Ellen and I recently returned to Alaska where we had not been for more than 15 years. We had been in this wonderful part of our country at least four previous times, starting when our daughters were quite young. For us, it has been and continues to be mesmerizing-captivating-enthralling-breathtaking-extraordinary. Definitely one of our favorite parts of this country.
This trip was a combination of six days with the NatHab Adventures group and five days on our own. We started out in Anchorage, visiting a new friend who has lived there for many years and spent the better part of our first day meandering through the Chugash mountain range enjoying the blue skies, clear air, crisp temperatures, and a beautiful drive outside of the city.
The first evening we met our NatHab leader and the eight other members of the group, half of whom were serious photographers (as in more serious than Ellen) and far more knowledgeable than we were about brown bears. We flew an hour and half southwest to the Alaska Peninsula and the small town of King Salmon, pretty much at the beginning of the Aleutian Islands.
For each of the next four days we flew by float plane into the Katmai Natural Park, Brooks Falls, and an even more isolated area on the Kulik River. The object was to photograph and observe the brown bears as they captured the remaining salmon before the long winter ahead. Each day we spent 5-6 hours (in temperatures hovering around the low forties) waiting and watching, watching and waiting. Imagine the clicks of the serious photographers when these wild creatures appeared. (We didn’t have to wait long at any point.)
The seven pictures below are from this part of the trip, and a longer slide show can be accessed from the link at the bottom of this post.
(There will be a second post, probably not for a couple of weeks, from the remaining part of our trip to Whittier and Prince William Sound on the Gulf of Alaska, Mount Denali, and Talkeetna, where for three nights Ellen was learning how to photograph the night sky and the Northern Lights).
For the best viewing, click on the little arrow at the top right of the first page of the link to start the slide show. If the slide show appears to start in the middle, scroll to the top of the page where you’ll see the little arrow in a box. Click on it.
See all the photos in the largest size possible (use a laptop or desktop computer if you have access to either). They are much sharper, and the larger format presents them in much more detail than the ones above or if you only look at the opening page of the slide show.
Ellen and I have been fortunate to travel widely and see a world beyond where we live. Our recent trip to Greenland certainly ranks high on our list of favorites. It was remote. It was wild. It’s ancient culture is being challenged by modern society. It is quiet, and it is beautiful.
*Truly awe-inspiring landscapes, seascapes, marine life, and the ‘magic’ of the Northern Lights.,
*The cultural issues, always of interest to us, were fascinating as the Inuit population moves from the Stone Age to the iPhone Age.
*Each day our activities placed us in a world where we were constantly confronted with new sights and insights.
*Each day and many nights were a photographer’s paradise.
*Our two expedition leaders were superb, with their planning of activities, their knowledge of all aspects Greenland, their ability to inform, to teach, and to help us understand and capture what we were experiencing. Plus their photographic advice and assistance helped all of us, no matter what kind of camera or experience each of us had.
*The Nat/Hab Base Camp was located in an isolated area that gave us a sense of Greenland which we could never have experienced if we were on our own.
*Excellent weather. Cold but no rain until our final day.
Briefly, after spending four days in northeast Iceland among waterfalls and scenic vistas, we met our group of 10 other travelers (three couples, three single women, and one single man) and one of our guides in Reykjavik. We flew from Reykjavik to Kulusuk in southeastern Greenland and went by helicopter onto Tasiilaq, a town of 2,000 (the total population of Greenland is only 57,000, despite the huge size of the island).
There we spent two days, hiking, boating (our first views of Arctic icebergs and whales), and learning about Greenland (three times the size of Texas, 80% covered by ice and snow, and if you circumnavigated the entire island going in and out of the inlets, you’d cover about the same distance as if you went around the world, 25,000 miles). We learned about its people and about its history, and we met several unforgettable individuals (both in Tasiiliq and throughout our trip.) We also had one incredibly clear night in Tasiiliq of Northern Light activity (see Ellen’s photos below and in her slide show, links below).
A four-hour boat ride took us to the NatHab Base Camp, a truly isolated, wilderness setting on the edge of the Sermilik Fjord. Base Camp consisted of eight individual tented cabins (heated and lanterned and containing ‘dry’ toilets) plus a number of other tented spaces for meetings, showering, eating, and storing of equipment. We had electricity during the daylight hours in the common spaces. The meals were terrific, and the entire camp was surrounded with a ‘modest’ electrified fence as a precaution against polar bear encounters. There was no wi-fi or cell connectivity.
