Archive for July, 2016


This is Admiralty Island, which is not far from Juneau. It is known by the Tlingit as Xootsnoowú, which translates as “Fortress of the Bears.”

It is home to 1,600 brown bears, which I didn’t see while whale watching. This island has one the highest densities of brown bears anywhere in the world, and it is the highest for North America.

These aren’t just normal brown bears, however.  This is where things get really interesting.

About ten years ago, it turned out that many brown bears from Admiralty Island and the neighboring islands of Baranof and Chichagof had mitochondrial DNA that is similar to the polar bear.  This caused quite a bit of a sensation, because if these brown bears really were closely related to the polar bears, then we might have found the place where polar bears evolved from brown bears. This was also at the time when there was a growing body of evidence that polar bears evolved very rapidly and relatively recently from brown bears.

A later nuclear DNA study revealed that the similarities between these brown bears and polar bears were the result of ancient hybridization. The genomes of these brown bears is roughly 1 percent polar bear, but 6.5 percent of the X chromosomes come from polar bears.

These islands and Ireland are both places where polar and brown bears hybridized at the end of the last glacial maximum. Polar bears got stranded on islands, which became great brown bear habitat. Male brown bears mated with polar bear sows, and the offspring were fertile. However, they bred back into the brown bear population in such a way that they are almost entirely brown bear in ancestry.

As the arctic is warming, polar bears are finding themselves stranded on land for longer periods during the mating season, and brown bears (mostly grizzlies) are wandering north. Several hybrids have been killed in recent years, including one from this year.

Polar bears could very likely become extinct as a result of climate change, but their genes could still live on in the brown and grizzly bears that manage to hybridize with them during this transition period.

I wish I had been able to see one of those bears on Admiralty Island,  but I am just glad I got a photo of the island itself.

Whales were calling. Not bears.




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I’ve never been whale watching in my life. The only wild whale I’ve seen was a dead pygmy sperm whale in North Carolina, so this was quite an experience.

These are all humpback whales, which come to Alaska to feed on the vast of krill and baitfish that are themselves fed on the vast phytoplankton blooms that happen as a result of long days of sunlight and the nutrients of glacial silt. They go to Hawaii to have their calves and breed, but those warm seas are totally devoid of whale food. So they come up to Alaska every summer to fatten themselves up. Hawaii is pretty much devoid of orcas, which kill whale calves, so those waters are the nursery. But the nursery is in a sea of famine.








There were many, many humpbacks swimming near the boat. I wish I had a photo of the one that came closest to the boat. I think it came within maybe 60 feet of the boat, and the first thing you could see is this massive black form coming up from the gray sea. Within just a few seconds, the great form appeared above the surface, spouted, and slipped back under.

I wish I had been able to get photos of that whale. It was really impressive.

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I believe these are mew gulls, and they had three chicks that wandered among the landscaping rocks and spruce trees at the lodge at Denali National Park.










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Pretty disturbing:

And here’s what you need to know about their “poison” (which isn’t really venom).

Find out more about the problems with the slow loris trade here.


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Update on the Denali moose calves

Remember the moose calves I saw at the Denali Park entrance?

Well, they were coming into contact with people so much that they had to be captured. I had heard that their mother had been killed, but the park had decided to leave them alone and see what happens.

They’ve now been sent to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.


So they won’t wind up as wolf or bear food.




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One of the best parts of my Alaska trip was a float down the Chilkat River on a raft. The Chilkat River is home to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, not far from the town of Haines. (Skagway is the nearest “big town.”)

It has the largest concentration of bald eagles of any place in the world. They are even more densely packed in winter, but in summer, they are thick. I bet we saw 25 eagles in the span of about two hours.







Juvenile eagle:




And if you don’t get the reference:

I also saw an arctic tern on the river. This is a bird I remember my grandma reading to me about, which flies from the antarctic to the arctic every year.  It has the longest migration of any bird, and unfortunately, I didn’t get a good photo of it.

But it was on my bucket list.






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One of the pleasures of my Alaska trip was meeting Nick Jans. Nick Jans is the author of A Wolf Called Romeo, which is the story of the black wolf that came out to play with free-running dogs at Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier.

I may have written a few things on Romeo on this blog before. He was just that fascinating an animal. Most wolves want to off the dogs they encounter. This one decided to become friends with them and even tolerate the humans who came with them.

The book is a wonderful discussion of wolves and dogs and people and what they truly mean to us and what we mean to them. It also tells the story of an odd wolf, who lived out six incredible years running and playing with the local domestic dog contingent.

The story does not have a happy ending, but the story of a wolf coming to trust people and dogs is something so amazing that you would have to look into the fiction of Jack London to find something even remotely similar.

But this is a true story.

If you would like to know more about Romeo, Jans gave a talk on the ship about the book that was an abbreviated version of this one:

My friend Bronwen Dickey wrote a review of the book in the New York Times I just happened to have been the one who mentioned the book to her over two years ago, and I guess I played a tiny role in getting this book the wonderful review it received.

I received a copy of The Giant’s Hand, which is Jans’s new collection of short stories about life in the Inupiaq Village of Ambler  and his experiences in Alaska’s far north.



The prose in each of these stories is so beautiful. He really can capture the essence of a place with words in a way that very few modern writers are able to match.

I particularly love the stories that include the exploits of Clarence Wood, an Inupiaq hunter and wolf trapper. He is a man of particular genius about the land and its wild inhabitants, but his way of phrasing things is just so perfect if a bit eccentric.

My favorite is: “Too much think about bullshit. That’s what makes you nervous.”

I think I may have to put this on a rock somewhere.

My favorite story in the book thus far is “Crossing Paths.” It is a kind of future warning about Romeo. In the story, Jans meets a red fox near his home, and wanting to get to know it better, he starts leaving out bits of food for it. Things go well until a neighbor shoots it for fear it might be rabid.

Jans has a philosophical discussion in the story about how much wild even Alaskans are willing to tolerate. The truth is that everyone has some limit.

Romeo was not fed to bring him near to humans. He merely came by to socialize with dogs and a few select people.

But Romeo wound up like that poor red fox in the arctic. He wasn’t taken because there was a fear he might be rabid. He was killed by two poachers who just wanted to cause trouble.

As a species, we have a very odd relationship with the wild. We admire it. We want to be part of it. But we also want it to be on our terms.

Like it or not, we’ve long since left the garden. We can only be visitors here, but some of us can truly be at home for a while.

And that’s the best we can do. Unfortunately.

It goes without saying that this book is the best souvenir I’ve ever brought home. I mean I do have a t-shirt from the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, but nothing can compare to this book.

This was the trip of a lifetime.





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