Thursday, August 16, 2007

Camping in Denali National Park, Alaska

Early July.

After photographing bears along the Katmai Coast, my next destination was Denali National Park, located in the interior of Alaska. Denali NP is famous for the highest peak in North America - Mount McKinley ("Denali" in the native language), and its abundance of wildlife: grizzly, caribou, moose, Dall's sheep, lynx and many small animals.

After 6 years, I was back in Denali again. During the summer of 2001, I worked at a hotel at the entrance area of the park. Since then, I have been in love with Alaskan wilderness. My main purpose for going back to Denali was photographing Mt. McKinley and its reflection on Wonder Lake during sunset and sunrise time with "magic purple light." So we stayed at the deep end of the Parkroad at Wonder Lake Campground.

A huge cow moose greeted us before getting on the camper shuttle bus by the Visitor Center. Everyone grabbed cameras! She likes to hang out in the area because the predators will most likely stay away from busy tourist areas. Since she came too close to people, the park management put a collar on her in order to track her.

It was lightly raining when we got on the shuttle. I was hoping it would clear up later. The mountain was hiding behind the clouds most of the time; only 1/3 of visitor ever get to see part of the mountain during their trip! Only lucky visitors ever seen a whole mountain. The French photographers in Katmai told us that they couldn't see the mountain at all for 3 days.

Unlike my expectations, I didn't see so much wildlife from the bus on the way. I only saw several white dots (supposed to be Dall's sheep) and a few gray dots supposed to be caribou. and one more, a moose far behind of bushes. Where were the bears? At that point, my closest wildlife sighting was the collared moose at the Visitor Center. After a quiet 6 hours, the shuttle arrived to Mile 85, Wonder Lake Campground.

The rain stopped, but the mountain was far behind heavy clouds. The campground was luxurious for that remote wilderness area. We picked a nice site where there is supposed to be a Mt. McKinley view. There was a food cache house with covered cooking/ eating area nearby, and flush toilets and running water. The whole area was an open view with alpine tundra - vivid green! It was also peak season for the wildflowers blooming! Only problem was mosquitoes... a lot! There were crowds of them following whenever I go. We had to wear head nets!

Although it was overcast, the sun didn't set until 2 a.m or so, and without getting real dark, the sun rose again a few hours later. Denali NP is located in the far north.

Next morning, the mountain only showed its middle part - a long strip line between the clouds - then, it hid behind of the clouds again, all day.

The clouds got lighter at night, I was hoping it would clear up in the middle of the night, so I set the alarm clock every one hour and checked if the mountain was showing up. It would be my last opportunity to photograph the mountain with purple light. I periodically checked outside every one hour until 5 a.m when finally the bottom part of the mountain was visible.

Around 6 a.m, most of the mountain was shown up! It had already passed the magic hour time, but I was very excited to see the entire mountain. The sky cleared up while we were having breakfast. I photographed the mountain and reflection on the pond. However, when I was rush walking to the point where I can look down Wonder Lake, small clouds forming around the mountain. The clouds grew so fast! when I finally got to the hill, most of the mountain was hidden behind clouds even though other parts of the sky were still clear! I was glad to see the entire mountain for a while. We packed our camp down, and rode an afternoon shuttle out the park.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Bear Photography in Katmai Coast 3

The afternoon of the 2nd day in Hallo Bay, Katmai National Park, 3 new people arrived with tons of camera equipment. Two of them were photographers from France; they paid extra money to have their own guide. They were on a 6 week project in Alaska. Another man was a retired bio chemist; now he is a bear enthusiast. He has been staying in Hallo Bay about a month every year for many years! Wow, it is very expensive to stay there for 3 nights, but a month, I have no idea how much it cost! He brought a high-end camera, a bazooka looking telephoto lens, and HDR video camera.

Between morning and evening excursions, we had a few hours of relaxing time. However, we weren't allow to leave the Camp area by our self, so I just took a shower and hung out at the main galley. The main galley is a big canvas room with kitchen and dining area with cozy tables. I liked to hang out there and chat with other guests in the galley.
Hallo Bay Wilderness is an environmental friendly operation with only 5 guest cabins. The guest cabins are also made of canvas with simple bedding, sink with a container of water, table and heater. The showers and bathroom are a separate building. The windmill generates all electricity for the camp. We were only allowed to eco-friendly soap and shampoos. i am amazed with their environmental policies for the entire camp. In the remote wilderness, it was still luxurious. Since there were only 10 guests per night, everybody got know each other and become friends. i had a good conversation with a couple from Ireland.

After early dinner, our evening bear viewing session began. we walked through the same way as the morning; along the beach, went through the woods, and tidal cove; it was a high tide at the evening, so no bears hanging around the area. we passed the cove, and then walked up to the meadow. Another 2 groups were already sitting the edge. 2 bear families (each had 2 cubs) were grazing fresh green grass under the sun. The cubs rolled over the grass, and their mom kept eating...

A boar showed up from the woods, far right. One of the bear families got nervous. The mother stopped eating, rose her head up and started huffing. She slowly moved away from the boar, toward to another family in front of us. Boars sometimes kill cubs so that he will be able to mate with the sow. Isn't it terrible? Anyway, the family moved close to another family. Another mother got very nervous for the family moving to them, and began huffing loudly. Then, she walking toward to us with her 2 cubs! They stopped 20 feet away from us, but still looked nervous at other family approaching. The boar came very close to the area where the French photographers were at. Their guide successfully shooed the boar away. However, the nervous bear family moved closer to the family that was 20 feet away from us. The family closer to us got very nervous and started moving closer toward us. They seemed to be coming straight toward us... Our guide Herb stood up and showed a flare, and told them, "no, no," but they were coming to us. I was frozen and hiding behind of Herb and my husband. Someone in our group; German guy, kept taking photos of the approaching bear family. I could only shoot one - a cub's face with bad exposure. The family was stopping and huffing for a while in front of us, and then finally passed about 5 feet away from us. it was too close! I was sweating! The guide, Herb joked, "Sorry guys, we can't get any closer than this." It was after 9 p.m and the bright sun was still above us.
We repeated these kind of bear viewings the next day. Then, the following morning, the small plane picked us up on time and took us back to Homer. Viewing and photographing huge bears close by without fence was an exciting experience. I felt very special feeling toward those magnificent animals.