May 31 - June 14, 2011
“Peg has chosen the best sites and sights, the timing, the opportunities to try some new things, and she lets you be yourself within those plans.”
- Mary Hirsch
“How could anyone go through their life without going to Denali?”
- Ellen Lahlum
In a world where the treasures of wildlife and wild places are dwindling, Alaska remains a wilderness jewel. More than any place in North America, it retains its wild character and ecological integrity, making a visit here simply a “must do” experience. We visit in late May-early June when we have endless hours of daylight to explore. It is an active time for birds and wildlife feeding young in the short summer season. Our journey is designed to visit signature landscapes from seacoast to tundra. Look for Moose and a variety of birds in thick spruce forests, circumnavigate seabird islands amid narrow fjords and hike in Denali National Park. We visit wildlife-rich areas near Anchorage, Fairbanks, Seward, and Nome.
A sampler of Alaska’s magnificent scenery would not be complete without a boat trip into the Gulf of Alaska from Seward. From our comfortable boat, we look for close encounters with Humpback Whales, large groups of Orca, dolphins, and the increasingly rare Steller’s Sea Lion. Our route takes us past several large glaciers in Resurrection Bay, and then travels through the rich waters of the Chiswell Islands where seabirds such as Tufted and Horned Puffins, Thick-billed and Common Murres, Black-legged Kittiwake, and Red-faced Cormorant nest in the long days of summer. We enter Northwestern Fjord, one of the most spectacular of the Kenai Fjords National Park. At its head, we stop the boat very close to the calving glacier, taking in its magnificent beauty and myriad sounds of ice falling.
In Nome we explore a wild and beautiful landscape close to the Arctic Circle. Perched on the sea, with a backdrop of mountains behind, Nome draws regular and vagrant Asian birds from nearby Russia. Many plants exhibit Old World affinities and this far north tree-line has given way to open tundra. Nome’s unique community is locked in by ice for much of the year. Our visit is timed for the ice ‘break-up’, an exciting time when locals celebrate the end of winter and birders from around the world gather with hopes of seeing unusual species. After exploring many areas, we think Nome provides Alaska’s premier birding experience. Nome also provides an authentic Alaskan experience away from roads and regular connections to the outer world. Its colorful Gold Rush history is evident throughout the area. An annual highlight in March is the finish of the Iditarod race – you can stand on the finish line in the center of Nome.
We feature three nights at renowned Camp Denali, a naturalist’s paradise with views of Mt. McKinley possible on clear days from the porch. The proprietors’ commitment to fine food, great hikes, local expertise, and conservation in the region provides many of the highlights of our stay. Stan Senner, well-known conservationist and authority on Alaska birds, is the invited Guest Speaker during our stay.
We have expanded our stay in Alaska as there is just so much to see. Join us to explore in depth Alaska: Nome, Kenai Fjords and Denali National Parks, and scenic areas near Anchorage and Fairbanks and the lovely Alyeska Lodge.
Tues., May 31 Arrival in Anchorage
Arrive today in Anchorage, Alaska. As the plane comes in over Cooke Inlet, watch for possible pods of Beluga Whale below – if you can take your eyes off the snow-covered peaks on the west side of the bay, or the verdant Chugach Mountains that give a dramatic background to Anchorage, Alaska’s vibrant most populous city. Today is a rest and relax day after your travels with no activities planned. However, for those that arrive in time, our comfortable accommodations are well-situated near downtown Anchorage so that you can explore. Plan to explore at your leisure as flights arrive throughout the day and into the evening. All arriving participants should plan to take a taxi to the hotel (about $25) from the airport. Once settled, we can highly recommend a trip to the Anchorage Museum. Just outside our bed and breakfast there is walking trail with good birding. On mudflats you may see gulls, terns and sandpipers feeding, and in marshy areas where freshwater rivers enter, you may find migrating Sandhill Cranes. For those arriving in time, enjoy dinner at one of our favorite local restaurants. As some may arrive after dinner, our welcome dinner will be in Nome the following evening.
Please note: Anchorage is a delightful small city with easy access to some great museums, shops and restaurants. You may want to consider arriving early to spend time here at your leisure. We can certainly help with your arrangements.
Accommodations at the Copper Whale, Anchorage (D)
Wed., June 1 North to Nome!
