Alaska Wildlife Viewing: The Urban Option

By Ken Marsh

Every city, village and community in this wilderness state has its own birds, animals and viewing treasures.

Armed only with a camera and with nowhere to hide I knew calling in a bull moose might be risky. But afternoon glare had eased into golden evening light and the willow shadows now stretched far uphill, highlighting subtle mountainside contours. Backed by the crags of the Chugach Range, alpine flora ablaze in the reds, oranges and yellows of fall, the setting and conditions were perfect for wildlife photography. 

The only thing missing was a moose. 

So I cupped my hands around my mouth and, in the eons-old tradition of northern hunters everywhere, began imitating a bull-moose challenge with a series of low, bellowing grunts. Moose tracks and trails were stomped into alpine tundra around me, and bark scraped from several head-high alders marked where bulls had rubbed velvet from their antlers. They were around.

The last time I’d successfully called in a moose I’d barely escaped up a spruce tree before a red-eyed, antler-thrashing bull charged out of the brush, furious and ready to fight. I’d stayed in that tree for a good, long time while the bull circled below, grunting and slobbering.

 That close call had occurred years earlier, and I’d since tried many times under safer conditions to call bulls, but with no luck at all. Now, on that mid-September evening in Chugach State Park overlooking the city of Anchorage, the likelihood that I might make a moose appear seemed remote.  Still, it was worth a try. 

I hadn’t finished calling when alders started snapping violently in the gully below. Snatching my tripod and camera, I was preparing to bolt when a bull burst out only 30 yards away. Head low and glowering, it looked straight at me. The nearest tree was a half-mile away, and I realized the best I could do was stand stock-still and appear as unthreatening as possible. I didn’t even breathe. 

Then, from the gully’s far side, came the sounds of more brush breaking. The bull turned its head just as a second bull stepped into the open. A distraction! For a moment it seemed I might escape, but then the first bull turned and, with steely resolve, started toward me.

I don’t know what I would have done had the bull kept coming. I’d run out of options. Fortunately, the second bull refused to be ignored and charged across the gully. The first bull braced to face its attacker and heads-down the two collided with a loud, hollow clacking of antlers. I seized the moment and high-tailed it for a nearby ridge, away from the heart of the action, but close enough to calm down and safely take pictures with my telephoto lens. 

Finding untamed places and wild creatures in Alaska can be as simple and inexpensive as stepping outside or taking a drive. Even in Anchorage, a city of 300,000, it’s easy to find and view moose in Chugach State Park where bulls gather in September to knock heads and win breeding rights to harems of cows. Calling them in, of course, is unnecessary—and not advised. 

Anchorage isn’t alone in its supply of urban wildlife-viewing opportunities. Every city, village and community in this wilderness state has its own birds, animals and viewing treasures. The key to finding them is to step outside, use some imagination, and be alert. In other words, consider yourself on safari. And no matter where in the state you may seek wildlife to photograph or view, keep in mind that your best days will include everything—the seasons, the weather, even subtleties of light falling early in the morning or receding with night’s advance. Work to see that each outing includes the calls of songbirds, the sounds of rivers, the touch of winds, and shadows cast by mountains and clouds. Do that and wherever in Alaska you look, you’ll find what you seek. 

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WHERE TO START

Alaska is huge, and its viewing opportunities for birds and wildlife are diverse. Just what time of year and where in the state to plan a visit will depend upon the species you hope to find. For some excellent get-started information, visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Wildlife Viewing Web pages at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=viewing.main—K.M.

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A brown bear passes by in Katmai National Park and Preserve. ©Ken Marsh

ACCESSIBLE WILDLIFE VIEWING

Beyond Alaska’s cities, yet easily and affordably accessible by road, rail, air or boat, are several national and state parks. In many cases, concessionaires provide wildlife-viewing tours and easy access and accommodations in and around parks while rangers are on hand to answer questions and point out wildlife and viewing areas of interest. Some popular national parks offering very different bird- and wildlife-viewing options include:

  • Denali National Park and Preserve is the crown jewel of Alaska’s parks. Denali offers some of the world’s best opportunities to see a diverse array of wildlife. Dall sheep, brown bear, moose, caribou and—if you’re especially fortunate—wolves, can all be seen in a single day amid scenery unsurpassed anywhere on the planet. Bus tours make travel and viewing in the park easy. For more information, visit http://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/wildlife-viewing.htm.
  • Kenai Fiords National Park offers wildlife viewing with an added maritime twist. A mix of estuaries, rugged coastline, forests and ice fields, much of the park is best seen via boat or air. Visitors taking any of several boat tours out of Seward can expect to see a variety of seabirds—including puffins, oystercatchers, and murres—and sea mammals [marine mammals?] such as sea otters, seals and several species of whales. Along the shorelines and mountainsides, black bears, brown bears and mountain goats may be seen. To learn more, see http://www.nps.gov/kefj/learn/nature/animals.htm.
  • Katmai National Park is famous for its brown bear viewing opportunities. The park’s Brooks River is the centerpiece, drawing bears to feast on the hundreds of thousands of salmon that arrive annually. At peak season in July, anywhere from 45 to 70 bears may roam this mile-and-a-half-long stream connecting southwestern Alaska’s Naknek and Brooks lakes. Learn more at http://www.nps.gov/katm/planyourvisit/bear-watching.htm.


For more ideas and a complete listing of Alaska’s national parks, preserves and monuments, check out http://www.nps.gov/state/ak/index.htm—K.M.

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OTHER URBAN OPTIONS

If your timeline or budget won’t permit wildlife-viewing treks to Alaska’s far-flung corners, don’t worry: No matter where your travels take you in the Great Land, wildlife and wild places can be found nearby.  

Overlooking Anchorage, Chugach State Park’s Glen Alps trailhead is about a 15-minute drive from the city’s heart. Moose gather here during the September and early October breeding season, and Dall sheep are frequently seen, along with many species of alpine birds, including three types of ptarmigan; Arctic ground squirrels; and if you’re very lucky, bears, lynx or even wolverine. 

Kincaid Park, less than a 10-minute drive from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, is another great place to see moose year-round. And within a 20-minute drive south of the city on the Seward Highway, pods of belugas (white whales) may be spotted in summer and fall chasing salmon on the tides of scenic Turnagain Arm. Dall sheep can also be viewed along the highway, grazing on the mountainsides.

Anchorage isn’t alone for its urban wildlife-viewing opportunities. In the winter, between October and February, the world’s largest congregation of bald eagles can be found along the Chilkat River just outside of Haines in Southeast. Deer, red foxes and massive Kodiak brown bears can be seen from the road system out of the city of Kodiak. And Creamer’s Field near the Interior city of Fairbanks is famous for its waterfowl viewing and opportunities to watch moose, lynx and even the region’s sole amphibian, the wood frog. 

—K.M.

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