Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Long Drive

I think Alaska wore my dad out today. Nine hours of driving has to take it out of you. We took the scenic Denali highway, which, if you haven’t heard of it, is a 135 mile gravel road between Denali and a small town called Paxson. The road is closed every winter because of deep snow and was only recently reopened for the year. Over the course of the trip we passed a total of 14 moving vehicles, most of them within the last 10 miles.

As we drove along, my dad and I talked about life and careers until he asked me a very good question, “Who have been your role models?”

I haven’t thought much about that before he asked me, and although I could not come up with a huge list of people who had influenced me in one way or another, I found that there were very few people that I considered to be role models. Among those people are my dad, both of my brothers, Ben Talmadge, and Colonel Brett Morris, and Wes Fondren. Those are the people that I try to model myself after. I am sure sure there are others too, but those are the people that really stand out to me.

Though the first third of the trip was rough, literally, things picked up a lot once we got back onto the paved road and on our way to Valdez. The view from the highway was incredible for most of the drive. Imposing snow capped mountains overlooked braided, glacier fed rivers as we worked our way down the road.

Pop Pop Loved to Fish

As we passed rivers with excellent fishing, my dad recounted stories of growing up and his father, pop pop. When he was a child, his family would go to Amacalola Falls every single summer for vacation. Because he had never been anywhere else for vacation, they were perfectly happy to go to the falls and just walk around year after year.

My grandfather loved to fish, and always wanted to go to Alaska, so while my dad was in graduate school, he took pop pop to Alaska on a fishing trip. As we passed over a bridge, my dad pointed out to me the very spot where he and pop pop camped on their trip, 26 years ago.

Glaciers, Oil, and a Freezing Cold Rain Forest

Gradually the wide open valleys and subsistence hunting lands narrowed into a high mountain pass where the roads were still walled in on each side with deep snow, and the bases of huge mountains were close enough to hit with a Frisbee.

We stopped at Worthington Glacier to climb on the tidy-bowl blue ice, and then began our decent toward Prince William Sound and the city of Valdez.

As we got lower the vegetation began to change from tundra and evergreen forest to a more tropical feeling birch forest. Here everything is green and wet, a huge change from the desert-like conditions of Denali. Valdez is known to get 340 inches of snow in a year, and because it is surrounded on three sides by snow covered mountains, it is sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of Alaska.

To get into the valley you must pass over Thompson Pass and down through a narrow ravine called K­­­eystone Canyon. The canyon is covered in beautiful waterfalls that feed into a glacial river with beautiful grey water. Because of the sediments that they pick up, many glacial streams and rivers are a milky grey or green color.

Beyond Keystone Canyon is the town of Valdez which is known for the Exxon Valdes oil spill in 1989, as well as a massive, 5 minute long, earthquake that scored a 9.2 on the Richter scale. Just outside of town we pulled into a little campsite with a $10 per vehicle per night fee.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Close Encounter

It is against the rules to approach with 25 yards of any animal in Denali National Park, with one exception. You cannot get within 300 yards of a grizzly bear. But what if the bear approaches you?

I found myself in this interesting predicament earlier this afternoon. As we sat atop a low bridge with off- duty ranger and photographer, Ken Conger, a lone grizzly bear slowly began to make its way in our direction.

For most of the afternoon, the bear had been in the same spot on the riverbed rooting around for roots and Eskimo potatoes. I never paid him much heed because he was too far away to make a good photo, around 300 yards away, which is the minimum distance that the park service allows you to be from a grizzly bear.

I was very excited as the bear ambled in our direction. Ken did not seem to be bothered by the bear’s approach, as he too was snapping away with his camera. Although he did tell me to stand up in case the bear decided to bluff charge us. As the minutes drew on, the bear came closer and closer, 200 yards, then 100 yards. As the bear got within about 60 yards of us, Ken decided that the bear was too close for comfort, so we made our way to the bus that had pulled to a stop on the bridge, and climbed on when the bear was just 20 yards away (within the 25 yard minimum specified for other more benign park species).

