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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Denali National Park in Fall

Autumn is a spectacular time to visit Denali National Park. The alpine and subalpine tundra at higher elevations gleams with fall color by mid to late August. The taiga at lower elevations is aglow in reds by early September. The aspens near the park entrance turn brilliant yellow and gold about the first of September.  Winter’s bitter cold has not yet set in. Moose are rutting; bears are feeding actively to fatten up for winter; caribou are migrating. You may be fortunate to see Dall sheep or a wolf. An early snow may decorate the mountains.

Bull moose, Denali National Park
Grizzly Bear on Sable Pass, Denali
Moose cow and calf in Denali
Grizzly bear near Eielson in Denali

We spent the first two weeks of September in Denali National Park. The Athabascan people called the mountain “The Great One,” or “Denali,” and I prefer that name to the name Mt. McKinley given the mountain by an early prospector in letters back to the east coast.

Denali (Mt. McKinley) is a glorious moutain, breathtaking, impressive - magnificent beyond words. It is the tallest mountain in North America and has the greatest elevation gain from base to summit of any peak in the world, rising from a plateau of about 2,000 feet elevation to a spectacular 20,320 feet, clothed in the pure white of snow and glaciers. It is exceptional and unique in that it is in the middle of a six-million acre wilderness accessible by road.


Denali & Alaska Range - Reflection Pond, Denali National Park

On a clear day the mountain can be seen from more than a hundred miles away, but the awe-inspiring peak is famous for being shrouded in clouds most of the time. The Alaska Range, of which Denali is one peak, is spectacular in itself, but Denali rises far above the next highest peak and when it is visible, it dominates many views within the park. During our visit, it was visible slightly more than half the time.

Denali in fall from Mile 10 on park road

The aspens and balsam poplar in the lowlands near the park entrance and at Wonder Lake, are mixed with spruce in lovely woods. You may see gray jays and red squirrels, especially around the campgrounds, both here and at higher elevations.

Fall color near park entrance, Denali National Park
Gray jay, race canadensis, Denali National Park
Red Squirrel, Denali National Park

The scrub vegetation of the taiga, as the northern boreal forest at this latitude is called, turns infinite shades of red and rust in the fall, making for gorgeous views of the subalpine landscape from about 2,500 to 3,500 feet elevation. The green of the scattered spruce contrasts with the reds of the taiga, the entire landscape framed by rugged mountain ranges. The forest floor feels spongy under your feet as you walk on different mosses and lichens, and you will find many kids of mushrooms.

Fall color on the taiga, after an early September snowstorm on the mountains, Denali National Park

Golden Delicious mushroom - not poisonous but not actually edible, Denali National Park

Opportunities for wildlife viewing in Denali are as awesome as its spectacular scenery. We were surprised at how much wildlife we saw from the park shuttle bus, including grizzlies, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and even two wolf pups. While shooting photographs from a bus window is not the photographer’s ideal (though at least the windows open!), the shuttle drivers do stop briefly whenever wildlife is sighted, and they try to give passengers an opportunity for photos. But our best photographic opportunities were when we cruised the first 13 miles of the park road daily in mornings and evenings during the moose rut; and when we were able to drive the entire length of the park road in our own vehicle with a road lottery permit.

Bull moose crosses the park road in front of a park shuttle bus, Denali 
Grizzly cub in snow, photographed from park shuttle bus, Denali
Bull moose on taiga in fall, Denali National Park
Dall sheep, photographed from park shuttle bus, Denali
Alpha female wolf and two cubs of Riley Creek Pack, Denali

Migrating caribou in Denali National Park, September
Bull moose, Denali

Most of the six million acre park and preserve is wilderness. There is a single road, 92 miles long, into the park. The first 13 miles of the park road is open to the public. Past this point, the road is gravel and you must travel by shuttle or tour bus, unless you have a campground reservation - in which case you may drive to your campground but must then leave your vehicle there for the duration of your stay. 

The landscape is beautiful, wild, spectacular, and majestic.

Alaska Range after September snowstorm, Denali
Denali and Alaska Range with fall color
Teklanika River from Teklanika Rest Stop, Denali

Kettle pond on tundra near Wonder Lake, Denali

Rugged mountains east of Sable Pass, Denali

Moonrise from Savage Campground, Denali

An early snowstorm on September 2nd closed the road past Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66 the first day of our visit, and more snow delayed traffic the next day. The views of the snow-covered landscape were particularly spectacular after these storms.

Denali Park Road after September snowstorm
Denali from Denali Park Road eastbound after September snowstorm
Grizzly cub viewed from Denali Park shuttle bus
Tour bus headed up Polychrome Pass, Denali
White-tailed ptarmigan, Denali

Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park

There are five campgrounds along the park road, and another at the park entrance. We stayed in three of them over a two-week period in order to experience and access different parts of the park more easily. Backpacking and back-country camping are also allowed, with a permit. For four days per year a road lottery allows a small number of people to drive their own vehicle on their one assigned day. Bicycling the park road, or parts of it, is popular and a great way to see the park.

