Where There’s Smoke …

After returning to Anchorage from Nome, we spent a few hours in a Barnes and Noble bookstore, treating ourselves to some actual physical books for our belated 33rd anniversary – nearly everything we read now is digital, on our Kindles (books) or Kindle Fire tablet (color magazines). Afterwards we had a superb seafood dinner and got some much-needed sleep. Over the next few days we birded and botanized around Anchorage, with fairly meager returns, and spent one rainy day in camp, catching up on the numerous photos we took in Nome. This involved sorting the photos in-camera, with most being discarded; transferring the remainder to our laptop; cropping as needed; occasionally digitally adding fill light; rarely making color balance or contrast adjustments; adding captions; and backing up the images to the cloud.

Sea Otter, Resurrection Bay, Seward, AK
Above: Sea Otter, Resurrection Bay, Seward, AK

We next headed south onto the Kenai Peninsula, first heading for Seward, to visit Kenai Fjords National Park (NP). On June 20, we took an outstanding all-day boat trip to the park’s Northwestern Glacier, with the highlight being Kittlitz’s Murrelet, a life bird for Eileen! This small seabird is rather difficult to find, but at the entrance to the Northwestern Glacier Fjord, there is a huge moraine (a rock pile left by a glacier) not far underwater. It creates upwelling from the adjacent deep waters, bringing food-rich waters to the surface. The murrelets can reliably be found when directly over the top of this moraine, but it only takes a boat about two minutes to traverse the moraine, so you have to be ready! Other highlights of the boat tour included excellent looks at Parakeet Auklets, Horned and Tufted Puffins, and Thick-billed Murres at the Chiswell Islands; Dall Porpoises, the most beautiful North American cetacean, riding the bow; and Northwestern Glacier itself, which dropped small avalanches of ice into the sea.

Steller's Sea Lion, Chiswell Islands, Alaska Maritime NWR, AK
Above: Steller’s Sea Lion, Chiswell Islands, Alaska Maritime NWR, AK

The next day we paddled seven miles on Kenai Lake, from our campsite on its south end, and the following day we visited Exit Glacier, the only portion of Kenai Fjords NP accessible by vehicle. Exit Glacier has been receding at a rapid rate, and in a very effective demonstration thereof, the Park Service has placed signs along the road and the hiking trails, identifying the year during which the forward edge of the glacier was found at that spot. There was a nice assortment of boreal plants along the hiking trails, and in one place, we found three orchid species growing together (Blunt-leaved Orchid, Platanthera obtusata; Heartleaf Twayblade, Neottia cordata; and Yellow Coralroot Corallorhiza trifida). The day was too hazy for scenic photography, but we did not take particular notice of this, not recognizing it as a result of the Swan Lake Fire, near the center of the Kenai Peninsula. In fact, we would not experience good air quality for a string of 19 days.

Tufted Puffins, Chiswell Islands, Alaska Maritime NWR, AK
Above: Tufted Puffins, Chiswell Islands, Alaska Maritime NWR, AK

The next day was mostly spent driving through smoke on the way to Homer, on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. We saw a few Moose, but not much else of note, and our hopes of visiting Russian River Falls, a famous spot for seeing salmon, were dashed by gridlocked parking, due to the number of people fishing – they lined the riverbank so closely spaced that they must have had difficulty casting. We knew this could be a problem later in the summer, but had thought we’d be early enough to avoid the rush. We had good seafood and good birding in Homer, with additional views of Kittlitz’s Murrelets, lots of Sea Otters, and Black-legged Kittiwakes (a small, graceful gull) nesting in numbers near the end of the spit.

Northwestern Glacier, Kenai Fjords NP, AK
Above: Northwestern Glacier, Kenai Fjords NP, AK

Heading back north, we botanized the trails near the headquarters of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and then canoed in an area farther north in the refuge the next day. Despite its remoteness, the area was overcrowded and noisy, so we did not camp as planned, but instead headed out to try again to reach Russian River Falls. But the Swan Lake Fire had taken a turn for the worse, and we had to wait 2 hours and 40 minutes for a pilot car to take us through a very long and smoky stretch of the Sterling Highway, the only road providing access to most of the Kenai Peninsula. The pilot car was taking 80 cars at a time, and we figured that the round trip for the pilot car took about 90 minutes. So you can imagine our amazement when we got to the other side, and saw a long line of cars waiting to get farther out the Kenai Peninsula – where they might be stranded by the fire! We counted 470 cars in line, so the cars near the end had an estimated 8 hours to wait before they could join a convoy.

Falcated Teal, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, AK
Above: Falcated Duck, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, AK

It was far too smoky to try to reach Russian River Falls, so we decided to bail on the Kenai Peninsula and just drive north towards Anchorage until we were out of the smoke and then camp. But the wind had shifted in recent days, and the smoke had blanketed the region. We finally stopped for a late dinner around 10 p.m., and we reached Potter Marsh, a little southeast of Anchorage, around 11 p.m. An extremely rare Falcated Duck, a stray from Asia, had been being seen here, and to our delight, we found it in the waning, smoke-tinged light! It was a spectacular male, in perfect plumage, and a life bird for us! We watched it feed very actively at close range for about half an hour. We finally camped around 1 a.m., near Palmer, northeast of Anchorage, where there was still some smoke, but it had thinned considerably.

