Camping in Kachemak Bay State Park

Camping in Kachemak Bay State Park

In early June of 2000 I spent four days packing and camping in Kachemak Bay SP which is across Kachemak Bay from Homer and is accessible only by water or air. Black bears were frequently seen which required me to store my supplies in a BRFC (Bear Resistant Food Container) which I chose to hang from some trees (see orange cylinder in roughly center screen). I set up my tent to give some scale to the image; once I finished I moved it about 60 yards away as under these circumstances it would not be wise to camp so close to one’s food!

Tongass National Forest Campsite

Tongass National Forest Campsite

I’ll never forget this image as it was the first real look I had at Lake Mendenhall, the Mendenhall Glacier and the Mendenhall Towers from my first campsite on my first trip to Alaska. Although the visit took place in very early September which is almost always cloudy and rainy we had 3.5 days of clear, warm weather out of our 4 day stay; it was almost as if Alaska was smiling on us! Once we left the panhandle we moved on to south central Alaska and I was soon to see my future home…

Darkness, darkness…

Anyone with even a modicum of understanding regarding the geometry of our planet with respect to our star knows that we see our seasonal procession based upon the tilt of the earth in relation to the sun.  Given our planet is roughly spherical and the fact that we are inclined around 15 degrees its also no surprise that both seasonal differences and the amount of light and dark variation are much less at the equator and increases incrementally the further one moves towards the poles.  Virtually everyone knows the far northern sections of Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland are referred to as lands ‘of the Midnight Sun’ but this could be said of almost any country with land that is beyond 60 degrees north or south latitude.  Of course there is the fabled ‘other side of the coin’ regarding these long periods of daylight and the northern hemisphere is now well on its way into such a period.

I knew I’d see much larger extremes in terms of both light and darkness as the seasons progress living at 62.27 degrees north latitude; for determining the extent of these values the internet is indeed a most useful tool.  Even with my own research and exposure to the long periods of daylight during a couple of spring Alaskan trips back in the early 2000’s I’m finding I’m still both startled and impressed with the rapidity with which these changes take effect.  This morning it was not even light enough outside to see the trees in my yard until 08:36 AKDT!  Sure, its overcast – of late all I can say is ‘what else is new..?’ – and that does block the light to some extent but even as I type this at 09:17 AKDT I can look to the east and not yet see the light spot created by the sun as it crosses the horizon.  Talkeetna is now seeing just 9.2 hours of daylight but perhaps the fact that just impresses me no end is we continue to lose 5 minutes and 37 seconds of daylight every twenty four hours!!  Good grief, that’s 39.432 minutes of light loss per week..!  As a point of reference here’s a few other US cities:

  • Albuquerque, NM (ABQ) – currently 11.0 hours of daylight
  • Atlanta, GA (ATL) – currently 11.1 hours of daylight
  • Bellingham, WA (BLI) – currently 10.4 hours of daylight
  • Colorado Springs, CO (COS) – currently 10.9 hours of daylight
  • Kalamazoo, MI (AZO) – currently 10.7 hours of daylight
  • Miami, FL (MIA) – currently 11.3 hours of daylight

To really grasp just how quickly the light is disappearing up here as of October 21st there is just a 2.1 hour spread between Miami and Talkeetna with just 15 days left until we reach the mid-point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice.  Now look at how much daylight these same cities can expect on the Winter Solstice which as a matter of convenience I’ve stated as December 21st:

  • Albuquerque, NM (ABQ) – 9.6 hours of daylight
  • Atlanta, GA (ATL) – 9.8 hours of daylight
  • Bellingham, WA (BLI) – 8.0 hours of daylight
  • Colorado Springs, CO (COS) – 9.3 hours of daylight
  • Kalamazoo, MI (AZO) – 8.9 hours of daylight
  • Miami, FL (MIA) – 10.4 hours of daylight
  • Talkeetna, AK (TKA) – 4.6 hours of daylight

In the span of just 66 days the difference in daylight between Miami and Talkeetna will jump to 5.8 hours!  That’s almost a 300% increase in the difference in daylight in just a bit more than two months time.

