North To Alaska

Summer 2019… My Seventh Summer In Alaska

As I have written and photographed Alaska many times over the last 7 years, I want to focus on maybe some images of Alaska that you have not seen before. Many of these images were taken this past summer 2019.

The summer cruise season is upon us, and there is no place better to cruise at this time than Alaska. I firmly believe that everyone should cruise to Alaska at least once in their lifetime. It is nothing short of magnificent.

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Haines, Alaska sunset

There are many ways to reach Alaska, including driving or flying, but nothing offers the spectacular views, convenience or entertainment of a modern luxury cruise ship. There are no luxury hotels at the ports, but the accommodations on passenger ships range from modest, budget-priced cabins to luxurious staterooms.

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Cruising Alaska for any budget…

 

Depending on your itinerary, there are several ports of call where you can embark, including Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver and Victoria, in British Columbia. Typically, Alaska cruises last seven days, but there is a 10-day cruise leaving from San Francisco. Another port where you can embark or disembark is Whitter, Alaska, for those wanting to visit Denali National Park.

Travelling the Inside Passage through British Columbia and Alaska allows you to appreciate the stunning landscapes and fresh air while relaxing on your private balcony as the ship glides through the calm waters. You may also see an array of wildlife, including orcas, dolphins and humpback whales, as well as bears, mountain goats and bald eagles.

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The Inside Passage north of Skagway

On most cruises, you will visit three ports of calls Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, each of which have their own charm and distinct personalities. Each town has numerous restaurants, places to shop and what seems like an endless amount of tours and shore excursions. Tours are offered both from the ships and from private companies.

I have spent seven summers traveling to Alaska and the Inside Passage as an acupuncture physician on various cruise lines which has given me an insider’s view and perspective. Here are some of my favorite tours:

Two of my favorites are located in Ketchikan, a town of approximately 14,000 residents and Alaska’s first city. It is also the second-rainiest city in the United States, averaging 13 feet a year. Be prepared for downpours, but the majority of the summer season, the weather can be very nice.

Aurora Birds and Bears encompasses all of Ketchikan’s sights and sounds and specializes in custom tours. The owner/operator Rich Lee is a Native American of the Tlingit tribe. He was born and raised in Ketchikan, giving him a distinct advantage over many of the tour operators that are summer transplants.

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Black Bears during the Aurora Birds and Bears Tour

 

During a three-hour tour, you will be offered a history lesson on Ketchikan, enjoy the rainforest and a waterfall and visit “real” totem poles, not replicas. Lee’s biggest expertise, however, is locating wildlife. Many times on the tour, we encountered black bear, deer, bald eagles and, at times, even orca and whales have been spotted from the shore.

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Baby Sitka Deer during the Aurora Birds and Bears Tour

My other favorite is the Deadliest Catch Crab Fishing Tour. If you are a fan of the television show, you might be interested to know that the Aleutian Ballad of season two is now homeported in Ketchikan. Captain/owner David Lethine and his crew of merry misfits are all seasoned crab fisherman of the Bering Sea and share their vast knowledge during the three-hour tour. This hands-on experience enables you to hold live crab, spotted prawns and other creatures of the sea.

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Something he will never forget… holding his first snow crab

The highlight for many is a side trip to Annette Island, where dozens of bald eagles await your arrival. As the boat nears the island, 30 to 40 eagles leave their perches like a swarm of mosquitos as the crew toss herring into the water. It is literally like ringing the dinner bell as the eagles fly within feet of the boat, attacking the water in their quest for a free meal. It is truly incredible to behold and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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Bald Eagles near Annette Island photo taken from the deck of the Aleutian Ballad

In Skagway, I highly recommend taking a flight over Glacier Bay National Park with Paul Swanstrom, the owner/pilot of the Mountain Flying Service at the Skagway Airport. This seasoned Alaskan aviator provides an unforgettable experience with each seat having a window allowing you to witness the grandeur of mountain peaks crowned with white virgin snow. Fly over multiple glaciers as they wind their way through the valleys of the countryside on the way to the sea. Flights range from one to two hours, with the option to land on a glacier or a remote beach.

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Flight over the Marjorie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park

If you want to see whales, the capital city of Juneau is the port to book your whales excursion. There are numerous tours with a wide variety of options, including everything from private yachts to limited load tours to those offering a salmon bake and wildlife quests.

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Humpback whale bubble net feeding of Juneau

My personal favorite is the Discover Alaska Whale Tour. This limited load and small boat tour has a naturalist on board who will share scientific knowledge and research on whales and other sea life that you may encounter. The windows open in, so even in poor weather you are warm and dry and have ample opportunities to take photographs.

Yet another place to see and photograph whales is in the port of Icy Strait. This is not a common port of call but by looking closely at the different itineraries of the different cruise lines and ship you will find a number that do go there.

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Icy Strait humpback whale at sunset

One of the many reasons people cruise to Alaska during the summer is to experience its glaciers, many of which can only be reached by cruise ship. Words are hard to come by when trying to explain the sights and sounds of these glorious towers laced with blue ice. You will witness history as these living structures march only to terminate at the water’s edge and calving into the sea.

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The Hubbard Glacier calving in Glacier Bay National Park

For more information on cruising to Alaska and its ports, my book “Alaska and the Inside Passage – A Guide to the Ports, Tours and Shore Excursions,” covers this in greater detail, including my favorite restaurants and more excursions to explore.

