April 25, 2017

“Attitude is the difference…

Filed under: Aurora,Photography,Roadtrips,Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 12:22 pm

— between an ordeal and an adventure”

Spring is slowly arriving here in North Pole, Alaska. We are up to nearly 18 hours of visible light each day, the temperature has warmed into the 40s and 50s, with overnight temps in the 30s and 40s. The snow is quickly melting in the warm sunshine, and there are puddles and mud everywhere. Our yard is still snow covered, but it is very soft so walking in it requires waterproof boots. Break-up boots as some call them.

Here at home, life has been extremely busy and hectic at times, but other than that, things are going really well. With so much to do in the planning of our extended trip, we’ve had no time to sit around and be bored. The additional hours of light, and ability to get outside every day has done wonders for our spirits (as well as Raven’s). I can’t say we have any kind of routine, but as long as we keep busy we feel accomplished. We also allow for down days of nothing but Netflix watching, as well as scenic drives to Denali or walks at Creamers Field. We survived another winter!

UPCOMING ADVENTURES

Our travels will take us from Alaska to Wisconsin at the end of the month, where we will be spending time with my sons and their families. Steve will finally get to meet Juliet, and of course I can’t wait to see her! We’ll be staying with Chris & Kimmie in Madison, while waiting to take possession of our new travel trailer. Once we do a few practice runs with it in WI, and get it stocked to hit the road, we’ll be moving on to MO to spend time with Steve’s family. I am excited to finally meet Eric’s wife Lacy and Steve’s granddaughter Regan.

From MO, we’ll head west to CO, and then north – following the Rockies – all the way back to Alaska. It’s going to be a long drive – the longest we’ve made since we drove from FL to AK back in 2003. Estimates put us at about 10,000 miles for this trip! Talk about an extensive maiden voyage! We aren’t towing our old camper out of here. We plan to sell it up here to avoid any additional wear and tear on it. We’re prepared to truck camp in case of an emergency, but will be staying at hotels along the way. The goal is to get through Canada in 6-7 days, which makes for some very long driving days.

Raven is accompanying us on our adventure south. Health wise, she is doing better. She’s not as lethargic as she was, although she does get out of breath quickly. She loves to play though, so we have to slow her down or she’ll keep going. Her hips have been giving her occasional pain. I started her on a chondroiton/glucosamine supplement about 3 weeks ago. I don’t really know if it’s helping, as results aren’t usually seen for 4-6 weeks. I do hope it does help. I hate that she can hardly climb the stairs some days. We had to build a ramp for her to get in and out of the truck and camper. Thankfully, she still has a great willingness to play Frisbee, and to chase squirrels in the yard. I think Raven will enjoy hanging out with Percy while in WI too. And Steve’s son has a couple of dogs. Hopefully there will be plenty of opportunity for doggie play dates.

I don’t know how much I will be able to formally blog while traveling. I will do my best, but it will also depend on wifi and internet access along the way. I don’t plan to spend much time on my laptop while seeing our beautiful country. However, if you are on Facebook, I hope to update my photography page with photos and commentary on a regular basis. (Here is my Susan L Stevenson Photography page)

Lately the temperature has been warming into the 50s. I know it will be getting warmer the further south we go. I look forward to finally getting out of my fleece and into short sleeves again. Since this will be our maiden voyage in the new RV, we want to revisit the National Parks we’ve already seen (31) and see those we haven’t visited yet (28). This time we plan to have a National Park book stamped. On this trip, we will visit Rocky Mountain National Park (never been), Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP (never been), and Great Sand Dunes NP (never been) in Colorado.  We will also re-visit Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier. Passing back through Canada we plan to visit Banff and Jasper (Free entrance to all National Parks in Colorado in 2017 in celebration of their 150th anniversary).

ICE PARK

Steve and I visited the ice park one day while it was open. I used to buy season passes, as I enjoyed visiting the park several times during the season to photograph the artists and the sculptures as they materialized out of ice. I liked collecting the Ice Park pins too. A few years ago, I was just too busy to justify a season pass, so I decided instead to buy a day pass and then visit the park during the day and again at night. I did the same again this year, with Steve. We had a lovely day visit, and when we returned to see the sculptures under colored lights, we were welcomed with a beautiful orange sunset.

One of our favorite sculptures was the multi-block tribute to David Bowie. Always a fan!