The one question I heard more than any other when I would share my dream of living in Alaska was; “How will stand all that winter darkness?”.  While I’d be the last one to try to convince anyone that I’m ‘mainstream’ in my beliefs and outlooks I have discovered that my feelings regarding this question directly matches what I hear from my fellow ‘Talkeetna-ites’ and probably most Alaskans; I know I’m gonna have much more trouble with the extended daylight than the darkness!  I did experience this during the previously mentioned camping trips and it drove me nuts; its darn difficult to sleep in a tent when the sun is just setting behind Mt Iliamna in the Aleutian Range at 01:00 AKDT!  When I first arrived up here on August 6th it was twilight until almost midnight and it was getting light at 05:00 AKDT; I had a very tough time until I purchased light blocking drapes for my bedroom windows.

Speaking of light I’m just now seeing the sun behind the clouds clearing the eastern horizon and its 09:37 AKDT.  I do know many folks who hunger after sunshine and could easily live with 365 sunny days a year; I’m definitely not in this category!  I need variety in my weather and I enjoy extremes as well.  I will sorely miss the severe thunderstorms of the lower 48 along with the tornadic interludes and even the freezing rain (that doesn’t occur up here…); if there’s any solace for me its I will finally get to see snowstorms which regularly dump double digits of snow and bone chilling Arctic air outbreaks which will plunge air temps into the -15 F to -40 F range.  Some folks suggested maybe my being ‘okay’ with so much darkness is a reflection of my soul; not in an evil sense but rather in a melancholy or sad sense.  I suppose this is possible but I don’t think so; just as there are people as I mentioned earlier who live for sunshine and cannot tolerate even a couple of consecutive days of rain I favor first very variable weather but I’ll also generally take clouds over a clear sky.  I’m sure growing up in SE Michigan fostered this perspective as winters there are usually overcast; in addition there’s no doubt I’m built for cold and hence extended sunlight is often too warm for me.

Although I’ve never experienced an Alaskan winter I’m sure I will be fine with the absence of light and the extreme weather conditions.  I had darn well better be because my German Shepherd Dog (Qanuk) will not abide more than two consecutive days without at least an hour’s worth of walking (actually he runs everywhere, I walk..!).  I’m in the process of trying to get an educated opinion regarding just how much cold he can endure for how long.  I can see us walking outdoors in three feet of snow – yes, even though we have dirt roads for the most part they are plowed although some times it takes many days if the recent snow storm was particularly heavy – and an air temp of -30 F.  I have made sure I have the gear required to handle these conditions and I know my Alaskan Malamute (Anana) will just love such weather; I just need to find out how long is safe for Qanuk to be out and about in such conditions.  I would love to see the snow begin soon although given the recent weather pattern it could well be another few weeks; at least I know I will not be forced to endure what I came to refer to as a ‘brown winter’ which had become very common in SE Michigan.  Rain and 35 F air temps is not winter to me..!

Wildlife At 62 Degrees North Latitude

I knew when I moved up here I would be seeing far more large mammals than I did anywhere else I’d lived mainly because few places in the lower 48 can boast such a variety of big wildlife.  I also knew from my spate of visits from ’96 through ’05 the density of caribou, moose and bears was much higher in the Interior than any place in the lower 48.  While many folks seem to feel I’m borderline crazy for wanting to live someplace where seeing grizzlies or moose in their natural setting is more the rule than the exception I find this to be a most exciting environment; just knowing that such large and powerful mammals are in the vicinity kinda charges the atmosphere and makes one feel more ‘at home’ with Nature.  Prior to making trips up here I’d seen a few black bears at great distance in Great Smokey Mountain National Park and spent hours trying to break Anana from her desire to chase the ubiquitous white tailed deer in SE Michigan but that was about it for larger mammals in the wild.  Before I made my first Alaskan visit I spent weeks reading everything I could find on the state and figuring prominently in most of those readings were discussions of the wildlife.  By the time our plane landed at the Juneau airport in early September, 1996 I thought I was pretty well prepared to handle observing bear, moose, caribou and Dall Sheep ‘up close and personal’.  It only took seeing my first moose along the West Glacier Trail in Tongass National Park to show me how wrong I was in this belief!  However, said encounter was at a safe distance and the two moose cows were much more interested in the dwarf willow they were munching than three lower 48er’s so I came away wide eyed and already well and truly bitten by the ‘Alaska bug’.

