Archive for July, 2015|Monthly archive page

Alaskan Tales #3: Wild Alaska

I was beginning to think there was no wildlife in Alaska.

We’d come with the promise of grizzly bears dotting the hills, moose roaming the highways, and orcas frolicking in the ocean as far as the eye could see.

So far we’d been here two weeks and we’d seen some eagles.

Okay, eagles are pretty cool. And, we had seen a lot of them; it turns out that eagles are Alaska’s pigeon,* by our second week here, we were so used to half a dozen eagles circling in the skies above us, we were getting a little blasé.

“Oh, more eagles”
“Uh-huh. How far away are they?”
“About fifteen meters. Wanna take a photo?”

Bald Eagle in Tree

Alaska’s eagles: pigeons with attitude. And razor sharp claws.

But, as awesome as they were, it was hardly the wildlife fest we’d been expecting. True, it was only early spring, so many animals were still returning from their winter migrations and hibernations, but we were starting to feel a little snubbed. We’d even taken a whale watching tour – in the snow – that had resulted in seeing exactly one whale spout. And that was from a distance.

I wanted to see Alaska’s famous wildlife. Most of all, I wanted to see a grizzly.

So, we left the coastline and headed to the Denali National Park in the Alaskan Interior, home to three hundred grizzlies, and where the traditional Alaskan past time of shooting animals has been banned for almost a hundred years. This makes it a good place to see wildlife that is not terrified of humans.

Mountains in the Denali National Park, Alaska

Your typical scenery in the Denali National Park

The park, established in 1917, is larger than Hawaii and New Jersey put together. A thin road run through it, off-limits to private vehicles once tourism season opens on May 20th, until then tourists are allowed to drive thirty miles along the “North American Safari” to look for wild life.

Unfortunately, we’d been here for several days already and still hadn’t seen any bears. We had seen moose, caribou, arctic ground squirrels, snow-shoes hares, and even heard wolves howling at night from around our campfire… but no bears.

Caribou in field

Female caribou. The males lose their horns earlier in the year, while the females keep theirs to protect their unborn calves.

We were starting to take it personally.

Then, our neighbour, a rather loud, obnoxious woman, who thought that 6am was a fine time to run her RV’s generator, saw two bears in one afternoon.

This was decidedly not fair.

Which started me thinking about why I was feeling so personally slighted by our lack of bear sightings.

Wildlife encounters have a strange mythology around them; we often subconsciously credit people who have them as somehow “earning” them.

Part of this is a throwback to the stories we grew up on, books by Jack London and tales of Davie Crockett, where brave souls venture into the wilderness and explore the edge of the world. These are people who leave the city and their comfort zone, and because of that, see a side of nature most of us will only experience through a documentary.

Which totally makes sense until you live in a city (ahem, Vancouver and Anchorage) where wildlife wanders around the suburbs.

A moose amongst the willow trees. The males have all lost their horns by this time of year, before regrowing them for mating season

A shy moose amongst the willow trees. At first, I thought it was some kind of messed-up, overgrown donkey. I was swiftly corrected. 

Another part of it is best explained by an article I keep seeing on my Facebook feed. It says that a recent study shows dogs can sense if someone’s an asshole.

Yeah… no. The study actually showed that dogs can sense if someone doesn’t help their owner; from a dog intelligence point of view, this is pretty interesting. Does it mean Fido can tell if your boyfriend’s cheating on you? Hell no.

But the fact that this article is so popular is interesting. It shows a deep-seated belief we have that nature somehow knows what kind of person we are, as if it can see into our soul and judge us worthy or not of seeing a bear.**

And then there is the misconception that people who can spot animals are just generally better; smarter, more alert and better adapted for survival. This theory made a lot of sense when we had to stalk our prey across the plains. In today’s world of automobiles and high-powered binoculars, it’s a little moot.

Caribou in field

A caribou frolicking through the field.

Still, even rationalising all this, I couldn’t help feeling offended by the lack of bears on our trip.

