Alaska Vignettes

~ little snippets from a big place ~

Alaska is a unique land with a correspondingly unique lifestyle that revolves around a northern climate. Each week, I’ll provide a brief synopsis on an Alaska topic that will include some links to photos from my archives.

Bush planes

Bush plane on floats is transported through the streets of Fairbanks on a flatbed truck, Fairbanks, Alaska. (© Patrick J Endres / www.AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Bush plane on floats is transported through the streets of Fairbanks on a flatbed truck, Fairbanks, Alaska. (© Patrick J Endres / www.AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Alaska is a huge land with very little road development. Access to many remote roadless locations is done via small bush planes. I have several friends who are pilots, and there is nothing like catching the bird’s eyes view of Alaska’s epic vistas. While the sight of an airplane on a truck going down the road may seem odd to an average traveler, it is not out of the ordinary on the streets of Fairbanks, Alaska. Bush planes on floats allow access to the many lakes and rivers throughout the state, and as the summer heat begins to melt the ice, it is time for pilots to remove the skis from their planes and replace them with floats.

Snowshoe Hares in Spring

Snowshoe hare feeds on fresh spring grass in Fairbanks, Alaska. (© Patrick J Endres / www.AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Snowshoe hare feeds on fresh spring grass in Fairbanks, Alaska. (© Patrick J Endres / www.AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Late May in Fairbanks, Alaska is an infusion in fresh lime green. The boreal forest explodes with shiny new leaves and new grass is growing under the increasing light and sunshine. In particular, this year there is an abundance of snowshoe hares that venture from the forest to feed on the fresh green grass in open areas. Snowshoe hares turn completely white in the winter as part of cryptic color disguise that helps them hide from predators. While they are often called “rabbits”, technically they are “hares” which are distinct in that their young, called leverets, are born with a full coat of fur and open eyes. This is in contrast to rabbits, whose young are born hairless and with eyes closed. I took this photo in my front yard the other day.

Mt Denali in Summer

Pink fireweed blossoms and Denali, North America's tallest mountain. Denali National Park (© Patrick J Endres / www.AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Pink fireweed blossoms and Denali, North America’s tallest mountain. Denali National Park (© Patrick J Endres / www.AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

It is likely true for most Alaskan’s, that after 8 months of white, the urge to both see and feel color and heat ramps to an all-time high at the beginning of May. At least in Fairbanks, the snow is in the final melting stages and the buds in the trees are just beginning to appear. As delightful as winter fun in the snow can be, I’m longing to drink in some rich colors and the pleasant warmth of a Fairbanks summer. The cumulous clouds are returning to sparkling blue skies, and the pace of life amps up in accord with the length of light. The hours of a landscape photographer during Alaska’s summers are a bit ruthless to a normal sleep cycle, but they are filled with golden light and rewarding sights. This picture of Denali is a new image I took last summer in Denali National Park.

Gulf of Alaska Stoftuk Bar

Aerial of waves rolling on the long the sandy shores of Softuk bar, Gulf of Alaska, southcentral. (© Patrick J Endres / www.AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Aerial of waves rolling on the long the sandy shores of Softuk bar, Gulf of Alaska, southcentral. (© Patrick J Endres / www.AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Alaska’s southern shores vary from lush temperate rainforests to rocky cliffs, giant boulder beaches, and broad, flat sandy bars. In the Gulf of Alaska, huge beaches receive the fury of the mighty Pacific Ocean as waves develop over great fetches in the expansive sea. Softuk Bar is a broad sandy beach located near the Copper River Delta. The continual rhythm of waves wash patterns in the broad flat sandy beaches. It is hard to perceive the scope of the symmetry while on the ground, but from the air, it becomes distinctly visible. For a sense of scale, there is a bald eagle perched on the shore in the bottom right of the picture, although difficult to see.

Western Sandpiper Migration

Flocks of shorebirds, dominated by Western sandpipers flock to the shores of Hartney Bay, Copper River Delta, Prince William Sound, Alaska, to refuel during their migration to summer nesting grounds. (© Patrick J Endres / www.AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Flocks of shorebirds, dominated by Western sandpipers gather along the shores of Hartney Bay, Copper River Delta, Prince William Sound, Alaska, to refuel during their migration to summer nesting grounds. (© Patrick J Endres / www.AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

The small community of Cordova, Alaska hosts a shorebird festival in early May to commemorate the epic bird migration through the Copper River Delta, situated on the eastern shores of Prince William Sound. The region serves as a major refueling stopover for many shorebirds, including the tiny Western Sandpiper, who are flying to their nesting grounds further north and west in Alaska. Watching flocks of shorebirds rise and fall like swarms of bees, moving along the muddy flats looking for food is a visual and audio experience. The muddy tidal flats are long at low tide, providing the birds’ access to a rich food source. Once the tide rises and water covers the intertidal zone, the birds congregate in tight groups to rest creating a carpeted pattern of beautiful feathers.

