“When sorrows come, they come not single spies. But in battalions!”
– William Shakespeare, “Hamlet”
The wolves didn’t hesitate. Four of them, three grays and a smokey-black converged on the moose. Two of the grays lunged for the throat, another snapped at an ear – and for a moment hung from it, tugging – while the black wolf shot in to seize a front leg below the knee. Frantic, the moose shook them off, even as two more wolves appeared on the bank from behind.
Ears flattened, hackles raised, the moose reared, flailing with its front hooves. The visceral thud of bone striking flesh was followed by a yelp as the black wolf somersaulted across the frozen creek. From the bank a large, nearly snow-white wolf leaped onto the moose’s back, straddling it and grabbing the shoulder hump with jaws powerful enough to crush heavy femurs. The moose spun wild-eyed and the second wolf from the bank, a tawny gray, sailed in and clamped onto its prey’s windpipe above the dewlap.
Now the first three grays rushed the moose, tearing at its flanks, sinking their canines into its haunches. By the time the black wolf was up, wheezing with freshly broken ribs, the attack was over. The sun was sinking as the pack began stripping hide and snarling over hierarchical placement at the kill.
Already ravens had arrived. The hills to the east and the muskegs, forests, and frozen rivers and lakes in between beamed in rich pink alpenglow, even as the first faint stars appeared.
So last week’s subzero temperatures finally vanished. Overnight. And just like that the snow started melting as days warmed into the mid-40s and 50s F. Even more miraculously, the waterfowl began to arrive.
First, I saw trumpeter swans. They came in pairs or small flocks, landing on ice shelves near open water. Their hornlike calls echoed like brass through the trees and across the marsh as they stretched their wings and rested.
After that, it wasn’t long – less than an hour – before I started hearing geese. Then, Canada geese in long skeins appeared overhead.
Trumpeter swans are always among the first spring migrants to return to Southcentral Alaska, with geese not far behind. But Alaskans know springtime is here when the pintails arrive. And here they were, drakes in flight already competing for reluctant hens.
Wildlife activity has certainly increased with the warm weather, and those movements aren’t limited only to waterfowl. An otter stopped by later in the evening, preceded by three young bull moose.
I’ve been a hunter most of my life and was raised on moose and caribou meat. But as I get older, I’m finding greater pleasure in photographing birds and animals, too. I’m able to incorporate my hard-earned hunting and stalking skills to get pictures. It’s fun, challenging, and the pictures last longer than the meat. Of course, it’s all good.
The seasons change swiftly here in Alaska, this land of extremes as it has been called. It’s part of the fascination of living here. That, along with the wild lands and wild creatures that accompany it all.
Just over a week ago, the temperatures in Anchorage, Alaska, were dipping down below zero degrees F. This white-tailed ptarmigan tried to make the best of the cold weather it by hunkering in a beam of sunlight.
Incidentally, white-tailed ptarmigan are North America’s smallest grouse. Adults top out at weights of around 12 ounces, on the hoof.
I was fortunate to encounter a lynx in the half light prior to dawn. Sadly, my camera was stuffed in my pack for the hike into the high country and by the time I pulled it out, Mr. Lynx was gone. So, no actual pictures of the animal, but I’ll never forget the way it wagged its black-tipped, bobbed tail before vanishing into the alpine hemlocks.
Ptarmigan were not plentiful this time, though last year on the same date willow ptarmigan – Alaska’s state bird – were abundant. The paucity of birds may have been related to the park being open this year to snowmachines (that’s Alaskan for snowmobiles). Fast, noisy engines hurtling through a narrow alpine valley is not conducive to wildlife viewing.
But, near the head of the valley where snow machine activity thinned out, signs of ptarmigan began to appear.
Eventually, I heard the slightest sound of ice crystals collapsing and looked up near the trail to see a living snowball. It was the white-tailed ptarmigan, the only ptarmigan I would see that day. I was glad to see it, initially at first light and again on the trail home when I found it bathing in morning sunlight.
Only a week later, I would be watching newly arriving trumpeter swans and Canada geese arriving in the lowlands nearby. More on that later.
Alaskans rely upon rivers for travel and sustenance the way people of the Lower 48 depend upon highways.
