Box 9021, Wilmington, DE 19809, USA
Phone: Toll-free in USA 1-888-721-3555
THE FOCUS ON NATURE TOUR IN ALASKA
a "Golden Bear" and Golden Eagle, a Big Mountain, and more"
Including a poem about Pine Grosbeaks and folktales about Wolves & Wolverines,
Ravens, and a Hawk and an Owl
Along with true-to-life tales of our times on the Kenai Peninsula,
and along the Dalton Highway and north of the Arctic Circle
During a boat-trip from Seward, during our June 2013 FONT Alaska Tour,
both the Horned Puffin (above),
and the Black-legged Kittiwake (below) were seen well.
Both were at the site where the opening scene of the movie,
"The Big Year" was filmed.
Lists of: Alaska Birds Alaska Mammals Alaska Butterflies & Moths
Alaska Wildflowers & some other Plants
Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in Alaska
The following narrative of the FONT June
tour in Alaska was
written by Armas Hill, the tour leader:
The "Golden Bear"
and the "Golden Eagle" referred to in the title of this
narrative were both seen during our June 2013 FONT
Alaska Tour during one afternoon far into the Denali
The Grizzly Bear (also known as the Brown Bear) in that area has a blondish look to it, that is due, it is said, to the long days in the summer with so much sunlight.
We watched one of those large, wild creatures digging up and eating some roots out of the ground. We watched it of course from windows in the safety of our vehicle. But what a sight.
The Golden Eagle had just been seen some minutes earlier when we were outside, as that large bird soared about in the sky above us.
We were truly in wild Alaska, a wonderful place to see and experience nature.
Also wonderful during our Alaska Tour in June 2013 was the weather.
Throughout our week-plus in Alaska, there were, continually, clear days with blue skies. The air was so clear that mountains miles away were seen well.
19 of the 20 mountains with the highest elevations in North America are in Alaska. We saw many snow-clad mountains during our time traveling about Alaska, either on land or as we flew in the air. Certainly we saw many of those 19 peaks.
Mountains in Alaska
(photographed in June 2013 by Mark Felber)
But one mountain there, of course, stands out from all the rest. Mount
McKinley, or Denali, is the
highest peak in North America, at 20,320 feet above sea level.
The base to peak rise of it is about 18,000 feet and so it is considered the largest of any mountain on Earth, situated entirely above sea level.
It is written that Mt. McKinley, or Denali, can be seen from both Anchorage and Fairbanks, cities that are over 360 miles apart.
And the mountain was seen from both, Anchorage and Fairbanks, during our tour.
At the beginning, it was visible from the airport in Anchorage, and later, near the end of our tour, it was seen from Fairbanks. In both cases, the big mountain was about 200 miles away.
As we traveled in our vehicle from Anchorage toward the Denali National Park, we stopped at a place in the Denali State Park, said to provide the best view of the mountain.
That clear afternoon, as Violet-green Swallows were flying about above us, we had a tremendous view of the mountain. We could see all there was to be seen. In our binoculars, to repeat, tremendous, but even so, still, the mountain was nearly 50 miles from us.
We had hoped for, but weren't expecting such a sight because mountains create weather, and particularly clouds, and so many people (both locals and visitors) say that most days (actually many days) the mountain can not be seen, but simply imagined.
But even though our view of the mountain in the state park was so very good, a look that would even be better was yet to come.
On the last day of our tour, we flew in a small plane from Fairbanks to Anchorage.
Upon entering the plane for our scheduled flight, we simply asked the pilot and co-pilot to point out Denali as we would fly by. We were not expecting that they would detour during another superbly clear day to be closer to the mountain, but that they did. And even more than that, they flew a complete circle around the mountain.
Looking below, we could see the base camp. As the plane was at an elevation of about 20 to 21 thousand feet in the air, as we looked directly out the window, we were at the level of the summit.
We were looking, when it was crystal clear, at the highest summit in North America and, as noted earlier, the largest mountain on Earth.
The only way we could have been closer would have been to climb it, and that, honestly, we had never planned to do.
The mountain was truly big. The plane, in which we traveled, on the other hand, was small. In it, there was single seating on the each side of an aisle in which even shorter people had be bend down as they walked.
As I looked away from the window and the mountain outside, and up the aisle in the plane, I saw through an open door (yes, an open door), both the pilot and co-pilot not looking ahead, but also, both of them, looking to their right with admiration at the mountain.
