Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Wildlife

Alaska (Part One)

A cluster of bright pink wildflowers growing in a gravel bar along a river
A cluster of bright pink wildflowers growing in a gravel bar along a river

Dwarf fireweed (Chamerion latifolium) along the banks of the Toklat River, Denali National Park, Alaska

A highlight of summer 2019 was a hastily arranged trip to Alaska at the end of June and beginning of July. With a summer of unemployment (translation: freedom) looming, we obtained surprisingly cheap tickets from Seattle to Anchorage and then rented a car for a two week journey around the state.

It was a fun yet somewhat strange trip, for a number of reasons. For one, Alaska was experiencing record high temperatures (90 degrees F in several places that we went) and extensive wildfires during our visit. Two words that summarize the trip would be “hot” and “smoky”. We were prepared with a LOT of warm clothes and rain gear and used hardly any of it.

We were not mentally prepared for the omnipresent light. Even though we never ventured above the Arctic Circle, and thus the Sun did technically set each day, it did so only for a few hours between about midnight and 3 am, never getting far enough below the horizon to result in true darkness. It’s one thing to know in your mind that it won’t get dark out, but another another to actually experience it. It’s even more disorienting when you are sleeping in a tent or the back of a Subaru Outback most nights. I hadn’t really considered (again, a hastily arranged trip…) the photographic implications either. With the ideal light for photos coming in around 11 pm-midnight and 3-4 am, it was hard to be out and about at the “golden hours” while also taking advantage of the few pseudo-dark hours to actually sleep.

Anyways, after a day of stocking up on supplies and food in Anchorage (I’m told there is a gorgeous mountain range at the edge of town, but we never really saw it), we headed north to our first stop: Denali National Park. We were fortunate enough to catch a distant and smoky view of Denali itself as we approached the park. While we would be much closer to North America’s highest mountain later in the trip, we wouldn’t see it again.

View of snowy peak through a layer of smoke

Denali, the highest point in North America, seen through the smoke from Denali State Park.

Denali National Park is unique in that, while a road does exist, you can’t take a private vehicle into the heart of the park. Travel along the main park road is on foot or via concessionaire-operated school buses. We opted for the cheapest bus option, the “un-guided” tour that allows you to get off the bus pretty much where ever you want in order to have a look around. We took the bus into Denali on two consecutive days, made a few short forays on foot into the backcountry, and explored some of the maintained trails near the park entrance:

Gray clouds hover over a landscape of scattered trees and shrubs

A roadside scene in Denali National Park, Alaska

A landscape of barren rock, green vegetation, and distant glaciers and snowy peaks

View of the Teklanika River Valley and Alaska Range, Denali National Park, Alaska

A landscapce of brown and red rocks and soil, and green vegetation

Oxidized volcanic rocks of the Teklanika Formation on the slopes of Cathedral Mountain, Denali National Park, Alaska

Bright pink wildflowers growing on a rocky slope

Scammon’s springbeauty (Claytonia scammaniana) clings to a rock slope on Cathedral Mountain, Denali National Park, Alaska

A river flows through rocky crags, as someone stands on a bridge over the river

Exploring a trail along the Savage River, Denali National Park, Alaska

A caribou stands alongside a river flowing out of a snowy mountain range

A caribou grazes along the banks of the Savage River, Denali National Park, Alaska

Aside from the geological scenery, Denali is also crawling with wildlife. I can emphatically say that the bus makes for a pleasant and safe place from which to observe grizzly bears, caribou, moose, and other potentially threatening organisms at close range. A few of the wildlife encounters we had off the bus were decidedly less enjoyable.

Three grizzly bears amble in a field of green grass

Three damp grizzly bears in a grassy meadow, Denali National Park, Alaska. Photo taken from the bus. 

Three moose forage in a pond

Three moose browse the bottom of a shallow pond, Denali National Park, Alaska. Not a bus photo, but we were at the top of a hill several hundred feet above the pond. 

Several white sheep clamber among a cliff of rocks

Three Dall sheep (Ovis dalli) scramble on rocky cliffs high above the Denali Park Road. 

A tourist stand alongside a river scanning the mountains with binoculars

One human (Homo sapiens) observes the previously pictured Dall sheep (Ovis dalli) through binoculars.

After four days in Denali, our rental car no longer possessed a complete set of safe and functional tires, resulting in a new rental car and an unscheduled detour to Fairbanks before our next destination: Kennecott and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Until next time!


Crossing the Channel

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass
A small ocean inlet with blue-green water along a rugged coastline

Potato Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California

Just a few dozen miles off the coast of Southern California lie the Channel Islands, eight motes of land jutting out of the sea a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Of the eight islands, the only one with a significant human population is the tourist mecca of Santa Catalina, which draws over one million visitors per year. The remaining seven islands are sparsely populated and draw far fewer tourists. The four northernmost islands form an archipelago that is protected by Channel Islands National Park and the Nature Conservancy.

Back in March, we briefly visited the largest Channel Island: Santa Cruz. At 97 square miles in area, Santa Cruz is reached via ferry from Ventura or Oxnard. Our hour-long journey across the Santa Barbara Channel was choppy to say the least, but included close up views of Pacific white-sided dolphins and several majestic oil drilling platforms. Upon arrival, we were greeted by one of the most lush landscapes imaginable. Abnormally abundant winter rains had produced a tall, dense carpet of green grasses that blanketed the entire island. One of the resident rangers told us it was the greenest he had seen Santa Cruz in the seven years he’d worked there.

A trail passes through dense green grass with sunset-lit mountains in the background

A trail winding through the lush spring grasses on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

A view of an island covered in green grass with the deep-blue ocean and other islands in the background

Looking east from Santa Cruz toward Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park

An illuminated tent beneath a tree. The landscape is illuminated by moonlight.