By Ken Marsh
I don’t remember our destination that muggy July day on the Yukon River – likely some abandoned mining camp or ghost town – but I do recall spotting the swimming wolf along the way. We were upstream of Eagle, several of us in a riverboat piloted by a family friend who collected Gold Rush relics, when I spotted the animal dogpaddling mid-channel. I was 12 or 13 years old then and pleased enough to be in a boat on that wide, historic stretch of water. The swimming wolf was an added delight. So I shouted and pointed and our skipper, formerly a fighter pilot in the Korean War and Vietnam, grinned gamely and swung the boat around.
Muddy with sediments and a quarter-mile wide at that early point in its 2,300-mile-long journey, the Yukon downstream of its junction with the heavily glacial White River is nearly impossible to swim. For starters, the river here is coldblooded, reputed to chill, cramp and paralyze its victims. Even more insidious, locals used to say, are the glacial silts; word was the flour-fine grains of rock collect quickly in the clothes of those who capsize or fall out of boats, dragging down even the strongest swimmers.
At that time, the early 1970s, one Dawson City man – I believe it was local sternwheeler captain Dick Stevenson, though I can’t be sure – was rumored to have successfully swum the Yukon, bank-to-bank, on a dare. Legend had it he’d foiled the river by downing a few shots of hard liquor to guard against the cold, and that he beat the silt by stripping to his undershorts. Whether or not the tale is true I cannot say; more than 40 years have flowed by since I last heard the story and time’s currents have a way of eroding memories.
In any case, the power of water moving at 227,000 cubic feet per second cannot be overstated. And neither can the determination of the swimming wolf we encountered that day long ago.
“Want to pet him?” our skipper friend asked as he eased us close off the animal’s side.
I balked, processing in my mind the snapshot I carry with me to this day of that canine head, dry and smoky-white, followed by a soggy mane, the wolf’s back and plume of a white tail submerged and trailing in its wake. Now a few yards off the starboard gunnel, the wolf ignored us as it worked against the roiling current, its yellow eyes never leaving the far shore.
“Here,” the friend said, “use this.”
He handed me a canoe paddle, kept for emergencies in the bottom of the boat. I understood why he thought an Alaska boy should seize the opportunity – for the novelty of it. After all, what could be more “sourdough” than petting a wolf as it swims the Yukon? By then the others in the boat had joined in, encouraging me to punctuate our encounter with a harmless touch.
For an instant I considered how I might, in the spirit of counting coup, reach out with the paddle and lightly stroke the wolf between its ears. Intent on its fight against the Yukon, the animal probably wouldn’t flinch, even as everyone in the boat cheered. Imagine the glory!
In the end, though, temptation lost out to compassion. The wolf and the river weren’t playing, even a boy could see that. Further distractions were unwarranted. To my onlookers’ collective disappointment, I shrugged and set down the paddle.
The boat then turned and we motored away, leaving the wolf alone with the current. Now whenever I reflect upon the prominence and power of Alaska’s rivers, I picture the events of that day – wolf versus river, two natural forces engaged in a contest of strength and will. I like to think the struggle ended in a draw, that the wolf unfazed by silt and cold survived the crossing, though not before being swept far downstream.
Beyond that, a question whispers over the eddies of time: Why might a wolf dare swim the mighty Yukon, anyway? The answer, of course, is simple and very old: To reach the other side.
The Yukon is Granddame of Alaska’s rivers, the North’s own long, broad, brown Mississippi. Rich in Native history, passageway for early Russian fur traders and Gold Rush stampeders, she flows 400 miles through Canada before transecting 1,875 miles of Alaska, draining along the way 330,000 square miles of raw, virtually trackless country. Still, she is but one river among many. Some 3,000 others flow across Alaska, fed by untold thousands of lesser streams, brooks and rills. Indeed, this wilderness state is in large part defined (along with its mountain ranges and ice fields) by its rivers.
Like rivers everywhere, ours in Alaska are metronomes, conductors of water, measurers of time. Too, they are conveyors, offering passage to destinations near and far. In that respect, and considering that our fewer than 6,000 miles of certified public roads and highways hardly probe this 570,374-square-mile state’s edges, rivers here are especially important. Even if you were to include the 9,000 miles of lesser city streets, alleys and frontage roads overseen by towns, villages and municipalities and stretch them out across the hinterlands, Alaska’s river networks would offer far greater span. For this reason, our dependence on rivers for instate travel is critical, particularly for rural residents whose road systems are at best localized and short.