A beautiful sunset behind the train station

Sunset over the Ice Park Tram Station, Fairbanks AK

Held - Ice Alaska Changed Evolution - Night and Day - Ice Alaska Chained Evolution - USA - Ice Alaska
Tribute to David Bowie Tribute to David Bowie - FB Viewers Choice - Ice Alaska Ice slides

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October 19, 2016

For the strength of the pack is the wolf…

Filed under: Aurora,Interesting Things,Roadtrips,Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 1:13 pm

… and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

On October 7th, my friend Joyce and I took a drive to Denali Park in the late afternoon. Our plan was to get to the park early enough to drive to mile 30 and then stay for what we hoped would be a beautiful sunset – especially if Mt. Denali was visible. Then, if the forecast looked good for clear skies and aurora activity, we’d hang around down in that area and wait for the sky to light up.

I did this night drive with my friend Amanda a couple of years ago. On that night, the aurora came out to dance, and the sky was crystal clear. The stars were so dense and plentiful we could not identify the Big Dipper. It was very scary in an “I am so inconsequential in this vast universe!” sort of way. It is a very long and tiring day – more than 12 hours in the car. But the opportunity to view and photograph the northern lights in the park makes it a little easier to stay awake.  As does strong coffee, conversation with a fun friend, and…

… encounters with wolves!!!

Joyce and I arrived at the park around 6pm.  We could see the grand Denali on the horizon throughout our drive, and we knew the odds were good to see the mountain from within the park too. But where would the best vantage point be for sunset? We drove slowly and decided on a scenic overlook 20 miles into the park. The color change was gradual, but soon the mountain was bathed in a soft orange hue. Opposite the setting sun, the moon was climbing higher into the sky. And behind us, the mountains were soft pink in the early dusk. Near silence enveloped us; the only sound being the wind in the willow bushes. It was quite peaceful.

We knew we had about 30 minutes before headlights would be a necessity and it became too dark for viewing or photographing wildlife. We decided to continue all the way to the end – mile 30 – since it was only another 10 miles in.  By the time we got there, walked out to the overlook to look for wildlife (bears), and used the facilities, it was dark enough for headlights.  It is a totally different experience to drive the park road in the dark, and we were happy for moonlight, clear skies, and rapidly appearing stars.

These photos were taken in the park… a lovely sunset:

Denali Park Sunset over Mt Denali Denali Park Sunset Denali Park Moonrise
Denali Park Sunset Pink Denali Park Road at Sunset

As the sun sets, the sky turns a warm yellow above Mt Denali in the distance:

Denali Sunset over the mountain

We drove the park road back to the entrance, where there was a cellphone signal, so we could check the aurora forecast and weather report. Everything looked good for clear skies, but the aurora forecast was mediocre. We didn’t mind if the aurora was low or not very bright. With a clear sky we knew the stars would make for some incredible night shots. Any aurora appearance would thrill us.

We drove back into the park to the Mountain Vista area (mp 12). (If the park road is accessible to this rest area, they usually keep at least one vaulted toilet open, which is convenient in the off season.) This part of the park road has some open areas around the drainage ditches and washes, where the trees are minimal and the mountains are visible on the horizon. The elevation is high enough to get some good night sky photos, with little foreground interference. And if the mountain is out, you can capture it even after dark with a long shutter (you can see the mountain in the first couple of photos below)

The aurora appeared and we set up our cameras. The Milky Way was amazing and the stars blanketed the sky by the billions. Being out in the open was cold though, and we were both glad we brought our snow pants. I kept hearing noises in the bushes, but Joyce insisted it was the sound of the water running in the nearby drainage ditch. My imagination does tend to run away with me…

I suggested we drive a few miles deeper, to see what the aurora looked like over the Savage River valley. It was too low – behind the mountains, but there was a little bit of green at the end of the valley. The light reflecting on the river was pretty. The wind was even stronger there, where it funneled down the valley. We didn’t stay long.

Denali Park Aurora Denali Park Aurora Denali Park Aurora
Milky Way, Moon behind mountains, and Mt Denali Moon behind mountains and Mt Denali, Denali Park Road Denali Park Aurora

WOLVES!!!

We drove back toward the entrance, driving very slowly to scope out different vantage points to set up our cameras. We were only a couple of miles down the road when I saw several sets of eyes glowing in the dark. They were just off the side of the road, and about 50 yards ahead of us. I had my high beams on because it was so dark, and as we neared the area where I saw the eyes glowing, we saw more glowing!

“What is that?!”, I wondered aloud. “Lynx? Fox? Coyote?!!” Joyce and I strained our eyes to see if we could make out any shapes in the dark bushes.

And then suddenly – s/he was on the road in front of us! We were both so surprised, we didn’t even think of our cameras. We stared, mesmerized by what we were seeing in front of us. I think we were both worried that this sighting would be a brief one, and we didn’t want to look away.  And then two more wolves came out of the bushes just off the road. Even with three wolves on the road with us, we could see several more running down off the shoulder – in and out of the bushes.

The wolves on the road with us, particularly this beautiful tan/cream wolf (I’m assuming alpha), were rather bold – but never did we feel they were behaving aggressively.  A minute later they disappeared into the bushes – although we could still see their eyes glowing in the dark.