Among the 10 or so other passengers on the plane, two in seats in front of me, were Alaskans, but they had never so seen "the mountain".
What an experience Denali gave us again, as we were near the end of our wonderful tour.
And, yes the pilots did look ahead, and we landed, later that afternoon, safely in Anchorage, before continuing on our flights home from Alaska.
No, here we're not "going home" yet as there is more yet to tell about our tour in Alaska, prior to that last day. Please read on.
You've noticed surely, in what I've written already, that I've referred to "the mountain" with two names, "Mt. McKinley" and "Denali".
And actually there's been another:
In the 1800s, Russian explorers and traders called it "Bolshala Gora", or "Big Mountain".
The Athabascan Indians, of the region where the mountain is located, gave it the name "Denali" meaning "the High One".
In 1896, a gold prospector in Alaska, William Dickey, named the mountain for the then US presidential nominee William McKinley of Ohio. McKinley strongly advocated the "gold standard" and was thus popular with the miners and prospectors. At that time, of course, Alaska was a US territory. It was not a US state until 1959.
William McKinley, otherwise, it might be noted, had no connection with Alaska, and was never in the territory.
In 1980, the name of the national park was officially changed to "Denali", and the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain back to that native Athabascan name as well.
But, to this day, in Washington DC, according to the US Board of Geographic Names. it is still Mount McKinley.
As with the mountain, the Alaskan city of Fairbanks, that I've referred to earlier, is named after someone who never was in Alaska: Charles Fairbanks.
In 1902, a district court judge, James Wickersham, suggested (strongly, and successfully) that the small town, as it was then, be named after Mr. Fairbanks who was then a US senator from Indiana, and would later be the Vice President of the United States under Theodore Roosevelt.
And so it was that a notable Alaskan mountain was named after a man who would be a US President, and a notable Alaskan city after a man who would be a US Vice President. And neither of them, as noted, ever entered Alaska.
But I'm so glad that we did, again, in 2013, for what was the 8th FONT birding & nature tour in the state, and the tour during which we saw that "big mountain", Denali or McKinley, for us better than ever.
During our June 2013 tour, we visited some wonderful places, in addition to Fairbanks and Denali, and more about them, and what we saw at those places, will follow here.
First, though, a final note about the Denali National Park, in central Alaska. Simply put, It is big. To give it a number, it is 6 million acres, the size of the US state of New Hampshire, making Denali the 3rd largest US national park. Approximately 2,000 seasonal workers come to Denali in the summer, to cater to the tourists who come to the area of the rather heavily-visited park.
Actually the 5 largest US national parks are all in Alaska, and during the FONT June 2013 Alaska Tour somehow we managed to enter (although barely) the 3 largest.
The two, other than Denali, are not "heavily-visited".
The largest is the Wrangell - St. Elias National Park, that when we were there, we were told by a ranger that the park is larger than Switzerland and with "mountains that are higher". The size of that park is 13.2 million acres, of which 9.7 acres is designated as "wilderness".
In northern Alaska, along the upper Dalton Highway, the Gates of the Arctic National Park was entered during our tour, in the Brooks Range. That park is the second largest of the US national parks.
In the Denali National Park, we saw all four of the mammals referred to as "the big four".
In addition to the Grizzly Bear already mentioned, we saw the others in the foursome, with multiple Moose, Barren Ground Caribou, and Dall's Sheep.
in the Denali National Park
(photographed in June 2013 by Mark Felber)
We did not see the other mammal that hoped for there, the Timber Wolf.
Seeing it, in Denali, requires some good luck. There are only a few in that park
the size of New Hampshire. We were told by a park ranger that in 2013 there were
49 wolves in the park, in 11 packs, with a mean pack-size of 4.5 animals. The
previous year, in 2012, there were 70 wolves, in 9 packs, with a mean pack-size
if 7.8 animals.
As to birds at Denali, in addition to the Golden Eagle already mentioned, we enjoyed there good looks at the Willow Ptarmigan, the state bird of Alaska. During our best look, one was perched atop a bush, close to us, where it posed nicely for quite a while.
In the small town near the Wrangell - St. Elias National Park, we awoke in the morning to an Alder Flycatcher calling outside the window, where also Boreal Chickadee and Gray Jay were both flying about.
The previous night, when we had arrived at the hotel, we were immediately told of a "songbird invasion" that had recently occurred in the small town, and in fact was written about in the local paper, the "Copper River Record".
