Grizzly

At the summit of the Exit Glacier trail, we put our packs down and let our eyes sweep across the Harding Ice Field. It looked like a vast lake of white, dotted here and there with the dark, bare rock of mountain peaks pushing up from the ice field like islands.

“What’s that out there?” Barbra asked, pointing far out on the ice field.

“Probably just some person,” I replied, barely looking up.

As the dark object continued to lumber toward us, Barbra finally picked up the binoculars. “It’s a bear!”

Sure enough. On the hike up the trail, we’d spotted a sow black bear with two cubs grazing in an alpine meadow. With the image of the black bear fresh in our minds, it was clear that what we were now looking at was a grizzly. A massive one with a large shoulder hump, probably a male.

We marveled at the speed with which it made it’s way across the frozen landscape, it’s tracks stretching out as far as the eye could see in its wake. He appeared to be heading straight for Exit Glacier, which, we imagined, he would follow until he came to a river where he could find spawning sockeye salmon.

Glaciers are like rivers of ice, pushed down mountains by the weight of the ice fields where they are born. It is not known for certain how deep—how thick—the Harding Ice Field is. Judging from the mountain peaks that surround it, it must surely be thousands of feet thick at its deepest places, and it spawns dozens of glaciers, each one carving its own path in the mountain rock as it flows. Exit Glacier moves at a rate of about one and a half feet each day, grinding out a valley under the tons of ice it carries.

Rhythms

School has been out for a week. The sun is up all day. Children are playing. People are out socializing. Hunters have their boats on the sea ready for the ice to open enough to hunt oogruk (bearded seals). The birds are mating and nesting. Soon it will be time to gather eggs.

The rhythms of Sarichef island hum along.

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern hawk owls (Surnia ulula) are typically found in boreal forests but are visitors to open land as well. Although primarily visual hunters, their keen sense of hearing allows them to locate prey up to a foot below the snow. Lots of voles here on Sarichef Island. Day by day, more new species of birds are arriving–gulls, geese, ducks, sandpipers, songbirds. Here and there amidst the snow melt and winter-brown vegetation, a few shoots of green are poking up.

Predacious Diving Beetle

Looking like a lab specimen on glass under a microscope, this 3/4 inch long predacious diving beetle was photographed where it was found in a vernal pond swimming in a few inches of very clear water over a bed of ice. These beetles suddenly seem to be everywhere, scooting through the myriad clear, shallow, temporary ponds with their oar-like back legs.

Polar Bear!

With big bright eyes, one of my students announced that his dad had gotten a polar bear. He insisted that I call his dad so I could go see it. So, right after school, Jack and I headed out to talk to the hunter. The previous day he had been out seal hunting a few miles south of Shishmaref and had seen lots of polar bear tracks. He found one of the bears and proudly came home with the fourth polar bear in his lifetime. Telling the story, he concluded with a smile, “My daughters have already put in orders for ruffs!”

The skin was laid out, its mylar-like hair glistening in the sun by his home. It was easy to see why polar bear hair was once a highly valued material for fly-tying. But for how silky the fur looked, it felt surprisingly coarse to touch.  The paws, of course, were huge, and the foot pads were thick and tough and leathery. Stroking the fur and foot pads with our bare hands, we felt a connection to the vast miles of ice this bear had traveled, the arctic cold and wildness, the remoteness of this place.

McKay’s Buntings

My hat’s off to great bird photographers. Birds are difficult subjects. Watching us intently with expressive little faces, these fat McKay’s Buntings tolerated us getting within about 25 feet before  flying away. Their feathers were fluffed up for warmth, making them look roly poly. Today was a gorgeous day to try and capture them:  icy clear skies and 6 degrees above zero.