To greater or lesser extents, Alaskans depend upon rivers to lead us to our homes, livelihoods, recreation, and food sources as surely as citizens of Seattle, Los Angeles, Memphis or Pittsburg rely upon freeways to access the same things. River travel occurs here year-round, except for the brief periods of freeze-up in fall and breakup in spring, when ice forming or thawing makes for treacherous going. In summer we use riverboats, rafts, canoes, kayaks – even tugboats towing barges – to navigate the Kuskokwim, Copper, Tanana, Chena, Kobuk, Koyukuk, Wood, and hundreds of others. In winter these rivers and others like the Susitna, Gulkana, Sagavanirktok, and Yukon freeze and are transformed into highways for snowmobiles, dogsleds, ATVs, and even cars and trucks. The famous 1,100-mile-long Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the Iron Dog snowmobile race, each retracing historic travel routes, follow hundreds of miles of frozen river channels.
This coziness with rivers is to be expected in a frontier state where many still rely on game and fish as dietary staples, where log cabins hewn from local spruces remain unremarkably common, and where the presence of wilderness looms large on the edge of every port, city and mind.
Of course, there are two sides to every river. And even as rivers here serve much of the time as highways for men and machines, occasionally they are nothing less than formidable barriers. Yukon-swimming wolves would agree, I’m sure, as would the engineers and grunts who tackled the Copper River in 1908. Back then prospectors had discovered enormous copper deposits in the Wrangell Mountains. Unfortunately for them, the Copper River blocked the only practical transport route between the mining community of Kennecott and the Prince William Sound port town of Cordova. The only solution was to build a bridge.
Imagine in those elbow grease and horse-and-buggy days bridging a swift, swirling glacial monster a third of a mile wide, its channel an expressway for icebergs calved from glaciers upriver. Figure too that the Copper is hardly stable, its water levels fluctuating as much as 24 feet between July and April. All told, you’d need a bridge that would stand well above the high-water mark with enough clearance to allow icebergs rising 20 feet above the water to pass safely underneath. You’d be looking at placing four steel spans, each weighing roughly 4 million pounds and – here’s the incredible part – every last ounce would have to be transported at least 20 miles upriver on barges and canoes towed on ropes gripped by men scrambling through alder tangles and over bouldersranging in size from bowling balls to motor homes.
The job seemed impossible. In fact, it still seems impossible, except that through a mix of genius and sheer cussedness the engineers and scores of laborers pulled it off. The Million Dollar Bridge, as it was named for its construction cost, was completed in 1910. And so the big, fast Copper River, that roiling glacier-fed giant, was tamed. That is, at least, for a while. Gravity got the last laugh 54 years later when the 1964 Good Friday earthquake savagely shook Southcentral Alaska, collapsing the bridge’s fourth span. The broken structure now stands as the terminus of Cordova’s abbreviated Copper River Highway.
So rivers surge and ebb, flood and dry up. They busy themselves cutting new channels and, sometimes, they forget things such as old bends left behind to stagnate as oxbow lakes. As often as not though, rivers are revealers. One September, while traveling in a riverboat up the Koyukuk River, Charlie Green of Galena pointed out some sandbars where that Interior Alaska river frequently exposes the carcasses of woolly mammoths.
“I like to take my kids there sometimes and look for bones,” Charlie said of one sandbar.
In that sense, Alaska’s rivers have a way of revealing ancient truths. Many here cut through the permafrost-encased graveyards of ice-age elephants, bison, and saber-toothed tigers, reminding us there’s more to this place than normally meets the eye. Along the way, tiny bits of mammoth matter – bone and even hair – are picked up and carried in the current. Think about that the next time you have a glass of Interior Alaska river water.
At the same time, Alaska’s rivers are loaded with present-day life. Our state is famous for its fish, particularly salmon, grayling, trout and char. Fish feed us here. Indeed, our salmon fisheries help nourish the world. We catch our salmon in commercial nets in the Yukon, for subsistence by fish wheel and personal-use dip net in the Copper, and for sport by rod and reel just about everywhere.
Many years ago, I spent an early autumn week with friends rafting a river northwest of Dillingham. Our trip began at the river’s headwaters lake high in the mountains. At the foot of the lake, where the river spilled out, the channel was a vermillion ribbon of spawning sockeyes – “red” salmon – mixed with a few humpbacked pinks and the odd coho.
We caught and released a few salmon and trout, then hopped aboard the raft to ride the river and witness a weeklong progression of water, fish, wild country and life. The river wandered modestly at first, gathering as it flowed a fullness that was sleek and direct. I watched the land pass by as the current hustled us along and was reminded of my mortality as the river measured my minutes, hours and days passing on the planet.