Today we catch a morning flight from Anchorage to Nome; typically a jet-carrier flight where we share space with cargo. Weather can delay or even prevent landing in Nome, but with good luck, we will land on time to begin our exploration. Our best bet is to start early in the day, so be prepared for an early flight. Once in Nome we store our luggage (rooms will be ready early afternoon), and head out to explore. There are a number of excellent birding sites close to town where we find White Wagtails, Long-tailed Ducks and Pacific, Arctic, Red-throated and possibly Yellow-billed Loons. Explore the Harbor area and historic sites of Nome, with some free time in town to check out the shops, museums, the Iditarod Finish Line Arch and the birder-friendly Visitor’s Center on Front Street. After settling in to our lodgings and exploring a bit, we have an early dinner and enjoy a wildlife watching loop drive to search for Grizzly Bears, Muskoxen and arctic birds in the beauty of evening light.
Accommodations for the next four nights at the Aurora Inn, Nome (B, L, D)
Thurs., June 2 – Sat., June 4 Great Days in Nome!!
Three main roads lead out into the wilds of the Seward Peninsula, and we travel a combination of routes based on current bird sightings and the interests and abilities of the group. En route, we should find Yellow Wagtails perched up on an old gold dredge, sight Grizzly Bears digging up arctic Ground Squirrels or we may encounter a roadblock of Reindeer, which are herded here instead of cattle. Gyrfalcons, Long-tailed Jaegers and Snowy Owls nest in the region and can be found hunting the open tundra. The Nome-Council road leads out to Cape Nome, with a panoramic view of the Bering Sea and possible sightings of Aleutian and Arctic Terns as well as a variety of eiders and scoters. It continues on to Safety Lagoon and points beyond where we should find Bar-tailed Godwits, Arctic Loons and large flocks of Tundra Swans. Near Solomon, old railroad engines can be seen as the ‘Last Train to Nowhere’. The Nome-Kougarok Road leads 83 miles north into the Kigluaik Mountains. It is a beautiful drive, with many areas for birding along the way. Willow bottoms attract Arctic Warblers, Gray-cheeked Thrushes and Bluethroats; they may also hide a group of Musk Oxen with their young! Willow and Rock Ptarmigans, Northern Wheatears and Horned Larks perch on lichen-covered rocks of the tundra, while Rough-legged Hawks and Peregrine Falcons hunt overhead. The open tundra provides nesting habitat for Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Pomarine Jaegers. For willing hikers, Bristle-thighed Curlews nest high on the slopes in the tundra. With luck they may be calling or displaying – a great reward for the tough climb to find them.
Twenty thousand people lived in Nome at the turn of the century, seeking their fortunes in gold found in the abundant beach sands. Today about 5000 people live here at the edge of the Bering Sea. Nome is the service center for much of Western Alaska. Watching huge barges being unloaded gives us insight into the hardships and joys of life on a 21st century frontier. Birding from the rock sea wall near the harbor can be rewarding with sightings of large flocks of sea ducks, Glaucous and Slaty-backed Gulls and a variety of shorebirds – now bright in breeding plumage.
At Pilgrim Creek, we find the remains of an agricultural settlement, an historic orphanage and a delightful small hot springs amid trees that attract Hoary Redpolls and Blackpoll Warblers. Salmon Lake provides us a wonderful picnic spot, and at this time of year there will likely still be snowfields around parts of the lake. The Nome-Teller road leads off to the Northwest. Bluethroats enjoy the willows of several small drainages en route, while other habitats along the road provide us with nesting American Dippers and Long-tailed Jaegers. The sand spit at Teller is well known for its rarities, which may include Black Guillemots, Northern Shrikes and various sandpipers.
Close to Nome, a side road up Anvil Mountain provides majestic views of the Bering Sea and King Island, possibly Moose and Musk Oxen and wonderful early spring wildflowers. We look for Red-throated Pipits, Northern Wheatears and Pacific Golden Plovers as we explore. There is abundant daylight, and we vary the times we go afield so those who wish can experience midnight sun! Dinners are at your leisure so you can pace yourself. Some will want to call it a day and relax for the evening and keen birders may want to continue taking in some of the long hours of daylight.
Accommodations for four nights at the Aurora Inn (B, L daily; dinners at your leisure)
Sun., June 5 Flight to Anchorage / Seward
This morning we depart Nome, returning to Anchorage. Here we pick up our rental vans near the airport, and drive south to Seward, a spectacularly situated fishing town on Resurrection Bay, at the edge of the Gulf of Alaska. This is a spectacular route, and we stop for photography, birding and sightseeing. From the boardwalk trail at Potter’s Marsh we hope to observe spawning salmon as well as nesting Bald Eagles and a number of waterfowl and waders. We follow the edge of Cooke Inlet, and from viewpoints, we scan the rugged slopes for signs of Dall Sheep and Moose, and the waters of the bay for Belugas.