Wonder Lake Campground, Denali National Park

Visitors near Wonder Lake, Denali

Bicycling near Wonder Lake, Denali

Moose and grizzly were the wildlife we saw most. Moose can be seen anywhere in the park but we saw them primarily in a five mile section from about mile 7 to mile 12 along the park road, the section which was closed to any hiking off the road, due to the moose rut. Moose are more easily viewed near the road in the early morning and early evening hours during the moose rut.

Bull moose in Denali
Moose cow with her calf on the taiga in fall, Denali
Bull moose in Denali

Bears, too, can be seen anywhere in the park, but we saw most of them from the park shuttle beyond the Teklanika viewpoint, and when we drove the same parts of the road during the road lottery.

Grizzly heads up a snowbank in Denali

Grizzly on Plains of Murie, Denali National Park

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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Bear Viewing in Katmai & Lake Clark National Parks

Imagine watching seventeen grizzly bears (Alaskan brown bears) fishing for salmon all around you, as close as 30 yards. You are in the Alaskan coastal wilderness, standing with just four other people on a small gravel spit in a bay full of spawning salmon. Snow-capped mountains with glaciers loom all around you. You are hundreds of miles from roads or human settlement. 

Grizzly sow with 2 cubs fishing for salmon at Chinitna Bay, Lake Clark National Park

Imagine sows with cubs as well as many adult bears running, swimming, splashing, and leaping after silver salmon who are coming in towards the river to spawn. There is deep loud roaring by cubs who fight over the fish when mama catches a salmon for them. There is so much bear activity that you stand in awe and hardly know which direction to point your camera.

Grizzly sow with three cubs, Chinitna Bay, Lake Clark National Park
A day with a few of the grizzlies of Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks was a highlight of our 3-1/2 month road trip through Canada and Alaska, which included visiting nine national parks. Virtually all the land in these two parks is unspoiled wilderness, without roads, vehicles, or human habitation. The parks are reached by air or water only.

Our plane at Chinitna Bay, glacier on Iliamna Volcano in distance. Photo by Michael Holmes, Alaska Bear Adventures

We chose an all day (11-hour) bear-viewing trip out of Homer, Alaska with Alaska Bear Adventures, which would fly us across Cook Inlet and over parts of the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Range. We met our pilot/guide, Mike, the owner of Alaska Bear Adventures, at 8:30 in the morning. We were impressed that all the staff we met were highly safety-conscious. The only others on the trip were a couple from Barcelona. After being issued hip waders that we would wear all day, the four of us piled into Mike’s little Cessna 206 for the flight across Cook Inlet. He would decide where to land when we arrived across the water, based on which area appeared to have the best bear activity that day. 

Rugged coast in Lake Clark National Park

We were initially discouraged by the wet, cold, drizzly weather, but the weather was better on the other side of Cook Inlet, and it didn’t rain on us till late afternoon. In fact, the weather was favorable for flight seeing, so Mike extended our flight seeing en route to the bears, for amazing views of the gorgeous rugged coast of the Alaska Peninsula and mountains of the Aleutian Range. We saw ten volcanoes, more glaciers than we could count, and even flew inside the caldera of Kaguak volcano.

Glaciers in Katmai National Park

Kaguak Volcano caldera

Chinitna Bay in Lake Clark National Park is a popular spot for bear viewing, and several companies fly here out of either Homer or Anchorage. Circling above the bay, we could see about 25 grizzlies fishing in the shallow water of the river delta, and a few small planes on the beach, that had brought people to watch the bears. There are also two small lodges here on a small parcel of private land. Since we had a whole day, our guide wanted to give us more of a wilderness experience, in a place where we would be alone with the bears, so he flew on to Katmai. 

During the late season salmon run, the bears fish the river deltas in Katmai National Park
This is spectacularly beautiful, wild country, with rugged mountains, and many braided rivers and streams winding down to the coast, through lush green valleys, from the snow-capped peaks and glaciers we had been flying over. 

In our three beach landings today, the beaches would be our runways, and the pilot timed his landings and the length of our stay at each place so the tide would be low enough to have room to taxi the plane. Some beaches have more space to land at high tide than others. Human visitors are cautioned to carefully leave nothing behind - even crumbs from our lunch - so the only mark of our being there would be the temporary tracks of the plane tires in the sand.