Late one evening, with the rest of camp gone to bed after a long day of rafting and fishing, I was left alone with the river. The current’s volume seemed to increase as daylight faded and, cued by fresh snow topping the hills nearby, flights of southbound ducks could be heard passing low overhead on whistling wings.
From a gravel bar near the river’s center I found an eddy so full of bright coho salmon that every cast drew a strike. All I had to do was drop a streamer fly into the eddy’s head, let it drift into the sweet spot, and — POW! — a salmon would wallop it. From there the coho would tear downriver, leaping and dancing in the darkness. You couldn’t see them, but you could hear them splashing and feel their heaviness and insane energy telegraphed through the line.
My feeling of joy, of happiness to be alive at that instant, was intense. I had the river to thank for that. And that was not the first time, or the last, that I’ve felt that way on a float trip. Alaska’s rivers can do that – deliver us, provide enrichment for our starving souls. You need only hop aboard and let the current take you along. Some journeys are longer than others, yet when you reach the end it’s always the same: You look back and realize that life is a river, and the river is always too short.
Here’s why some Southcentral Alaska fishers are casting in high places.
By Ken Marsh
On a hot day in mid-July, at the end of a dusty mountain bike ascent high into the Kenai Mountains, Crescent Lake sparkles like an ice-blue promise. To get there I’d grinded my way over the sparsely traveled Crescent Creek Trail, up near-vertical inclines and around hairpin switchbacks broken by rocks and roots. The going had been challenging, though not overly so for an angler willing to break a sweat for solitude, adventure and — legend had it — tremendous fishing for some of the biggest, meanest grayling in the state.
Now the lake sprawled before me, windless and surrounded by 5,000-foot-tall mountains, its surface reflecting ridges, crags and cobalt skies. From my daypack I removed an assortment of fishing paraphernalia and assembled my four-piece fly rod and reel. Grayling fed and splashed in the lake out front; one, two, three … easily a dozen could be seen sipping bugs off the surface nearby. I pulled up my skin-thin Gore Tex waders, stumbling at the distraction of all those fish, then stepped into the shallows. A grayling swirled close by and, in a heartbeat, I was tearing line off my reel, calculating the distance of the day’s first big cast.
Welcome to one of Southcentral Alaska’s premier high-country fisheries. Set in the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula, in the center of the 5.9-million-acre Chugach National Forest, Crescent Lake is locally known for grayling that grow close to two feet long and weigh three pounds or more. That’s impressive for a naturally diminutive species whose official state sportfishing record stands at 5 pounds, 1 ounce. Yet these fish, like those found in other mountain lakes scattered throughout the Kenai and Chugach ranges, receive little angling pressure. In fact, the trout, char and grayling found in many of these upper elevation jewels are probably more likely to die of old age than end up in a camp skillet.
Of course, the reason for this is simple — in Southcentral more easily reached fishing options wait just a scenic drive down the road. State highways from Homer to Denali Park parallel salmon-rich rivers and creeks, and scores of lakes and smaller streams offer drive-up fishing for trout, grayling, char and other species. So the question is inevitable: Why knock yourself out to reach waters a mile (or six) off the road when fish can be caught a short cast from a parking lot?
Why indeed. That is, unless your notion of fishing extends beyond merely catching fish. For many anglers, the appeal of high-country water is in leaving the tamer, more peopled places behind. Reaching these out-of-the-way spots is a cherished part of the process. Whether you hike in, take horses, ride a mountain bike or fly, you will climb through an extraordinary natural progression. You’ll watch the land around you evolve, from big timber to wind-stunted shrubs to wide-open alpine tundra. You’ll sense the air thinning as you gain elevation, notice the wind feeling cooler on your face. Wildlife sightings are likely and may include moose feeding in muskeg ponds, black bears hunting blueberries on sunlit hillsides, spruce grouse clucking on the trail ahead. And of course, waiting at the far end of the trail are those mountain lakes, deep and cold, holding hungry trout, grayling and char eager to strike flies, spinners or spoons.
Perhaps the best news for anglers is that many high-country lakes can be reached via groomed trails within a morning’s hike of local highways. The Chugach Forest offers a great network of trails leading to fine fishing, including the Resurrection Trail system between Hope and Cooper Landing, the Johnson Pass Trail off the Seward Highway, and the Crescent Creek and Russian Lakes trails off the Sterling Highway.
