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Ben McPherson's 2011 Photo Trip to Alaska

See Ben's photo here.

Alaska is often called the Last Frontier, and I think it truly is that. It is also one of the world’s last really large Wilderness areas. More than half the State is Federal or State Forests, Refuges, Monuments, Preserves, and Parks. It is the least densely populated and the largest State, and has the longest coast line of all other U.S. states combined. I have visited Alaska many times (always in the summer) to hike, backpack, raft, and see wildlife -- in the far north (above the Arctic Circle, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Gates of the Arctic National Park); in the interior at Denali National Park; and in the south at Wrangell St. Elias, Katmai, Glacier Bay, and Lake Clark National Parks. My first visit to Alaska was a hiking and backpacking trip with the Sierra Club in Denali National Park in 1971. Our leaders were Ginny Wood and Cilia Hunter, well-known conservationists in Alaska and owners of Camp Denali, where we stayed part of the time (see my first photograph that I took near Wonder Lake that summer of 1971). This summer I decided to visit an area of Alaska I had not explored very much, the southeastern marine environment, as well as to visit some others areas where I had traveled to before.

As the sole representative of the Tampa Bay Cool Weather Hikers, I left for Alaska on July 19, 2011, seeking cooler hiking conditions. David Dillow, from the Tampa Adventure Group (TAG), joined me for the first few days in Alaska. We flew into Anchorage on July 20 and drove northeast on the Glenn Highway to the Matanuska Glacier where we did some hikes on the glacier and surrounding lands during the following two days, before returning to Anchorage on July 22. David continued south to Seward, Alaska, and I flew to Katmai National Park several hundred miles southwest of Anchorage where I camped at Brooks Camp with a Sierra Club group. Bears abound at Brooks Camp where they concentrate to feed on salmon that return from the sea to the rivers to spawn. We camped behind an electric fence because of the proximity of so many brown bears (grizzles). The next day I began a backpack into the Valley of 10,000 smokes (a volcanic region that was devastated in the early 1900s by an eruption), but decided to bow out early because of the heavy load required; I must have been carrying over 60 pounds with the bear canister of food and my probably excessive personnel gear (I guess I’m no longer the “Lean, Mean Hiking Machine”). I spent the night back with the bears at Brooks Camp again and then flew back to Anchorage on July 25, where I rented a car and headed to Denali National Park.

I camped in the rain the first night, July 26, at Riley Creek, Denali National Park. The next day I caught the Park bus and rode west 85 miles, mostly on gravel road, to Wonder Lake, where I camped for two nights. Along the way I saw caribou, Dall Sheep, and a wolf. Wonder Lake is a beautiful camp ground that looks out over the McKinley River and valley and the Alaska Range, including Mt. McKinley (which I caught only a fleeting glimpse of because of the clouds that often cover these higher mountains). I hiked down to the McKinley River one day, watching carefully for bears and yelling “Hey Bear” a lot. On July 29 I returned to the Park entrance and did some more hiking.

On July 30, I drove south to Denali State Park and camped and hiked around Byers Lake. On the 31st I visited Talkeetna, a small village to the south (where most mountaineers take off from for a Mt. McKinley climb), and then continued south and camped at Eagle River in the Chugach Mountains, about 20 miles north of Anchorage. Then I spent several days at the Arctic Fox Bed and Breakfast in Anchorage and visited museums and did some “urban” hiking along Cook Inlet.

On August 4, I flew to Wrangell Alaska on the southeast coast where I met another group of Sierra Club people for the Snow Goose cruise, Aug 6-15. On August 5, some of us did a water-fall hike out of Wrangell, visited a Tlingit Indian cultural presentation, looked at petroglyphs carved into rocks on an intertidal beach, and had an orientation meeting.

Eleven of us boarded the Snow Goose on August 6. The Snow Goose is a 65 foot vessel built in built in Ketchikan in 1973. It has 6 small passenger cabins with two bunks each. There is a crew of four: Captain, first mate, naturalist, and cook. The Snow Goose towed a small, rubber zodiac for shore excursions and also carried 7 kayaks.

