Alaska, 2014 (Part III)

With yesterday's tour under my belt and a free day ahead of me, I was left with some decisions.  There were plenty of things I would like to do in Anchorage, but not nearly enough time.  As a photography trip, my goal was to bring home as many quality shots as possible, but not to sacrifice the experience to do it so it left me some questions.

While staying at the Westmark Hotel, I received some advice from a young staffer who suggested climbing Flat Top Mountain.  It is described as the most climbed mountain in Alaska.  What he didn't tell me is that it's not a walk in the park and it is also covered in ice.  More on that later, but for now, I was sold on the idea.

Along with that, I also wanted to return to the Turnagain Arm to visit the site of a recent avalanche.  The road was closed leading to it, so my plan was to ditch the car as close as I could and then simply hike the rest of the way.  Unfortunately (or not), while on my way, I noticed a sign for the Anchorage Zoo.  Here, a snap decision was made to give it a chance.  I had a goal of seeing a snowy owl and an arctic fox while in Alaska and this was sure to be my best chance.  If I haven't mentioned it in a previous post, I'll say it now.  I rarely plan much at all because I enjoy the freedom of making decisions spontaneously.  This is yet another one of those occasions.

Arriving at the Zoo, it was clear that I would have the place pretty much to myself which suited me just fine.  I had several layers of clothes in case it was cold and my camera gear so I was set.  

A snowy owl

It took only minutes before I found myself face to face with one of my goals.  It does frustrate me that it's home appeared completely man-made though.  The owl itself is just beautiful, but sitting it on an astroturf perch with a painted background makes even the best shot useful only for the loosest definition of having seen the animal.  I suppose someone skilled in Photoshop could take him and substitute in a beautiful forested background, but it's just not me.  The search continues.

Northern Goshawk

Spoiler Alert!

Sorry to take this in a nerdy direction for a moment, but I've been asked by those who have read the previous Parts how I managed to get so close to the bear.  

Getting close is the easy part when you're at a zoo or a conservation area.  The question is, is there anything between us.  The answer is, "of course".  

One technique that photographers use to get a shot they want without having bars or wires in front of their subject is the use of Depth of Field through the aperture setting.  A DSLR camera has the ability to select which part of a shot is in focus, and how much in front and behind your subject is as well.  This Northern Goshawk was in the middle of his cage on a perch, so by getting as close as I could to the bars, they became blurred completely and therefore invisible.  Because I was able to get close to the bars in front of him, they disappeared, but the bars behind him were still relatively close to him, so you can still make them out.  If they had been another 5 feet back, they would have likely been nearly invisible and I could have made up a story of spotting him in a tree and shot him with a long lens.

It is often said that a good shot is planned from the background forward.  At a zoo, it can be very difficult to do that and often all you can control is your foreground.  Since I was at the zoo virtually alone, this little guy was happy to follow me and listen to me as I spoke to get his attention.  What I wasn't able to do was control what was behind him, therefore you can still see the bars.  If you now go back and look at the other shots, you'll see what I mean.  The bear was in a large area so by getting as close to the fence as I could, with nothing behind him that was close, I was able to shoot him, making it appear he was out in the wild.

That kind of knowledge will make you look at wildlife shots with the blindfold off now.

Grey Wolf

Moving along in the zoo was a beautiful pack of wolves.  One in particular was pacing back and forth over a 30 or 40 foot path.  I did my best to try to get his attention for him to stop, but it was no use.  He was either working on his body heat or just agitated, perhaps by the guy with the hardware around his neck.  No matter.

I stayed with the wolves for a while.  Their eyes and behaviour are quite captivating.  I would very much love to see one in the wild but for now, after a short walk to the other side of their area, I managed to have a quiet conversation with this male.  He was just fine with staying near and listening to what I had to say.  

On from the wolves, I found myself staring at this beautiful coyote.  Unfortunately for him, I arrived right when he was trotting over to the corner of his area where a meaty bone was lying.  It was clear that he wanted it but he simply could not bring himself to come too close.  

I have never seen a coyote this close and I was quite surprised by the length of their snout and the size of their ears.  His nervousness surprised me as well.  Not at all what I expected after years of being raised by the Roadrunner cartoons.

There were plenty of other animals I visited throughout the morning including a beautiful Arctic Fox, however the shots I took simply aren't worth sharing.  I don't enjoy bars or netting in my photos so it would have taken something quite extraordinary.

Flat Top Mountain

Earlier that morning, I consulted with the front desk of the Westmark on things worth seeing and doing and one of the suggestions was to climb Flat Top Mountain which is Alaska's most climbed mountain due to it's proximity to Anchorage and relative ease.  The climb itself is 1200 feet and can apparently be done in approximately 90 minutes.  Of course, what they didn't tell me is that the "ease" part is in the summer and certainly when it isn't covered in ice.

The drive up was beautiful although I do have to point out that it was quite steep in places.  My poor Suzuki did make it, but it was probably putting a little pressure on it. There were moments in the drive where I looked to my side and realized that it was quite a steep drop off the road if things went bad and I started sliding back.  Guardrail? What's that!?

In the parking lot I can honestly say I didn't know which one was Flat Top Mountain.  I hiked the scenic trail which overlooks Anchorage and then simply followed the signs.  Equipped with my heavy winter boots and a few layers, I headed down the trail.  Note, a bottle of water might have been nice.

The trail was rather scenic and from what the odd passerby mentioned, is often frequented by moose, so I was to keep an eye out.  I left my Canon in the car as I knew from quick research that a DSLR was not a smart item to take.  My trusty little (and rugged) Nikon Coolpix joined me though and snapped a few shots.

The trail was ice covered in many spots and I found myself off the trail quite often to find surer footing.  Up, up, up the trail went and slowly snaked around a smaller but still considerable hill.  By the time I reached the south side, it was clear where Flat Top lived.

Flat Top Mountain

The shot above doesn't convey the height of this mountain.  It was tall, steep and covered in ice and snow.  By the time I reached the end of this trail, a signpost stood indicating much higher difficulty.  I didn't get much more than 400 yards (about half way up as the trail climbs along the side) before I decided that my boots were no match for the ice.  There are times in life where you realize that tumbling 100 yards down a hill just isn't what you want to do.

Eventually reaching the parking lot again, I passed two younger guys, maybe mid 20s who were gearing up for the climb.  With their headlamps and chains on their boots, they told me that they were doing a night climb where the challenge would be a bit more fun.  I wished them luck and retreated, defeated to my car.

Next entry will describe the Alaska Railroad trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks.  If you read no further and plan to visit Alaska, I highly recommend it.