October 25, 2014

“Cold has caught the wings of birds.”…

Filed under: Aurora, Roadtrips, Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 1:10 pm

“My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, Summer is gone.

Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.

Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone,
The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.

Cold has caught the wings of birds.
Season of ice – these are my tidings.”
- Irish Poem, Translated by Caitlin Matthews

October Speeds Away

Why does this time of year seem to pass by so quickly? Sure, the rest of the year passes at quite a clip too, but for some reason the time between “Fall in Alaska” (early-mid September) and “the Holidays” passes by much more quickly than any other time of year. I’m not sure how I feel about that, honestly. I am always so very busy this time of year, with traveling to see my kids in WI (which I try to do annually), and taking care of calendar orders (THANK YOU!), and then making decisions as to whether or not it’s worth decorating. Yes, there have been years that nary a decoration has gone up - except for the string of beautiful cards that we receive from family and friends.

I still haven’t decided what I’m going to do this year. Steve is working while I’m gone, and even though he will be here (alone) on Christmas Day, he says he doesn’t care if I put the tree and lights up. In fact, he thinks it’s a waste of time. Some years I feel exactly the same way. This year, I will be gone for several weeks, and spending Christmas with my kids. But I want to make sure Steve feels some holiday festivity while I’m gone, so I’m thinking I might want to put everything up for him. Maybe not everything, but at least the tabletop Christmas tree and the twinkle lights. He likes the ambiance of the lights and sometimes we leave them up throughout the entire winter.

October Happenings:

September and October are both popular for portrait sessions. Families also like to have their portraits taken during the autumn, when the foliage is beautiful and it’s still relatively warm here. This is also the time of year when Senior students need to have their yearbook portraits submitted.  This year, I kept busy photographing some of the most awesome Class of 2015 students ever! Even when the snow fell early in the month, portrait sessions continued. I spent a snowy day at Creamers Field with Erik, a cello player attending Lathrop HS. He was such a good sport, despite the less than perfect weather.

Zach - Class of 2015 Zach - Class of 2015 Evan - Class of 2015
Heather - Class of 2015 Heather - Class of 2015 Heather (Class of 2015) and sister Mary
Erik - Class of 2015 Erik - Class of 2015

Aurora - September and October

Because my last two blog entries were about specific events (my Polar Bear trip to Kaktovik and my drive into Denali Park on Road Lottery Weekend), there are some photos and events from late September that I never got a chance to blog about. So I’m going to include them here.

Now that we actually have darkness (losing about 7 minutes each day as we make our way to Winter Solstice), the aurora has been fairly active. That’s as long as we don’t have cloud cover, which can be a real problem this time of year. This is usually the time of year when we start getting dumped on with our winter snow, but so far we’ve dodged the heavy snow bullet. We did have a bit of accumulation several weeks ago, but now it’s melting and everything looks rather ugly again. I’m ready for a fresh snow.

A few weeks ago, I put Raven in the car and drove out to Chena Lakes as the aurora was already showing up on one of the webcams. The view from Chena Lakes is nice, but it’s becoming a lot more crowded. As it gets colder, the crowds will fade and only diehard photographers will be out there. It’s not a whole lot of fun to bundle up in -30F weather and take a drive to a remote place to view and photograph the aurora.  But some of the most amazing light shows can occur when it’s really cold.


October 16, 2014

Denali Road Lottery - September Fun

Filed under: Events, Roadtrips, Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 11:40 am

Me at the End of the Road

I’m working a little backwards as I try to catch up with blogging. Things are going to be a lot busier over the next few months, as I get my calendars ordered and shipped. I’ve also been photographing Class of 2015 Seniors, which also puts me on a time crunch, as the yearbook editors need the photos submitted quite soon.

We’ve had temperatures in the 20s, and it’s downright chilly in the morning hours. Sometimes, it warms up into the 30s during the day, but for the most part we’ve been hovering around freezing. There is still snow covering the grass around our house, but our driveway is patchy, and the roads nearby (except for our road) are pretty much devoid of any snow at all. Unfortunately there are some icy patches, and that makes for some slow going at times. Such is winter in interior Alaska.

