Close Encounters of the Animal Kind in Alaska
by Chris Osborn, Wildlife Consultant
Pub quiz: Name Americas most northerly, southerly, westerly and easterly states.
Well, believe it or not, all of the above, apart from southerly (Hawaii), can be attributed to Alaska.
Before visiting, all I knew of this land, known as the Last Frontier, was from novels such as 'Call of the Wild' and 'White Fang' which I read when I was young. I therefore arrived into Anchorage excited and not really knowing what was in store. First surprise was actually how close Alaska is. On the map it looks as though Anchorage is on the other side of the world, however the distance from London to Anchorage is exactly the same as the distance from New York to Anchorage.
Anyhow, Anchorage in June was like April in the UK, except that being so far north, it hardly ever gets dark. The locals kept saying the summer is late and were always apologising. I don't think they knew I was from England. They also said that they had not noticed any effects of global warming. This, I thought is maybe why America has yet to ratify the Kyoto Treaty. They don't know what all the fuss is about.
Anchorage itself is your average American city and has enough interesting things to do for a day or so, however for me it really was just a base from which to explore the rest of Alaska.
I left Anchorage on the Alaskan railroad heading south to Seward on Kenai Peninsula. The 4 hour journey went through some dramatic scenery, much of it changed after Alaska's last major earth quake in 1964. From the comfort of the train I saw moose and Dall sheep as well as mountain glaciers.
From Seward, wildlife cruises can be arranged. I took a six hour trip around the coastline. This trip turned into a jamboree of wildlife. We saw at least ten humpback whales, pods of orcas and dolphins, sea otters, puffins, common muirs and much more. On top of this we were taken to the face of a glacier and witnessed blocks of ice crashing into the sea. I thought I had hit the wildlife jackpot, but speaking to the captain he said this was just a regular day.
Continuing around the Peninsula next stop was Homer, a major fishing town in a spectacular setting on the South West coast. If you like bald eagles this is the place to come; they were as common as pigeons. Well I exaggerate a bit but there were many hanging around the town and on the beach. I heard that an old lady feeds them, something the local authorities have tried to discourage, however she continues and now the eagles are full time inhabitants of this town.
Travelling back through the centre of the Kenai Peninsula we passed many rivers whose banks were chocker block with fishermen trying to land a salmon. This was something called Combat Fishing. If you visit Alaska, you will definitely learn about fishing, as the whole country seems to be geared around it. The salmon run this year was running several weeks late but people come from all over the world to fish here. The salmon also bring out the bears, wolves and the eagles. I also learnt there are five types of salmon; the most prized being the Red Salmon also known as the sockeye.
From the Kenai Peninsula I headed back to Anchorage and then north to Denali. Denali is probably Alaska's most famous National Park and home of Mount McKinley, North Americas highest mountain. On a clear day you will see the mountain, although it is only totally visible 20% of the time. Denali is also one of the best places to see Alaska's wildlife. After a night spent near the entrance to Denali I boarded a bus, a bit like an old school bus, which was to transport me through the park. There are several of these buses that run through the park daily and the driver gives you a running commentary. This is the system the National Park authorities have decided to operate and I felt a little frustrated as I would have liked to have travelled in a smaller vehicle with open windows. However I could not complain about the wildlife I saw. During the 6 hour journey I saw grizzly bears with cubs, owls, golden eagles, dall sheep, moose, caribou and the highlight for me a lone wolf who had just caught some prey on the side of the road.
I spent one day in the park at Kantishna before returning south and on to my next adventure. I was eager to see more bears and had been told the Katmai National Park is a great place to get close to them. In Katmai I stayed in two great places.
First I flew into Redoubt Bay Lodge. This is one of the few places where there is opportunity to see both black and brown bears in close proximity. I thought it was a marvellous lodge set on the side of Redoubt Bay. The cottages where we stayed were simple but homely with wood burning fires in each room and the food they served was first class. The bears are viewed from a boat and the viewing was good especially in the early morning before the fishermen would arrive.
The next place I stayed at in Katmai was Brooks Lodge, near to Brooks Falls where bears can be viewed catching salmon out of the air as they try and jump the falls on their journey upstream to spawn. The day I arrived it was extremely windy and because the bears are not stupid and tend not to venture out in the wind I did not see any bears here. However, speaking to other guests, bear sightings had been frequent; just not on the day I came. Still that is wildlife, no guarantees!!
My final destination was Kodiak Island - home of the largest bears on the earth. These bears are large due to such a plentiful supply of food; primarily deer and salmon.
The journey started with a short scheduled flight from Anchorage to Kodiak. I thought I would be only here briefly, but the fog closed in and I was to spend 24 hours here. This is a common occurrence in Alaska as so many places are only reachable by light aircraft, which are very susceptible to weather conditions. Anyhow, a day later than planned, I arrived at Zacher Bay, a fishing and wildlife lodge which has been converted from an old canning factory. My first day was spent on the water doing a little fishing and spotting seals, sea lions, sea otters and sea birds. There are also many fin back whales in the area and I was about to have the best whale watching experience I had ever had.
In the distance we could see the blow from several whales and I was happy just to witness this, but as time progressed the whales gradually got closer and closer to our boat. In fact the whales seemed more curious about us than visa versa and swam to within ten feet of our boat, from where they popped their heads up and gave us a whale type greeting before diving deep into the water. Fantastic!! None of us could believe what we had seen and one of my companions on the boat said she could now 'die happy'. Although I couldn't exactly share her sentiments I knew what she meant and knew on days like this life doesn't get much better.
The following day was just as good. I took a float plane out to a good bear viewing sight. The flight out itself was breathtakingly spectacular and from the landing point it was about a miles walk to the river and the viewing spot. When walking in bear country we are taught to make noise so not spook them, however one seemed not to hear us. As we turned a blind corner, for one brief exciting moment I was almost face to face with a Kodiak Brown Bear eating berries on the side of the path. Fortunately the bear didn't hang around long enough for us to become personally acquainted and vanished back into the bushes. I would like to think that bear went back to his mates and talked about that moment we shared like I did when I returned home. During that same day I saw several more bears but from a much more conventional distance!
I returned home to England after two weeks with great memories from one of the world's last wildernesses. I hope it remains a wilderness for a long time to come and that the animals remain in this land.
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