From here we kayaked among the icebergs, spent hours on rubber rafted Zodiac boats exploring the fjords, glaciers, icebergs and sea life, and hiking. Each day seemed to focus on two major activities. One morning, for example, we spent three hours in the tiny town of Tinit, population 82 where we began to get a sense of life today in Greenland versus that of just a few decades earlier when the Inuit population lived in small sod and stone structures and existed solely on their ability to hunt and fish. That afternoon we kayaked amongst the glaciers in one of the fjords.
Words fail to adequately describe what we saw and what we will long remember, but Ellen’s photos will give you some sense of what we experienced over these five days at the camp and over our full nine days in Greenland. Think of them as a collage, not representing every aspect of what saw and did. I think they give you an overall picture of the beauty of the wilderness and the remoteness of the country.
We ended our time in the Base Camp by helicoptering back to the airport island of Kulusuk, population about 300, where we had one last opportunity, as we waited for our flight back to Iceland, to learn about another small town and the role the US military played there.
Then it was back to Reykjavik for one day and night
(wonderful food) before flying the six hours back to DC.
As we often do, Ellen and I made a list of some of the best
parts of the trip and a few Do’s and Don’ts for those of you who might
consider such an adventure:
Words that Best Describe Greenland:
Ellen – Remote
Richard – Land in transition
Most Unforgettable Moment:
Ellen – Photographing the Northern Lights
Richard – First Zodiac trip in the Sermilik Fjord with its icebergs
Ellen – Day 5 – Zodiacing all day, Haan Glacier, Diamond Beach, whale watching, photographing, and iceberg gawking.
Richard – Also Day 5, followed closely by the afternoon kayaking. (“This is what I came for.”)
What Exceeded Expectations:
Ellen – Weather and capturing the Northern Lights
Richard – The total NatHab experience – guides, plans,
facilities, activities, and accessing people and places we never could have
done on our own.
What Would You Return for:
Ellen & Richard – To see what changes take place over
the next decade for the Inuits and the environment.
Do’s and Don’t’s:
Don’t put on your rain gear or “Mustang suit” with boots on.
And don’t put either of them on before visiting one of the ‘dry’ toilets. (Yes, you have to remove the gear to use ‘bush toilets,’ which are different than ‘dry toilets’.)
Don’t expect to have your passport stamped in Greenland
And don’t expect much internet connectivity.
Don’t try to bring back a Greenland sled dog puppy, no matter how
cute they seem.
Don’t fall out of a Zodiac or kayak under any circumstances.
Don’t worry about everyday standards of cleanliness. They don’t apply and no one cares how long its been since you’ve showered.
Do read about the early explorations of Greenland before you go, and then continue that reading while you’re there and perhaps after you return. (We can make specific suggestions.)
Do pay close attention to what NatHab suggests you pack.
Do take a camera, any kind, and keep it with you at all times.
Since you will likely get to Greenland via Iceland, Do eat at least one of the best hot dogs you’ll ever (Yes! I said, “hot dogs”) from that cart in Reykjavik. (You probably should order two, and don’t miss the crispy onions.)
And here are a dozen of Ellen’s favorite photos from Greenland. Do use a big screen to get a high resolution, especially for those of the Northern Lights. You wouldn’t want to miss the stars and constellations she also captured.
If you want more, see the link below to her slide show of 65 photos.
For the best viewing, click on the little arrow at the top right of the first page of the linkto start the slide show. If the slide show appears to start in the middle, scroll to the top of the page where you’ll see the little arrow in a box. Click on it.
See all the photos in the largest size possible (use a laptop or desktop computer if you have access to either). You may have to click on the two angled arrows facing each other on the very top right to get the full pageThey are much sharper, and the larger format blows away the 12 that you have seen above.
Can you remember the first time you experienced the joy of having bubbles blown at you from a wand dipped into a little plastic bottle?
Did it seem like magic?
Even when the bubbles burst?
Did you ask for more and more?