The aurora has been active, when we have clear skies. Lately, it seems clouds have been hovering over my part of town, so even when the various webcams show starry skies, a walk outside shows nothing but clouds. Honestly though… the thought of going out in the cold hasn’t been very appealing to me, nor have the late hours (or rather early hours).

I’ve been sleeping rather well lately, which is a bit surprising. Usually, as we lose light, I find myself suffering from insomnia. S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a real concern up here, and I’ve already boosted my Vitamin D intake with supplements. I’ve found that Vit D is a great way to alleviate some of the symptoms of SAD. While some people feel like they want to sleep all the time, I tend to go in the opposite direction and find I can’t sleep. So far, I’m not having any issues. But we still have a little more than 11 hours of visible light as we head toward our shortest day of the year on Winter Solstice. We’re losing almost 7 minutes of light a day.



My friend Angie, who lives in Anchorage, won two passes for the Denali Road Lottery this year. The Road Lottery takes place over a four day weekend. Each day for those four days, 400 private vehicles are permitted to drive the park road all the way to the end. These passes are coveted, and you have to apply for a chance to win in May. They announce the winners in June so that folks who live outside AK can make travel arrangements, if they haven’t already.  Angie invited me to accompany her on Saturday. She had passes for Saturday and Sunday, but I couldn’t go in on Sunday, as I needed to prepare for our Polar Bear trip (which ended up being canceled and rescheduled for the following week.)

Angie made plans to drive up to the park on Friday, and I decided to do the same. I booked a room at the Nord Haven Hotel in Healy. It was my first time staying there, but it came recommended by friends who have stayed there over Lottery Weekend. The price wasn’t bad either at only $95/night (including taxes). The room was neat and clean, and had a small dorm size fridge. But it was also very warm. Even with the thermostat turned to the OFF position, it was like a sauna in my room.

I don’t do well with heat - especially when it’s time to sleep. Unfortunately, I was on the first floor, and wasn’t comfortable having my window open while I slept. The next time I stay at the Nord Haven, I will request a 2nd floor room. The bed was extremely firm, but amazingly I didn’t wake up with a back ache. For the price, I can’t complain. Complimentary coffee and tea is available in the lobby, and the staff was quite friendly and efficient.

Denali Park RoadFall Foliage at Dusk in DenaliI met up with Angie, so we could check in at the Visitor Center and pick up the placards for her windshield. We made arrangements to meet at 6am the next morning to start our drive. The two photos here were taken on the park road on Friday early evening. The light was fading fast, but the trees still glowed with their autumn foliage even at dusk.

Since I had such a hard time sleeping, I tossed and turned most of the night. I was thankful that I wasn’t the one driving, because I could barely open my eyes when my alarm went off at 5:15am. I stopped in at the local gas station to fill my big coffee mug with STRONG coffee. I needed it!

Angie was staying at the nearby Denali Lakeview Inn. I’ve stayed there before. It’s also well kept and includes a nicely stocked fridge with breakfast foods such as muffins, juice, fruit, bagels, cereal, etc. The price is higher to reflect this. I think Angie paid about $115/night - which is still reasonable during lottery weekend.

I left my car there, and we loaded all our gear up for the drive ahead of us. It was still dark when we reached the gate at Savage River. After a quick talk with a ranger, we were on our way. Only a few miles later, the underside of the clouds turned bright orange-red-pink as the sun began to rise.

Sunrise, Denali Park Road

It was a pretty good day for wildlife sightings. We saw bears, Dall sheep, moose, caribou, a pair of swans, and an arctic ground squirrel. One grizzly was very close to the road, and then crossed the road only about 20 yards from me (and others)! It was quite exciting, and s/he was a beauty - nice and fat and healthy looking.