This wasn’t helped by my fellow campers in the Denali, most of whom took animal spotting to new levels of competitiveness. One couple I ran into even tallied every single creature they’d seen that day: one hundred and sixty-eight caribou, eleven moose, eight grizzly bears, and then some sheep and ducks. Maybe some goats? I don’t know. I tuned out when they got to sheep.***

Eventually, I saw a bear. Or rather, I saw a camera lens. I may not be good at spotting wildlife, but I know my cameras, and when I saw a $1500 lens poking out of a car window into the rain, I figured they weren’t taking photos of caribou.

I looked down into the valley and saw a grizzly sow with two small cubs galumphing along behind her.

Other people stopped when they saw our cars, and soon there was a regular bear-jam of tourists, all eagerly photographing the bear and her cubs as they foraged for food.

It felt oddly voyeuristic.

The next day, I packed up my tent and headed east along a dirt road. Here I discovered my weeks in the Denali had paid off; now that I knew what to look for, I saw wildlife everywhere: open plains meant caribou; willow trees often hid moose, and a guy with his face ripped off generally meant there was a grizzly near by.

Grizzly in the Yukon

He’s kinda adorable from the side. And from behind the two tonnes of steel of my jeep

On my final night in Alaska, I stayed at a remote campground in the Wrangell-St Elias National Park. I spent the evening reading next to the campfire; as the evening slowly drew in, I leaned forward to poke the dying embers of the fire. That was when a rock on the other side of the picnic table moved.

Now, this was odd for two reasons. 1) There hadn’t been a rock on the other side of the picnic table several hours ago, and 2) I’m pretty sure rocks don’t move.

I sat frozen, as the rock slowly unfurled itself to reveal a large bushy tail, delicate legs and a sharply intelligent face.

It was a fox.

I was enchanted.

I stayed still, not wanting to frighten him off. Foxy, realising he’d been rumbled, trotted over to me and – staying just out of reach – snuffled around my feet for a few seconds before springing away. Whatever he smelled must have passed the fox-sniff-test, as he then headed over to my picnic table and tried to steal my sunglasses.

I watched, entranced, as Foxy explored the jeep, tried to see if there were any chickens in the tent (there weren’t) and then also tried to steal my journal. Eventually, the furry kleptomaniac took off into the gloaming in search of squirrels. The last I saw of him was his thick bushy tail disappearing into the undergrowth around the campsite.

The entire experience had been magical. To be that close to a wild creature was truly breathtaking. It must mean something special about me, right? That I’m somehow a good person, deep down?

Or did I just happen to have a warm fire on a cold night in a deserted camp ground?

No. I’m special.

*Alaska probably also had pigeons at one point, but I’m guessing the eagles ate them.

**Of course, Mother Nature was the one who came up with spider wasps, so I think it’s safe to say she gives zero fucks about how nice you are.

***As a Kiwi, I find it odd when people get excited about seeing sheep.


Alaskan Tales #2: Guns and Grizzlies

“Can you sing something?” My boyfriend asked.

I share a name with a famous singer, so this request is not uncommon. What is uncommon, is it coming from someone who’s actually heard me sing.* In this instance, however, we were hiking, and my boyfriend had decided that my singing was slightly less painful than being eaten by a bear.

I belted out the first line of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” before my boyfriend realised he’d made a terrible, terrible mistake and begged me to stop.

We were in Alaska, deep in grizzly country. Of course, pretty much all of Alaska is grizzly country, but where we were had around three hundred grizzlies. I wasn’t that worried though, we had bear-spray, a kind of hyper-concentrated pepper spray designed to stop a bear in its tracks.

Shortly afterwards, we found out that locals consider hiking with bear spray akin to hiking naked. And covered in honey. While waving around bacon strips, and yelling “come eat me, Mr Grizzly!”

As one Alaskan said to me: “Oh, sure, bear spray might work against your polite, maple-syrup drinking Canadian grizzlies, but it won’t do anything against a real Alaskan grizzly.”

Instead, Alaskans opt for the security of firearms over bear spray; in fact, most Alaskan’s won’t even leave home without a gun, a habit helped by some of the most permissible gun was an United States.