The first day on the Snow Goose, we headed south to Anan Bear Observatory south of Wrangell about 30 miles and kayaked up a stream full of migrating salmon, various sea birds, eagles, harbor seals, and bears. The next day we went ashore and hiked about a mile to the Bear Observatory, built by the U. S. Forest Service near a small water fall where bears congregate to feed on the salmon trying to get upstream to spawn. After spending several years at sea, the half dozen or so species of Pacific salmon return to their birth streams to spawn and die. Many are eaten during their return to the rivers and streams by bears, eagles, gulls, and other animals. Unlike Katmai, most of the bears we saw at Anan were black bears, but we did see one mother brown bear and it’s cubs feeding that day. The interaction between the individual bears was fascinating to watch, often at close distances of less than 50 feet. Generally, the bears ignore humans while they fish for salmon.

On August 8, the Snow Goose headed north through the Wrangell narrows to Petersburg, Alaska, a small town with a Russian and Norwegian heritage. We walked around town briefly and also walked on a nearby trail through a muskeg (and Alaskan swamp or bog with sphagnum moss, ferns, and stunted trees). We left the Petersburg area in early afternoon and continued north on Frederic Sound to Thomas Bay, at the Brothers Islands, where we hiked into a rainforest called “moss land”. There are no bears on these islands, so we could alone – long enough for one person, Christine, to become lost. We organized a search and soon found her. That night we had a cook out and fire on the beach (with no worry about bears invading the cooking site). The next day we kayaked around Brothers Islands and saw many sea lions on the beach (we had heard them roaring the night before).

Over the next couple of days we continued cruising in Fredrick sound, Chatham Straight, and Stephens Passage, and saw many humpback whales, sometimes less than 100 feet away from our boat. On August 10 we kayak into Tracey’s Fear a narrow glacial fiord off Endicott channel, where we had to time our kayak paddle carefully to enter at slack tide (because of the strong tidal currents that flow into and out of the narrow entrance of the fiord). The next day we went near Dawes Glacier where we had a spectacular Zodiac ride as near this Tidewater Glacier as was safe. Ice from the face of the glacier calved into the sea to produce the many large ice bergs that surrounded us. The following day we headed to Admiralty Island National Monument (which has the highest concentration of brown bears and nesting eagles in North America), whale watching along the way, and anchored at Pybus Bay. We hiked along a beach and up a stream again to see many salmon swimming, spawning, and dying. Later we kayaked to another stream and hiked up a creek where we ran into a brown bear and with a cub – we retreated back to our kayaks. (our only protection in these bear-infested lands was a can of pepper spray carried by one of the crew, our numbers --10 to 12 people--, and the intentional noise we make as we hiked).

On August 13 we kayaked in the early morning around some limestone islands at low tide to see the interesting vertical stratification of life in the large 10-20 foot intertidal zone. We left these islands early morning and headed to a Warm Mineral Springs on Admiralty Island; it was a beautiful sunny day and after anchoring we hiked to a small lake near the Warm Springs and then returned to take a dip in the hot water.

August 14. Clouds moved in overnight. We up anchor and headed north and reached a trailhead for a hike to a lake. We hiked about 5 miles to the lake through old grow forest, and then continued another ½ mile till the trail turned into pure mud On our return we crossed paths with a large grizzle and her cubs, but we were ignored as she fished the nearby stream. Paul, the Captain, picked us up with the Zodiac a little latter and we headed toward Sitka Alaska.

July 15. We disembarked in the rain in late morning and most of us headed to the Sitka Hotel. We had a farewell group dinner at 7 pm.

August 16. Sporadic rain falls as I walked through the National Park Service’s, Historic Totem Park at 7 am. The trail through the Park has great views of the bay and sea beyond, and along the way a number of Totem poles, each with different carved features. I hooked up later with some of the Sierra group, including Dan, the Sierra leader and his wife Joan, and we hiked up a steep mountain on the Gavin Hill Trail in the rain to maybe 1,200 feet for a view back across to Sitka and the sea beyond. I returned back to my hotel that afternoon and left early on the 17th for Anchorage and a 12 hour plus wait in the airport until my flight left around mid-night for Denver and on to Tampa (luckily I had bought a book – The Blue Bear –which described the area we had covered on the Snow Goose, and I read it all in the airport that day and really enjoyed it). I arrived back in Tampa about 4 pm on August 18.

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