Alaska

I lived in Fairbanks, Alaska for three years as a young child and I for a time I provided consultation and services to various locations in Alaska as an adult.  And, of course, I have traveled fairly extensively throughout the state.  

STEWART AND HYDER

Stewart, B. C. and Hyder, Alaska are separated by a Customs booth and customs which are apparent from the road. Stewart is a tidy little town with paved streets.  Hyder is strip development of Alaskan mud and gravel.  In their ways they both match the setting.  The drive into Stewart from Highway 37 in British Columbia is through some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery in the world, a typical scene is shown to the right. Glacier covered peaks rise directly from the road’s edge, the road meanders along the river, and the mosquitoes are not bad at all.

stewart

I have only been to this locale twice, once in July and once in August. Traveling through Stewart and then Hyder the road (this is a land where there are few road options - directions are likely to be “x miles up the road”) climbs into the mountains past a mining operation or two and eventually comes out above the Salmon Glacier. The glacier is the fifth largest in Canada and travels down the valleys before reaching its terminus at a majestic ice fall. Along the one lane road there are waterfalls and cliffs rising on one side and cliffs falling away to the glacier on the other. Hoary Marmots lay about basking in the sun, wildflowers add splashes of color, American Dippers feed in the streams, and Sapsuckers are found in the small trees.

bald eagle

We would film bears at Fish Creek early and late in the day (a Bald Eagle on a salmon in Fish Creek is shown here) and typically spend midday high above the glacier. I would film and Jon (my son) would take photographs or dig in the snow banks beside the road. Sometimes, even in August, the snow banks extended across the narrow track, making for some interesting driving.

Except for an encounter with a Black Bear which was obviously sizing me up for a meal, the bears here seem relatively oblivious of humans. One of the sayings about bears goes something like this: If a Grizzly attacks play dead, they tend to be very territorial and that is all it may be about; If a Black Bear attacks fight, about the only reason they will attack a human is because they are hungry (except when a female is with cubs); and if a Polar Bear attacks -- hang it up, you are history.

A long-form video entitled Hyder Bears (below and at the link) came out of my last trip to this area.  It is presented below.


The photograph of a Grizzly Bear carrying a Coho Salmon and the one above of a Bald Eagle on the carcass of a Coho Salmon, remind me of the movie “Grizzly Man”. I am not sure if I agree with Werner Herzog’s take on Timothy Treadwell. I certainly relate to Treadwell’s craving to be away, to be with the other wild things, but I doubt that I will ever have the courage to wander around Grizzly Bears in the manner that he did. As for Herzog’s statements, well the video taken by Treadwell speaks for itself, and for him. There is some beautiful photography in the movie -- Grizzly Bears up close.

At Fish Creek you can get close to Grizzly Bears and with some introspection understand a bit of Treadwell’s fascination. In August the Coho Salmon make their run up the stream to spawn (maybe) and to die (certainly). Their bodies have undergone incredible changes as they transition back to fresh water, having spent most of their lives in the ocean. With luck they will spawn before being caught by a Grizzly Bear, or less likely a Black Bear.

We taped Grizzly Bears from a few yards away as they crashed through the water to catch fish -- and they were successful a high percentage of the time. The bears typically held the fish against the bottom of the shallow stream and sniffed the Coho’s body to determine if it was a male or female. They often let the males go. Grizzly Bears are especially fond of fish skin, fish brains, and roe.

The Black Bears were less able fishers and at times seemed reluctant to leave the bank and enter the stream.  Bears (both Brown and Black) were typically present early in the day (until 7:00 a.m or so) or late in the day (after 9:00 p.m.) -- remember this is the north and there is plenty of light when the salmon are running.

Other creatures, Bald Eagles, Northern Ravens, Stellar’s Jays etc. were always nearby, waiting to scavenge the left over carcasses.

Is nature noble? It is a matter of perspective, if you were a Coho Salmon under the huge paw of a Grizzly, flopping your head and tail in a vain attempt to escape, while the Grizzly skins you alive -- you might not think so. If you were the Grizzly, or a human sitting down to a Salmon filet, you might limit your thoughts on the subject to those of taste and nourishment.  Whatever nature is, it is true.

MOOSE

For brief periods in my life, I have known Moose.  As a small boy living near Fairbanks (Alaska, USA) I relished going to the lakes with my family.  It was always a treat to see a moose knee-deep in the water eating vegetation.

