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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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:
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.
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:
After some memorable elk encounters this past fall, I’ve been on the lookout for more wildlife viewing opportunities over the past few months. A flock of several thousand Canadian geese passing overhead while extricating my car from a foot of snow at the Denver airport didn’t quite cut it so on a recent weekend, we headed out in search of one of Colorado’s most iconic creatures: the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep.
It turns out that late November and early December is the best time of year to view Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep here in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. This time period marks the annual bighorn sheep rut, or mating period. While the bighorn sheep rut attracts far less attention than the fall elk rut, at this time the sheep descend from higher elevations to avoid deep snowpack and are frequently seen along canyons such as the Big Thompson, just a short half hour drive from Fort Collins (where I now live).
If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Big Thompson Canyon is better known as the site of a number of large and particularly deadly floods in the past few decades than as prime bighorn territory. But in late autumn and early winter, this is the place to be for some serious sheep spotting and shooting (with a camera of course!). This is not to say the sheep are always easy to spot. The beige bighorns, with the exception of their white butts, blend into the brown and shrubby landscape extraordinarily well. Here’s a view of the second pack of sheep we spotted to better illustrate the challenge:
You can see the problem: brown vegetation + brown rocks + (mostly) brown sheep = hard to spot sheep. It’s like Where’s Waldo, only in real life and with sheep instead of fictional characters with questionable fashion sense. Anyways, when whizzing by at 50 mph (the minimum speed required to avoid being rear-ended by folks hellbent on getting to Estes Park) on a road with little to no shoulder, it helps to have at least one pair of eyes apart from the driver to scan the cliffs and ledges so loved by the sheep for movement or a flash of a white rump.
In the end we spotted two groups of bighorns in about two hours in the late morning, the first group containing one ram and three ewes, the second two rams and three ewes. The first group was bedded down right along the Big Thompson River, just a stone’s throw from the highway right at the entrance to the canyon. With a little creative parking and scrambling, I was able to get some good close-ups of the sheep (see top photo and below). The second group was larger and more active, but was in a gully across the river over a hundred yards from the road, well outside the range of my pathetic telephoto equipment.
The presence of two rams in the second group was exciting because it afforded the possibility of seeing the famous bighorn sheep head-butting combat ritual in action. Alas though, these rams seemed much more interested in quietly grazing on the scant remaining greenery than in slamming their heads together at speeds of more than 30 mph (who wouldn’t?)
The bighorn sheep will continue to be visible in the Big Thompson area throughout the winter (as they avoid the deep snowpack at higher elevations) although once the rut concludes they become much more averse to human contact and populated areas. Unlike some other notable large mammals of the Rockies, bighorn sheep tend to be most active during daytime hours, making them relatively easy to spot if you have a keen eye.
Legend has it that many years ago at Yosemite National Park, when asked by a visitor what to do if she only had one day to see Yosemite, a park naturalist responded, “I’d go down to the Merced River, put my head in my hands, and cry.” By extension, if one day to visit Yosemite necessitates tears, then surely allotting just one day to see Yellowstone, a plot of land nearly 3 times larger, is some sort of federal crime. Yellowstone is after all, 3 times larger than the state of Rhode Island (Pyroclastic Pixels fun fact™: 16 of our 59 national parks are larger than Rhode Island). Recently I found myself in Bozeman, Montana (just an hour or so north of Yellowstone) for a geology conference with 24 hours to spare so I rented a car and headed to Yellowstone for the day. The key to seeing anything in such a large park in such a short amount of time is focusing on one very small area. Since I actually hadn’t seen any geysers during my last trip to the Yellowstone area a few years back , I decided to head to the Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin.
Before I get to the geysers, let me take a moment to describe a game that I highly recommended you play when visiting Yellowstone. The game is titled “How long can you be in the park for before seeing someone taking an ill-advised wildlife photo” and my score on this visit was 23 seconds, shattering my previous personal best by several minutes. While still in sight of the Roosevelt Arch (the iconic stone portal erected at the north entrance to Yellowstone in 1903), I witnessed a family of four exit their minivan and the parents proceed to usher their children, with their backs turned, to within about 10 yards of a herd of grazing bison in order to take a photograph. Fortunately no one got gored, but not everyone is so lucky. As interesting as the geology and thermal features are, for me the preponderance of wildlife is unquestionably the prime appeal of Yellowstone. When one is bombarded by sightings of elk, bison, bears, coyotes, herons, swans, and bighorn sheep within 5 minutes of entering the park, it can be easy to feel like you are touring some sort of very large zoo. But it is important to remember that these animals are still very much wild and there are no cages or fences between you and a very, very, very bad day. If you want to get a close look at wildlife, bring a pair of binoculars or a good telephoto lens and keep your distance. There is, after all, a very good reason why these are handed out at the entrance station.
I arrived at Old Faithful just in time to witness an eruption (the crowds gathered around on benches tipped me off). After watching from amongst the masses, I decided I wanted to spend the rest of the day somewhere a little quieter. A long hike into the wilderness was sadly out of the question, in part because of time and in part because hiking alone in grizzly bear country is generally considered to be inadvisable. Instead I decided to head up the short trail to Observation Point which, while only about half a mile from Old Faithful, is still long enough to leave 99.99% of other park visitors behind. I watched the next eruption from the Point, several hundred feet above the geyser. Honestly the most fascinating part of watching from this vantage point was observing the number of people sitting on the benches ringing the geyser steadily increase over the half-hour preceding the eruption and then incredulously watching more than half of them leave before the eruption was even over.