During that same trip we spent four days in Denali NP&P and while the weather was not great we did see lots of wildlife around the Teklanika campsite where we camped in tents.  I had an experience I still remember vividly to this day when I arose one morning – I was almost always the first one up – and was getting breakfast underway.  I dug the white gas camping stove out of the back of our rental Ford Explorer, primed it and managed to get it started; I then went digging for the quart pot, filled it with water and set it on the stove to boil.  Finally I went searching for the instant coffee and instant oatmeal.  This was before I learned the value of staging the morning’s necessities the previous evening!  I found the instant coffee first and noticed the pot was almost boiling so I dipped my mug into it, added a couple spoonfuls of coffee, stirred it and then turned back to hunting for the oatmeal.  I finally found it, freed it from the pack and turned around…and froze.  A large Timber wolf was no more than ten feet away from me and was stretching its neck in the direction of the coffee.  He had the most beautiful yellow eyes and I also noticed he was fitted with a radio collar; later I learned from a ranger that he was one of the alpha males from the pair of wolf packs that called the Teklanika area ‘home’.  We stared at each other for what seemed like minutes but was undoubtedly no more than a few seconds; I remember feeling no fear but rather a sense of awe that such a magnificent creature was so willing to share my immediate space.  I slowly turned to get my camera but when I turned back he was no where to be seen.  I soon learned I had been far too close to this wolf although it was he that had initiated the close proximity; seeing wolves even in Denali is a rare treat and I felt humbled that I’d been so close to such a gorgeous top predator.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Denali NP&P; every trip I’ve made to Alaska during the aforementioned span I spent at least three days in the park except on spring trip to the Kenai.  I always camp at Teklanika and usually will tour the Visitor’s Center if its not too crowded just to look at the displays of grizzly ravaged camping gear.  I find seeing the huge teeth marks in pots or massive claw tears in the remnants of a steel drum serve as good reminders of the raw power of these apex predators.  On virtually every trip to the Park I’ve seen grizzlies but generally from the safety of the Park buses.  However, that’s not always the case; while solo camping in 1998 I heard grizzlies snuffling and snorting outside my tent in Teklanika as they hunted for roots and berries; that’s a humbling experience lying wrapped up in a sleeping bag looking at two thin layers of nylon forming the only barrier between you and the bears!  On that same trip I hiked to the ridge line across the Teklanika River and while walking the ridge saw a grizzly boar maybe 100 feet down the side of the ridge in a blueberry patch.  He saw me the same time I saw him; thankfully I’d paid attention to the rangers when they explained how to handle such a surprise and far too close encounter.  I slowly raised my arms up over my head and talked very softly to the bear while slowly moving my arms back and forth; in this case the bear did exactly as I’d been told and stood up on its hind legs (when it did so I darn near peed my pants!), snorted a few times, dropped to all fours and walked away from me.  Needless to say I slowly backed away from him and once I crossed the ridge and was out of sight I really beat feet down the hill and back across the river!!  During another trip in 2001 I was sharing my tent with a college buddy; one morning I awoke to hear him softly calling my name.  I was still very much asleep when he said; “There’s something big outside!”.  I listened and could hear something definitely large moving around; I stayed in the tent until I no longer heard any sound and then scrambled out of my sleeping bag, into my boots and out of the tent.  All the sites in Teklanika feature a small pull out area for vehicle parking, a fire pit and a picnic table; it had been a cold night and the picnic table was covered with a thick layer of frost.  On the corner of the picnic table closest to the tent I found the imprint of a bear paw; the pads had melted the frost (see image below).  Without question we had a grizzly within ten feet of us who was probably investigating the white gas stove which we’d left atop the picnic table albeit sans any food or food containers; both these kinds of items were stored inside the rental vehicle.