The Latin name for a grizzly bear is Ursus Horibillus (horrible bear). It is no wonder that grizzlies got that name as they are tremendously powerful and fast creatures. A grizzly can run 35 to 40 miles an hour. Though the diet of Denali grizzly bears is about 80% vegetarian, it is not uncommon for a bear to bluff charge an intruder into its large personal space. This is especially common when the bear has cubs.

In a bluff charge, the bear will run at you full speed and veer off at the last second. They will repeat this action over and over until they drive you off.

If you are being charged, you are supposed to talk calmly and slowly back away from the bear, never run. Though this seems like an unreasonable request to make of someone being threatened by a bear, I spoke with two park rangers who had been bluff charged by bears and stood their ground. The problem with a grizzly is that if you give it a reason to think you are prey or a serious threat, there is nothing that you can do about it attacking you except to play dead and hope that it loses interest.

Lock Up Your Bicycles

The grizzly is not the only threatening animal in the park. As me and my dad were about to hike in the Toklat region of the park, we read in a ranger office that a local wolf had been following bikers and chewing on their bikes as they sought shelter in buildings and vehicles.

To handle such problems the park rangers use a three tiered control system. The first tier is to harass the animal with noise to give it an appropriate fear of people. The second tier is to harass the animal with pain by shooting it with paint balls and bean bags. The third tier is to tranquilize the animal and move it to another area of the park. Denali does not use euthanasia except in an instance where the animal physically attacks people.

A Sheep With a Headache

One of my favorite things about Denali is that the park gives visitors great freedom to hike anywhere in the park (which has very few actual trails).

This morning, my dad and I took a shuttle bus about 50 miles into the park to a place called Toklat. It was during this ride that we saw some of the best wildlife that we have seen all trip. We got impressively close to bear, dall sheep, moose, caribou, and even a wolf. At the end of the ride, Dad and I disembarked from the shuttle bus and began our hike across a braided river bed, and up a mountain valley.

This valley is one of the first places I have ever been where it is possible to listen and not hear any human noise pollution. It was in this small valley that my dad found the remains of a freshly killed dall sheep. The hair, bits of bone, and the horns were all that remained of the goat, which was probably killed by a wolf that was seen in the area both yesterday and today.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bare Feet or Bear Feet?

“Puah, Puah, Hroom! Puah, Puah, Hroom!”
“What does Puah, Puah, Hroom mean Dad?”
“I don’t know, it’s just what came out.”
The icy river mercifully turned our bare feet numb as we crossed the longest of many shallow channels that wound their way through the glacial valley. We were near the completion of a three hour hike that had taken us within 300 yards of a family of grizzly bears, over a collection of arctic fox dens, and to the summit of a massive hill overlooking the serene savage river valley.
Master Builders

