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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

North To Alaska!

August always seems to be THE time for large photographic trips. So many photographers I know either run or attend workshops and/or tours in either Alaska or Africa during August. After sitting home (in California) for almost six months, depression nipping at my heels, I knew I needed to get back in the field beyond the current shoreline.

So when I found out in July that my buddy and photography mentor Gary Randall still had a seat open on his Alaskan tour, I crunched the numbers and signed up. Having never been to Alaska before and it had been several years since I was out shooting with Gary, I thought doing a week with him to get the lay of the land before taking another week on my own would be a perfect way to shake off the Covid claustrophobia.

I get that traveling right now is a risk and not everyone is willing to undertake such risks for a traditional vacation or trip. However, for me this is not just a job but a lifestyle and all precautions possible were taken to include the mandatory Covid negative results from a test within five days prior to landing in Alaska followed by another test upon arrival. Last thing I want to do is spread this virus around. While the mandate meant I had to pay out of pocket for a the test, it allowed me to go more confidently into a situation where I would be sharing a vehicle with people. We, as a group, limited our contact with others outside our bubble. Gary and his wonderful wife Darlene, had our meals catered in so we didn't need to go visit any restaurants. It was a great way to help keep the group safe while also allowing us to have down time in the evenings in a "family" setting.

The week with Gary centered on the Kenai Peninsula which is down the Seward Highway south of Anchorage. We were set up in a great cabin where we all had our own rooms with shared baths and living quarters. With a full kitchen and large dinning room table, the accommodations were perfect for the catered meals, which Darlene would then cook after we got back each evening. Nothing quite like a good sturdy meal after a long day in the field.

Okay, enough about the food (of which I have no images because I never remembered to take pictures before eating.) Our first full day had us up super early in order to make the passage through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel to Whittier. This tunnel is the longest highway tunnel in North America at 2.5 miles. It is also only one lane and is shared by both vehicles and train traffic! The direction of traffic changes every hour so you have to be on time or else you sit for another hour until the flow changes in your favor. Drive this if you want to get a sense of what it is like to drive around the Faroe Islands, where one lane tunnels are a way of life everywhere there.

The reason we needed to make the early tunnel was because our first day out was spent with Epic Charters on a 12-hour tour of the Prince William Sound. Again, Gary and Darlene had arranged a private charter so we were not interacting with anyone other than the captain what wasn't in our bubble. Plus it meant that we had full run of the boat and were able to control the landings.

First off, cruising through Prince William Sound is just amazing; you have mountains and glacier tongues surrounding you during the ride. Our first wildlife sighting was of a colony of harbor seals. While I have these in my "backyard" in Monterey, CA, it was still great to see them in Alaska as well.

From there we did some exploring of some off-the-beaten path coves that Darlene knew of from her years of living in Alaska and spending time camping in the region. We came across some monster wild blueberries for our mid-morning break which was a real treat!

When we made our next landing, I heard a call that I have heard many times before this summer along the Californian coastline - that sharp cry of a black oystercatcher! I had really hoped to be able to catch a glimpse of these birds while in Alaska, where over fifty percent of the population lives; however, I didn't think it would be my first day out! Lo and behold, about 50 yards from where we landed, there was a black oystercatcher sentry. In keeping with the group, we made our way inland a bit to a waterfall. The water was much higher than anticipated and we could see salmon at the base of it. There had been fresh signs of bears along the trail as well, but as we were in a group and each of us carried bear spray, I wasn't particularly worried.

Shortly after reaching the falls, the group became of two minds: those that wanted to clamber up to the top of the ridge from where the waterfall fell and those what didn't mind heading back out to the shore. Unable to get the black oystercatchers out of my mind, I headed back to the shore with that part of the group. Pulling ahead as I was on a mission, I made the beach, dropped my pack, and went straight to positioning myself further down the beach where I could still see the black oystercatcher sentry.

As I approached, using the tall dune grasses to shield myself until closer, I saw there was a second oystercatcher as well. So it was a pair. Great! Getting lower I started making my way across the rocky beach, trying to get closer still. Unlike in Monterey, I could tell these birds had a much larger personal bubble and were not acclimated to the presence of humans. Gary had been super generous earlier in telling me to take my time, there was no rush. I was holding him to this! Ever so slowly, I started crawling across the stones and seaweed algae. It was then that I noticed that not only was it a pair of black oystercatchers but they had two fledgling chicks as well!

Considering there was only one or two reported nests in Monterey that had chicks this year and, at last report, none that actually made the fledgling age, this was truly a very exciting moment for me. I will admit though, fledglings are one of the least photogenic stages of life for most birds, black oystercatchers being no exception. But still! Chicks!

