The last Frontier

Jack London’s Call of the Wild left an indelible impression on my young mind. In the desolate landscapes of Alaska and the Yukon - the Northland, he portrays the harshness of the environment and just how unforgiving it was in these early days of prospectors. The thin line that separated life from death was ever present and in the absence of many of life’s other distractions the struggle for survival was laid bare.

A few years ago, I finally got the opportunity to experience the Far North, first hand, and flew to Anchorage in Alaska. My first stop was Denali National Park, where I was hopeful of photographing Mount McKinley - America’s highest mountain and hopefully some of the large mammals such as grizzlies, moose and elk amidst autumnal colours. The park HQ is extensive with large visitor centre, a wilderness access centre (WAC) restaurant and book store together with numerous campsites throughout the park. Access into the park is by shuttle bus and I headed for the furthest campsite at Wonder Lake, which took five hours to reach.

The first two days were dominated by cloudy skies so I decided to concentrate on photographing wildlife, making use of the scheduled bus service to reach specific locations, which I had already identified. This formula proved to work well and by the end of the first day I had captured some striking images of a grizzly bear family foraging amongst the blueberries. A wet mist left the bear’s fur saturated with moisture and the soft diffused illumination helped to create an intimate portrait with a sense of wildness that more perfect conditions may have failed to capture.

Bear 1

Foraging grizzly bear, Denali National Park, Alaska

The following day, having again been dropped off along the road, I set off over the tundra and came upon a family of moose on a lakeside. The group comprised a mature bull, a cow and two calves and also an adolescent male, who didn’t seem to be too welcome. The young male headed off over the tundra, and the group moved off into a thicket of aspens. Anticipating that they too may head in a similar direction, I positioned myself on top of a small hill hoping that they might pass and pause sufficiently long enough for me to photograph them again the backdrop of the snow-covered mountains. To my amazement, not only did they climb the hillock but also they stood in exactly the spot where I wanted and looked out towards the Alaska Range. It was one of those experiences that will remain with me forever – sharing, albeit momentarily, in the lives of these wild animals validated my experience in a wild place.

Moose 1

Moose family on tundra, Denali National Park, Alaska

Later in the week, the weather was showing signs of improvement and by midday the sun had burnt off the lingering mist. Mount McKinley’s snow covered summit (6194 metres, 20,320 feet) was revealed in detail and I began to search for locations, which portrayed the mountain’s majesty. By instinct, I found myself at Wonder Lake and identified a high point from where to shoot over the Lake to Mount McKinley and set up my tripod. As I waited for the sun to drop, I realised that I was in exactly the same spot as Ansel Adams had been (and countless other photographers since) when he took his iconic black and white image of McKinley. It’s an interesting observation that without having prior knowledge of the location, I found myself there by default.

Mount 2

Mount McKinley, Denali National Park, Alaska 

I returned to Anchorage and was joined by Neil Birnie – one of the partners of Wilderness Scotland and his father Gordon. Our next destination was to Kodiak Island where there are about 3,000 brown bears; a density of just under a bear per square mile, which I hoped to photograph feeding on salmon. Kodiak bears are the largest bears in the world – a big male can stand over (3m, 10ft) tall when on his hind legs, and can weigh up to (680kg, 1,500lbs) and during August and September spend most of their waking hours feeding on salmon to build up their fat reserves in preparation for hibernation.

Our float-plane, touched down on Uganik Lake on a beautiful autumn‘s morning and we drifted towards the shore as the engine was cut. A campsite was quickly established on high ground above the Lake within the perimeter of our electric fence and we set off down the Uganik River in search of bears. Although there was ample evidence from old fish carcasses of previous bear activity, there were few new signs that bears were feeding in the area. We pushed on along the river and after about four hours, as we neared its estuary, we began to see bears fishing in the river, seven or eight different sows and a mother with three cubs. The bears acknowledged our presence and showed little interest in us, concentrating of their fishing techniques.

Bear 2

Brown Bear, Uganik River, Kodiak Island, Alaska

Over the next three days I photographed a variety of bears as they fished for salmon, using a 300mm lens with a 1.4X converter, giving me effectively a 420mm lens. Kodiak bear populations are healthy and productive and they enjoy a relatively pristine habitat and well managed fish stocks. In most areas the number of bears is stable, but in some places bear density is actually increasing. However, the future management of brown bears and their habitats will face new challenges from increased recreational activities and the construction of tourist cabins, which ultimately will conflict with the patterns of their behavior and inevitably lead to an increase in stress levels.

Bear 3

Brown Bear and cub, Uganik River, Kodiak Island, Alaska

 

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