Posts Tagged ‘Alaska’

Nature Ramble

By train…

The train that takes on Alaska’s Mt McKinley

Unchallenged by neighbouring peaks, Mt McKinley rises like an apparition. (Gleb Tarro/Getty)

Just a few minutes earlier, cries of “Moose beside the track!” had managed to distract many of the Denali Star’s train passengers from their breakfast burritos. But that was nothing compared to the sight of Mount McKinley; coffee cups were pushed aside and, within seconds, nearly everyone had disappeared to the dome-roofed observation car upstairs. Moose sightings are two-a-penny in the Alaskan interior, an Anchorage resident later told me as I studied the lunch menu in the dining car. But the view of Mount McKinley’s 20,237ft summit – free from its usual blanket of bruised storm clouds – was a very rare occurrence.

McKinley – known in Alaska as “Denali”, which means “High One” in the native Athabaskan language – is the highest mountain in North America. It’s also the world’s third most topographically prominent, referring to the height of its peak compared to its lowest contour line, following Everest and Aconcagua. But unlike Everest, which is cocooned by other peaks on the Tibetan plateau, McKinley stands unchallenged, a solid wall of rock and ice rising like an apparition above the wild taiga. On the hundred or so clear days a year when its summit is visible, McKinley is one of the most awe-inspiring sights on the continent.

My railway journey from Anchorage to Fairbanks stemmed partly from practical reasoning: in Alaska, roads can be rugged and driving is best left to the locals. Meanwhile, the Denali Star, with its salubrious dining car and enthusiastic, knowledgeable rail staff, felt positively luxurious. The train even has an onboard “museum” with old photos and placards detailing its development.

Alaska was a little-explored US territory when President Woodrow Wilson’s administration bailed out the bankrupt North Alaskan Railroad in 1914, proposing to expand the still-nascent line north into the subalpine interior. The ambition and difficulty of the plan was unprecedented: it required cutting a trail from Seward, on Alaska’s Pacific coast, 470 miles north to the rough-and-ready gold rush town of Fairbanks, stopping in what soon would become the city of Anchorage on the way. Winter’s 20 hours of darkness each day, temperatures as low as -60F and ground frozen solid by permafrost all hampered work during the decade-long project, but president Warren Harding – the first US president to visit Alaska during his tenure – had the honour of driving in the railway’s last golden spike in July 1923.

A century after its conception, the railroad has survived, carrying freight, backcountry “commuters” and travellers through landscapes that have remained largely the same.

The train takes on some of Alaska’s widest, wildest landscapes. (Glenn Aronwits/Alaska Railroad)

Gazing out of the carriage window, the wide, open spaces made me feel small and insignificant. Huge swathes of Alaska are bereft of roads, people or mobile phone reception, a notion that can invoke a creeping nervousness in visitors from crowded cities “down south”. It wasn’t long before an overexcited family from the Lower 48 started yelling “moose” and “bear” at any swaying tree branch that moved. It was only after they had disappeared to the dining car that I saw a real moose scurrying through the greenery, away from the oncoming train.

North of our first station – the small, mall-infested town of Wasilla where Sarah Palin cut her political teeth as mayor from 1996 to 2002 – the fauna-spotting was replaced by the trip’s gripping highlight: the appearance of Mt McKinley. Several well-equipped hikers disembarked at the next stop in the nearby mountaineering town of Talkeetna; the mayor of which, a deadpan receptionist at my Anchorage hotel informed me, is a 17-year-old cat named Stubbs. Suspecting an Alaskan wind-up, I made some internet investigations, but it was no joke. Stubbs even has his own Wikipedia page.

A cabin in Talkeetna, where the scenery is stunning and a cat is mayor. (Rob Blakers/Getty)

Passengers can alight at Talkeetna and change to the Hurricane Turn, a slower, local train geared towards transporting the wilderness-hardened Alaskans who own cabins in the road-less interior between Talkeetna and the gorge of Hurricane Gulch. The Turn offers an unusual “flag-stop” service, meaning passengers can stand anywhere along the track and signal the train to stop. This system allows backpackers to jump off the train for a day or two’s hiking, fishing and camping before returning to the track and waving something large and white (a t-shirt will do) when the train reappears.

