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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa
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The Mammals of the Pribilofs

October 21st, 2013 · No Comments

The Pribilof Islands have the largest gathering of marine mammals in the world. In addition to seeing thousands of northern fur seals I also saw some Stellar sea lions and sea otters, but failed to see any walruses.

By contrast, land mammals are much less common. And only small numbers of three species of land mammals are native to the Pribilofs. Only two of these, the arctic fox and the shrew, live on Saint Paul Island. The other one, the lemming, lives only on Saint George Island, where I only landed at the airport.

While I saw arctic foxes several times, I didn’t see any shrews. One of my guides, Doug Gochfeld, found one when he turned a rock over, but the shrew scampered away before I could get there.

The scarcity of land mammals on these isolated islands doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is that some of their ancestors must have made a long, perilous journey over hundreds of miles of drift ice to get there. The progenitors of the arctic foxes native to the Pribilofs must have arrived thousands of years ago because they are generally darker than those found elsewhere, which are dark gray to bluish brown in the summer and white or creamy white in winter.

Not until my last full day there did I get close enough to arctic foxes for good photographs. And these were a whole family. Even better, the family included several quite cute pups.

These Arctic Fox Pups Are Only One or Two Months Old and May Never Have Seen a Camera Before

These Arctic Fox Pups Are Only One or Two Months Old and May Never Have Seen a Camera Before

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Tundra of the Pribilofs

October 20th, 2013 · No Comments

During one of the five days I explored the Pribilof Islands, one of my St. Paul Tours guides, Doug Gochfeld, took me to Southwest Point on Saint Paul Island. There we spent several happy hours watching and photographing the thousands of alcids on the cliff ledges just below us. Alcids are a family of birds that includes the auks, murres, and puffins. They are pelagic birds, those that live on the open ocean and rarely venture onto land except to breed. My main reason for traveling to the Pribilofs was to see these strange birds.

Doug drove us to the point in one of the few vehicles on the island. Not many vehicles get there because freight charges are so high, about $10,000 each, and because the island has no automotive repair facilities. As a result, the vehicles that make it to the island are in poor repair. We rode in a reasonably new Toyota SUV, but a passenger-side door was held on with rope because an earlier traveler failed to hold it when he opened it in the wind.

Once we reached the end of the road, we walked along the cliff edge. Very carefully. Not only did we prefer to avoid stepping into the ocean but we also wanted to avoid stepping into a hole that we couldn’t see through the tundra that we walked across. There is no trail, but I only stepped into one hole, which fortunately was only four feet deep.

On the way back to the SUV from birding at Southwest Point we paused to study the tundra. The Pribilofs are volcanic and therefore rocky, but except on the beaches, almost everywhere the aspect is of lush, green, coastal tundra. Only seven trees grow on the island, and none are taller than three and one-half feet.

My guide, Doug, introduced me to one of the edible plants that grow almost everywhere on the island. Wild celery looks and tastes very much like the tame stuff that I sometimes add to my salads, except this wild variety is somewhat sharper tasting.

This Wild Celery Only Looks Like a Weird Tree Because I Photographed It from Celery Level

This Wild Celery Only Looks Like a Weird Tree Because I Photographed It from Celery Level

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The Northern Fur Seals of the Pribilof Islands

October 19th, 2013 · No Comments

The Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea were everything they promised to be: cold, wet, windy, and usually foggy or overcast. They also have 450,000 northern fur seals and uncounted millions of birds.

When my friend Marveen and I planned this trip to Alaska, she suggested that I visit the Pribilofs. While she had never been there herself, she was familiar with them from her wide reading. After I did some research, I signed up for a five-day tour that St. Paul Island Tours, a subsidiary of Tanadgusix, the Aleut Alaska Native village corporation that owns more than 95 percent of Saint Paul Island and all or part of its fish processing industry, hotel, cable television, and tourism businesses.

But when Marven and I discussed my planned tour of the Pribilofs while I was staying in her home, we both had considerable regrets. She was concerned that her recommendation might be a bad one. I was specifically worried about the bad weather I was sure I would experience and thought that I had already had such a magnificant trip to Alaska that visiting the Pribilofs could be a letdown. We needn’t have worried. The Pribilofs were a highlight of my nine-week visit to Alaska.

