Alaska

July 2019

We really enjoyed staying in log cabins on this trip.

Black bear.

Brown (grizzly) bear.

We visited several glaciers by boat, and saw them calving.

A humpback whale goes for a dive.

Sea lions.

We timed our trip to Alaska to coincide with the annual migration of salmon, so it was a great opportunity to see them and learn more about their incredible lifecycle.

Salmon are born in rivers, and spend up to three years of their life there. When they’ve reached 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) in length, they’re ready to swim downstream to the ocean, where they continue to develop for up to four more years, until they reach full maturity. At that point, they undertake an amazing migration, returning (for the most part) to the river of their youth, swimming upstream (yes, upstream!) until they reach the spawning ground where they were born, and there laying and fertilizing their eggs. This mass migration occurs during a few weeks each summer, and is called the salmon run. Shortly after spawning, the mature salmon die, and the lifecycle begins again with their offspring.

Salmon travel up to 900 miles (1400 km) and climb up to 7000 feet (2100 m) in elevation to reach their spawning grounds! How do they do that? One theory says that they use their sensitivity to Earth’s magnetic field to find the river of their birthplace, and their acute sense of smell to home in on the spawning location.

Their journey up the river is a perilous one. Salmon need great physical strength to swim against the current and leap up waterfalls. They’ve been recorded jumping as high as 12 feet (3.65 meters) to surmount waterfalls! In addition, they have to avoid the predation of bears and bald eagles, not to mention fishermen. It’s pretty amazing that salmon are self-sustaining, given their challenging lifecycle.

If you do only one thing in Alaska, be sure to visit Brooks Camp in the Katmai National Park during the annual salmon run! This was among the most incredible wildlife viewing opportunities we’ve experienced.

Katmai National Park is home to the world’s largest protected population of brown bears, and also contains many of the spawning grounds of sockeye salmon. Brooks Camp is a nexus for both, making it the perfect place to observe the salmon migration as well as the bears feasting on whatever salmon they can catch! As the salmon exert themselves swimming up Brooks River, the bears congregate near the 6-foot-high (1.8 m) Brooks Falls, waiting for the opportunity to strike.

Typically, brown bears are solitary animals. However, during the salmon run they tolerate being around one another, making it one of the few occasions when it’s possible to see several bears together. It was fascinating to see the social hierarchy of the bears — we could easily identify the dominant male bear by the way other bears abandoned their fishing spots whenever he approached. Other times, their hierarchy was less clear and their coexistence less peaceful. More than once, we were startled by bears grunting and growling. With a show of giant claws, massive muscles, and bared teeth, two bears stood up and wrestled until one gave in and backed away.

Large male bears get the best spots at the waterfall, where salmon is plentiful. Females, on the other hand, teach cubs to catch salmon a bit further down the river, where they’re safer from the male bears. On one occasion, we saw a young bear approach the waterfall, observing the large males from shore, trying to decide if it was safe to go in. Nope, not safe, he decided, and walked away. He came back two more times, each time getting a little closer to the water. The third time, he ventured briefly into the water, only to be scared off by the growling of the bigger bears. Time to leave. Probably a wise decision, as we heard that last year a large male bear killed a young bear who decided to try his luck at the falls.

It was also interesting to see the different techniques for catching salmon. The adult bears tended to sit motionless for a while, and a swift head-first plunge would reliably reward them with a whole fish. The young cubs tended to run in shallow water like little kids, splashing, jumping, and pouncing with their paws, which usually just scared the fish away, but occasionally resulted in success.

We flew to Katmai National Park on a float plane like this one.

We got spectacular views on the flight to Katmai.

Adult bears typically wait patiently for salmon.

Sometimes they’re challenged by other bears.

So close and yet so far!

Eventually, the hard work pays off.

Delicious!

“Look what I got, ma!”

We waited for these bear cubs to leave the trail before continuing our walk.

Waiting for mom.

The highest mountain in North America is aptly named Denali, which in the language of the native Athabaskan tribe means “the high one.” This naming has been the subject of controversy over the years, though.

Gold prospector William Dickey named the peak “Mount McKinley” in 1897, after US presidential hopeful (and future president) William McKinley, who supported the gold standard. In 1975, the Alaska Legislature requested that the US federal government change its official name back to Denali, the name still used by many Alaskans. However, several attempts to change its name were blocked by congressmen from Ohio, the home state of President McKinley. In 2015, after 30 years of trying, the name of the mountain was officially changed back to Denali.

Taking a charter plane close to Denali and the surrounding mountains was an unforgettable experience. We flew over base camp, where climbers get ready to face the brutal ascent. We followed the climbers’ trail up the mountain, and along an impossibly jagged and steep ridge. It looked like a single step at the crest of the ridge would trigger a deadly avalanche. And yet the footprints in the snow proved that there are people brave and skilled enough to venture out along that path and climb even higher than we flew, to the 20,310-foot (6190-meter) peak.

Our pilot, ready to fly us around Denali.

We drove hundreds of miles through scenic wilderness on the unpaved Denali Highway.

We stayed in a cabin by the Copper River.

The hosts of our cabin have an amazing vegetable garden!

Pixelicious Planet

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