The Hurricane Turn takes on Alaska’s road-less interior. (Dirk HR Spennemann/Alaska Railroad)

Source: BBCNews read page two

Nature Ramble

US reroutes flights around Alaska beach in attempt to avoid walrus stampede

An estimated 35,000 of the animals were spotted as summer sea ice fell to its sixth lowest in the satellite record

Walruses in the Chukchi sea this time of year are generally females and young who are at greater risk of being trampled. Photograph: Steven Kazlowski/Nature Picture Library

The plight of thousands of walruses forced to crowd on to an Alaska beach because of disappearing sea ice has set off an all-out response from the US government to avoid a catastrophic stampede.

The Federal Aviation Authority has re-routed flights, and local communities have called on bush pilots to keep their distance in an effort to avoid setting off a panic that could see scores of walruses trampled to death, federal government scientists told reporters.

Curiosity seekers and the media have also been asked to stay away.

An estimated 35,000 walruses were spotted on the barrier island in north-western Alaska on 27 September by scientists on an aerial survey flight.

The biggest immediate risk factor for the walruses now is a stampede – especially for baby walruses – but they have been facing a growing threat from climate change, the scientists said.

The extraordinary sighting – the biggest known exodus of walruses to dry land ever observed in the Arctic under US control – arrived as the summer sea ice fell to its sixth lowest in the satellite record last month.

“Those animals have essentially run out of offshore sea ice, and have no other choice but to come ashore,” said Chadwick Jay, a research ecologist in Alaska with the US Geological Survey.

Until 2007, it was unheard of for walruses to leave the sea ice for dry land for prolonged periods of time. But the retreat of sea ice has seen “drastic changes” in behaviour, Jay said. Walruses have struck out for beaches in six of the last eight years.

He said there was no doubt the migration – or “hauling out” as it is called – was caused by climate change.

“It is really a reduction in the sea ice that is causing the change in behaviour, and the reduction of sea ice is due to global warming,” Jay said.

But the immediate concern was to avoid a stampede – a leading risk factor for walruses when they crowd onto beaches and barrier islands.

The FAA is asking pilots to remain above 2,000ft and half a mile away from the walruses. Helicopters – a bigger risk to the walruses because they are noisier – have been asked to remain 3,000ft up and a mile away. News crews, which have been clamouring to film the walruses, have also been asked to stay away. “The government and local communities are respectfully asking you to leave the haul-out alone,” Joel Garlich Miller, a Walrus biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters.

Walruses are naturally skittish animals, unused to being closely packed together. They also spend 80% of their time on water. Those in the Chukchi sea this time of year are generally females and juveniles and so at greater risk of being trampled to death.

“You have all these animals that are normally distributed on a flat surface. When they lose their sea ice habitat and come ashore in places that are accessible – like flat, sandy beaches – they gather in large numbers, and it becomes like a giant pig pile,” said Margaret Williams, managing director for the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic program. “When they are disturbed it can cause stampedes in large numbers.”

Source: TheGuardian Read more

Nature Ramble

This week we’re off to Alaska and Peru.

This is a reblog, so you’ll have to bear with the link; but it is a fascinating story.

“Why do sea lions haul out?”

“It only begged the question:

What was it like before the Exxon-Valdez oil spill?”

“Why do sea lions haul out (video of haul out near Seward, Alaska)?”.

An insightful look at the world of sea-lions.

I had experience with sea-lions when I worked in Peru doing the tours to the Ballestas Islands which are home to many colonies and harems.

One of the colonies on the Ballestas Islands of the coast of Pisco in Peru. Image credit – AV

Life is very cruel for the pups. Sometimes a tour coincided with whelping during which the bull would come along and inspect the newborn pups, if the pup was male the bull would dash it to death on the rocks, it was pitiful to listen to the cries and the complaints of the cow. This cruelty was necessary to ensure more females were available than males for the harems. Nature is a very male dominated world.

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