Because these fledglings had not started flying yet, the parents were very attentive to everything going on in the area. It took a lot more patience and laying still in the stinky seaweed than usual to have them start relaxing. Once they did though, the waiting paid off as I was able to capture the following images of the parents feeding the chicks. They would hunt for morsels both in the close shore and, several times, one parent would fly clear across the river outlet (remember the waterfall I had just seen) to forage before flying back with a piece for one of the chicks. The parents would then drop the food at the chicks' feet and urge them to eat it. It was quite exciting to witness after all my time with the black oystercatchers in California who did not have a successful breeding season.

Not only was I thrilled to get these shots out the gate on my first day, but the fact that I was able to pass information about this species to the group and assist several of them in working their way into position to get their own images was a bonus.

Back on the boat, we spent the rest of the day exploring more of the sound, cruising the coastlines, hoping for a bear sighting. While we didn't get to see bears while on the boat, we did come cross a large raft of Steller's sea lions raiding a salmon fishery and in another area, a colony of Steller's sea lions resting. Steller's sea lions dwarf the Californian sea lion that I commonly see back in Monterey. On average these near-threatened animals, the largest of the eared seals, weigh an average of over a thousand pounds and range from eight to ten feet in length! Add to it that they are predators that thankfully dine on seafood and you have an incredibly impressive animal - especially when there are about 25 to 30 of them charging through the water at about 15 miles and hour.

Hauling their enormous weight up on the rocky outcroppings, these two young males bicker as a female watches on and others ignore the ruckus.

Our final stop of the day was at the tidewater glacier names Surprise Glacier. Here we floated among icebergs for quite a while, waiting. So of course I had to work on some abstract images as pieces floated by.

What were we waiting for? We were hoping to witness the glacier calve, where large pieces break off and fall into the ocean to begin their, unfortunately short at this point, lives as icebergs. We were about a mile away from the calving edge so perspective as to how large this is or the power behind the fall is really hard to translate. That being said, this piece of ice calving off was probably about the height of an average Hilton hotel or other mid-sized high-rise.

After that excitement and a long day on the water, we headed to shore. Upon arriving back at the docks, the skies were looking a bit threatening and we had about 30 minutes before the tunnel opened. In that short time we had, Gary took us to this little spot not far from the paved road where we stood overlooking the river. It was interesting to reflect on the image Gary had shown us from his previous visit, which showed a gentle glacial stream happily tumbling and bumbling over and around boulders, while standing at the edge of a very powerful blue river gushing and rushing, pushing against the boulders and sweeping away smaller rocks as they gave way. The threat of rain lingered in the air and we all set to work to capture what images we could given our tight time line to make the tunnel as well. Images like this are also why having a guide or workshop leader who has been to the location before is incredibly useful.

We all jumped back into the van as the skies opened and made the tunnel with a minute to spare. What an eventful first day!

The rest of the week, we as a group fell into a pattern based off a family of grizzly bears. We named the family the Candy Family as it consisted of a large sow (female) named Carmel, and her three two year old cubs - White, Milk, and Dark Chocolate. White Chocolate was named because he has a very unique "cub collar" - the light brown or white coloration young bears present during their first few years. His was such a large collar that covered down his chest that it looked like he was wearing a T-shirt! Among photographers this year he also earned the name T-Shirt Bear as well due to this marking. Milk Chocolate was the smallest of the three and we suspect the sister of the group. Hanging close to Carmel much of the time, she had lighter fur than her other brother, Dark Chocolate. Similar in size to White Chocolate, Dark Chocolate was often seen in company of White Chocolate and both of them roamed far in front of Carmel, making it plain to see that they were really stretching their independence late in this second year.

The Candy Family Portrait

We met the family at their local fishing spot that they seemed to visit several times a day. It was downstream from a popular human fishing area, which meant that the salmon carcasses that fishermen tossed back into the river after cleaning the filets off their catch would float down to this spot and collect in the rocky bottom in the bend of the river. Because of this regular supply of food, the family would typically arrive mid-morning for a good amount of time and then come back in late afternoon/evening for another round of feeding. We followed them on this schedule for the remaining days of the tour meaning that we spent probably about twenty to twenty-five hours sitting on the side of the Kenai River either waiting to shoot or actually shooting. Below is a collection of images I captured during these sessions. Note we had a wide range of weather to include rain, cloudy, clear skies with harsh light, and golden hour.

Obviously, where there is easy food, other animals are going to try to take advantage as well. The Candy Family bears seemed to run the area but other bears did visit. There were two young grizzlies that looked like they were maybe siblings in their second year who had lost their mother or maybe they were small third year siblings still hanging together. I suspect it is the former though as we saw them several times on our side of the river shadowing the Candy Family.