Carrying a weapon in the US falls into one of two categories: “concealed carry”, where the gun is hidden, and “open carry”, where the gun is visible. In most states, a permit is required for one or both of these. In Alaska, no permit is require for either. Anyone over the age of 21 can concealed carry, and anyone over the age of 14 can open carry. So, at an age when someone is considered too young to vote, drink, drive or serve in the armed forces, they’re good to carry a gun in public.

It is decidedly unnerving to see a 14 year old wandering around town with a gun.

Scratch any Alaskan, and you’ll find a gun. But while Alaskans may seem gun-mad, it’s not the 2nd Amendment, gun lobbyist kind of gun-mad that the US is infamous for. Here, guns aren’t about civil liberties, they are about state identity. And not having your face ripped off by a grizzly.

Alaska is the Last Wild Frontier; home to Jack London stories, hunters and trappers, and folk who come here to prove themselves against the wild. The people who could make it here were a special sort of tough, drawn by the challenge of pitting themselves against the harshest that nature can throw at them – nights that last a month, bitterly cold winters, and a brutal, unforgiving wilderness filled with things that want to eat you. Even today, over half the state is accessible only by plane, yet inhabited by folks who build their own cabins and hunt their own food.

So, guns were – and still are – a big thing, and not just for defence. With a 6 month winter, hunting became an essential way to survive until spring.

Of course, now it’s 2015, canned foods abound, and many parts of Alaska are downright civilised, but hunting is still a deeply seated part of the Alaskan identity.

Seriously some Game of Thrones -type shit.

An archway in Fairbanks made of dead animal skulls. Not creepy. Not creepy at all… 

But, back to the guns and grizzlies. Sure, hunting and guns are a way of life in Alaska, but is a gun really better than bear spray for defence against a bear?

Not really. Bear-spray is more effective, easier to use, and it’s non-lethal. You take a gun to a bear encounter and you’re guaranteeing that one of you is going to come out of it dead. And knowing my luck, chances are it’ll be me from accidentally shooting myself.

Every year, the National Parks and Wildlife puts out pamphlets imploring people to swap their guns for bear spray, they’re fighting an uphill battle. No real Alaskan would carry bear-spray when there’s a perfectly good gun (or three) to hand.

Where this becomes truly strange, however, is the Denali National Park. The park is home to a wide range of large game animals, including grizzlies, and was designated a no-hunting area back in 1917. So… I was a little confused when I saw people wandering around with guns. Not just one or two people who didn’t get the no-hunting memo, but pretty much everyone. Some even made a point of telling me how many guns they were carrying with them. I began to wonder if maybe “hunting” had a different meaning in Alaska.

I found a friendly Park Ranger and asked him what was going on.

“So… I thought you couldn’t hunt here?” I asked.

“You can’t,” he said. I looked over at a man nearby with a small canon holstered to his chest. The ranger shrugged. “They’re allowed to carry a gun here, they’re just not allowed to fire it.”

“I… what?” I trailed off, confused.

“Yeah, I know.” The ranger agreed.

Of course, there are exceptions. You are allowed to shoot a bear anywhere without a permit, as long as it’s in self defence. Unfortunately, once you do that, you then have to take the head and the skin to the nearest Ranger Station immediately. I really don’t want to ever have to skin and decapitate a bear. I just… nope. Nope. I never want do that.

Even signposts are fair game

Even signposts are fair game

So, between the likelihood of me accidentally shooting myself in the foot, and my disinterest in skinning a bear, I decided to stick with bear-spray. Besides, camping in bear country didn’t bother me too much; all our food was in the car, we were in a campsite surrounded by people, and the bears were mostly further into the park. Well, all except the bear that ran past the visitor centre the day we arrived. But most of the bears were further into the park.

But I still slept with the bear spray close to hand. Just in case.

How I like my grizzlies - through a 300mm lens.

How I like my grizzlies – far away, and through a 300mm lens.

Denali grizzly and cubs

Denali grizzly and cubs

Denali grizzly and cubs

Denali grizzly and cubs

*I sing in the style of “cats being drowned in a burlap sack,” as it’s kindly been called.

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