June was an exciting month with two great trips. It wasn't guite a two-fer since both trips had their own costs. First, Alaska! We boarded an Alaska Airlines flight from San Diego to Anchorage where we rented a car and headed to Whittier. Whittier is one of those Alaskan towns where the weather is as independent and varied as its people. We were to go out with Gerry Sander on his boat, the M/V Sound Access, for two days of pelagic wildlife photography (www.soundecoadventure.com). Well, the weather was most uncooperative and the best we could do was one day, which turned out to be rather nice, by Whittier standards. We stayed at the Inn at Whittier, a very nice hotel located on a rocky ledge overlooking the bay (www.innatwhittier.com). Much to our surprise at breakfast one morning, there was a huge cruise ship docked just a few hundred feet away. A behemoth like that makes everything else look very small, especially our four story hotel.
Gerry guided us through Prince Williams Sound to several islands with kittiwake and puffin colonies, including Fool Island, Naked Island, and Smith and Little Smith Islands. Photography was best for us at Tree Island, a small rocky outpost of the Dutch Group of Islands. Tree Island has a shallow soil layer on top of the bedrock. Puffins have dug their burrows into the soil right at the contact zone. Jane and I were able to photograph a mated pair in front of their burrow. Kittiwakes and gulls nested along the rocky ledges and cliffs of the tiny island and were much more numerous than the puffins. We also encountered several groups of humpback whales but were only able to get fluke shots.
My original impetus for the trip to Alaska was to photograph the famous white, Dall sheep at Windy Corner along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage. My research had suggested that these sheep frequently ventured close to the road and could be easily photographed. So we changed accommodations from Whittier and moved to Girdwood, at the Alyeska ski resort. Jane had arranged for a nice vacation home rental through Alyeska Accommodations (www.alyeskaaccommodations.com). Unfortunately, like the weather in Whittier, the Dall sheep had different plans. Yes we saw some, but they were very high up on the rocky cliffs above the highway and much too far for photography. After hiking the trail at Windy Corner without any sightings, we abandoned plans for sheep photography and headed to Potter Marsh for potential waterfowl shots.
Potter Marsh is a well know birding area and on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game viewable wildlife list (www.adfg.alaska.gov). Jane and I thoroughly enjoyed strolling the boardwalk and photographing from the highway pullouts. I did not realize how closely the Arctic Terns nested to the pullouts and was noisely attacked by an aggravated tern while getting my tripod from the trunk. It's nest was only a few feet from the car. To my surprise, the tree swallows that swarmed around the marsh were very habituated to people and we were able to photograph the little swallows from close proximity.
Our last stop of our Alaska venture was at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (www.alaskawildlife.org). I have had an urge to photograph musk oxen for a long time and the conservation center had a small group of these prehistoric looking beasts. In addition to the musk oxen, the center also had Alaska's famous brown bears and herds of wood bison, elk and reindeer. The wood bison and elk had a large number of newborn calves which were fun to watch and photograph. Jane particularly enjoyed the visitor center/gift shop. We found it best to be at the center early in the morning before the tour busses arrived from Anchorage with their loads of sightseers. From our observation, the Center appeared to be well managed, operated and maintained. The animal enclosures were very large and natural allowing the animals to roam freely over a large area of varied terrain. Photography through the fences was challenging, but could be accomplished with a little effort.
The second June two-fer trip was to Mount Evans in Colorado. Mount Evans had also been on my to-do list for a long time. It was the mountain goats that roam the fourteen-thousand foot heights of Mount Evans that I wanted to photograph. Jane and I drove from San Diego to Idaho Springs where we stayed for five nights. The house Jane had rented was right on the road to Mount Evans so our "commute" to the top was fairly easy, although it still took about 45 minutes to drive to the top. We arrived in Idaho Springs on a Sunday afternoon and decided to drive to the top for some reconnaissance and familiarization. I'm glad we did because the road to the top was narrow, steep, with numerous switchbacks and sheer drops, in short hair-raising. The recon trip prepared us for what to expect and our subsequent trips to the top were not as scary. On Sunday afternoon we were also plagued with hundreds of sightseers.
For the next two mornings we were up at 5:00 AM and out of the door by 5:30. Getting to the top was no problem and at the top we encounted only a few other hardy souls. It was cold and windy on top. Did I mention it was windy? Each morning, we were buffeted by strong gusts that about blew us over. In order to take photos, we had to wedge behind large boulders and position ourselves behind other potential windbreaks. These distractions did little, however, to lessen the delight of sharing the mountain top with several families of mountain goat nannies and their kids. At times there must have been close to fifteen adult goats and six or so very young kids. The kids stole the show as they played among the boulders, jumping sure-footed from one to another. Sometimes three or more youngsters would be on the same boulder, pushing and shoving each other for "king-of-the-hill" honors. It was shear pleasure to be part of their world for a time. For the most part, they paid little attention to the nearby photographers clicking away. As the goat families roamed about on top of Mount Evans, licking minerals from the rocky soil, they would often pass within a few feet of us. I'll have to admit it made me a bit nervous as the adults with their sharp horns entered my "space".
Although mountain goats were the objective, we also did the tourist thing. We visited Breckenridge, Leadville, Aspen (via Independence Pass) and Marble. We pretty much got our fill of steep, narrow and twisty mountain roads. The scenary was beautiful, although that nasty bark beetle has taken its toll. We concluded that another trip to Colorado was needed, but in the fall with the aspen trees in their glory.
You can see images from these two trip in the Varied Wildlife of Alaska and Mount Evans Cuties galleries.