Where exactly you decide to go is best planned well in advance. Start by being honest with yourself about your physical condition and wilderness skills. Know what kind of challenges you’re up to and plan your fishing trek accordingly. Using topographic maps and information provided on the Web, find out how far off the road you’ll need to travel and, while you’re at it, research the trail — is it suitable for mountain bikes, or would hiking be a better option? If you’re short on time or simply not up for the physical demands of a long, steep expedition, consider a floatplane charter into one of the larger lakes. Floatplane charter outfits can be found in Anchorage Seward and Cooper Landing. Most offer day drop-off packages; comparison shop to get the best deal.
If you’re in Alaska on a brief visit with minimal gear, it’s easy to broaden your high-country horizons by renting what you need. Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) in Anchorage rents camping gear such as backpacks, tents and sleeping bags. Mountain bikes can be rented for reasonable rates from any of several local vendors, and at least one Cooper Landing horseback outfitter specializes in Chugach Forest backcountry trips.
Beyond good fishing, Crescent Lake and tarns like Rabbit Lake in the Chugach Mountains near Anchorage, or Symphony Lake out of Eagle River, promise admission to primal worlds that time and most anglers have forgotten. The reward at the end of a brisk hike, mountain bike trek or horseback ride: solitude, pristine water and some of the planet’s most marvelous scenery. From the shorelines of these far-flung lakes — and others like Johnson, Bench, Carter and Juneau in the Kenai Mountains where grayling, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden rise among the reflections of sheer rock walls, upended peaks and treeless hills — it is easy to pretend that you are, as the late journalist Charles Kuralt once wrote, “alone in the universe.”
Back on Crescent Lake, grayling rose all around me, their snouts gently breaking the surface and leaving silver rings. My fly was a tiny speck on the water a good, long cast out front and I was watching when it suddenly vanished in a swirl. I yanked back on my rod, to set the hook, and was surprised by the heaviness telegraphed back to me. Instantly the fish surged deep, shaking its head like a pit bull. All I could do was hang on, try to keep the tension in my line, wear the fish out.
There was another short drive for the deep, dark water before the battle moved to the top. I watched as the grayling made run after thrashing run, its marlin-like dorsal fin cutting ragged wakes across the surface. Eventually, though, each run grew weaker until, finally, l was able to lead the fish in and hold it in my hands.
Twenty inches long (measured by tape) with purple and blue scales that sparkled like sequins, I guessed the grayling weighed close to three pounds. It was one of the big ones — one of those living legends Crescent Lake is known for. Over the next couple of hours I would catch one more that size, and many other good fish that would range from 12 to 15 inches long.
For the moment, though, the game was over. I eased my hook from the grayling’s jaw and lowered the fish into the lake, among the reflections of mountains. Then I found a gap in the crags, and watched the fish vanish into the sky.
Here are a few possibilities worth considering for this summer:
Johnson Lake: Rainbow trout in this Johnson Pass Trail jewel are rumored to grow extra large and hungry. Access options include the north trailhead located at Mile 64 of the Seward Highway east of Granite Creek Campground, or the south trailhead at Mile 32.5 of the Seward Highway west of Upper Trail Lake. The trail is roughly 20 miles long, with Johnson Lake marking the approximate halfway point. The lake can accommodate floatplanes. Nearby Bench Lake offers fishing for grayling. The trail is suitable for hiking, mountain bikes and horses; seasonal restrictions on bikes and horses may apply.
Rabbit Lake: The route to this beautiful Chugach State Park lake in the mountains overlooking Anchorage begins south of town at McHugh Creek State Wayside at Mile 15.2 of the Seward Highway. The trail is a steep seven miles one way, but rainbow trout to 18 inches prowl the lake. Along the way, keep an eye out for ptarmigan, marmots, Dall sheep and grizzly bears.
Symphony Lake: Grayling head the menu in this alpine opportunity a short drive from downtown Anchorage. State sport fish biologist Dan Bosch hiked into the lake recently with a small spinning rod and enjoyed great fishing for grayling 18 inches long. “They’re just gorgeous fat, fat fish,” he said. “I landed three and probably lost three or four in about 15 minutes.”
