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The Alaska Chronicles

The Alaska Chronicles

Take a walk down the memory lane with Dr AJT Johnsingh to travel the wild and majestic grandeur that Alaska has to offer. Come and experience the rush of flying in a Cesna over the tundra to view an Eskimo village near the Arctic Circle, raft in a turbulent river, watching the bears, wolves and caribou go by, fish for prize-sized salmon and walk in paths frequented by panners and miners during the gold-rush.

Image Courtesy: Kartik Shanker

Image Courtesy: Kartik Shanker

“This article, originally written in 1992, is dedicated to the late Archana Bali, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA. Archana, with her knowledge of Alaska, updated this story significantly. Whenever we discussed about moose and caribou, she also fondly remembered the sambar we saw when we climbed Vengoli ridge in Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary in October 2004.”

– Dr AJT Johnsingh

“In 2004, Archana Bali joined the Master’s programme in Wildlife Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. I co-supervised her Master’s dissertation on biodiversity in coffee plantations in the Western Ghats. Archana had a disarming nature, and engaged people easily who would otherwise have been hard to extract information from. When she moved to Alaska, she started her work with the indigenous communities in the state, on human caribou systems and the impacts of climate change. Her participatory videography project resulted in the award winning film “Voices of the Caribou people”. All those who knew Archana will remember her as one of the most cheerful, caring and irresistibly charming persons they will ever meet. Her passing has robbed the community of a champion and a friend.”

– Kartik Shanker, CES, Indian Institute of Science & Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore.

Aerial view of Kotzebue, Alaska. Although not within the Selawik NWR boundary, Kotzebue is home of the Selawik NWR office. | Photo: U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

Aerial view of Kotzebue, Alaska. Although not within the Selawik NWR boundary, Kotzebue is home of the Selawik NWR office. | Photo: U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

I departed from Seattle-Tacoma International airport for Alaska on 12th July, 1992, looking forward to visiting the the land of vast unblemished landscapes, tumbling rivers and abundant wildlife. My study tour was organised by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to enable me to see various wildlife, their habitats, and the research that was being conducted there. Dr. Warren Ballard, formerly with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, would be my guide and guardian for the next two weeks. He had conducted extensive research on Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos), Grey wolves (Canis lupus), Moose (Alces alces) and Caribou (Rangifer tarandus).

Alaska is a strange mix of diverse groups of natives and non-natives. The major native groups include the Inupiat and Yupik along the northern and northwest coast (also referred to as Eskimos), the Athabascan Indians in the interior regions, the Aleuts in the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific, and the Tlingits in south-east Alaska. The non-native population comprises largely Americans, Russians and Asians.

The outstanding features of Alaska are its sheer size –15, 18, 776 sq km, that is, one-fifth the size of the United States and approximately one-third the size of India – and its remoteness. Despite its enormous strategic importance, rich natural resources, and other alluring features, it was not until January 1959, that Alaska was finally proclaimed the 49th state of the United States of America. Alaska remains one of the most sparsely populated place in the world (less than 5 people/sq km), with a population of just around 700, 000—half of which is concentrated in the city of Anchorage.

Kotzebue heights

My first destination in Alaska was Kotzebue in the northwest. Otto von Kotzebue, a German adventurer, discovered Kotzebue Sound (a water body) 56 km north of the Arctic Circle, in 1816. At that time, Kotzebue was already a large regional trading centre and the Polar bear hunting capital of the world. Today, with close to 3,200 residents, it is Alaska’s second largest Eskimo (Inupiaq) village. In fact, I had hoped to see Eskimos living in igloos and wearing fur. But they lived in wood and contemporary houses, and as it was summer, wore jeans and T-shirts just like any other American, their children playing basketball till 11 pm under the midnight sun.