Earlier in the day we had hiked to horseshoe lake in search of a moose and her baby. We never found the moose, but we did find a system of three beautifully constructed beaver dams and a massive beaver lodge. Judging by the size of the tooth marks on the felled trees, these beavers must have been at least the size of a dog. The lake itself was not the only point of interest along the trail however.
About a mile up from the lake we ran across some people exploring the skeletal remains of a dead caribou. Denali has over 2,000 caribou in their herd. A number that is about to increase as it is now the beginning of calving season. Caribou are unique among dear in that the females of the species grow antlers like the males. In fact, some people confuse female caribou with males at certain times of the year because a pregnant female caribou will occasionally keep her antlers throughout the off season until her calf is born.
Mush! Mush!
Caribou, wolves, moose, and bear are certainly the most impressive animals of Denali, but today I learned about an animal which is attributed with having the most impact on the development of Alaska of any species except for humans…
“The Earth split in two, and man and beast were separated by a profound abyss, in the great chaos of creation. Birds insects and four-legged creatures sought to save themselves in flight. All but the dog. He alone stood at the edge of the abyss, barking, howling, pleading.
The man, moved by compassion, cried, “Come!”, and the dog hurled himself across the chasm to join them. Two front paws caught the far edge. The dog certainly would have been lost forever had the man not caught him and saved his life.”
--Inuit Myth
Alaskan huskies are not bred for consistent physical characteristics and do not all look the same. Instead they are bred for usefulness as work animals, with emphasis placed on traits such as strength, long legs, compact paws, temperament, and the willingness to work.
In a demonstration today, we learned about dogs and dog sleds, which are still actively used by Denali for winter patrols in areas where motorized vehicles are not allowed. The park keeps a kennel of about 30 dogs, all raised and trained at the park.
It was amazing to see the dogs in action as they pulled a sled on wheels around a long dirt road. Each dog is capable of pulling 100 pounds and travelling about 100 miles a day in ideal conditions. How awesome is it that God created an animal ideally suited to work with people in an environment like this, designed that animal to work well as part of a team, and gave that animal a natural inclination to want to be with humans.
My dad and I just talked about life purpose, ministry, and gifting. I wonder if the gifting that the L-rd has given me will make me equally suited to the task he has before me as the dogs are for the task set before them.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Moose in Time

***My Apologies for the delay in posting. I have limited internet access and will have less in Costa Rica. I will email the posts that I have written to my mom to be added every day or two***

The glowing green letters of the dashboard read 11:14. 11:14 PM in Alaska means 2:14 AM in Alabama, and even though it was still light outside, we were exhausted. I began to get frustrated as we drove further down the road looking for a free place to camp (it is legal to camp on the side of the road in Alaska). Every place we came to had a “no overnight camping” sign posted, and we were on the verge of giving up and driving back to Denali to try to find a site. Just as we rounded the final bend in the road, we drove up on two young male moose. All day we had been waiting to get a good look at a moose, and here were two, standing not even 50 feet from the road.

I have seen this same scenario plaid over time and again in my life. I will come to the verge of giving up, and just before I cannot go on any longer, the L-rd will reward my persistence. That speaks volumes to me about the character of G-d. He wants to push us to our limits, but if we are persistent then he will relieve us before or just after we can do no more.

Into the Wild

I took a little hike this afternoon. From a vantage point overlooking a river valley, my dad and I had spotted a small herd of caribou, and I naturally wanted to get a closer look. A little earlier in the day, we had heard about a bear sighting within a half mile of where I was headed, so I was more cautious than usual as I left the road side and began a short climb into a flat, marshy river valley.
I crept along the bottom of the valley toward a low hill that I was using to get my bearings. As I reached the first of many fingers of the river, I was startled by a hooting sound. I looked up to find a gorgeous ptarmigan chilling out underneath a bush beside the river.

I removed my boots, as I hiked through warm and cold branches of the river, across marshy fields, and over foot deep drifts of icy snow. I spotted the first caribou as I crested a low ridge, but I was never able to get within 150 yards of it. After about 30 minutes of pursuing this caribou, I gave up the chase and decided to turn back. I picked up my boots from the field where I had left them, and began hiking toward the RV.

Shortly after dad picked me up, we returned to our hilltop vantage point and he told me about the grizzly bear that had slowly been making its way down the valley in my direction. I never saw that grizzly, but later in the afternoon I spotted a sow (mama bear) and two cubs hiking upstream.

Top of North America

Mount McKinley is the highest point in North America, with its peak reaching a whopping 20,230 feet above sea level. It is one of the tallest mountains in the world from base to peak. It is also notorious for being shrouded in clouds and haze much of the time.

The Lord was full of blessings today, because when we arrived at the Mount McKinley southern overlook, we found the mountain standing tall and proud with clear skies all around it. McKinley holds a record in my books as being the subject of my first 600-megapixel image. I captured over 60 over-lapping images which I will attempt to make into one ultra-high resolution panorama when I get back to the Alabama.