On arrival, settle into accommodations on the small boat harbor of Seward. Enjoy fresh seafood or steaks tonight at Ray’s, located on the waterfront – our favorite restaurant in Alaska! It’s fun to wander after dinner, watch the halibut harvest come in, marvel at the many boats, and look for Sea Otter often just off the docks!
Accommodations at Holiday Inn Express, Seward, AK. (B ,L ,D)
Mon., June 6 Chiswell Islands / Northwestern Fjord Cruise / Seward
Today we embark on an all-day boat trip into Kenai Fjords National Park. This is a marvelous day spent cruising among glaciers and seabird nesting islands of the Gulf of Alaska. As we leave the dock, we look for Northern Sea Otters, Marbled Murrelets, Pigeon Guillemots, Double-crested and Pelagic Cormorants, Bald Eagles and Glaucous-winged Gulls. Scenery is on a massive scale and we should find several active feeding Humpback Whales that spend summers feeding in these rich ocean waters. We may also find pods of Orcas or Dall’s Porpoises, and on glacial ice chunks near Northwestern Fjord, we should find Harbor Seals with tiny pups. The Chiswell Islands are prime seabird nesting areas, and here we find numerous Tufted and Horned Puffins, often quite close to the boat. Common Murres are incredibly common and our captain knows where to find the more local Thick-billed Murres, likely now on eggs on very steep-sided seamounts. Black-legged Kittiwakes are abundant and vocal. In a sheltered cove, we hope to spot a few Parakeet Auklets. As we enter the narrow channel that leads to Northwestern Fjord, we look for Rhinoceros Auklets, possibly Ancient Murrelets and, by small freshwater inlet streams, rare Kittlitz Murrelets. The boat must navigate floating ice, recently calved from Northwest Glacier. Our captain pulls up quite close to this glacier, turns off the engine, and lets us float among the sights and sounds of an active calving glacier – extraordinary! On the way back, we venture into deeper water where we look for Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwaters. As we reenter Resurrection Bay heading for Seward, we quietly venture close to a Red-faced Cormorants nesting colony, and hope to find Black Oystercatcher in a rocky bay. Dinner is on your own tonight; dine in style or get a quick bite to eat after this exciting day.
Accommodations at Holiday Inn Express, Seward (B,L)
Tues., June 7 Kenai Peninsula / Alyeska Resort / Dinner on Top of the Mountain!
This morning we visit the Alaska Sea Life Center, built as part of the mitigation of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. This modern, interactive museum has live puffins, other seabirds and sea mammals (photographers, take your cameras!) and highly informative exhibits. In nearby Resurrection Bay, we search for Marbled Murrelets and Harlequin Ducks, which often come quite close to shore. We then gather our belongings at the hotel, and drive north to beautiful Alyeska Resort, in winter a ski resort and in summer, a lovely mountain lodge. Here, we look for birds of the temperate rainforest, a habitat that extends up from Southeast Alaska to rim the more easterly situated Prince William Sound. Birds here that are less likely to be found north of here include Rufous Hummingbirds, Steller’s Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Townsend’s Warblers. We take a tram ride up to the top of the mountain for dinner at the Seven Glacier’s Restaurant. If weather cooperates, we’ll also enjoy some birding atop the mountain as well!
Accommodations at Alyeska Resort (B, L,D)
Wed., June 8 Flight to Fairbanks / University of Alaska Museum / Evening with a local Dog Musher
This morning we enjoy the scenic drive back to Anchorage and stop to look for American Dipper known to nest in the clear mountain streams. Mid-morning, we take a flight bound north to Fairbanks. With good weather we have some fantastic views, perhaps even of Denali (‘THE mountain’). Fairbanks is located at the confluence of the Chena and Tanana rivers; on arrival we settle in at accommodations on the Chena River.
In the afternoon, we visit the fabulous University of Alaska Museum, recently expanded to offer a grand array of cultural and historical exhibits. We also walk down to the University’s Arctic Botanical Garden where many flowers will be in bloom and, with luck; we may see Sandhill Cranes in lush fields nearby.
Tonight we share a special evening with Mary Shields, the first woman to complete the Iditarod; now an author, educator and enthusiastic dog-musher. She shares with us her ‘Tales of the Trail’ and we meet her working and well-loved canine companions.