We continued down the road, and a mile or so later, we again saw eyes glowing along the side of the road. I stopped and we watched several wolves ran along the shoulder, until they met up with several more further down the road. This group looked to be about the same size as the first one (at least 5 in the first pack), but they weren’t as curious. We lost sight of them in the bushes.

I turned around and drove back through the area where we saw the first pack, as we passed another photographer (a female) photographing the aurora before we came to the wolves the first time. We wanted to warn her of our encounter only a mile or so from where she was set up.

Imagine our delight and surprise, when four of the wolves (to include the beautiful alpha) came out of the bushes and stood in my headlights, letting us see them again! And then, just like that, they loped off – escorting us along the park road about a hundred yards before they dove off into the bushes. What an honor and a privilege to see these beautiful creatures!
Denali Wolf

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September 26, 2016

Denali Road Lottery 2016 – Moose Love

Filed under: Events,Interesting Things,Roadtrips,Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 4:00 pm

I was lucky to win a Denali Road Lottery pass this year, and was awarded Monday, Sept 19th as my day to drive in. After receiving confirmation of the win, we booked a campsite at Riley Creek Campground near the park entrance. We decided to spend two nights, so that we could have a leisurely day in the park. I invited my friend Joyce to go along with us on the drive, and she met us at the park Sunday afternoon and also camped for several days in her Winnebago. (You may remember Joyce’s vintage Winnebago from our week-long camping trip to Denali at the end of June)

SUNDAY – A BEAUTIFUL DAY FOR A DRIVE

Steve and I loaded the camper on Saturday, and were ready to go before 10am on Sunday morning. We woke to overcast skies, and a weather report that called for snow flurries in the park, with a possibility of rain. Fortunately, the forecast looked great for Monday’s drive.

Fall colors are long gone in most of Fairbanks and North Pole, but as you head south on the Parks Hwy, there are pockets of brilliant foliage still glowing in the sunshine. And closer to Nenana (60 miles south), it looks like autumn has just arrived with gold and yellow-leafed aspens and birch thick on the hills.

Closer to the park, spruce trees are more plentiful, and the ground cover was already brown. It sprinkled rain, and the clouds were dark and brooding at times. But the reduced light, and the wet roads made for a beautiful view. I love going to the mountains! The photos below were taken along the Parks Hwy between North Pole and Denali National Park.

Parks Highway Scenery on the way to Denali Park Parks Highway Scenery on the way to Denali Park Parks Highway Scenery on the way to Denali Park
Parks Highway Scenery on the way to Denali Park Parks Highway Scenery on the way to Denali Park Nenana River Bridge, Parks Highway

This is one of the Alaska Railroad trestles along the Parks Hwy, on the way to Denali. I’ve never taken the train from Fairbanks to Denali, but have heard it’s a wonderful ride.
Alaska Train Trestle Bridge, Parks Hwy

AFTERNOON and EVENING DRIVES INTO THE PARK

Me and Steve: We were checked in and set up at Riley Creek Campground a little before 1pm.  We ate a quick lunch, and then took a drive into the park to mile 15. There were still pockets of yellow dotting the hillside, as well as along the road in places. And although most of the willow and birch brush was already brown, now and then there’d be an area where the leaves were more of a burnt umber. Under a grey sky, these brighter patches glowed in the diffused light.

Denali National Park Scenery Denali National Park Scenery Denali National Park Scenery

Within the first 15 miles of the park road, there is a several-mile stretch closed to hikers and other off-road activities. All visitors must stay on the road. This particular area gets quite a bit of activity during the moose rut. More often than not, September is the perfect time to view not only cow moose and calves, but also bulls. If you’re fortunate, you get to see this rutting behavior right before your eyes. Bulls spar for dominance, cows rebuff multiple bulls’ advances, and bulls dig holes and urinate in them to make puddles for wallowing. (The scent of a bull moose’s urine is thought to trigger estrus in cows)

Somewhere around mile 11, a line of cars was pulled off the road and people were using camera lenses and binoculars to zoom in on three moose far up the hill. Two bulls (one was much younger, as evident by the size of his antlers) were quite interested in a cow moose. They followed her for a short distance across the hill. When she stopped to browse the bushes, the large bull chased off the younger one. While he didn’t run away totally, he remained about 100 yards from the pair.

And then the big bull jumped up on the cow and…

I’ve never seen moose mate. I didn’t know whether to feel lucky for the experience, or look away! (As a photographer, and a very interested bystander, of course I couldn’t look away! And… yes, I had to snap a photo too.)

WARNING: The center photo below is of mating moose: 

Moose Pair and Young Bull Moose rut Courting Bull Moose

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