That "invasion" actually referred to a fallout that coincidentally coincided with local bird observations as part of the "International Migratory Bird Day" in mid-May.
The bird fallout occurred in conjunction with an odd weather pattern. Birds that were going further north to their breeding grounds came down into the small town.
As many as 11,122 birds were counted there during the 2013 International Migratory Bird Day. That was more than twice as many as had been counted during the previous high, in 2006. That previous high was 4,467 individual birds.
But, in 2013, there were even more individuals than that of a single species, the most abundant species, the Lapland Longspur, with 5,928 of them. In 2006, there were 971 Lapland Longspurs.
In 2013, the nearly 6,000 Lapland Longspurs, and the other birds, stayed around for about a week.
Below: one of the nearly 6,000 Lapland Longspurs during the 2013 International Migratory Bird Day in the area of Glenallen, Alaska, in a photograph in the local newspaper
After the longspurs, the most common species in town during the 2013 fallout
Green-winged Teal, with 703 individuals
American Wigeon: 592
Northern Pintail: 421
White-crowned Sparrow: 236
Varied Thrush: 146.
Oddly, in 2013, American Robins had their lowest count since 2003 with only 172. And no-shows included: Red-breasted Nuthatch, Common and Pacific Loons, and Downy Woodpecker.
For the first-time, however, there was, that day, a Mountain Bluebird, a Gray-cheeked Thrush, a female Red Crossbill, and 3 Pine Siskins.
Nearly all of these species we saw somewhere during our June 2013 Alaska Tour, some numerously.
But also in that small Alaskan town we were most fortunate to meet the author of the article about the birds in the local newspaper.
She's a woman named Althea who has lived in Alaska for many years. We were kindly invited to the home of she and her husband Ken, who even more kindly provided us with delicious coffee and cookies as we waited inside their living room for some Pine Grosbeaks that they thought might appear at the feeder outside the window. And one did appear, a female Pine Grosbeak, that made the already-good cookies and coffee even better. As good as they were, it was the hospitality we experienced that was best, as we looked over Alaskan bird books, and we were given copies of photographs of some birds that had visited Althea and Ken's feeders outside their window, prior to our visit.
We were told that the female Pine Grosbeak we saw was one of the nesting pair on the property. We were also told that Pine Grosbeaks were more common at the feeder in the winter, when, we were also told, the thermometer outside the window could indicate a temperature as low as 62 degrees below zero. And that's an actual temperature, not a wind chill.
Althea could tell us a lot about the Pine Grosbeaks she has observed over the years. The females, she said, could be dominant. The more colorful males could be deferent.
And then, after leaving us for a moment, she came back with a poem that she had written about the Pine Grosbeak. In it, she alluded to the dominance and deference.
The poem was read to us, and copies given to us. Here, now, it is shared with you:
by Althea Hughes
Today I watched Pine Grosbeaks
Outside my sewing window
She with burnished golden head
He in northland's splendid red
in synchronous perfection
Welcome change from winter's chill
seeds of spruce
Outside my sewing window
She intent on dominance
He hangs back in deference
Vernal urges in the wings
seeds of spruce
Outside my sewing window.
Outside the other large picture window in the house, there was a beautiful view of one of the 19 highest mountains in North America, a snow-covered peak in the distance.
Going, here, from Althea to Ava, we were at another home with bird feeders near Seward, in southern Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula, where one morning at a string of four bird feeders on a porch railing, there was a Pine Grosbeak at each.
We had gone to Ava's place particularly for her hummingbird feeders, where we did see both male and female Rufous Hummingbirds. The adult male was a brilliant jewel.
The coastal town of Seward has about 2,000 year-round residents. It's history goes back a bit, by Alaskan standards. to 1903.
We stayed in a nice, historic hotel that, we were told, goes back almost as far, to 1905. (Of course, the rooms are newer than that!)
A US president, who did visit Alaska, Warren G. Harding, was in Seward in July 1923, where he boarded a vessel to head back home. But he never made it back to Washington DC, alive that is. He died during the journey.
Surrounded by what is called a "temperate rain forest", Seward receives an annual precipitation of 67 inches. Most often, it is cloudy there. But, still, during our tour, the clear blue sky continued, even in Seward!
The river that flows by Ava's house is the Resurrection River that comes from a glacier that's part of the large Harding Icefield (named after President Harding) up in the mountains. It flows into the large Resurrection Bay.