Accommodations at River’s Edge Resort Cottages (B,L,D)
Thurs., June 9 Fairbanks and Vicinity / Alaska Bird Observatory
Today we explore Fairbanks and its surroundings in more detail. We visit the Alaska Bird Observatory, and depending on their schedule, we may be able to watch a bird-banding demonstration, or to walk to Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge with one of their biologists. We will certainly check out trails at key birding locations that let us explore true boreal forest. We will network with local guides for possible sightings of Northern Hawk Owls, or maybe Boreal Owls. Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers may be found in this northern realm, as well as Ruffed Grouse, Hammond’s and Alder Flycatchers, and other species. After time afield, history buffs may enjoy learning of the gold-rush history of the area, and several may want to see the famous Alaska oil pipeline. The evening is at your leisure; several restaurants are within walking distance of our hotel.
Accommodations at River’s Edge Resort Cottages, Fairbanks (B, L)
Fri., June 10 Denali National Park / Camp Denali Lodge
We get an early start for Denali National Park, boarding the train for Denali Station about 8:00 AM for this very exciting part of our journey.. Our Alaska Railroad train passes through boreal forest, where we see abundant Black Spruce interspersed with ponds and wetlands. We keep our eyes peeled for Trumpeter Swans, Moose and other wildlife as the train moves along. As we get close to Healy, Alaska, the mountain scenery is quite dramatic and our train makes wide curves through picturesque tunnels. Guides from Camp Denali await us at the station. As they load luggage and pick up supplies, we have time to view exhibits at the National Park Visitor’s Center. We then head to the wilds, driving 90 miles through Denali National Park to our intimate, peaceful lodge with front porch views of Mt. McKinley (Denali). En route any number of exciting wildlife sightings are possible, from Gyrfalcons to Grizzly Bears, Moose, Dall Sheep and more. Along the way, we enjoy a great picnic dinner featuring wild Alaskan delicacies. We arrive in time for dessert, an orientation to the lodge, and hopefully beautiful views.
Accommodations at Camp Denali (B, L, D)
Sat., June 11 and Sun., June 12 Denali National Park / Camp Denali
We have two full days to enjoy the spectacular wilderness of Denali. Our lodgings offer us great comfort, delicious meals and warm hospitality. We have chosen this year to stay at Camp Denali, the upper of the Cole/Hamm family’s two lodges, where a special session with an emphasis on Bird Migration and Conservation is taking place. Views from the cabins, library and resource center, and lovely dining room are superlative! Camp Denali has a rich history and reputation as one of the first wilderness lodges in Alaska. At Camp Denali, lodge accommodations are in well-spaced cabins, appointed with traditional cabin amenities including hand-sewn quilts made by the staff, wood stoves and propane lights. Drinking water comes from a spigot by your door, and may be heated in your cabin for a quiet cup of coffee, tea or for washing up. The dining hall, lodge, natural history resource collection and a modern bath and shower facility are a three to seven-minute walk from your cabin. In addition each cabin has a meticulously kept handmade outhouse.
Camp Denali sits right at the 2,400 foot tree line, providing access to native tundra and taiga habitats right from your door. Stan Senner is the invited speaker while we are here. Stan is well-known in Alaska. In his career of more than 35 years, he has worked for The Wilderness Society and U.S. House of Representatives during passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. He also served as executive director of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, was the state of Alaska's science coordinator following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and served as executive director of Audubon Alaska for ten years (from 1999-2009). He is currently with the Ocean Conservancy and is based out of Portland, Oregon and he enthusiastically returns to Alaska to lead the bird migration and conservation session this spring.
Birds are Mr. Senner’s great love. He holds an M.S. in biology from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and has published many articles on the ecology and conservation of birds. Bird migration is his particular interest. Over the last 20 years, much of his work has focused on science and public policy related to energy development and its impacts on wildlife and ecosystems in Alaska. Mr. Senner will give two evening presentations: one on bird migration and natural history of Denali’s bird life, and the other on conservation in the Arctic--Alaska's North Slope and Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
During the day, we join other talented guides of Camp Denali, mingling with lodge guests as we wander across tundra and forest in search of grand scenery, abundant wildlife, and newly emerging flowers. With luck, we should find Caribou or Moose with calves, Common Loons with chicks on nearby Wonder Lake, a variety of ducks including Long-tailed Ducks, and some special birds of the north such as Long-tailed Jaegers, Arctic Warblers, Boreal Chickadees and Varied Thrushes. Each day naturalists offer three varying levels of activity from leisurely ‘naturalist’s forays’ to energetic hikes to scenic high points that you can choose from. We take a picnic lunch, and return to the lodge for wonderful, carefully-crafted dinners ahead of Stan Senner’s presentations.