To reach Symphony Lake, drive south on Hiland Road seven miles to South Fork Eagle River Valley Trail Head in Chugach State Park. From there, the trail to the lake is five miles. The hike in took Bosch about two hours. And finding the fish required some walking around the lake’s 1.2 miles of shoreline (he found them on the lake’s far side).
Juneau Lake: Located on the Resurrection Trail system, this remote fishery is known for its rainbows, grayling and lake trout. The trailhead is located at Mile 52 of the Sterling Highway. The lake can be reached via a six-mile hike over a well-maintained trail, horseback or plane. A U.S.D.A. Forest Service cabin is available for overnight stays and must be reserved in advance.
Crescent Lake: This hot grayling lake can be reached from two trailheads. The Crescent Creek Trail located 98 miles south of Anchorage off the Sterling Highway is one option. The trail to the lake is 6 ½ miles with a gradual elevation gain of 1,000 feet. Anglers can reach the lake on foot, mountain bike or horseback. The other route involves a steep 5½-mile hike over the Carter Lake Trail off the Seward Highway out of Moose Pass. Crescent Lake opens for fishing on July 1; Forest Service cabins are available.
Russian Lakes: Trailheads to the Russian Lakes Trail start at the Russian River Campground near Mile 52.6 of the Sterling Highway, or via the trailhead at Cooper Lake off Snug Harbor Road. The 21-mile-long trail traverse excellent fishing for rainbow trout and Dolly Varden. Fish can be caught in Upper and Lower Russian lakes, though the best fishing is in the Upper Russian River, which connects the lakes. Forest Service cabins and skiffs are available at both lakes.
High Country Tackle
Float tubes, also called “bellyboats,” are usually truck inner tubes or large rubber air bladders lined with fabric and rigged with a seat. They allow you to propel yourself around a lake by kicking your feet, which you fit with diving fins. Float tubes can make all the difference by providing easy access to deeper areas that shore-bound anglers can’t reach. Just remember, all of this stuff has to go in on your back. Shop for light-weight tubes that are easily inflated by mouth (Caddis makes a very light and affordable U-shaped model) and ultra-light Gore-Tex waders, to keep the weight and bulk down on the hike or mountain bike trip in. Deflated float tubes are also easily stuffed into floatplanes.
Tackle: Ultralight spinning rods or 4- to 6-weight fly rods are good for fishing high-country lakes. Three pounds is big for fish at elevations of 2,600 to 3,000 feet, where growing seasons are short. Anglers using spinning gear will find 4- to 6-pound-test monofilament plenty strong. Spinners and spoons in Nos. 0-2 are good choices for trout, grayling and char.
Fly-fishers will generally have the best luck using floating lines and 10- to 12-foot-long leaders with something like a 4-pound-test tippet. Leech patterns, an assortment of dry flies and some No. 18 or 20 Griffith’s Gnats or some chironomids fished below the surface can be very effective.
Admission to solitude and pristine waters waits just beyond that first ridge. Start hiking — or mountain biking, or hire a horseback outfitter, or charter a floatplane (often surprisingly affordable should time or physical ability limit more strenuous options) — and you’ll discover firsthand that Alaska’s sprawling 365 million acres extend far beyond its meager highway system. Within a mile of the roads most traveled, you’ll enter the far-flung, truly wild places that time and most anglers have forgotten.
Anchorage, Alaska, remains covered in two or three feet of snow these days, with fresh buckets-full coming down at this very moment. But don’t be fooled. Springtime is on its way and the first Canada geese will be showing up here in about four weeks. Trust them. They’ve returned to this part of the world early each April for eons.
The new arrivals pictured here on a previous April day are standing on the ice of a local pond. Some appear rightly weary, while others are throwing their heads back in apparent celebration — they actually made it!
With spring so close, today’s snow make little difference. The rest of us will make it, too.
A spruce bark beetle infestation across Southcentral Alaska in recent years has proven beneficial for regional woodpeckers. From Petersville to Palmer, Anchorage and beyond, infested trees have provided a year-round banquet for these sharp-billed birds.
Downy and hairy woodpeckers are most common around Anchorage, but a hike yesterday was highlighted by an encounter with a female American three-toed woodpecker, Picoidesfasciatus. (Note: Until recently, these birds were call northern three-toed woodpeckers.) At a glance, the main difference between sexes is that adult males sport a bright yellow cap.