We took a boat-trip in that bay during which along the coast, and by islands, and on the open water, we saw some wonderful nature:
A Humpback Whale was nicely seen, humping its back and then raising its flukes before it dove. We saw it do that a few times, and also we watched it swim along the surface of the water.
Sea Otters were seen frolicking in the water, and in their characteristic pose on their backs.
Steller's Sea Lions, including some huge males, were seen on coastal rocks.
Harbor Seals were seen, including a mother and a young one.
A Harbor Porpoise was observed at the surface of the sea, and, a few times, pods of Dall's Porpoises were seen moving quickly, in and above the water.
Among the birds at coastal cliffs, and on the nearby water and sky, there were many Black-legged Kittiwakes and Common Murres. Their colonies were noisy, but even they had been quiet they would have kept our attention, as the birds at their nests and those flying about were fun to watch.
Although the murres were "common" on the cliffs, they were even more numerous in grouping after grouping on the water, sitting and then flying. Being there, for us, was a wonderful "birder's experience".
Also, two species of Puffins, the Horned and the Tufted, were seen nicely.
And yet other birds included Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants, Pigeon Guillemots (with their bright red feet), Cassin's Auklets, Parasitic Jaegers, Glaucous-winged Gulls, a single Slaty-backed Gull, and along the coast, Bald Eagles and Harlequin Ducks.
And there was yet another alcid, different than the others, the Marbled Murrelet. Unlike others in that family, it does not nest in along the coast, but rather high up in coniferous trees.
There's a fine book about this species, now classified as "vulnerable" by Birdlife International. entitled "Rare Bird - Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet" by Maria Mudd Ruth, published in 2006. Maria Mudd Ruth is the daughter of the former CBS newscaster Roger Mudd.
The "mystery" was where the bird nested, as noted in the forest, high in the treetops. It was the last North American bird nest to be discovered, in 1974.
And the Seward area even gave us more during our tour. A pair of Wandering Tattlers along the rocky coast didn't wander too much from one evening to the next, when they returned to the same spot where they had been found the previously.
Colorful were the Harlequin drakes also along that coast.
Inland, near the glacier, up on a high slope, a mother Brown Bear and her two cubs were seen. Also there, further up, another mammal, the Hoary Marmot, was on the rocks.
By the highway, just outside Seward, a pair of Bald Eagles were at their big nest. As the bear had cubs, they were about to have eaglets, also adding some new nature onto the Alaskan scene in 2013.
A few days earlier, at a place called Eagle River, we had seen salmon fry, like minnows, swimming in clear fresh water, another addition of new nature onto the Alaskan scene for the year. Fry is the stage in the salmon's life between alevin and smolt.
Back near Seward, in a forest, Varied Thrushes flew across a road as we drove, while among the trees on the forest floor, a close Sooty Fox Sparrow continuously did a shuffle with its feet in the leaf litter, much like that done by a Towhee.
At the end of our full day of birds and other nature in Seward, we enjoyed one of our many good dinners during the tour, with delicious King Salmon. Referring again to salmon, there are 5 species in Alaskan waters: the Pink Salmon, Chum Salmon, Coho Salmon, Sockeye Salmon, and the Chinook, also known as King Salmon.
Having already covered here central & southern Alaska, it's time now to go to the last region to be referred to in this narrative, northern Alaska - way north!
From Fairbanks, we went north to drive the Dalton Highway, described as "one of the most unusual highways in the US, and one of the most remote and challenging".
It parallels the northern portion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. It is because of the pipeline that the road is there. The pipeline was constructed between 1974 and 1977. Construction of the road began on April 29, 1974 and it was completed, incredibly 5 months later.
It is about 500 miles, along the road, one way from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, located by the Arctic Ocean and Prudoe Bay.
Services (gas & food) are few and far between. Mostly, such things are non-existent. At generally only 3 places along the highway can fuel, food, or overnight lodging be had. Along the northern sector of the road, the distance between services is 240 miles.
The highest point along the highway is the Atigun Pass, at 4,800 feet above sea level in Brooks Range. It is the highest pass accessible by road in Alaska.
Traveling the Dalton Highway, we crossed the Yukon River. The Yukon is a major river, nearly 2,000 (1,980) miles long. Its drainage area, in Alaska and far-western Canada, is 321,500 square miles.
In the Central Yupík language of the locals, it is called "Kuigpak", meaning simply the "Big River". The word "Yukon" means "Great River" in Gwich'in, another native language.