These islands are famous among birders and naturalists, although few other people have ever heard of them. They are one of the three most isolated places I have ever visited. The coast of Siberia is 500 miles west, but the only way I could get there was an 800-mile flight from Anchorage.

Formerly called the Northern Fur Seal Islands, these isolated islands are the breeding grounds of the fur seals, which in the late 18th century fur traders knew had to be somewhere in the ever foggy Bering Sea. After years of searching, a Russian fur trader named Gavriil Pribylov in 1786 and 1787 discovered the breeding colonies on these previously uninhabited islands.

Then, a few Russians and a few hundred Aleut slaves from the Aleutian Islands to the south proceeded to kill as many of the fur seals as they could. When we bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, we especially wanted the big money from the slaughter of the fur seals, which we intensified, so much so that by 1911, when the United States, Russia, Japan, and Canada signed the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention, the fur seals had come close to extinction.

The Aleuts were slaves, first of the Russians and then of the Americans. I don’t use the term “slaves” loosely. The Aleuts were truly the “slaves of the harvest” as Barbara Boyle Torrey’s sad but excellent book of that title so fully documents. I bought and read this book on the recommendation of Jason Bourdukofsky, the president of Tanadgusix Corporation, who I got to know. Like most of 700 people who live on the islands today, he has an obviously Russian surname. In fact, almost all of the natives of the island are also members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian influence lives on here, partly I would guess because until recently we didn’t treat them any better than the earlier Russian colonists.

Jason told me that he was a baby when the U.S. government evacuated all of the Aleuts from the Pribilofs and the Aleutian Islands in 1942, giving them just a few minutes to pack one bag for what turned out to be a multiyear exodus from their homes. We all know that at the same time our government did the same thing to people of Japanese ancestry, but I didn’t know that we did that to this American Indian tribe. Jason told me that half of his people died in the internment camp at Funter Bay, including his grandfather.

Jason also told me that he is one of just six native speakers of the Aleut language who remain alive. He is is also the president of the school board, which at his urging now requires some Aleut language and cultural instruction. The city of Saint Paul on Saint Paul Island has the largest Aleut community on Earth. Out of a total population of 532 people, 457 of them are Alaska Natives. About 100 more people, almost all Aleuts, live on the other inhabited Pribilof Island, Saint George.

The City of Saint Paul, Saint Paul Island, the Pribilof Islands, Alaska, and its Russian Orthodox Church on a Rare Sunny Day

The City of Saint Paul, Saint Paul Island, the Pribilof Islands, Alaska, and its Russian Orthodox Church on a Rare Sunny Day

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The northern fur seals are the biggest of the 11 species of seals in the world. The males can weigh up to 650 pounds and are four to six times larger than females, which is probably the greatest size difference of any mammal.

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Coastal Brown Bears

October 17th, 2013 · No Comments

Enjoying nine weeks of an Alaskan summer without seeing the state’s coastal brown bears would have been unthinkable. I wanted to get up close to them and yet not too personal. I succeeded with the great help of Alaska Bear Adventures and their pilot-tour guide, Derick Broderman.

Only in Alaska can we expect to see bears with no bars or cars between us and them. This is as wild an experience as we can get, and my tour was a wonderful as they come.

I saw more than a dozen coastal brown bears, and some of them came quite close. These are the same species as the grizzly bears that live in inland Alaska. But coastal brown bears are bigger than grizzlies because they have a richer diet, especially salmon.

The most reliable places to find coastal brown bears are two of Alaska’s national parks, Katmai and Lake Clark. Both are across Cook Inlet from the Kenai Peninsula, where I stayed for five of my nine weeks in Alaska. Unlike the even larger Kodiak brown bear subspecies, we haven’t hunted them in Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks, which are the only places where we can with reasonable safety get out in the open with them. But bears have been scarce in Katmai recently. Alaska Bear Adventures flies to either of these parks depending on where more bears are hanging out.

So we went to Lake Clark National Park. No roads penetrate this wilderness, which people can reach only by plane or boat. I had never been to there before, so this trip boosted my total to 40 of our 58 national parks.