September 29, 2014

The Great White Bear - My trip to Kaktovik!

Filed under: Travel, Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 12:17 pm

Each species is a masterpiece, a creation assembled with extreme care and genius.
~ Edward O. Wilson ~

Sleeping Polar Bear Family

A Sow and her Cubs Rest on Barter Island, Alaska

The last month has been extremely busy for me, and I have much to blog about, but I decided to go out of sequence in order to share photos and commentary from my recent trip to Kaktovik to view and photograph the beautiful polar bears.

My friend Amanda and I have been planning this trip for many months. It’s a costly excursion, whether you go for the day, as we did, or on a multi-day trip. The day trip is $1399 through Northern Alaska Tour Company here in Fairbanks.

We originally booked our trip for September 15th. Amanda and I reported at 6am as instructed, for a departure at 7am. But low fog was hugging the coast, so we needed to wait until things hopefully cleared up. At 10am, things still hadn’t improved and the trip was cancelled. Matt Atkinson, the General Manager at Warbelow’s Air Ventures, decided to add another fly day on the 16th, although they don’t usually do trips on Tuesday, with the hopes of getting us up to the north slope.

The next morning, we were instructed to report at 6:30am as we had already been briefed. Again, we waited for the morning fog to lift. And again, the trip was cancelled. The remainder of the week was booked solid, but there were a few seats open the following week, so Amanda and I chose the last trip of the season - September 25th.

Third time’s the charm!

Although we were disappointed that we couldn’t travel with the original group of six, we were so thrilled that we were finally going! On our flight north, there were only four of us on board (and the pilot), and we flew in a twin-engine Piper Navajo Chieftain. The trip usually involves a stop in Deadhorse to refuel, but there was extra fuel on board so we were able to skip that short layover and fly directly to Kaktovik.

When we took off from Fairbanks airport, the sun was shining brightly and visibility was great. The landscape below glowed in the orange light of the morning sun.

We crossed over the White Mountains first. The pilot (Andy Lepkowski) pointed out peaks and rivers below. We saw the mighty Yukon and also the Chandalar River - which is a tributary of the Yukon.  We also flew over Arctic Village (pop about 100) which is located on the east fork of the Chandalar River. It was easy to see the airstrip in the middle of so much wilderness.

Next, we crossed the Brooks Range. Things were a bit more turbulent as we flew over these tall mountains. We flew at 12,000 feet - only about 3000 feet above the tallest mountain. But we had terrific visibility, and it was really beautiful to see this impressive mountain range from above.

I’ve crossed the Brooks Range on my several trips up the Dalton Highway (via Atigun Pass), but seeing it from above was truly amazing. It was much wider than I thought, and the peaks just went on and on. The mountains were snow covered and bright white in the sunshine. It looked very cold. And desolate.

I watched Andy push buttons and throw switches, as we began to descend a short time later. I could see fog coming up from below, and soon we were flying in a gray cotton ball. As we continued to descend: 8000, 6000, 4000, 2000, the fog began to thin and bits and pieces of the stark landscape below would come into view. Treeless and flat, the North Slope has only a surface active layer of tundra that thaws each spring. Most of the soil is permanently frozen year-round. On top of this permafrost, water flows to the sea (the Beaufort Sea in Kaktovik) via shallow braided streams, or settles into pools and ponds.

Soon, the village of Kaktovik came into view below. Andy flew over the bone pile, where the discarded bones and scraps from the hunted bowhead whales are taken. The bone pile, especially when fresh scraps are dumped, can be a popular place to view polar bears.

Upon landing, we were met by a van to take us to the Marsh Creek Inn - one of two inns in Kaktovik. Let it be known that the term inn is used loosely here, as the Marsh Creek Inn is comprised of several ATCO units - like so many in remote (and not so remote) Alaska.  Remember that it’s a simple life in Kaktovik - so don’t expect frills. Also remember that everything is flown in, so be grateful for what is offered. If you need room service, this isn’t for you. But if you want to view polar bears in their natural habitat, in a friendly and welcoming Inupiat village, at an inn that serves really good food (included in the lodging rate), you’ll get a clean and warm sleeping space at Marsh Creek Inn. (If you’re traveling solo, during peak viewing season, you will most likely be bunking with same-sex strangers and sharing a bathroom at the end of the hall.)