We crossed the Yukon on the one and only bridge over the river in Alaska.
On the north side of the Yukon, we stopped at a place with services, and ate a freshly-made rhubarb pie that was superb,
We walked and saw some wildflowers, including Bluebells, and our first Alaska Cotton, a sedge. We were to fields of it further north.
A butterfly of the north was seen, a Red-disked Alpine.
At a small store, I asked a man if he know a place, among the miles of spruce trees, where a Hawk Owl might be found. He said he did - "at his home", and he proceeded to show me a photograph.
It was a nice photograph, but of a Boreal Owl.
He also said that if he were to take us on a boat down the Yukon, we would see "many birds". Possibly so, but our time was tight and "further north" was beckoning, so neither to his home in quest of the owl, nor on the river, could we go.
We did go across the road to a small visitor information center, where we met a nice white-haired lady, from Ohio, who was there as a volunteer for her third summer. We learned that she cried the previous year when she went back to Cleveland in the fall. Nothing here against Cleveland, but that's what she said.
She also told us of a couple Sandhill Cranes that she recently had seen, just north of there, at the "airport", and of a Bohemian Waxwing that she had seen, not long previously, by a roadside pond. We would pass it, as there was only one road.
Well, we didn't see the Sandhill Cranes, and actually we almost didn't even see the "airport", as it was but a narrow strip of grass along the shoulder of the road. It didn't even have a wind socket.
Didn't see any waxwing either, so, it, the cranes, the owl, and also the wolf that we were told could cross the road (as it had), or the wolverine that could be by the side of it (as it was), were all to be creatures of our imagination in that wild land.
Further north, we stopped at a high, rocky knoll called Finger Mountain, where we saw some interesting alpine, or tundra plants, and a few butterflies including Western Tailed Blue and Mourning Cloak, not far south of the Arctic Circle.
We didn't see any of the birds there that were illustrated on the informative signs along the trail, but there was a nice Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow on a bush in the rocks that continuously proclaimed its territory with its song.
Next, we crossed the Arctic Circle. There are not many places in the world where one can drive to, and then drive across the Arctic Circle at the northern latitude 66 degrees 33'.
Perhaps in northern Norway, one can. In Iceland, one can't (but it can be crossed there on a ferry boat off the northern coast). Probably nowhere can it be done in Canada, and nowhere else in Alaska.
We posed for photos by a sign indicating where we were.
Two of us, on the tour, at the Arctic Circle,
Ray Hendrick (left), and Armas Hill (right)
A month and a half earlier, during a FONT tour in
Ecuador, we crossed the Equator
(0 degrees latitude) high in the Andes. Our bird there, "on the imaginary
line" was the Rufous-collared Sparrow.
During a previous FONT tour on the Equator in the mountains of Ecuador, we saw a Peregrine Falcon fly from one hemisphere to another.
At the Arctic Circle, in June 2013 in Alaska, the bird we found was an American Robin.
Not notable, one might say, but actually the species is, if for the reason that it is one of the very few birds that can be found, usually commonly, but sometimes seasonally, in all 49 of the US states on the North American continent.
About 160 species of birds have been noted along the Dalton Highway. We kept a list of those we saw, with a special notation of those found north of the Arctic Circle.
We ate dinner and slept at a place called Coldfoot (at the "inn"). As we were in line there to get our food at the buffet, we learned that the talkative man next to us was a gold-miner who came in to the place for a bite to eat. Afterwards, he left with a large sack over his shoulder, to go back to the camp, somewhere out in the wilderness.
Armas Hill at Coldfoot, north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska
North of the Arctic Circle, in that part of Alaska, sparrows include the American
Tree Sparrow, the Red Fox Sparrow, the Savannah Sparrow,
and the Lincoln's Sparrow, but in the morning at Coldfoot
we heard a sound that made our heads turn. In clear view, a Chipping Sparrow
A look at the book showed that we were way north of the species' geographic range.
And so we thought that somewhere there had to be the "northernmost Chipping Sparrow", and that may well have been it.
When we were in Coldfoot, we were smack in the region referred to in a classic book that was written back in 1933.
The book was entitled "Arctic Village", and the author was a forester who visited the region fours times during his short life. His name was Robert Marshall.
At the time when he wrote the book, Marshall was the head forester in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In 1935, he was one of the founders of the Wilderness Society.