Grizzly paw print in frost on Teklanika picnic table

Grizzly paw print in frost on Teklanika picnic table

Given my wildlife experiences which have all been positive save two – one involving a black bear when I was solo camping in Kachemak Bay State Park in the late spring of 2000 and another involving a moose cow with her spring calf during the same trip – I’ve come to really enjoy observing wildlife although I prefer to do so from a safe distance and I will never make the mistake so many people do of thinking any wild animal is something I can approach and try to interact with in its natural setting!  I’ll never forget walking along the Park Road on a warm, sunny September day and seeing an adult grizzly foraging well off the road on a hillside. There was a man with a young child part way up the hill; the man was encouraging his child to move closer to the bear as he set up his camera!! I was all set to call out to him when a Park bus rounded the corner and the driver saw what was happening, stopped the bus, pulled the man and child back to the road and proceeded to read the man the ole riot act. Its this kind of stupidity that finally led to Denali’s first human death from a bear attack in 2012.  Some idiot was solo hiking around the Toklat River and apparently spied a grizzly. Although no one witnessed what occurred his camera was found with his remains and showed a series of images of the grizzly getting larger and larger; if memory serves the last one looked to be taken at maybe fifty feet! Keep in mind anything under a quarter of a mile is considered a close encounter with a bear and is way too close.  Sadly this eventually ended in the death of the grizzly which was probably only protecting its own personal space…

I have seen a number of grizzlies since settling in up here although most have been a distance; with this said I know they’re around because I’ve seen their scat, tracks and a few weeks back I caught sight of the south end of a north bound grizzly in the boreal forest that exists on my 2.4 acres and indeed surrounds this entire area. I would never have known it was there if I hadn’t heard the dogs going bonkers on the first floor. Just yesterday morning the dogs once again alerted me to wildlife in close proximity; in this case it was a moose cow with her yearling calf foraging on my land:

Moose Cow In Back Yard 2

Moose cow foraging in the back yard – October 13, 2013

Probable yearling moose calf in the back yard

Probable yearling moose calf in the back yard

I apologize for the poor lighting; it was only around 08:15 AKDT and it was overcast and raining so there was just too little light.  These moose remained in the yard for maybe fifteen minutes before sauntering away to the east.  I was pleased to see it was a cow and calf as we’re into the rut now and I want nothing to do with any bull moose during that time!  Moose are responsible for more human deaths in Alaska than bears and during the rutting season the bulls are just full of blood lust and will go out of their way to kill any creature they feel is a threat or even just an annoyance.  Having had to run for my life from a moose cow protecting her spring calf in Kachemak Bay State Park I know these magnificent animals are not just big, dumb and slow ‘Bullwinkles’.  Believe me when I tell you they can move lightning fast even in dense forest and thick underbrush and they are surprisingly agile to boot.  I was not pleased to see Anana’s reaction; she would have loved to try to chase them and that could easily be a death sentence for her.  I saw what their hooves can do as I was forced to jettison my backpack during the aforementioned altercation and the cow ran over it tearing a large hole all the way through it and destroying my favorite compass in the process.

Most folks would probably prefer to just not have to deal with such issues but for me sharing the land with these creatures is part of the magic I feel living in Alaska.  Indeed, I really am not even so much ‘sharing’ the land as I am intruding into the wildlife’s terrain; after all, this is truly their home!  Because of this I really do try to be respectful and always remember that I am a visitor to the wildlife’s home.  I want to make every effort to peacefully co-exist with all the animals that may wander in this area and that means learning as much as I can about their lifestyles, habits and range.  I very much enjoy being able to watch them without disturbing them and especially to capture their beauty and power in video and still imagery.  The more I learn about the moose, caribou, bears, foxes, eagles and other wildlife the closer to Nature I feel and that’s a wonderful feeling.  It really is an honor to be able to share this land with so many large mammals and I wouldn’t trade my experiences – past, present and future – for anything!