There were several boars that came through in the evenings. They were on high alert and did not hang around long, at most grabbing one or two bites of a salmon carcass on the banks before either disappearing into the woods or swimming out into the river to take it down further and cross to our side away from us.

During the times we were waiting for bears to show up (darn them for not wearing watches and being on time each day), I took the opportunity to capture river abstracts. It is not every day I get to sit next to a glacially fed river that runs a beautiful blue to blue-green due to the silt flowing through it. So, I have created several abstract impressionistic images of the Kenai River.

Between sessions with the grizzlies of the Kenai, we headed out along the highways and backroads of the peninsula, looking for other wildlife and landscapes.

There was a large portion of land along the Sterling Highway that suffered a wildfire last year. However, as we see so frequently, nature has already taken over the burned areas and has blanketed the burn in fireweed. A short lived bloom, lucky for us, our visit timed with peak bloom in a large swath of the burn. I challenged myself to do more than just capture a pretty picture of the blooms and to actually create a storytelling image. By incorporating the charred skeletons of the forest behind the bloom, yet allowing other blooms to come in along the side of the frame furthering the warm bright colors, I am trying to impart to the viewer how, while the burn had a huge impact on the land, life will return and the ground will heal. Do you get that from the image? What story does it tell you?

On the backroads in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, we came across a few families of black bears gorging on the ripening berries. Being very shy, the females moved off as soon as the van got within sight. The cubs hung around for a few moments more allowing for a handful of shots.

Along these roads I also saw my first spruce grouse. Had I been driving I would not have been able to document my sighting as it took opening the door very quietly and quickly dropping to the ground, firing off a series of frames before the bird ducked into the underbrush where a clean shot was no longer available.

Tired from another long day between bear sightings and road patrol, we finally spotted another of the Alaskan Big Five: a moose! Considering Alaska has an estimated 63 percent of the wetland ecosystems in the NATION, we were very surprised it took several days for us to see a moose. (It turned out to be the only moose I would photograph the entire trip.) This young bull moose allowed us to photograph it for some time as he grazed in this pond, surrounded by reeds that were showing Hallmark signs of the coming autumn season.

The young bull, antlers still encased in velvet for a few more weeks, was also trying to avoid the last of the summer season's mosquitoes.

As the week wound down and the group was dropped at the airport to catch flights home, I picked up my rental car for the solo portion of my Alaskan adventure. Anyone who has been following me for any length of time knows by know that the majority of my time solo is spent car camping, and this was no different. What was different is that I didn't have much of a plan other than head towards Denali National Park for a few days before exploring east on the Glen Highway for another couple of days and then wrapping up back in Anchorage to catch up with a good friend of mine.

Making my way up the Denali Highway, there was a ton of construction going on, which led to several locations I had wanted to stop at not being accessible. However, one location that was open was the southern viewpoint for Denali. Now it is said, statistically, Denali, North America's highest peak, is only visible thirty percent of the time. Well I feel bad for those who visited in the following seven days, as the three days I spent within range of Denali, I had, at worst, hazy but clear views pretty much the entire time. This also meant that I had little to no clouds when it came to sunrise or sunset so that was a bit of a bust, but at least I saw the mountain right?

Once I was inside the park, I was able to drive the first fourteen miles of the park road. Beyond that you can only enter with a private vehicle if camping at one of the campgrounds further up. As I did not make prior reservations for this trip, Covid being what it is and how plans change I didn't want to chance it, I was unable to get a spot at that campground. However, I still did get a spot within the park and enjoyed the front woods that were open to me.

Just within my campsite I had a plethora of macro opportunities in the form of mushrooms growing in the mosses. During the height of the afternoon, when most animals are hiding away from the rather warm temperatures that the area was experiencing, I worked the smaller subjects at my feet.

When both the sun and temperatures started to dip lower in the late evening, I would head to mile fourteen of the park road, as this is where the road and the Savage River cross. The trails and wilderness area upriver were closed due to bear activity. Always a shame since I'm there specifically to photograph wildlife activity, but I fully understand it is for both human and animal safety.

That being said I was able to hike along downriver. These rivers are often described as braided rivers, where the rocky bed is pushed and carved into a wide plain with various channels crisscrossing the bed. In the islands within the river, small brush stands grow and the caribou that have started coming down from the higher elevations in preparation for winter weather and the fall rut enjoy grazing these spots. In the few days I was in the park, there was a young bull that had made a habit of visiting these vegetation islands about a mile down river from the road/bridge.