Campsite on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park. Landscape illuminated by a first quarter moon.  

Given their relative geographic isolation, the Channel Islands are notable for their high concentration of endemic plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. They are also home to some of the earliest evidence of human habitation in the Americas. Archaeological and geological evidence suggests that humans inhabited Santa Rosa, just east of Santa Cruz, as far back as 13,000 years ago. At this time, sea levels were much lower due to the massive amounts of water locked up in glaciers and ice sheets farther north. As a result, the four northernmost islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel) were united into a “mega island” whose eastern edge was much closer to mainland California. This made it easier for plants and animals to reach the island, either by air (birds, plant seeds, etc.) or on floating rafts of debris (mammals, reptiles, etc.) Some species may have even been deliberately brought to the islands by humans.

As the most recent glaciation ended, sea levels began to rise, eventually splitting the mega-island into the smaller landmasses that exist today. Once isolated, the plant and animal populations that had established themselves on the islands, either organically or after being brought there by humans, began to evolve into species distinct from their mainland cousins. In some cases, distinct subspecies have evolved on individual islands in response to unique conditions.

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For visitors to Santa Cruz, the most obvious example of this phenomenon is the ubiquitous Santa Cruz island fox (Urocyon littoralis var. santacruzae). Coming from the mainland where a sighting (especially a daytime sighting) of a fox is a rare treat, we were surprised to see one within minutes of getting off the ferry. The island fox is descended from and appears very similar to the common grey fox, but is much smaller. A fully grown island fox weighs just 4-5 pounds, and is similar in size to a large house cat. Often the lush spring grasses exceeded the foxes in height, making them challenging to spot! Nearly extinct in the early 1990s, a highly successful habitat restoration and captive breeding program has the species thriving today. We ended up seeing several dozen in our short visit to Santa Cruz. Other subspecies of the island fox exist on five of the other seven islands, each with slight differences evolved in response to local conditions.

A small fox lies hidden in the grass

An island fox lurking in the tall grass

A small gray and red fox sits alongside a dirt path

An island fox on the trail to Smugglers Cove, likely hoping for a food handout.

With its pastoral landscape and unique wildlife, Santa Cruz feels a world away from metropolitan areas of Southern California. However, nightfall brought a stark reminder of just how close the islands are to the urban sprawl. Light pollution from Los Angeles, Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and the numerous oil drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel dominated the night sky from Santa Cruz.

A panorama of the California coastline showing many large light domes degrading the view of the night sky.

Nighttime panorama from the cliffs above Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island. See annotated image below for a description of the different features.

Nighttime image of Light Pollution from Santa Cruz Island with sources labeled

Our return trip was delayed because the choppy seas prevented the ferry from reaching the anchorage on Santa Cruz on time, giving us a few extra hours to sit on the beach and enjoy the peace & quiet of the island. The winds died down enough for a smooth ride back across the channel where we even spotted a couple of migrating gray whales. Apparently I need more practice shooting photos from a moving platform, as the whale pics all turned out pretty blurry. Have another fox instead!

A small fox sits in the grass


Rocks and (Musk)Rats of the Rockies

stream meanders along the Fall River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
stream meanders along the Fall River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Textbook stream meanders along the Fall River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

A few weekends back I led my semester-ly geology field trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. Each time I end up finding new gems that I had previously overlooked, such as the spectacular stream meanders along the Fall River pictured above. One good flood and the stream will erode through the narrow strip of land separating the two meanders, leaving the bend in the middle of the photo high and dry. Places like this are a great opportunity for students to see in action a geologic process that every introductory geology instructor teaches in the classroom.

Despite many areas of the park still being covered in umpteen feet of snow, wildflowers are beginning to appear in the lower elevations around Estes Park:

Early blooming pasqueflower in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Early blooming pasqueflower in Moraine Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Longs Peak shrouded in a late-season storm, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Longs Peak shrouded in a late-season storm, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The biggest cause for excitement actually occurred after the field trip was over. I had intended to stick around in the park for a longer hike after setting the students free, but I quickly realized I had left my filled camelback on the kitchen counter. Lacking any sort of water carrying device, not wanting to shell out the cash to buy one, nor desiring to try to fashion one out of ungulate intestines, that plan was foiled. In lieu of a hike I headed for a short stroll around Lily Lake to try to get some pictures of the incoming storm enveloping Longs Peak.

While snapping the above photo, I was startled by what sounded like a cannonball being dropped into the lake behind behind me. My initial suspicion of hooligans launching boulders into the lake was discredited when I turned around and saw no one within half a mile. I made my way to the edge of the lake and remained motionless; after a few moments, this little guy appeared:

Muskrats in Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Beaver? Otter? Furry fish?

Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Noticing the presence of a nearby mass of chewed up sticks (above), I hastily assumed I was in the presence of a beaver. In short time, a second critter appeared and the pair began to tussle, albeit sadly behind a willow bush from my point of view. It soon became clear that these animals were more agile and less chunky and rotund than your typical beaver. Not being able to see them clearly with the naked eye, my next guess was river otter, which persisted until I got home and took a closer look at the pictures below. Otters would have a tough time leading their carnivorous lifestyles with only those gigantic incisors to work with. I was out of ideas (this is why I lead geology field trips, not wildlife watching trips…) , so I was forced to the internet where I learned that I had just seen my first muskrat.

Muskrats in Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Two combative muskrats in Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park

Muskrats in Lily Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Nice teeth!

Finally, on the way home, I made a quick stop at a rock shop in Estes Park that I’ve driven past dozens of times. I quickly discovered that knowledge of basic geological principles is not a prerequisite for owning a rock shop when I found a large bin of black limestone labeled:

estes_park_rock_shop

{facepalm}