Solitary Sandpiper, Nabesna Rd, Wrangell-St. Elias NP, AK
Above: Solitary Sandpiper, Wrangell-St. Elias NP, AK

Our nest few days were spent in and near Wrangell-St. Elias NP, where we drove two interesting roads that we had liked on our previous major arctic road trip, in 1999. The first, a gravel road, ran 41 miles to Nabesna, and had nice dispersed camping, good scenery (though hazed out by smoke), and little traffic. Although we did not find Dall Sheep as we had 20 years earlier, the wildflowers were good, and we photographed an uncommon and attractive butterfly, the Palaeno Sulphur. The second road, mostly gravel but with some poor pavement, ran 93 miles to McCarthy. We did very early morning drives in both directions, hoping for good mammals (we had Least Weasel here in 1999). Variety was low, but Snowshoe Hares were in higher densities than we had ever seen before. We counted 175 of them in the first 70 miles, a rate of 2.5 per mile! This species is famous for its cyclical population explosions, about once every seven years, and the Canada Lynx, which feeds almost exclusively on hares, has similar population cycles, but delayed somewhat, as breeding success lags the hare peak. The McCarthy Road would be a good place to look for lynx in 2020 and 2021. Other highlights on that road were singing Pine Grosbeaks, and Sparrow’s-Egg Lady’s-Slipper, a diminutive and lovely orchid that had mostly finished flowering when we were there (June 29).  As a bonus, from the nearby Squirrel Creek Campground, I saw at close range three River Otters shoot past in the swift river current, enjoying a thrilling ride downstream.

Spruce Grouse chick, McCarthy Rd, Wrangell-St. Elias NP, AK
Above: Spruce Grouse chick, Wrangell-St. Elias NP, AK

Eileen and I next joined Carol and CJ Ralph, whom we had visited earlier in the year in northern California, for one and a half days of exploration around Hatcher Pass, near Palmer. They were in Alaska for the annual meeting of the American Ornithological Society, and it was great fun to meet up with them for some birding and botanizing. The high, dry tundra of Hatcher Pass, near 4000 in feet elevation, had an excellent assortment of native plants, with several very pretty new species – pink-striped Alaska Spring Beauty (Claytonia sarmentosa), magenta Wedgeleaf Primrose (Primula cuneifolia), deep purple Mountain Harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa), and cream-colored Aleutian Mountainheath (Phyllodoce aleutica). In the animal realm, the highlight was Collared Pika, which we’d seen only once before. At lower elevations east of Hatcher Pass, we enjoyed Hoary Marmot, Willow Ptarmigan, and Wandering Tattler. But all good things must come to an end, and Carol and CJ headed for Seward, while we made our way towards Denali NP. I got a brief look at a Least Weasel crossing the Parks Highway on that drive.

Hoary Marmot, Hatcher Pass, N of Palmer, AK
Above: Hoary Marmot, Hatcher Pass, Palmer, AK

Over the next four days, we spent two days in camp, catching up on photos and issuing the last blog post, and took two 11-hour bus tours to Wonder Lake in Denali NP. The first bus tour was from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and was quite good, with sightings of the “big four”, Moose, Grizzly Bear, Dall Sheep, and Caribou, as well as half a dozen Golden Eagles. The second tour left at 5:15 a.m. and we got there an hour early to queue up to get the front passenger seats, which offer much the best viewing. As expected, the early morning was better for mammals, and in addition to the big four, we saw Beaver, Porcupine, Hoary Marmot, Collared Pika, and a Northern Red-backed Vole that Eileen glimpsed. We also got good looks at Gyrfalcon at Polychrome Pass, our first of the year. Mount Denali was free of clouds on this trip, something that happens under 10% of the time, but smoke haze from another wildfire somewhat compromised the photos.

Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley), Denali NP, AK
Above: Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley), North America’s highest peak, Denali NP, AK

Leaving Denali NP, we took the 133-mile gravel Denali Highway east. This is an exceptional road, cresting around 4000 feet elevation, where we had both Rock and Willow Ptarmigan, and where a hike to a ridge-top yielded American Golden-Plover and Whimbrel. Farther east, we had a fine 7-mile paddle on Upper Tangle Lake, where we saw a family of Trumpeter Swan (our first cygnets of the year). The easternmost section of the road is noted for its scenery, but we arrived to find rather dense haze from yet more wildfires.

American Golden Plover, Denali Highway, AK
Above: American Golden-Plover, Denali Highway, AK

Heading north on the Richardson Highway, towards Fairbanks, we checked two locations where salmon can sometimes be seen, but had no luck. Continuing to Fairbanks, where we planned to camp, the haze changed to smoke and then dense smoke, with visibility reduced to only a couple hundred yards. We back-tracked to the Salcha River to escape the smoke, which actually made both of us feel ill, with sore throats and nausea. We again passed through Fairbanks in the morning, where people were being advised not to go outdoors because of the smoke, and arranged for a truck service and tire replacement in 9 days. Atmospheric maps from NOAA showed that all of mainland Alaska was under smoke (mostly from lightning-caused fires) except for a wedge in the northwest quadrant, protected by the Brooks Range. Fortunately, this was where we were headed next, on the Dalton Highway, a.k.a. the Haul Road, to Prudhoe Bay.

Rock Ptarmigan, Denali Highway, AK
Above: Rock Ptarmigan, Denali Highway, AK

Next time: the Dalton Highway.

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