Imagine that instead of bubbles, these were orange and black butterflies. Monarch butterflies. Ones you could almost touch. Or ones that landed on you and remained for many minutes.
Now, multiply the number of bubbles/butterflies and that sense of wonder and delight by many hundreds or thousands, and you get just a sense of what Ellen and I experienced on a recent trip to Mexico to see where the Monarch butterflies migrate and winter.
As you may know, many of the beautiful Monarchs travel south to winter in Mexico where they live for five or six months. Then, in the early spring they mate, go north from Mexico, lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and then die. This process repeats itself as three generations of Monarchs work their way north, often as far as the Great Lakes or Canada. Each of these generations lasts about two months.
Then the great migration begins again. Despite never having been to the mountains in Mexico, these now fourth generation Monarchs set out on a mass migration of two to three thousand miles to a place they’ve never been and arrive at the exact locations and specific trees where their ancestors wintered the previous year.
There are 14 Monarch sanctuaries, protected areas, in Mexico, and you can go to a number of them to experience what it is like for several million Monarchs to gather in one place. Under the auspices of Natural Habitat Adventures and the World Wildlife Fund, we joined with ten others and two wonderful guides to spend five days in mid-February chasing butterflies.
We flew to Mexico City, went four hours due west by bus to the town of Angangueo where we stayed for three days. We went by open flat bed truck another 45 minutes where we then went by horseback another 45 minutes up into the mountains. Finally, we hiked for another 45 minutes or so to one of the Monarch sanctuaries, El Rosario.
As we didn’t arrive until late afternoon the first day, most of the thousands and thousands (millions?) of Monarchs were huddled together on a few dozen trees, giving and getting warmth from each other. But there were some brave butterflies who left their perches and came near, some landing on us or simply hanging out on the ground or bushes nearby. The only noise we heard were our cameras taking hundreds and hundreds of photos, ‘up close and personal’ (and often just inches away). The most stunning aspect, for me, of this first encounter, however, was to see the trees laden with these marvelous butterflies.
The next day we set out early to a second reserve, this one at Chincua. Again we went by truck, horseback, and hiking, and what a reward. As we were the first to arrive and because the day warmed and the sun came out, we were able to virtually be in the midst of the Monarchs flying about. When a cloud would pass, the Monarchs would rush to find a place to retreat from the ‘cold,’ and we were then in the midst of thousands and thousands of butterflies (or as Ellen said, “It was as if we were inside a snow globe of butterflies”).
On our third day, we returned to El Rosario, and for some reason the butterflies had moved from what just a day or two previously had been their ‘trees of choice’ to different trees, new micro climates. And most exciting, these trees were next to the path where we were able to look with wonder at how they clustered together, hanging on the pine or fir trees, waiting for the sun. As the sun came from behind the clouds, they began to open their wings and the trees seemed to magically transform in color. As long as the sun stayed out, the Monarchs left their trees and flew in front of us (to search for nectar?). Then, during a passing cloud, there would be a ‘mad scramble’ as they flew about, trying to decide where to go to sit out through the modest change in temperature.
We couldn’t get enough of them.
When our three days of ‘chasing’ the Monarchs concluded, I was left with three images and one question. First, even one Monarch resting on a bush, the ground, or on one of us, just inches way was thrilling. Second, an entire tree covered with thousands and thousands and thousands of Monarchs ‘hanging out’ and occasionally spreading their wings and, as a result, changing the color of the tree was mesmerizing. And particularly exciting was seeing a burst or flurry of uncountable numbers flying around, either enjoying the warmth or looking for a place to land.
The one question, yet to be answered for me, is how do these Monarchs know where exactly to go on their great migration, given that they are at least four generations removed from having been to a specific area two or three thousand miles away?
Below are a dozen of Ellen’s most favorite shots of the butterflies. Then, if you want to see more of her photos of our Mexico trip, there is a slide show which includes more pictures from our butterfly adventure and photos from our four days in Mexico City.
If you would like to see more photos, click on this link: Monarchs & Mexico: Thru Ellen’s Lens. Then, for the best viewing, click on the tiny, tiny arrow in the very small rectangular box at the top right of the opening page of the link to start the slide show.
I’d highly recommend that you view all the photos in the largest size possible (full screen format) on a laptop or desktop computer.