Ranging from Alaska and the Yukon south to Oregon, northern Idaho and western Montana, the American three-toed woodpecker is a smaller species with adults ranging from 8 to 9 1/2 inches in length — roughly the size of an American robin. They generally find food in and immediately under a tree’s outer bark, rarely driving deeply into the wood. Note the small holes and disturbed bark in these pictures to see woodpeckers have fed on this bark beetle-infested tree frequently.
Yesterday’s woodpecker proved a cooperative photographic model, allowing me to approach closely with a 70-200mm Canon lens in so-so light. Seeing shed life and sound to an otherwise silent winter day in Southcentral Alaska.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alaska’s wild side is home to a distinctive assortment of birds.
By Ken Marsh
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
The surf charges in with a drumroll that crescendos, peaks, then breaks in a carbonated hiss. It’s late afternoon and, wrapped in waders and raingear, I’ve left the shelter of a rented shack and stepped onto the sand dunes of an isolated Alaska Gulf Coast beach. The idea is to hike inland across the dunes, against a steady rain, and into the wetlands beyond to explore and witness a rare natural wonder.
Overhead, the skies swarm and clamor with northbound birds. Huge flocks move across a wilderness tapestry far from roads, electricity or Internet. This passage – of shorebirds and waterfowl by the millions – is what I’ve come to see. They storm the region late each April and May in a mass migration witnessed by relatively few, the sights and sounds a sensation worthy of any wildlife viewer’s bucket list.
Indeed, a desire to see wild creatures living as they have since the last ice age draws viewers to Alaska from all corners of the world. The state’s ranges, coasts and forests are famous for unique collections of birds and animals ranging from two-pound willow ptarmigan to two-ton Pacific walrus along with caribou, brown bear and so much more. Of course, the adventure is in the searching and the finding, the becoming a part of the place, its mountain backdrops and tundra plains, to find iconic musk ox, Dall sheep, moose – and even little birds as they pass in hordes across untamed skies.
Wet, wild and lonesome, the Gulf Coast is a country of ocean squalls and glacier-hung mountains, a place where the winds sometimes howl for weeks without pause. Yet breaks in the weather occur, and when they do, this little known, largely uninhabited stretch of shoreline spanning some 200 miles between Cordova and Yakutat reveals itself as a world of contrasts. On days when sunshine floods land and sea, the hemlocks dry out and the hills glow in an enchanted light. Harebells and salmonberries bloom purple and hot pink, and creatures—some large and lanky as 1,000-pound moose; others tiny and delicate as rufous hummingbirds, lighter than a nickel—appear in the marshes, thickets and along beach edges.
The rivers and streams here (there are many) serve as avenues for salmon: awesome runs of sockeye, Chinook and coho. And one particular river—the great, glacial Copper—has over the eons cut a deep, wide valley that each spring provides passage into Alaska’s Interior for a multitude of migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds and raptors.
At the moment, I’m east of the Copper on a late-April day, dropped off by a bush plane chartered from Cordova, near a delta where two smaller rivers merge. The birds are here, as expected, resting in the marshes and flooding the skies en route to that ancient gateway to Arctic nesting grounds. Not far from my shack, a shelter for commercial fishermen who appear for a few weeks each August to net late-summer coho, the dunes bordering the open coast end abruptly at a shallow, brackish, mile-long lake backed by an expansive bog. The lake seems crossable, so I wade in and start sloshing my way across.
Shorebirds sail by in unimaginable numbers; some 5 to 7 million of them will pass through before all is said and done, many just in from faraway places such as Mexico, Central America and South America. Western sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers and dunlins whistle around me in whirling flocks, twisting and turning in single-minded masses. Sandhill cranes meander overhead, circling and gliding, their croaking, cracking calls distinctive as the spring season itself. Tundra swans honk, and geese of all kinds cry out as they pass overhead in broad, northbound wedges.
At the bog, an organic brew of tannic water and decomposing plants, the air smells like rotten eggs. My pace slows to a tentative, mud-bottomed slog, and I’m startled as waves of pintails, wigeons, shovelers and teal in flocks of hundreds burst suddenly from the sedges.
A confession: I am a casual birder. While serious colleagues enjoy keeping life lists or collecting and recording sightings—endeavors that are interesting and potentially helpful to the overall study of birds—my approach is less structured, though no less passionate. Instead of recording lists or tallies, I like to view birds as living art forms, natural elements that fill critical niches in a broad, breathing canvas. I watch them, savoring their distinctive colors, movements and songs, then move on to the next piece of the canvas.
