Make the most of your wildlife viewing adventures.
[by Susan Sommer]
1 Where to Go: Alaska is typically broken into five or six major regions—Southeast, Southcentral, Western, Aleutians, Interior, and Northern. Knowing where to find certain species helps in trip planning. For example, polar bears are found only in northern Alaska; Southeast has no moose, but there are deer; and caribou live in every region except the Aleutians, Kodiak Island, and Southeast. Elevation and terrain are also factors to consider. Want a better chance at seeing mountain goats? Look up high to sheer, rocky cliffs; Dall sheep are often found a little lower down. When visiting seabird colonies, be aware of your target species’ nesting habitats such as burrows for tufted puffins or ledges for common murres.
2 What to See: For most people, seeing bears or whales is the highlight of any wildlife viewing adventure. And though witnessing a grizzly ambling across the tundra or a humpback bursting from the waves is indeed spectacular, don’t forget Alaska’s more mysterious creatures such as the shy lynx, the solitary wolverine, the whistling marmot, and the playful harbor seal. Bring your life list of birds, too, for you’re sure to add to it during a summer outing. And if luck is on your side, a wolf might cross your path.
3 Best times to go: Some of Alaska’s animals are best spotted in a snowy landscape, such as jet black ravens playing in the wind currents, or many other resident birds that are easier to see on bare branches during the shoulder seasons. Tracks in the snow can clue you in to recent activity. Summer, though, is prime time, with bears emerging from dens, cow moose dropping calves, migratory birds returning to nest, seals and sea lions hauling out in rookeries to raise their young, and fish swimming up rivers to spawn. During the fall rut, male ungulates might completely ignore your prying eyes. And most wild animals are more active at dawn and dusk.
4 Virtual viewing: Grab some popcorn and get comfy, then check out these amazing seasonal live webcams (reruns play during the off -season): • Round Island walruses: tinyurl.com/walruscam • Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve: tinyurl.com/brooksfallscam
5 Safety: For your safety as well as the animals’, always keep a respectable distance from them.
6 Permits: Because of their popularity, a few places require viewing permits. Regulating the number of people allowed at one time in a given area helps keep the animals from being disturbed and provides a high-quality experience for visitors. Access to the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, for example, allows permit holders to visit the sanctuary, camp within the campground, and attend guided bear viewing sessions each day of their four-day permit. Pack Creek on Admiralty Island and Anan Wildlife Observatory, both in Southeast, also require permits for bear watching.
7 Don’t Forget the Little Guys: Remember that Alaska has thousands of miles of coast; mosey out at low tide to find anemones, sea stars, snails, and more. Enjoy the rich colors of a dragonfly or butterfly. After sunset, watch for the wing beats of tiny bats. 8 Solo or Guided: One of the best things about an Alaska adventure is that anyone can be on the lookout for wild critters. From the back seat of the car to the bow of a small cruise ship to solo or ranger-led hikes, keep your eyes open for movement in the brush, hillsides, or coves. Listen for unusual sounds. Scan the horizon frequently. If you’re confi dent in your own backcountry abilities, go alone, but if you want company, Alaska has no shortage of guides and organized tours.
9 Do Your Homework: Consult an information guide before venturing out. ADFG has some handy info available for free download. Alaska Geographic (akgeo.org) carries books, DVDs, maps, and visitor guides that can help you plan the trip of a lifetime or a single afternoon; the nonprofit also offers field courses.
10 Document: Take pictures and video. Make lists and take notes. Share unusual sightings with wildlife authorities.