In 1937, he was the Chief of the Division of Lands for the U.S. Forest Service.
In 1939, at the young age of 38, he died of a heart attack, while back in the eastern United States, while on train between New York City and Washington DC.
Shortly afterwards, the Robert Marshall Wilderness Area in Montana, with nearly one million acres, was named in his honor.
"Arctic Village" was described, in 1933, as "one of the great books that had come out in America".
The artist Rockwell Kent said that "it moved him more than any book that he had read in years".
The "Arctic Village", referred to in the title of the Marshall's book, was a place called Wiseman.
The region in the book is that drained by the Koyukuk River.
What Robert Marshall did, according the introduction in his book, was, in 1929, to look at a map - of Alaska, where he particularly noted two really large sections that were uncharted.
One was southwest of Mt. McKinley, and the other at the headwaters of the Koyukuk River, north of the Arctic Circle. Although he said Mt. McKinley was a great temptation, Marshall opted to go to area of the Koyukuk, for his first of the four visits. During that visit, he stayed there for 15 months.
That year, in 1929, Wiseman was an isolated mining camp by the middle fork of the Koyukuk River in the southern part of the Brooks Range.
It was 90 miles from the nearest church, 150 miles from the nearest doctor, and 200 air miles to the nearest railroad, automobile, or electric light.
And, at that time, there was no road either to, or anywhere near, Wiseman.
The drainage of the Koyukuk River embraces about 15,000 square miles. While that territory is not large when blocked out on a map of Alaska, that drainage of a river not well known is as large as the combined US states of New Jersey and Massachusetts.
But, whereas when Marshall wrote his book, those two states had a combined population of 8,290,948 people, the total number of people in the upper Koyukuk was 127.
Of them, 77 were white, 44 were "Eskimo", and 6 were "Indian".
Following the time of the gold rush of 1898, when the white population of the region was 200 people, it rose to 350 in 1902. By 1929, it had fallen to 83, and in 1931 it was down to 71,
I was told when I was in Coldfoot that the number of residents in Wiseman is now 15 (even though, now, since the 1970s, it can be reached by road).
That small village of Wiseman is about a dozen miles north of Coldfoot, and I wanted to see the place. So, after dinner, I drove there, following the road by the Koyukuk River, to it.
It's a small settlement of scattered homes. I didn't linger, as obviously I was an outsider, at about 10pm.
And there was a sign at the beginning "of town" saying it best to respect the local residents and their land.
But I did take notice of one place in town with multiple signs, with one reading "so many thousand miles to Whitehorse", and another "so many hundred miles to Deadhorse", and a third that read "so many feet to our horse".
So I concluded that someone has a sense of humor.
But upon thinking about it later, I realized that I never actually saw a horse, and more interestingly, during my entire time in Alaska, I never saw any farm animal at all, along the many miles of roads traveled. Wild animals, yes, but horses, cows, or sheep, no.
Back before the road, and when Robert Marshall visited and wrote his book, transportation to and from Wiseman depended upon the season.
During the 7 months of winter, from when the rivers freeze in October to when the snow melts and the ice thaws in May, there was only one definite form of transportation, the dog team.
During the 3 months of summer, there were a few modes of transportation when the rivers were ice free.
But during the single month transition season of spring and fall, there was no transportation at all (for those with sanity).
When we were in Fairbanks, a couple evenings earlier, we noted in the local newspaper on June 11th that the sunrise in Fairbanks that day was at 3:07am, and that the sunset was at 12:36am, making the length of the day with the sun above the horizon as 21 hours and 29 minutes.
4 minutes would be gained there each day until the summer solstice, ten days later.
However, it never got dark, on June 11th, with what they call "civil twilight" lasting 24 hours.
Fairbanks, as has been noted, is south of the Arctic Circle.
Wiseman is one degree north of the Arctic Circle.
As one travels north from the Arctic Circle, there is a constant increase in the number of sunless days in the winter, as well an increase of the days of "midnight sun" in the summer.
This, as we may have learned years ago in school, is due to the Earth's axis being tilted at an angle of 23 degrees from a perpendicular to its orbit.
What that means for the residents in Wiseman is that there are 31 consecutive days, from December 7 to January 6, when the sun can never be seen. That is due, also in part, to a 3,000 ft. mountain that hides the sun when it rises only several degrees above the horizon.
Conversely, in Wiseman, for four and half consecutive months, from April 15 to August 28, there is always some light in the sky.