On my fifth trip to Homer I got there in a six-seater Cessna 206. I had the co-pilot’s seat, which gave me greater visibility and got this shot as we came in for a landing on the beach at Chinitna Bay of the Cook Inlet where Hook Creek and West Glacier Creek enter the bay.

One of Many Lakes in Lake Clark National Park

One of Many Lakes in Lake Clark National Park

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Not since I traveled to Somalia in November 1963 have I had the experience of landing and taking off from a beach. In neither case was I concerned, but both times we had to fly through clouds so thick that visibility was zero, which did concern me. While we were flying blind in Somalia, here in Alaska we were in radio contact with all the other planes in the area. But I didn’t know that until afterwards.

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Kachemak Bay

October 16th, 2013 · No Comments

Kachemak Bay is a 40 mile long arm of Alaska’s Cook Inlet on the southwest side of the Kenai Peninsula. My fourth trip to Homer took me there for a three-hour birding cruise with Bay Excursions Water Taxi and Tours. This is in fact just a local naturalist, Karl Stolfzus, his cell phone, and his boat. But Karl was a great guide.

When I left Wayne and Marveen’s home, the weather was sunny in line with the prediction for the day’s forecast. But soon after I set forth, clouds rolled in and totally obscured the sky. More than once I considered opting out of the tour, for which I hadn’t paid in advance, but when I took another look at the weather forecasts, no day in the immediate future promised to be any sunnier. So I proceeded.

Glad that I did. While the dim light made me boost the ISO to 3200 for almost all of my photos, my software removed the noise.

Karl’s boat was docked at Homer’s small boat harbor along with hundreds of other vessels, mostly fishing boats. Long known as the “halibut fishing capital of the world,” Homer is home to many fisherfolk.

With Karl steering and spotting, I went out into the bay with two couples, all dedicated birders. We saw a huge number and variety of birds and sea mammals, but the bird that I most wanted to see was a black oystercatcher, which I had never seen before.

A Black Oystercatcher Poses

A Black Oystercatcher Poses

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​I had seen surf scoters before. But I had never captured them in flight, and now I know why we call them surf scoters.

​Three Surf Scoters Make Their Own Surf

Three Surf Scoters Make Their Own Surf

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Homer

October 15th, 2013 · No Comments

When I stayed with my friends Marveen and Wayne at their home in Nikiski, Alaska, I often made the 95 mile drive to Homer at the southernmost point on the Kenai Peninsula that you can reach by road. I went there five times.

My first trip to Homer took me to the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Taking a short walk from the visitor center down the Beluga Slough Trail to Bishop’s Beach was a memorable experience. The sky was clear, the weather was warm, a slight breeze was blowing, and the marsh was shimmering in the sun as I talked with a couple from DC as we stood and watched a pair of greater sandhill cranes who had painted themselves with the orange mud. I told the tourists that after we get home they needed to remember this magical moment in our lives. Of course, I was really telling that to myself.

One of the Painted Sandhill Cranes near the Beluga Slough Trail

One of the Painted Sandhill Cranes near the Beluga Slough Trail

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At the visitor center itself I lucked out by meeting and becoming friends with two volunteers, Sue and her husband John. I happened to get to the center just before she was scheduled to lead a free birding tour of Homer that offered a great introduction to the area. Later, they invited me to a private tour. John drove us out East End Road up the bay where, at some place that I couldn’t begin to pinpoint, we got out and walked an animal track through really boggy ground to a lake. What a beautiful setting! By that I mean the total absence of any sign of human destruction of the land. We saw a pacific loon and a pair of trumpeter swans and three duck chicks (without their parents) on the lake. On the way back Sue and I lagged behind to photograph some beautiful Alaska flowers, including a Star Gentian that she subsequently identified for me.

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Anchor Point

October 14th, 2013 · No Comments

Anchor Point is just a stop along the way for people who drive to Homer at the end of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, if that. But I found some good reasons to go there several times.

And this isn’t the only great place to stop en route to Homer. Founded by Russian colonists in 1847, the town of Ninilchik, which is 58 miles from where my friends live in Nikiski and 24 miles before coming to Anchor Point, is also worth a visit for a taste of the Russian cultural heritage of Alaska. Some people in Ninilchik still speak the local dialect of Russian and worship in the local Russian Orthodox church, which their ancestors built 112 years ago. Across Cook Inlet from the church is the 10,000 foot volcano of Mount Iliamna.

The Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Chapel Is the Russian Orthodox Church in Ninilchik

The Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Chapel Is the Russian Orthodox Church in Ninilchik

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The first time I went to Anchor Point was because I wanted to be at the westernmost point in the North American highway system.

As Far West as We Can Drive on the North American Highway System

As Far West as We Can Drive on the North American Highway System

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Captain Cook State Recreation Area

October 13th, 2013 · No Comments

One day while I was visiting my friends Marveen and Wayne at their home near Nikiski, Alaska, I drove about 15 miles to the end of the road at Captain Cook State Recreation Area. I timed my arrival for low tide, the best time to walk on beaches. The tide was way out at minus 5.6 feet and, no one else was there, so I had plenty of room to roam.

Earlier, Marveen had taken me to the overlook, because she wanted to show me the rocks on the beach there. “The boulders, common to the area and called glacial erratics for their random placement across the landscape, were deposited by glaciers from the west side of Cook Inlet,” according to an article in the local newspaper. But that day wasn’t great for photography, so I needed to go back.

Mt. Spurr, an 11,000 Foot Volcano, Rises Across Cook Inlet from Glacial Erratics at Captain Cook State Recreation Area

Mt. Spurr, an 11,000 Foot Volcano, Rises Across Cook Inlet from Glacial Erratics at Captain Cook State Recreation Area

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About one and one-half miles down the beach I got as far as I could go. The mouth of the Swanson River blocked my way. But it attracted birds.

A Sandpiper Where the Swanson River and Cook Inlet Meet

A Sandpiper Where the Swanson River and Cook Inlet Meet

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Beaches turned out to be one of my favorite places on the Kenai Peninsula for hiking. They are one of the few places in Alaska where people are unlikely to surprise bears.

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The Kenai River

October 12th, 2013 · 2 Comments

After watching the dipnetters, who I wrote about in my previous post, I was in for another surprise. When I got back to Wayne and Marveen’s home, they wanted to go fishing too. But not at the mouth of the Kenai. Instead they prefer to put their boat in at Eagle Rock, about six miles upstream from the mouth of the Kenai in a straight line. But it’s about twice that distance as the river flows. Even that far from the river’s mouth, the Kenai is huge, far wider than any river in Colorado.

We arrived at the river after 8 p.m., which would have been far too late in Colorado, but the sun was still shining brightly even when we left after 10. While Marveen fished for a few minutes, she didn’t catch anything. That was partly because we spotted seven bald eagles and then several moose and took off after them and the other wildlife so I could take pictures.

Wayne and Marveen Put Their Boat into the Kenai

Wayne and Marveen Put Their Boat into the Kenai

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Loons

October 11th, 2013 · 2 Comments

Until Wayne and Marveen came to my rescue, I was almost ready to declare that loons were my nemesis birds. In vain I had tried again and again to get good photographs of them. Even when my friends drove me to five lakes close to their home where Wayne had seen loons, we didn’t find any.

Loons aren’t rare birds. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s main authority on the conservation status of species, says that all five living loon species have a conservation status of least concern.

For almost 40 years loons have been high on my mental list of birds that I wanted see. I still remember hearing their haunting calls one night in 1974 when I camped at a lake in the northern Wisconsin woods, but couldn’t see them. You can hear the​ir​ haunting wails​ on this Cornell Lab of Ornithology video, “Voices: Common Loon.

My first view of a loon was in Colorado, and that was through a spotting scope rather than my naked eyes. On this trip to Alaska ​I saw a common loon on Lake Louise in Canada and a pair of pacific loons on Rock Lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Reserve when Marveen took me there. But all of them were too far away even for my telephoto lens.

Trying to think like a loon, I went back to two lakes that Wayne had showed me and that I thought loons would like the most. Both of these lakes are partly covered by lily pads where the loons could make their nests. At Thetis Lake I briefly glimpsed one loon through my binoculars. And at Salamatof Lake I eventually got an acceptable photo of the male loon.

​A Loon Swims on Salamatof Lake

A Loon Swims on Salamatof Lake

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