shows my camera with the falls in the background and the lower deck below.

 Bears fish in the pools below the falls where fights for the choice fishing holes occurs; these fights usually end up with the dominant bear keeping its fishing rights, and gets the salmon.

 The iconic photograph for Brooks Falls is to photograph a bear at the moment it captures a salmon. This is not difficult to accomplish and requires patience, a long fast telephoto and camera’s high shutter speed. There are other factors such as the weather, fish running and bears fishing at the top of the falls that will the photograph possible.  After numerous tries, one image will become a winner.  There were others fishing at the falls - a family of mergansers.

The end of 2017 and still have other blogs for this year to upload.  Who knows where 2018 will take me but so far, no firm plans. 
Happy New Year!!!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Alaska 2017 Part 1.

This part will cover the areas around Anchorage proper and the adventure in the Bering Peninsula. The second part will cover areas visited other than the trip to Bering.  It is obvious that I will not be able to include all my travels this year during the 2017 blogs.  As stated before my blogs now include iPhone images as well as those from SLRS; at times it is hard to differentiate the quality of the images.  The first two aerial images below are of glaciers from the flight into Anchorage taken with an iPhone that has become my pocket camera.  Those ice flows are impressive and more so when you are nearby by and hear the cracking of the moving ice masses.

 Had a layover day between the arrival in Anchorage and the flights to the Bering Peninsula so drove down towards Whittier along the coastal highway AK-1.  I had not returned to Alaska since 2012 and was overwhelmed with the increase in traffic both in the city and the highways; where are all these people coming from?  Just leaving Anchorage drove by a park where a moose was chasing people; it was funny, the girl in the bike dropped it and ran on foot. Another moose was just drinking water from the lake; something awkward is in this image; can you figure it out? (It is upside down). In the same pond there was a family of black duck hatchlings relaxing.  Along the cliffs in the side off the road you can frequently see Dall sheep grazing. 

 Continue south in AK-1 towards the road junction to Whittier where one must drive thru a RR tunnel 2.5 miles in length - the second longest train tunnel in the USA. It is used by passenger trains that service mostly the tourist industry taking them to Anchorage.  The tunnel is shared with vehicular traffic that travels one direction at a time in between train traffic.  Whittier is the port where all cruise arrive and from there the tourists are bused to the various destinations in Alaska.

 During WWII the Army built a massive base called Camp Sullivan and construction followed until the late 1950’s when it was abandoned in 1960’s.  Two large buildings remain, one converted into a condominium and the one below, the Buckner.  Couldn’t pass photographing the graffiti in the walls. 

 Arrived at the Wildman Lodge in the plane in the photograph below. It carried 2x4’s, 8x10’s and all other kinds of building materials not to mention food supplies besides the two passengers. Upon arrival proceeded to visit the Pacific walrus colony, the major reason for going there; never seen one in the wild, they are huge (can weigh as much as 4,000 pounds), smelly and colorful.  But the coloration differences have to do with their adults being pink while young ones are brown with a palette of lighter colors as their age.  They come to the shore once a year to shed their skins in large colonies; are all males.  The females stay together in separate groups with the pups.

 The image below shows a walrus spreading sand in top of the body to protect the skin from the sun. The second image shows similar behavior I observed among the elephant seals in the Straits of Magellan that also come ashore to shed the skins. 

 The large tusks are equivalent of our canines and can reach about 3 feet in length, most of them broken probably during fights but they are not used for digging; the upper lip is used for that while foraging for food.  What looks like moustaches are called vibrissae that modified hairs worn during foraging.  Another peculiarity is that the males have a large baculum bone meaning that they have no need for Viagra.

 While approaching the landing strip to the lodge, we observed at the confluence of two creeks about 12-15 grizzly bear fishing for salmon. After spending the morning with the walruses, asked to be taken to area where the bears were seen and after a boat ride of about 40 minutes arrived at there.  Disembarked and climbed up the cliff bordering the creek and walked about 1.5 mile in the bear trail quietly and bending down moving downwind from the bear to avoid been detected by their sensitive noses.  The ground was full of dead salmon without the skin or brains, the rest of the body just discarded.  The guide explained that the bears eat only the skin for the subcutaneous fat and the brains because they are rich in protein.  Sat down hidden among the grass and proceeded to photograph the flora and wildlife activities until the bears got closer.

 The bears while fishing moved below the section of the cliff where we were hidden and continued to fish without noticing us.  Suddenly one noticed us, froze and proceeded to sniff the air and suddenly charged off the embankment that was about 20 feet high.  We all rose in unison and closely together  jumping, agitating the arms in the air and shouting bear, bear, bear that caused the beast to stop, turned around 180 degrees and ran away.  The same situation repeated with a sow and 3 cubs with the same results; these went up the opposite side of the creek and started watching us. 

 The third charge was the gruesome one.  This bear also charged up the embankment and retreated but did not run away.  Instead ran about fifteen feet downstream, climbed the bank, circled behind us and charged having us with our backs to the stream.  He was determined and all the noise and agitations that we made did not stop them.  The guide raised his 44 caliber pistol and was about to shoot him when my companion started yelling don’t shoot, don’t shoot and at the last moment, the bear turned away and ran.  The guide nervously said 3 charges in less than ½ an hour is enough; time to go.    It was close…I had been charged by elephants and cape buffaloes before; but not on foot and this close.

 The Beaver plane that serves the lodge is the workhorse for flying in Alaska’s backcountry.  It is a very sturdy and reliable plane undergone numerous restorations.  The one in the camp was built in 1957; notice the red bulge in the belly; it is fuel tank used to ferry fuel for the camp power generators.  Upon the return to Anchorage, the two engine plane that was flying us back to Anchorage landed at Iliamna for fuel but when restarting the engines one did not start so we had to wait for another to fly us the rest of the way.  Near Iliamna there is a freshwater lake where fresh water seals are found; the only other place in the world where this kind of seals are found are in Lake Baikal, Russia. At Iliamna, there was a cute sign in the bathroom’s airport

                      Merry Christmas!