From Wiseman, I continued to drive north. following the road along the Koyukuk River. After all, at 11pm, it was still very bright.
Not only did I experience the "midnight sun", but as I drove northwest from about 12 o'clock to 12:20am, the visor was down with what I called "midnight sunglare".
That "night" for me, I can say never got dark.
After 12:30am or so, the sun was still shining brightly on the snow on the upper reaches of the mountains around me.
And by 2:30am or so, the rising sun was beaming into my rear view mirror, from behind me, as I headed back south toward Coldfoot.
At midnight, I stopped the vehicle, got out, and looked over the valley of the Koyukuk River. The water of the river was rushing, with large slabs of white and blue ice on the sides.
On the top of a spruce tree, there was a bird. No, not a Hawk Owl, as for days I had hoped to see, but a shorebird. Its call carried far, as apart from the water of the river, there was no other sound. The bird was a Lesser Yellowlegs, atop a conifer much as we saw Snipe earlier during the tour. They called loudly as well.
I had been told, gain, that during the wee hours from about 10pm to 2am, there would be a fair chance to see an animal as I traveled the road. Sadly, I did not.
I know that wolves and wolverines are both in the area where I was. I wonder of any saw me, or the vehicle I drove.
But, for me, being where I was, it was good, I said to myself, just to be where those wild animals were.
As so I was content, as I drove back to get some sleep, to think of the Alaskan native story entitled "The Wolf and Wolverine".
That tale, legend has it, was first told by an elder in Seward. It is similar to the Western story of the race between the tortoise and the hare. Like it, the story instructs against being too proud or boastful.
THE WOLF AND WOLVERINE (An Alaskan Folktale)
The Wolf was the fastest animal in the forest and he was always boasting how no other animal could run faster than he.
He was always bragging how much faster he was than the Wolverine because the Wolverine's legs were so short.
One day, the Wolverine became tired of the insults and challenged the Wolf to a race,
"We will run up to the top of the mountain and then back down", said the Wolverine. "Whoever reaches the bottom first, wins."
The Wolf laughed, knowing that he would easily outrun the short-legged Wolverine. But the Wolverine had a plan and knew that he would win, so he made a bet with the Wolf.
"If I win, then you must bring me food to eat for the rest of the summer", he said to the bragging wolf.
The wolf accepted the bet because he knew he would never lose to the Wolverine. "You are too slow to beat me", replied the Wolf. "But I will race you just to show who is faster".
As the two lined up to start the race, the other animals of the forest stood by and watched. Not one of them thought that the Wolverine would win, but they cheered him on anyhow because they were all tired of hearing the wolf brag about how fast he was,
When the race began, both animals ran up the mountain. with his longer legs, the Wolf ran with ease, while the Wolverine had to work hard because of his short legs.
The Wolf reached the top and turned around to look down. The Wolverine was a long way away, and the Wolf laughed at him. "You are too slow, Short Legs. You might as well give up now", he said taunting the poor, tired Wolverine.
Just as the Wolverine reached the top, the Wolf laughed at him once more and started down the mountain thinking how the Wolverine would have to bring him food for the rest of the summer.
But when Short Legs reached the top, he quickly rolled himself into a furry ball and started rolling down the mountain. Just as a round rock rolls quickly down a hill, so too did the Wolverine.
He rolled faster and faster until he passed the surprised wolf and won the race!
The Wolf was very tired. All of the animals laughed at him because the Wolverine had beaten him. For the rest of the summer they all laughed at the Wolf who had to bring food to the Wolverine because he had beaten him in the race.
The mammals in the tale above, although not found by us in 2013, will be another time - maybe during our next tour we'll be overnight in Wiseman. We may, with some good fortune, either hear Wolves howl, or see one or more, when we're in that area.
While neither Wolf nor Wolverine were seen during the late-night drive in the midnight sunlight, that's been referred to, during this tour, a Wheatear was.
North of Wiseman along the Dalton Highway, two peaks flank the north fork of the Kayukuk River in the Brooks Range, as the ascent begins in the Atigun Pass.
That place was called the "gateway to the Arctic" by Robert Marshall, and now the name continues for the Gateway of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in that area.
Ant that's where the male Northern Wheatear was, at 1:15am, singing its song, as it perched by the road on milepost 244.