Warren had arranged a Cessna 206 to fly and see the Arctic wildlife and their amazing habitat. Jim Rood, an experienced bush pilot in Alaska, flew the plane. In northwest Alaska, Cessna aircrafts are used to stratify wildlife habitats into high, medium and low density strata and the slower flying Piper Supercub planes are used to count animals. Radio telemetry is frequently used to locate Polar bears (Ursus maritimus), Grizzly bears, wolves, Moose, Caribou, and Musk oxen (Ovibos moschatus). Satellite telemetry is now being used to locate many of these species, which has considerably reduced the number of deaths of pilots and biologists, who otherwise flew small planes into inhospitable terrain under severe and unpredictable weather conditions, to gather data on radio-collared animals.

On my first day in Kotzebue we flew over tundra, low-lying mountains, and thick black spruce-birch forests to radio-track wolves, Musk oxen, Grizzly bears, and Dall sheep (Ovis dalli). A huge male Grizzly stood on its hind legs and aggressively challenged us as we flew a few feet over him. Several Moose fed in the spruce and birch forest valleys where willows were plentiful. One memorable moment was flying over America’s largest migratory caribou population (the Western Arctic Caribou herd), which numbered about 450,000 individuals. It was like flying over the Serengeti in Africa following the Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus). The two days of flying took us over Noatak National Park and Preserve, Kobuk Valley National Park, Selawik National Wildlife Refuge, and Cape Krusenstern National Monument, which are spread over the vast subarctic and arctic wildlands.

Aerial view of a Brown bear fishing for salmon at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska

Aerial view of a Brown bear fishing for salmon at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska | Photo: Hillebrand, Steve/USFWS

Rafting in Gulkana

After returning from Kotzebue, Warren drove me and his parents (both aged over 70), to his cottage 250 km north east from Anchorage which was located near Glennallen. Vegetation in this area varied from alpine tundra to dense spruce forests, dotted with lakes and ponds in the lowlands. Moose and Caribou roam here. Dall sheep peered down on the vast valleys from surrounding mountains. Great hump-shouldered Grizzlies, glossy Black bears and wolves are the large carnivores here.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge offers several options for salmon fishing in the Kenai river — one of Alaska’s most popular spots for sport-fishing.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge offers several options for salmon fishing in the Kenai river — one of Alaska’s most popular spots for sport-fishing. |Photo: Hillebrand, Steve/USFWS

During my visit to Glennallen, I had about four hours of an exciting but worrying ordeal, when we went for a 24 km rafting trip down the wild turbulent Gulkana River. I was worried for various reasons: I was rafting for the first time in my life and I had left my money, ticket, passport, binoculars and camera in a water-proof bag which was kept on the floor of the raft. Although my thoughts kept going back to the bag, amidst lightning, thunder and rain, we had splendid wildlife sightings: Bald Eagles, merganser with chicks and a Caribou bull. On the way to Gulkana, I was amazed to see the Trans-Alaskan pipeline, one of the greatest engineering achievements of the century. This 1280-km long pipeline takes oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, and is built in such a way that it can withstand severe earthquakes and temperature extremes. There is enough space below the pipeline for even the giant moose to wander freely.

Denali diaries

The ‘High One’ is what the Athabascan people call the 6,195m McKinley peak, which crowns the 960 km long Alaska Range. In 1917, the 16,000 km sq Mount McKinley National Park was established to protect the Caribou, sheep, Moose and Grizzly; the idea was conceived by Charles Sheldon, known as the father of Denali National Park. Sheldon was a big proponent of setting aside wild lands to protect the rich variety of wildlife from extinction by market hunters. I first heard of it through the works of Adolf Murie, naturalist and conservationist, who extensively studied wolves in the Park during the early part of the 20th century.