I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a bit of time with him. After a few hikers flushed him from his nap on the banks of the river into one of the islands, I made a cautious approach, working my way quietly through the brush and sitting on the bank for a long wait while he grazed. after a bit of time, I could see where he was going to most likely exit the brush and crossed to a lone bush one island over and downstream from him. This way the harsh late afternoon sun would be to my back and he would hopefully be mostly front lit. When he exited the stand, he seemed to catch my smell and get curious, not something I was fully prepared for in all honestly. I started shooting as he crossed the small steam between the two islands. Several times he stopped to consider me and the surrounding area, maybe looking for other humans as so many of the ones he had most likely encountered previously came in groups and I was not. I continued to fire off frames here and there as he changed position, but at a certain point he got well within the twenty-five yard buffer that the National Park Service has established as safe viewing protocol. Obviously, he was not aware this policy works both ways. Having been flushed from my bush, I slowly retreated and he soon lost interest and made his way into the thickets on the bank of the river.

After this encounter, I made my way back to the bridge and spotted another, much larger, bull caribou on a ridge on the far side of the river. Unable to drive any closer I started hiking in and bushwhacking (allowed in Denali as there are so few maintained trails). It was tough going through chest high scrub vegetation consisting of species such as dwarf birch and alder. As I got further into the maze of subalpine tundra brush, my subject continuously seemed to graze a bit further in as well. For a while I thought I had lost him and all the effort was for not as he disappeared over another ridge and I didn't see him for several minutes. Deciding to continue anyway for a bit longer, I was rewarded with a brief viewing as he came back up the ridge to take a look at me (I may have been getting a bit lazy at staying quiet since I thought he had wondered further away.) A few frames later, he had had his look and really did wander off this time and I decided to turn back myself.

Only to come upon my third caribou of the day while making my way back to my campsite. Grazing on the shoulder of the road, this male didn't hang around long as some visitors decided to pull directly next to him and roll down their window for some cell phone shots while allowing their dogs to bark up a storm in the back seat, scaring the bull back into the spruce woodlands.

Wrapping up my stay in Denali, I headed south and then east out towards Palmer, AK. There was a "brief" intermission of shooting where I had to handle a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, limp in on a donut, and exchange rental vehicles in Anchorage before getting back to it, but these things happen when you spend the time on the road like I do. AAA does work, but with Covid-19 still a problem, they will tow the vehicle but you have to find your own ride to follow the car. Let's just say Uber isn't really a thing unless you are in one of the larger towns in Alaska, so Roadside Assistance wasn't an option for me this time. I stayed safe and, all things considered, was able to get back on the road quickly without additional cost thanks to Avis Rental.

Once I reached the Palmer area, I headed towards Hatcher Pass. A beautiful area with lots to explore, my luck had run out with good weather as I awoke to lots of mist, clouds, and a steady downpour. So I set off to see what I could see from the road. Heading out on the Glen Highway, I passed many wonderful vistas, lakes, ponds, marshes, and pullouts. Just an overall spectacular highway to drink in from behind the wheel. Throughout the day, there were small breaks in the weather that allowed for some roadside photography. Here is a small collection of those images.

A big highlight of the trip for me was when, working off a tip from Gary and Darlene, I spotted a fox! This individual had a habit of visiting a pull out looking for discarded food and handouts. While I do not condone feeding wildlife, it only makes sense that, like crows, fox will scavenge scraps from highway litter. Easy calories in their eyes, even though it does put them in harm's way as they cross roads to access these pieces of trash. The evening I came upon the fox, there was little to no trash on location but there was lots of traffic. The fox did not stay long and gave me only a momentary look to see if I would offer it food. It disappeared after that and did not return the following evenings while I waited.

On the final leg of my trip I stayed with my friend in Anchorage. I visited several of the smaller parks within the city and on the outskirts, taking time to just relax. Loons were a primary goal for this portion of my trip and while I did see a pair, they were very far away and I was unable to find them on later visits to the same spot.

On my final full day in Alaska, my friend and I decided to round out my trip by returning to the Kenai Peninsula. We stopped to see if the Candy Family was still following the rituals I had witnessed the week prior, but no luck in the morning and, when we stopped later that evening, we talked with another photographer who had been there all afternoon with no luck. The fishing spot up river did not have hardly fishermen when we drove by so I suspect the Candy Family had moved on in just the five or so days since I had last seen them due to their food source drying up, so to say. It is all about timing with nature photography, especially when working with wildlife. These final images come from that last day during the drive.

Overall it was an amazing trip and a wonderful introduction to Alaska. Many thanks to Gary and Darlene for their guiding that first week! I can't wait to be able to visit Alaska again and hope, maybe one year, to spend an entire season or two.

Until next time, cheers!

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