On the Kenai Peninsula (Alaska, USA) I was birding in a birch break many years later.  Visibility was limited because of the dense vegetation and walking was difficult.  Half the forest seemed to explode as a full grown bull Moose charged away from me, starting not much more than a body length away.  Small trees bent to the ground without breaking and leaves and limbs flew through the air.  Locations like this are bad for bears and I remember all of the stories about Moose charging like this toward people -- bad news I thought as I gave up birding for the day and headed back to the car.

A multiplicity of other sightings come to mind, sows and calfs in shallow lakes in British Columbia (Canada) and majestic bulls in the Yukon (Canada) - photo above.  I always enjoy watching this ungainly and massive creature.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS

Alaska, for all of its size, is a place for close encounters.  Some may be a bit dangerous, others may be awe inspiring.  For instance, I was driving near Juneau (Alaska, USA) - there are not many places to drive near Juneau - when a Great Blue Heron suddenly flushed and for what seemed like an incredibly long time flew directly over the hood of the car only slightly above roof level.  Its wings spread outward over the edge of the car on both sides and its body moved up and down as it flew effortlessly only inches away.

I looked everywhere for a picture of a pretty girl in a bikini (one that I have a release for -- no dice -- no doubt a sign of the aging process).  Many years ago, back before I had seen thousands of Bald Eagles, I was riding through a housing area in Juneau, Alaska (USA) when the driver noted a Bald Eagle flying overhead.  I asked him to stop and hopped out of the car with my binoculars to watch this spectacular bird soar overhead. Unfortunately, my watching was disturbed by loud muttering, I looked down to see a young woman in a bikini stalking off to the front door of her house, dragging her blanket behind.  I jumped back in the car and off we went, I remember the eagle vividly, the woman too, but the story -- I love to tell the story.  To have your actions and words misunderstood is often a part of the human experience, a humbling experience, one that is not often pleasant but one which helps define your sense of self.

LADD AIR FORCE BASE - FAIRBANKS

In my early youth, we lived for three years at Fairbanks, in town and on Ladd Air Force Base.  Shortly after we left the facility was transferred to the U. S. Army and became Ft. Wainwright.

While I was in the first, second, and third grade my father was stationed at Ladd Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, Alaska (USA).  It was a great place for a kid, lots of snow in the winter and lots of lakes and tundra in the summer (years later I returned to see the Base, which is now Ft. Wainwright, and found it a bit disappointing).  The Alaskan Air Command had a squadron of Scorpions stationed at Ladd and we were allowed to look into the cockpit and even sit in the pilots seat on occasional school outings.  The Northrop F-89J Scorpion shown to the right was photographed a the Pima Air and Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona, USA.

Ladd is where I learned to ride a bike, riding it across the parking lot and straight into a dumpster, many years later I watched my son, Jon, ride into a fence on his first day on a bike -- so I suspect I know how my father felt at that moment.

Ladd is where the kids in the neighborhood would play baseball in the parking lot at midnight during the summer and where all the cars were plugged into electrical outlets at night to prevent them from freezing during the winter.

Ladd is where I fell off the top of a slide, landing on my head -- the start of a tradition of landing on my head that I have steadfastly followed, and which no doubt explains a great deal.

Ladd is where we would go to the Base Theater on Saturday morning for the “kiddie shows” - serial adventures like the Phantom and cheap (inexpensive, too) candy.

Ladd is where a friend and I found a canoe that some sixth graders had and spent time paddling around the middle of a lake as the owners ran back and forth along the shore, making lots of terrible threats.

Ladd is where we would run through the bogs and fens bounding from one mound of moss to the next.

Ladd is where I ran away for the first time, leaving a note behind describing myself as a “mean son” - but since I did not know how to spell “mean” I drew a stick figure which was supposed to convey the meaning - but I am sure it did not.  Running away entailed going outside (in the winter, of course) and running from one corner of the building to the next as my father appeared around the edge of the building.  Fathers can get quite angry in such circumstances.

Ladd is where we would float on make-shift rafts on shallow lakes, reaching into the frigid water to collect golf balls which we then gleefully cut apart.

Ladd is where I first recollect watching dragonflies.

Ladd is where I first saw a moose.

Ladd is where the Scorpions would scrambling on December 24th to intercept, and then escort, an unknown flying object.  Ladd is where I understood how important “our” job was there.

Ladd is where I saw my first TV.

Ladd is where my dad worked all day in the Air Force and a good portion of the night as a dishwasher and where he occasionally brought us hamburgers from the NCO club.

Ladd is where I was convinced that I was the author of the children’s rhyme “Little Boy Blue”.

Ladd is where my entire scouting career of three months lasted an eternity.

Ladd is where I did not know how feudal the military system is - and life was a continuous adventure.

© Robert Barnes 2017-2018