Denali owes its beauty to its contrasting landscapes – wide low plains, dark sombre mountains, brightly-coloured peaks and sheer granite domes. The lowlands and slopes consist of two major plant associations: taiga and tundra. Taiga, a Russian term meaning ‘forest of little sticks’, aptly suggests the coniferous forest of spruce trees. Tundra, again is a Russian word for treeless mountains, typical of regions near the Arctic Circle where tree-growth is scant due to short growing seasons and very low temperatures. It is a fascinating world of dwarf shrubs and miniature wildflowers, adapted to a short growing season when the thinnest layer of topsoil on deep lying permafrost thaws each summer to support life.

The mountain makes its own weather, and can be cloud-hidden for as much as 75% of the summer. Visitors are allowed to drive from the Access Center to the Savage River, a distance of about 24 km. To go beyond the river, they must use public transport (nearly 60 tour buses operate on this route), alighting at places where they would like to spend additional time to hike around. Areas which are frequently visited by grizzlies and where there are wolf dens, are restricted, largely for safety reasons. Warren had a special use permit, which allowed him to drive from the Visitor Access Center to Wonder Lake—a distance of about 137 km. We had marvellous sightings of a Grizzly mother with two cubs, Caribou, Moose, ptarmigan (Logopus sp.) with chicks, and valleys and mountain slopes full of flowers, each vying with one another in colour, beauty and rhythm.

Fishing in Kenai

Our next destination was the Kenai Peninsula, where we were to observe salmon fishing in the Kenai River and see the facilities at the Moose Research Center, located in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Dr. Al Franzmann, former director of the Center, who spent some time with us at the Wildlife Institute of India in May 1985, participating in our elephant radio-collaring efforts, was our host. The Kenai River is Alaska’s most popular sport-fishing stream. One reason behind its popularity is that it has both early and late runs of Red salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka), King or Chinook salmon (O. tshawytscha) and Silver salmon (O. kisutch). The Kenai is also renowned for the size of its salmon. The world record King, a 97-pound-four-ounce giant, was taken from the Kenai in 1985.

The Alaskan Board of Fisheries has established spawning escapement goals for both early and late King salmon runs, and late Red salmon runs. If the optimum number of salmon does not enter the river for spawning, then the fishing time and the area will be reduced, or only catch-and-release fishing will be permitted. If the situation improves, anglers would be allowed to retain King salmon that are 52 inches or longer. Smaller ones would have to be released. I took part in red salmon fishing and was amazed by the number of fish that were being landed by anglers who stood shoulder to shoulder along both banks of Kenai river. The bag limit for each person was three and for my US $15, three-day license, I was eligible to land three King salmon and nine Red salmon. After enjoying three days of splendid fishing, the scenery of Kenai Peninsula and the hospitality of the Franzmans, whose well-settled retired lives comprise gardening, fishing and hunting, I returned to Anchorage via Homer.

When in Nome

My last destination in Alaska was Nome, which has a rich and colourful history. Gold was first discovered in the Nome area in 1899, and a historic gold rush of epic proportions soon followed. Within two years, more than 20,000 people arrived in search of their fortunes. The big rush was short-lived, however, and by 1905 the population had stabilised at 5000 residents. By 1911, more than 60 million dollars in gold had been mined from Seward Peninsula’s beaches, streams and hills.

Reindeer (European for Caribou) were first introduced to Alaska in 1891. The Eskimo people were dying from epidemic of diseases introduced by Europeans, and from starvation due to a decline in Caribou and marine mammal populations. The Reverend Sheldon Jackson, General Agent for Education, wanted to provide a stable food supply for the Eskimos. He imported 1280 Reindeer from Siberia between 1892 and 1902, and Mission Church teachers administered the program. Now there are about 18,000 animals grazing on the Seward Peninsula, and for its velvet antlers and meat, each deer is worth US $ 650 over its lifetime. They give a sustained income to the Nome Eskimos.