Accommodations at Camp Denali (B, L, D)
Mon., June 13 Denali National Park / Train to Anchorage
Our return trip through the park has the feel of an African safari, as we never know what animals we will see. We'll keep our eyes open for rare sightings of Gray Wolf, and even Lynx! We have seen Arctic Ground Squirrels, the blue morph of Red Fox and, in some years, Hawk Owls. Often we find Rock or Willow Ptarmigans and nesting Wandering Tattlers or Surfbirds. We do have to meet the train so we can’t linger, but we always hope for excellent sightings. By noon, we are at Denali Station, where we board the train to Anchorage. You may take your lunch here, or wait and eat on the train at your leisure. This is an eight-hour trip, so bring your journal or a good book, or just enjoy sightseeing from the dome car. Our final dinner is on the train.
Accommodations at the Copper Whale Inn, Anchorage (B,D)
Tues., June 14 Optional morning birding / Departures from Anchorage
Enjoy breakfast with a view of Cook Inlet, followed by birding at nearby Westchester Lagoon. Here we may find Red-necked Grebe with chicks, Hudsonian Godwits and Short-billed Dowitchers. Mew Gulls call overhead, and in wooded areas we walk through between tidal mudflats we may find Alder Flycatchers, Blackpoll Warblers or other songbirds. Please arrange flights out today at your convenience. Plan on returning to the airport by taxi, a cost of about $25.00. (B)
CAMP DENALI, DENALI NATIONAL PARK
Over 50 years ago, people with vision and a true love of the wilderness had the foresight to establish Camp Denali in one of the most pristine areas adjacent to Denali National Park. Since 1975, the Cole family has extended this vision, adding North Face Lodge and managing both properties with an impressive commitment to both conservation and quality of experience. With the expansion of Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980, this owner-operated facility now sits in the center of the most scenic and wild portion of Denali National Park. Guided hikes and programs conducted by expert naturalists, with a keen focus on natural history, are the key to providing far more than just a back country stay. Combine unparalleled views of Mt. McKinley with an unparalleled educational and wildlife viewing opportunity and you have the Camp Denali experience. With all this to their credit, they also provide incredible service, delicious meals with fresh foods from their own greenhouse and gardens, and well-appointed comfortable rooms with private bath at the Lodge. Canoes and bikes are available, as is optional flight seeing (additional cost). The location, facilities, and programs are unique, and Naturalist Journeys, LLC & Travelling Naturalists are proud to offer this location as part of our ULTIMATE ALASKA itinerary.
Cost of the journey is $5190.00, based on double occupancy, from Anchorage. Cost of the journey, one additional night longer than our 2009 journey, includes: all accommodations, meals as specified in the itinerary (B=breakfast, L=lunch, D=dinner), parks entrance and other program and activity fees for activities described in the itinerary, the flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks mid-way through your journey, train travel from Fairbanks to Denali (approx. 4 hours) and from Denali to Anchorage (approx. 8 hours), professional guide services, pre-departure materials and miscellaneous program expenses.
The cost also does not include items of a personal nature such as laundry, telephone calls, beverages from the bar during meals or porterage.
Single supplement for the 11 nights of the tour is $1190.00 for all locations
except 3 nights Denali, where single is not available. The single supplement
is paid direct to hotels and incurs no markup.
Cost of the journey does not include air travel to Anchorage. Round-trip air to Nome is also your responsibility and we advise that you plan on booking this when you book your air to Alaska. If you find a better fare going directly into Nome, we are happy to book accommodations for you there on your arrival night instead of Anchorage if we are advised at least two months in advance of your stay. Over the last few years we found that many clients found it most convenient to overnight in Anchorage so we have included hotel arrangements in this year's journey to make that easier in your planning. Nome is a small community and transport from the airport is a short, easy taxi ride (approx. $6.00). As you may arrive at different times due to scheduling or weather, this cost is not included in your tour fees. Please keep in mind that Nome is in the far north, almost at the Arctic Circle, and flights can be delayed due to fog or other inclement weather. We have not experienced this in recent years with modern and improved navigation equipment on the planes, but it can happen that your plane is turned back to Anchorage. If it cannot be rescheduled that day, it will be as soon as possible and you will need to book and pay for alternate hotel reservations as we will not be able to cancel rooms in Nome due to such a delay. Again, this has not happened in recent years, but Nome is still considered the frontier and part of the adventure is getting there!
Sheep, Dave Utterback; Tufted Puffin, Greg Smith; Bald Eagle,
Northern Wheatear and Hawk Owl; Tony Beck www3.sympatico.ca/beck.tony/; Snowy Owl, Noel
Snyder; Common Loons, Bud Ferguson; Lodge photos, Camp Denali www.campdenali.com; all other photos by Peg Abbott.