At this point I got it in my head that it would be fun to make a time-lapse video of an eruption cycle, which involved me hiking back to my car to get my tripod and then climbing back up the hill. Once I had everything set up, I realized I had forgot my remote timer (not at the car but at home several states away) and would have to try to do the time-lapse by hand. This didn’t go so well for a couple of reasons. For one, whenever you set up a tripod anywhere, other people automatically assume you are some kind of expert on the area and start asking you lots of questions that you are in no way qualified to answer. And second, about a minute into the eruption itself, my focus shifted to a grizzly bear and cub that I spotted ambling out of the forest at the bottom of the hill (I ran into the same two bears on my hike back to the car about an hour later). The time-lapse didn’t turn out too well but it was still a fun day of people-watching, geyser-gawking, and wildlife-spotting. My tally after 9 hours in Yellowstone: three Old Faithful eruptions, hundreds of elk, dozens of bison and trumpeter swans, four grizzly bears, three marmots, one coyote, one bighorn sheep and 288 photographs!
I’ve had some fascinating wildlife encounters the past few months. I’ve seen a mule deer give birth, encountered a herd of mountain goats at 14,000 feet, had some interesting run-ins with cows while camping (okay, cows aren’t technically WILD but still…), and even seen my first two porcupines. But the undisputed winner took place about five feet outside my bedroom door. The hill outside my door is covered in tall grass and shrubs. Anytime I have the door open, I hear the constant rustling of squirrels, chipmunks, cottontail rabbits, and the occasional coyote making their way through the grass. One day though, the rustling turned out to be this:
Just to be clear, that’s a garter snake (likely either Thamnophis elegans or Thamnophis marcianus…any snake people out there?) going NOM NOM NOM on a smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis). Now that’s not something you see every day.
I was fortunate enough to observe this spectacle in its near entirety, which in this case was almost two whole hours. The garter snake moved little; it was so focused on its meal that it seemed not even to notice me or the handful of other people watching the blatant act of serpentine cannibalism unfolding before our eyes. Every 30 seconds or so, the garter snake would open its mouth wide and constrict its jaw muscles slightly, entombing a few more millimeters of the green snake into its gullet. The green snake, which was consumed head-first, remained alive as it was being swallowed, as if being subjected to some diabolical form of medieval torture. Every few minutes it would engage in some futile thrashing for a few moments before the garter snake would wrestle it back into submission. At one point, a second green snake arrived on the scene and made a few jabs at the garter snake before retreating back into the grass.
Things got really wild in the final minutes. In what appeared to be a last ditch effort to avoid being completely ingested, or perhaps just a metaphorical middle finger to the garter snake, the green snake managed to tie the remaining few inches of its tail into an enormous knot. This befuddled the garter snake for a short while; it was already struggling with its decision to swallow a snake equivalent in size to itself and the knot didn’t make things any easier. After a few minutes though, the garter snake managed to open its mouth even wider and down the remainder of its meal, knot and all. Shortly after, the garter snake sluggishly slithered away, likely with a bad case of the meat sweats, and I went back inside feeling glad that I’m not as low on the food chain as the green snake.
They are separated by more than 1600 kilometers. One barely rises above sea level while the other boasts six peaks exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation. One is most easily accessed by kayak or porpoise, while in the other it is difficult to escape the incessant drone of Jeeps, dirt bikes, and ATVs that trawl the vast network of old mining roads. One is beset by a deluge of by rain eight months out of the year, whereas the other is inaccessible except by ski, snowshoe, or helicopter for six. To the untrained eye, the San Juan Islands of NW Washington and the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado couldn’t be more different. My current job situation has me living about an hour away from the mountains for 3 months out of the year, and an hour or less away from the islands for the other 9 months. And viewed through the lens of a camera, I have discovered that there are more similarities that you might expect. The first of which will probably be rather obvious:
They both posses stunning scenery:
View from Deception Pass State Park on Fidalgo Island looking southwest across the water towards the Olympic Peninsula.
Rosy Paintbrush in an alpine meadow near Red Mountain #1 (yes, nearby can be found Red Mountain’s #2 and #3. The old miners were a creative bunch.) in the San Juan Mountains.
Both offer opportunities for “extreme” sports:
A paraglider enjoys a serene aerial view of the San Juan Islands and several tankers headed for the oil refineries in Anacortes, WA.
Descending a scree-filled colouir after summiting 14.150′ Mt. Sneffels in the San Juan Mountains. While most of the climb is straightforward and requires only a hefty amount of scrambling, there is one tricky section near the summit during which a fall would likely mean the end of one’s mountain climbing days…or any other days for that matter.
Both were shaped and sculpted by vast quantities of ice:
Glacial striations in slate high above the Uncompahgre Gorge in the San Juan Mountains. The parallel grooves in the rock were carved by rocky debris trapped along the base of a long-gone glacier that was partially responsible for scouring out the gorge.
A Washington State Ferry passes a cliff of glacially scoured rock in the San Juan Islands. Glacial striations identical to those in the previous photo are ubiquitous throughout the San Juan Islands, evidence that the area was buried beneath more than a mile of ice during the peak of the last glaciation, about 15,000 years ago.
And finally, both are home to curious wildlife:
An American Pika investigates a bush at 11,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains.
A Blood Star investigates a California mussel below sea level in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
In case you didn’t know, that’s what starfish look like when they are curious.