Dr. Lyle Renecker from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who initiated a study on reindeer around Nome in 1991, accompanied me in these parts. The major objective of this study was to understand the factors that govern the Reindeer population, and suggest management action to build up the population. The study involves radio collaring of newborn calves with mortality sensor transmitters, and monitoring them until they become yearlings. In addition, data on habitat use, diseases of Reindeer and accumulation of cesium-137 (fallout from open air testing of nuclear weapons and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster) were being gathered.

On 28th August, piloted by Tim Smith, I flew in a Cessna 206 over Nome River, where thousands of Pink salmon (O. gorbuscha) were spawning. There were four Grizzly bears feeding on the salmon. We also saw two herds of Musk oxen, and when we flew over and closer to one group, the oxen adopted a semi-circle group defence formation, which though effective against predators like wolves, is not effective against man armed with firearms, who actually led to the oxen’s extinction in Alaska. Incidentally, the return of Musk oxen to Alaska is an inspiring success story in wildlife conservation. Concerns over the impending extinction of the species worldwide, led to a move to restore a protected population in Alaska, which was done in 1930, by bringing 34 animals from East Greenland to Nunivak Island in Alaska. The population successfully grew and animals were relocated to various sites in the former range all over Alaska. Now, in 1992, the population is over 3,000 animals and the species in Alaska is possessively protected and judiciously hunted.

Children standing by Native Alaskan homes in Kotzebue. | Photo: Haddon, EP/USFWS

Children standing by Native Alaskan homes in Kotzebue. | Photo: Haddon, EP/USFWS

ALASKA  AT PRESENT:

Conserving the wilderness

Alaska has the biggest Moose, largest bears, tallest Spruces, rivers thick with salmon, and yet it is one of the frailest environments on our planet because of the close interdependence between social and ecological components. In recognition of this long-standing dependence on wildlife, fish and plant staples, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (1980) provides for continued use of traditional subsistence resources, which are vital to the rural Alaskan natives. The Act provides for federal protection of over 100 million acres of land in forms of national parks and refuges in Alaska. Logging is not permitted in the protected landscapes, which comprise almost 40% of the total land area. Boundaries of protected habitats have been drawn to encompass complete and self-sustaining ecosystems.

Conservation has a strong foothold in Alaska. Today, the Western Arctic Caribou herd, over which I flew in Kotzebue in 1992, numbers over 350,000 animals and ranges over 363,000 km sq. Several villages harvest caribou from that herd within specific seasons. Populations in these villages range from a few hundred to a few thousands, and have been largely stable or grown at a low rate. The harvest quota is maintained at Maximum Sustainable Yield of less than 2.7% of the herd size. There is an organised co-management group that includes subsistence users, other Alaskan hunters, reindeer herders, hunting guides, conservationists, biologists, and natural resources managers – who collectively monitor and manage the herd’s health, population and harvest.

The present-day threats and challenges to Alaska’s wilderness are mainly from two sources. First, climate change, that includes rapidly thawing permafrost, retreat of sea-ice, increase in intensity of forest fires and shorter fire cycles; and second, industrial activities such as mining, oil and gas extraction – especially off-shore, and increase in shipping traffic through the Arctic (particularly the northern sea route). Resource development is frequently favoured by governments, under pressure from diverse constituent needs, especially in rural economically vulnerable areas. A rewarding strategy under these situations will be to find a middle path, allowing for development while minimising potential impacts. Together, one can be optimistic that the conservation ethics prescribed by Adolf Murie and Charles Sheldon will eventually prevail, and Alaska will continue to have abundant fish, wildlife, matchless scenery, innumerable mountains and valleys, beyond one’s wildest expectations.

 

Cover Photo: NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION/DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

 

Article originally published in Dec 2014 issue of Saevus Magazine


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About the Author /

Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh is one of India’s foremost field biologists and conservationists. He retired as Dean, Faculty of Wildlife Sciences, at theWildlife Institute of India in 2005. He lives in Bangalore and works for Nature Conservation Foundation as Eminent Wildlife Biologist and for WWF-India as Honorary Scientific Advisor.

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