What I think sets my book apart from most tour guides on Alaska (outside of my wonderful writing and insightful knowledge of the area, of course) is that I have included plenty of my own photographs (not stock photos). Consequently, my book is designed not only a travel guide, but also as a coffee table book. It is visually rich, but is small enough to travel with so that you can always have the information at your fingertips.

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I would like to close this entry with a few more shots taken this year… the summer of 2019.

A bucket list item for me… It took seven summers but I finally was able to photograph the Northern Lights. What sets this image apart for me is if you look close from mid upper to the upper left in the photo is the Big Dipper… just being at the right place at the right time.

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The Northern Lights near Juneau, Alaska

Near Juneau a large meadow in full bloom with the Mendenhall Glacier in the background.

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Mendenhall Meadow and the Mendenhall Glacier
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Living large near Ketchikan, Alaska
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Kodiak Brown Bear near Sitka, Alaska
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Two year old Kodiak Brown Bear cubs fishing for dinner – Sitka, Alaska
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Mountain Goats in the Tracy Fjord
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Spotted Seals in the Tracy Fjord

The Death of a King

We woke to a dark, cloudy day and rain in the Kruger National Park. It was Day Two of five in Kruger after five days of safari in the Ingwelala Private Game Reserve in South Africa.

Our agenda for the day was to locate and photograph lions, one of the Big 5 that had eluded us thus far. We have had plenty of other wildlife sightings over the last week including two of the other members of the Big 5, cape buffalo and elephants.

Greg Parker and myself set off in our private vehicle rather then in an organized game drive from the reserve. This allowed us to wonder freely at our own speed and in locations of our choosing. Greg has been to Kruger many times and a life long resident of South Africa and an avid photographer.

After about an hour of driving we came across a small group of four cars that had stopped and pulled to the side of the road. Located in the high grass and within several low-lying trees and brush was a pride of lions consisting of two males, three females and three cubs.

We spend almost two hours photographing the pride as the rain continued under the dark skies. During this time the cubs played with mock attacks on each other, the males remained separate from one another only clashing once and the females roamed the grasses or lay next to one of the males.

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At one point a female walked through the grass calling for her cubs. She covered an area of about the size of a football field and disappeared behind us. I continued to take photographs out the car window, as you are not allowed to leave your vehicle in Kruger for safety reasons and for the well being of the animals.

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In a quiet voice Greg leaned over and said “Larry look in the side view mirror”. Glancing down I saw the lioness approaching the car on the shoulder of the road only a few feet away. I asked if I should roll up the window and Greg said just to be quiet, still and calm.

She walked right next to my open window. I could have literally reached out and touched her as she kept walking past me without a care in the world. She veered to her left entering the field again calling to the cubs, which now were running towards her.

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Soon after we began driving again in search for more wildlife and hopefully another pride of lions. We were not to be disappointed as within 30 minutes about ten miles away we spotted another pride. This one consisted of three males and one female. The female was injured and could not put any weight on her right front leg as she limped around the out stretched male lions sleeping in the mid-day sun. Every now and then one would roll over with their huge bellies stuffed from a recent kill, legs flopping from one side to the other.

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After spending time photographing two prides we continued down the dirt rode in search of other opportunities neither of us having any idea of what we about to witness.

We decided to try an area where we found a small herd of elephants the day before that was near a watering hole called Rabelias Dam near Orpen Camp. Upon arriving we notice a large male lion crouching on the shore.

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As our cameras clicked away you could see something was off, his posture just did not look right. On closer examination looking through the lens his left hind leg was protruding and at a strange angle. After he had his fill of water he struggled to his feet hardly able to stand. What you did not notice while he was drinking, he literally was nothing but skin and bones.

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He slowly moved away from the water and staggered as if he was drunk towards a small rise. Every few steps he would stop to catch his breath, his head hanging low until he had enough energy to take a few more steps. Upon reaching the rise he turned to face the water hole and began his slow descent to the ground. About half way down he collapsed the rest of the way. It was evident he was in his last days if not his last hours on this earth.

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As we continued to watch this once beautiful and strong lion a small herd of elephants arrived at the waters edge. The elephants drank, played squirting water into the air over themselves and others to cool down from the days heat.

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One of the larger elephants left the others and walked towards the rise not far from where the lion had collapsed as if to stand guard over the herd. At first he did not notice the lion lying low in the grass about 30 yards away trying to stay out of sight.

Then in an instant the elephant reared, ears outstretched and flapping as he took several steps back, trumpeted and charged the lion. Upon hearing the elephant start his charge all the other elephants started to charge as well, trunks in the air trumpeting as the ran towards the lion.

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Maybe in his younger more virile days the lion would have tried to make a stand, at least roar at the top of his lungs. But not now, now it took every bit of energy he had to get to his feet turn and run.

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After everything settled down Greg and I drove to find the lion. We found him lying in the grass, exhausted unable to move. We were no more then five feet from him as he lay dying in the shade of a tree. Dropping my camera we stared at one another locking eyes for what seemed for an eternity. I just wanted him to know that he would not die alone as he struggled to breath, his chest rising only every so often. Then a last twitch of an ear, his last breath, he was gone. The King was dead.

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Over the years as a photojournalist I have photographed people that had lost everything in earthquakes, fires and landslides, people that had been injured, people that were dying but I have never photographed anything as sad as this majestic animal, the true king of the beasts and master of his domain. I will never forget what I was so privileged to have witnessed.

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Later we learned that the name of this noble lion was Skybed Scar. The lion was well known in the Kruger National Park where he roamed and ruled for many years. He lived free and he died free.