Alaska Glacier Ice Caves

 (© Patrick J Endres / www.AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

(Exploring a glacier ice cave in the Alaska Range mountains. Ice caves are formed as the meltwater from glaciers creates a stream or river that flows and shapes the ice under the glacier. (© Patrick J Endres / www.AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Alaska has an abundance of glaciers, although most of them are receding at a rapid rate due to increasingly warmer temperatures. The melt runoff from these glaciers forms streams and rivers that flow under the giant mass of ice above. As the temperatures increases during the summer months, the underlying rivers rise with a gray silty water that sculpts the surface ice above. In the winter, when the water ceases to flow, the water-hollowed ice caves can be accessed relatively easy. The arched, icy ceiling is sculpted in scalloped cups, sometimes radiant blue, and often decorated with frosty ice crystals. Although organic pieces of nature’s art, they can have unstable areas under your feet and overhanging rock above so they should be approached and entered with caution.

Alaska’s Rustic Log Cabins

 (Patrick J Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

The aurora borealis arcs over my rustic log cabin in the boreal forest of the Alaska Range mountains in Interior, Alaska. (Patrick J Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

The rustic log cabins found throughout Alaska are a diverse demonstration of how many Alaskans still stay connected to a more “simple” life. Some log cabins have historic significance, dating back to the pioneer days of the gold rush era. Others are more contemporary and are utilized for recreational activity in both winter and summer seasons. Most are built with a simple style, without running water and a conventional septic system. The accompanying outhouses are a colorful commentary and have been the subjects of several books. I make frequent trips to my quaint little cabin in the Alaska Range mountains which serves as a tremendous gateway to explore, photograph, and play in the nearby mountains.

Sitka Sac Roe Herring Fishery

2006 Herring Sac Roe commercial fishing fleet during the second opener in Sitka Sound. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

In late March, fisherman travel to the waters of Sitka Sound in Southeast Alaska for the Sitka Sac Roe Herring Commercial Fishery.  (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Every March Pacific Herring migrate to their spawning grounds in the calm waters of Sitka Sound, off Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska. This draws not only the whales, sea lions, and other marine mammals who feed on the fish, but also a fleet of fishermen. The Stika Sac Roe Herring Fishery is a commercial fishery consisting of a handful of opening periods over the span of a few days. The fishery is managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and a quota is established based on current numbers. A fleet of purse seiner fishing vessels compete for the best fishing spot using the aid of small planes that supply aerial surveillance information on fish school locations to the vessels below.

Baby Muskox

A young muskox calf and adult on the tundra of Alaska's arctic north slope. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

An adult muskox cow and newly born calf rest on the spring tundra of Alaska’s Arctic North Slope. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Muskox are one of the most prehistoric looking animals I’ve ever photographed. They populated Alaska during the close of the Pleistocene era but went extinct sometime in the mid-1800’s. Thanks to a reintroduction program, they now inhabit Alaska’s Arctic once again. Their underfur, also known as qiviut, is a dense wool-like fur that holds tremendous insulation value. Single muskox calves are born in the early spring, from April to June and they grow quite rapidly while feeding on the sedges, grasses, and plants of the tundra. In Alaska, Muskoxen can be photographed on the Arctic North Slope, in regions around Nome, and on Nunivak Island.

Alaska Sea Otters

Sea otters in Harriman fjord, Prince William Sound, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Sea otters in Harriman Fjord, Prince William Sound, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Sea otters inhabit Alaska’s southern waters from the eastern Inside Passage to the western Aleutian Islands. They are well loved because of their cute, furry bodies and dextrous little hands. They can often be seen grooming their fur (the densest fur in the animal kingdom) which insulates them from the chilly waters. The Russian fur trade nearly decimated the population in Alaska and waters further south in the early 1900s and they are still listed as Endangered on IUCN Red List due to declining populations. Sea otters eat shellfish, urchins and several other small marine species and can consume up to 25% of their body weight a day in food, and that is a lot for a 40-60 pound animal!