On the way to the inn, our pilot pointed out a few landmarks in the village. The whale shack, located on the beach, is where slabs of whale meat and blubber are taken after a Bowhead whale is killed and cut up into pieces by villagers. Women cut the slabs into bite-size pieces and boil it, so that everyone can have a taste.

Kaktovik is allotted three whales a year by the Whaling Commission, based on the size of their community - which is about 250 residents. When a whale is caught, the news spreads quickly throughout the village, and people hurry to the beach where they wait for the whaling crews to bring it to shore. It is a huge celebration!

While the thought of such an amazing creature being killed may seem sad, you have to remember that Kaktovik has no form of agriculture naturally occurring there, for them to live on. The people live a subsistence lifestyle and hunt whale, caribou, seal, walrus, duck and fish. Getting all three of their allotted whales, is a very big deal as the meat will feed the entire village throughout the winter.

As we continued on our way to the inn, we saw the Barter Island Defense Early Warning (DEW) Line Station off in the distance. The DEW Line or Early Warning Line, was a system of radar stations in the far northern Arctic region of Canada, with additional stations along the North Coast and Aleutian Islands of Alaska, in addition to the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Iceland. It was set up to detect incoming Soviet bombers during the Cold War, and provide early warning of any sea-and-land invasion. The DEW Line was operational from 1957 to the late 1980s and it was the northernmost and most capable of three radar lines in Canada and Alaska. It is now considered a Long Range Radar Site (LRRS); operated and maintained by Arctec Alaska - a government contractor.

We also passed by the Post Office, the Police Station, and private residences. At several homes, there was whale meat on the porch. While not at risk of spoiling (as the temp was below freezing), I would think these piles of meat might be attractive to roaming polar bears. The village has a Polar Bear Patrol (also called Nanook Patrol) to keep these large marine mammals out of the village.

Here are photos from our flight up to Kaktovik:

Me and Amanda before boarding the plane in Fairbanks Ready to fly! Our pilot Andy
Kathy waves goodbye as we taxi to the runway Amanda is ready to go! Flying over the White Mountains
We just crossed over the Arctic Circle which is at 66° 33´ 39 Flying over Arctic Village and their airport The Brooks Range
The Brooks Range Kaktovik This is the Bone Pile
Kaktovik from Airport. The wind was howling! The Whale Shack Long Range Radar Station, Barter Island
Kaktovik Village from van Kaktovik Village Sign Whale meat on porch

Upon arrival at Marsh Creek Inn, we were led into the sitting area, where biologists with Fish and Game awaited our arrival. Also present were several folks visiting from Oregon and New Hampshire. We were provided with information about the polar bears, and could ask questions. I asked: Do polar bears also have “delayed implantation” when it comes to reproduction, as other bears do? (I learned about delayed implantation from our friends Chris and Ken Day when we were visiting the brown bears in Katmai, and found it to be quite fascinating!)

The answer is - Yes. Polar bear mating usually occurs out on the pack ice between late March and mid-July. Females will mate with a number of males over the three weeks or so of the breeding season. After mating, delayed implantation takes place. The fertilized ovum divides a few times and then floats free within the uterus for about six months with its development arrested.

Sometime around September the embryo will attach itself to the uterine wall and resume its development. The mother will enter the den in October or November and the cubs are born sometime in December or January while the mother is hibernating. The delayed implantation process insures that the mother bear has enough fat reserves to carry her through the winter and if this is not the case the embryo will not implant but is simply reabsorbed by her body. She will then continue her winter hunting out on the pack ice. What an amazing thing nature is, to ensure healthy offspring are born!