In that sense I’m less a birder, perhaps, than a student of nature in its entirety. And that’s fine. There are as many ways and reasons to view birds and wildlife as there are people interested in doing so. Even better, there are no hard, fast rules that apply to how nature is interpreted or enjoyed.
An hour later I’m beyond the bog, walking in a driven drizzle among tussocks and grass to my armpits. Steller’s jays with cobalt tails melding like winter nights into black, crested heads, scream in the brush at the bog’s edge. Nearby, on the far side of a thicket, a river whispers.
The wide-open bog vanishes in a tangled, twisted forest of alders 10 feet tall and for a moment I sense a twinge of hopelessness. Engulfed in alders, I follow the sound of the current, tripping over trunks, cursing, then pushing on. And suddenly, the river appears. At its edge, bear tracks stamped into the mud meander upstream toward a forested valley. The gentle current simmers in the rain and it occurs to me the dripping jungle around me is alive with peeping songbirds: juncos, sparrows, kinglets, and so many nondescript little brown warblers and whistlers that I can’t keep track of them all. I’m tempted to just sit there, watching, thinking and resting. But it’s getting late, and I must turn back.
Four days after my arrival, I’m standing at the shack’s window, sipping hot cocoa, examining my reflection. The sun has broken out, and the clouds have lifted, revealing beyond the marsh a massive glacier framed by the jagged Coastal Range. Flocks of birds continue to whirl outside, as well as in my head, where images of this trip will remain, I suppose, forever.
Suddenly, a dash of iridescent emerald appears on glittering wings, hovering at collar level beyond the reflected image of my red chamois shirt. I hear my plane coming. The hummingbird vanishes.
To experience the spring shorebird and waterfowl migration in and around the Copper River delta—to hit it just right—is to witness an aerial stampede. Seeing so many birds, and so many varieties, can be remarkable, even life changing. Better, it’s only one example of Alaska’s many unique wildlife-viewing opportunities.
In the way that a locale and its inhabitants can set a place apart, Alaska is distinctive for its animals and birds—from giant brown bears of Pleistocene dimensions to diminutive boreal chickadees—and for its backdrops of mountains, rivers, forests and tundra so deep and broad that the land seems to roll on forever. In fact, with 586,412 square miles of land mass (that’s more than a million acres or 1,600 square miles for every day of the year) the state is unfathomably huge, spanning an assortment of climate zones, geographies and ecosystems, each featuring its own distinctive collection of birds and animals.
Such variety in a seemingly endless wilderness can be intimidating to prospective wildlife viewers. But it needn’t be prohibitive. Simply focus on the bird or animal species you wish to see, and then determine through a bit of research just when and where in the state you’ll need to go find them. From there it’s a matter of sorting through logistics, including travel, food, and accommodations; aligning costs to suit your budget; and considering how much time you have to spend.
Going wild—striking out on your own or in a small group to search for wildlife in far-flung places—is one option. Dream venues await in every corner of the state: Consider Round Island in Southwest Alaska, where Pacific walrus may be seen hauling out on the beach by the thousands (for an instant preview, see them live via Web cam at explore.org/walrus); or Southeast’s Anan Creek in July and August when black bears and brown bears mingle to fish for pink salmon; the Arctic out of Nome, where you might rent a car to tour the road system and search for musk oxen or maybe connect with a local birding tour to find rare and colorful bluethroats and Arctic warblers.
Access to the more exotic places usually means taking a commercial jet from Juneau, Anchorage or Fairbanks to a hub city such as Petersburg, Wrangell, Cordova, Dillingham, or Kotzebue, among others. From there, passage into the wilderness might require a Bush plane or a boat charter off the coast or up a remote river. Do-it-yourself trips are possible and can ease expenses, but treks far from civilization require meticulous planning, and wilderness camping is not for the inexperienced. The cost of a guided tour is usually money well spent—these may include extended hikes or river floats through storied places such as the Brooks Range or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where seasoned professionals handle logistics and safety.
Birding is a year-round pastime for many in Alaska, with viewing in many regions generally best from April through September. A listing of local festivals celebrating the arrival and gatherings of birds can be found at http://ak.audubon.org/2015-bird-festivals-alaska.
Mallards are a hardy breed. Cold weather really doesn’t seem to bother them as long as open water and/or food is available. These ducks winter in Anchorage, Alaska, despite subzero temperatures and deep snow. They seem no worse for the wear.