As I sat in the vehicle, with the window down, next to the Wheatear, enjoying the sight and the sound of it with the backdrop of snow in the mountains, I thought of how that bird had come such a very long way to be there, from Africa. Yes, Africa!
We had come a long way to be in Alaska from places such as Delaware and Pennsylvania, but that small, singing bird had come further. It had migrated across Asia (vast enough), but the subspecies of the Northern Wheatear that's in Alaska in the summer to nest winters on the savannas of northern and eastern Africa.
A number of avian summer visitors in Alaska go a long way to get there.
The Arctic Warbler, also found that same night as the Wheatear, came to the low willows that it favors from its wintering grounds in the Philippines and Indonesia.
The Bluethroats, further along the road, also come from southeast Asia.
The Cliff Swallows, that build their nests on the buildings at Coldfoot and on the bridges along the Dalton Highway, and even on the structure of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, come from as far as Argentina.
The Blackpoll Warbler, seen earlier during our tour, came, quite likely, from southern Brazil.
The Arctic Tern, that we saw various places, is probably the biggest traveler of all, coming from and going to, outside its breeding season, the far side, of the globe in waters off Antarctica.
The little Rufous Hummingbirds that nest in southern Alaska, and that we saw in Seward, migrate south to Mexico, but with those hummingbirds, who knows .... A Rufous Hummingbird that was banded in Tallahassee, Florida in January 2011 was recaptured the following July in Chenega Bay, Alaska. That's a straight-line distance of more than 3,500 miles.
A bird that does not leave Alaska for distant places is the Raven. Seen throughout the tour, it certainly provides one of the characteristic sights and sounds of the Alaskan wilderness.
We saw it in settings as varied as by a caribou roadkill along a highway (the Parks Highway, not the Dalton Highway), and at a parking lot of a fast food restaurant (where we stopped for a coffee, not a meal) in Fairbanks.
For a number of reasons, including its "smartness" and its presence all-year, even in the depths of winter, no bird figures more than the Raven in Alaskan folklore. It is the principal character in many native tales. A couple such fables follow here.
And with these, this narrative ends. So much can be said about the birds and other nature in Alaska, but now, no more, other than to say that during our June 2013 FONT Alaska Tour we had a wonderful time!
HOW THE RAVEN BROUGHT FIRE (a Tlingit tale)
A very long time ago, Raven, while flying, saw something floating on the water. He looked at it and thought that it looked like fire and so he flew close to it and saw that it was a burning branch.
Raven called all of the birds and they gathered on the shore to listen to the great Raven speak.
"one of you must fly out there and bring that fire to me", said the Raven.
He looked at all the birds and chose the hawk to get the fire because in those days hawks had long bills.
"Fly out there and bring the branch to me, and if it is hot do not let it go", he told Hawk.
So Hawk flew out to the firebrand on the water and grabbed it in his long bill. Then he started to fly back to where Raven and the other birds were gathered.
By the time he got back, the hot fire had burned his bill down to nearly nothing. Only a little beak was left. That is why hawks have a short beak today.
RAVEN AND OWL (another Tlingit myth)
Once Raven was very white like the snow on the tundra and so was Owl. One day, while sitting on a rock looking for rabbits, Raven flew down and landed beside the white Owl.
They had known each other for a very long time and were always challenging one another to see which was the strongest. Raven sat down on the rock nest to his old friend.
"Let's wrestle", said Raven.
"I do not want to fight you today", answered Owl.
But the white raven did not listen.
"Let's wrestle", he repeated.
"I do not want to wrestle. I do not feel like it today", replied the white owl.
But Raven still would not listen and started to wrestle with the unwilling Owl.
They rolled around on the ground and when Owl saw a mud puddle, he pushed Raven into it. The black mud covered his entire body. No white remained at all! Raven was very mad because he was so muddy and because Owl had pushed him in.
"Friend Owl", said the mischievous bird, "give me a hand so that I can get out of this mud hole".
But the white owl was wise to the Raven's tricks and deceits.
"No", he said. "You are the one who started the fight. I said that I didn't want to wrestle today".
Raven thought for a minute and then said "Friend, if you help me out I will give you half of my possessions".
So owl reached down and pulled Raven out of the thick, black mud. Raven was still covered from head to foot and he was no longer white like the snow.
As soon as he was out, the black bird shook his feathers and mud flew all over the place. Some of it splattered on Owl's white feathers, leaving him spotted with small back specks.
To this day, ravens are entirely black and owls are spotted.
Top of Page