Great braided rivers carry glacial meltwaters of Katmai down to the coast

At remote Haloo Bay in Katmai National Park, we felt like the only people who had ever been there. We had seen four bears from the air, but soon after we landed, one bear crossed a river, walked off and disappeared into high grass - probably for a nap. The other three bears were a family group, a sow with two rambunctious young cubs. They were a delight to watch, but the sow moved away and was soon on the opposite side of a 3/4 mile expanse of braided river with channels of varying depth running between gravel bars. We walked over uneven sand, gravel, and rocks, climbed down a river bank, and waded through several stream channels in water above our knees in an attempt to get ahead of where we thought she was headed, but she was a long way ahead, it was tough going, and Randy and I were carrying a lot of camera equipment. Our guide decided it would be better to try another location.

So we took to the air and flew on to land at another beach, at Big River, also in Katmai. Here we saw another three bears from the air. Two of them were this sow with a cub, who would have been born last season and was about 1-1/2 years old. They gave us our best photography of the day. Mike had seen the two bears walking down a stream towards the beach and predicted where they were likely to come over the bluff near where he landed the plane. We walked towards that spot along the beach, in single file which Mike said would make us look less intimidating when she saw us moving towards her.

Grizzly sow and cub, Katmai National Park

Just as he said, she soon raised her head above the grass at the top of the bluff, just ahead of us, and Mike had us drop to a kneeling position which he said she would recognize as a submissive gesture. She checked us out as we crouched on the sand, and apparently decided we weren’t a serious threat. The two bears walked around us in a big arc, making almost a complete circle around us. The image above and the series below were taken in a kneeling position from a single spot on the beach as the bears moved around us.

Grizzly sow and cub, Katmai National Park

Grizzly sow and cub, Katmai National Park
Grizzly sow and cub

Grizzly sow and cub, Katmai National Park

The two ended up on the top of a small bluff, near where we were crouching on the beach, where she nursed her cub right in front of us. We heard the cub’s “purring” sounds of pleasure as he began to nurse, and saw the milk on his muzzle when he raised his head. 

Mama on the lookout before nursing her cub

Sow and cub after nursing. Look closely for the milk still visible on the cub's muzzle.

The two bears came down to the beach one more time, then disappeared into the brush over a bluff. Observing and photographing these bears was a thrilling experience for us, but Mike was disappointed that he had not found us more bears. So he decided to take us back to Chinitna Bay in Lake Clark National Park where he was sure we would see many bears.
Grizzly sow and cub
It was nearly an hour’s flight back to Chinitna Bay where we circled again over the bay and the river delta, spotting 17 bears on the sand and feeding in the shallow water. We arrived at high tide, and Mike said that as the tide went out, the bears would come closer and closer to us, as the water and therefore the salmon would become more concentrated in the river channels, and the bears would move out closer to a gravel spit where he positioned us. 

Grizzlies fishing for salmon, Lake Clark National Park
So we hung out in the cold for a couple of hours, as it started to drizzle and the tide ebbed, exposing more and more of our gravel spit. We ate lunch in view of one of numerous glaciers on Iliamna volcano, watched salmon jump, and six seals fishing. The presence of all the salmon seemed promising. We watched the gulls and a few shorebirds. 

Glaucous gulls, Lake Clark National Park

Plover, Lake Clark National Park

Sanderlings, Lake Clark National Park

The wait was worth it. More and more bears kept appearing in the bay, until there were 28 that we could see and count from where we were standing. They would emerge from the woods and make their way towards the water from all directions. At one point we had the opportunity to photograph this single young grizzly as it walked then galloped across the meadow towards the water. 

Grizzly bear, Lake Clark National Park

Grizzly galloping across meadow towards the water

Before we knew it we were surrounded by seventeen bears within a few hundred yards of us, with some much closer, all of them intently and actively fishing for salmon and seemingly paying no attention to their human observers. 

Grizzly runs towards a salmon, Lake Clark National Park
There were two sows with two cubs each, and a third sow with three cubs. One of the sows had young cubs, born this year and kept more to herself, away from the other bears; the other cubs were about 1 1/2 yrs old, much larger, and followed their mama out when she fished with the other bears. The cubs, however, had not yet learned to catch their own fish.

Sow and two cubs fishing in Chinitna Bay, Lake Clark National Park

Two cubs having a discussion over who will get the next fish

Grizzly with salmon, Lake Clark National Park

The sounds were amazing. Mama would catch a salmon and give it to one of the cubs, who would then fight over it with huge, threatening-sounding, deep roars, for several minutes. If we had been alone and had heard that sound in the woods we would have been terrified! Then mama would catch another fish and give it to another cub. The bears without cubs all seemed to be fishing individually. We knew there were at least another 11 bears on the bay, but they had moved farther away and were not in range of easy viewing. Gulls were everywhere, waiting for scraps after the bears feasted on their salmon.

Just missed the fish!

Grizzly sow with three cubs fishing, Lake Clark National Park

"Mama, I want that one!"

Grizzly sow with three cubs fishing, Lake Clark National Park

We watched the bears for a magical hour, and it was one of the most amazing wildlife experiences we have ever had, on a truly unforgettable day.