FIVE BEAR STORIES

Karen and I have encountered Black and Grizzly Bears occasionally, and these sometimes make for memorable stories. Here are five adventures that we can’t possibly forget, along with assorted bear photographs I’ve taken in recent years.

American Black Bear feeding on Gray’s Lovage in July, Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State

WATCHING BEARS AT THE DUMP

Copper Harbor on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, circa 1959

My family used to take camping vacations to state parks back in the 1950s and 1960s. Of those, Fort Wilkins State Park at the tip of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, which sticks up like a long curved finger into Lake Superior, was a favorite. This was an early army outpost established in 1844 to keep order during a copper boom in the region, and there were cannons and a fort that excited the small boy in me.

But the coolest thing we did as a family there was to drive the ’57 Chevrolet station wagon to the dump and wait until dark, lined up with all the other classic Detroit cars. At deep dusk the bears arrived one by one, until there were five. They poked their snouts into the fresh garbage and turned over cardboard boxes with their powerful legs and claws, each working independently of the others. I remember one was a big cinnamon-colored bear, while the others had black hair. I’m sure the dump smell and flies were awful, but it was thrilling to see bears up close for the first time in my life.

Dumps used to be a special way for families to experience bears outside each small town in the Upper Peninsula. Those days are long gone, but those of us who experienced bears at the night dumps will never forget the adventure. Here is a sampling of memories of that time by many people: https://www.pasty.com/discuss/messages/313/617.html

American Black Bear traversing in an alpine meadow on Sahale Arm, North Cascades National Park
American Black Bear foraging in a Ponderosa Pine forest near the ghost town of Garnet, Montana, USA

SLEEPING WITH A BEAR

1982 in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks 

We were camped in a dense stand of Red Spruce high in the mountains. We knew that there were bears in the mountains, so we hung our food, but we didn’t have the mental acuity or experience to hang the food correctly in a tight grove of toothpick trees.

An hour later, in the tent, we heard a dreaded sound outside. I opened the zipper, and of course it was a big American Black Bear of the bad boy kind. I startled it by poking my head out the opening, and the bear responded by immediately climbing a tall spruce within five feet of our tent. So, it was a standoff, with me looking nervously up at the bear and it looking nervously down at me, occasionally clacking its teeth to warn me how fierce he was.

The standoff lasted all night. I had finally fallen asleep and didn’t wake up until we heard the sound of claws descending on bark. We quickly got dressed and I assumed the bear had skedaddled away, but instead it went directed to our hanging food bag. I think the bear had gotten into the food before coming close to the tent the night before, and the torn bag waving in the breeze and a pile of plastic bags below told the story. We finally chased the bear away, but we were short on food the rest of the weekend trip. My morning ration of instant coffee had bear saliva on its torn plastic container, and we never did find the peanut butter.

In the years since then we have learned to engineer a relatively bear-proof hanging bag under most circumstances, but it is often a challenge that most hikers don’t master, based upon most of the hanging food bags we see. Bear spray is also a good idea, though I don’t normally carry it in Black Bear country.

Grizzly Bear searching for food, accompanied by a scavenging Coyote, in Yellowstone National Park

FENDING OFF A BLACK BEAR WITH STONES

1989 in the Mount Baker Wilderness, Washington State

We left our rental car in the parking lot at the trail leading to Hannegan Pass to begin a backpacking adventure in North Cascades National Park. At the trailhead we had an unusual siting of a Black Bear wandering around, and in the trail register comments someone wrote “pesky bear!” We set out on our ten day backpack into lowering clouds.

We set up camp among blueberry bushes and conifers, cooked dinner and hung our food in two heavy bags from a tree branch, then retired to our tiny tent. The next morning, we got up and immediately found a Black Bear under our food hang, trying to get at it. I yelled at it and threw some stones to try and chase it away, and it left, But I had a feeling that it wasn’t done with harassing us, so I went to where I anticipated it might approach the bag next, and lo and behold, there it was! So I threw more stones, hoping to discourage it. After a couple more parries, the bear finally left us alone. 

Later in the day however, as we were hiking, a bear descended a mountainside at an angle that would intersect with us, causing us to be really apprehensive about its intent. It came within 20 yards of us, and I suspect it was the same pesky bear, but we hiked beyond without incident. The rest of the trip was bear-free, but those first two days were more than a bit unnerving.

Tracks of Grizzly Bear 399, who was accompanied by her two cubs of that year in snow in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. She had been seen here five minutes before we came on the scene.

BEING BLUFF-CHARGED BY A BLACK BEAR

1991 in Enchanted Valley, Olympic National Park

We hiked the 13+ mile trail to Enchanted Valley on a spring day, early in the season when Red Alder leaves were emerging. It is a long hike but the setting in the valley was worth it, with waterfalls cascading off the gray cliffs. We set up camp and talked to a national park ranger about a murder mystery we were reading called The Dark Place, by Aaron Elkins, which was set in that very part of Olympic National Park. We hung our food from a tree, then soothed our hike-weary bodies in our warm sleeping bags.

The next morning we awoke to see a bear foraging in the hummocky gravel of the Quinault River’s flood plain. I went out with my camera on a tripod and got too close to the bear; I knew that when it bluff-charged me and I hurriedly backed up, even with my long telephoto lens.

Then the ranger came out of the old hotel building, converted to a ranger station, and also saw the bear. He thought it was an opportunity for a photo, just like I had. He was wearing a wife beater undershirt instead of his uniform at that early hour, and he also had a camera. Only his was a point-and-shoot camera without a telephoto, so he had to get much closer to the bear than I did. It then bluff-charged him! It was really funny to watch a ranger–who knew better–get so close to a bear!

Evidence of an American Black Bear feeding on the cambium of a Subalpine Fir using claws and teeth, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State

SURPRISING GRIZZLIES ON THE TRAIL

2010 Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia

We were high in the Canadian Rockies, staying in log huts with hobbit-height doors during a snowy September. This park is known for its Grizzly Bears, and we had to be careful about walking to the outhouse from the cabin. One morning we awoke to Grizzly tracks near the cabin, heading up a nearby trail we were going to walk later in the day. When we did the hike in a group, we came upon big rocks that the bear had turned over and dug around using the enormous strength in its front legs and claws (these huge muscles terminate in the hump on the back that is characteristic of this species). It had been searching for hibernating ground squirrels or marmots and could quickly dig them out of their winter chambers.

One morning our group rose well before the crack of dawn to walk a trail past Lake Magog and the Mount Assiniboine Lodge and into the trail system beyond. We had headlamps on because it was a dark, cloudy morning. The man ahead of me suddenly stopped and said “There is a big mammal in the trail just ahead.” We waited, and a Grizzly cub, hefty after a summer of ground squirrels and berries, crossed the trail. Then there was another, soon followed by mama. We had our bear spray unholstered and at the ready, and Karen began whistling three loud blasts with her whistle to alert another part of our group that had been late in getting started.

Fortunately nothing bad happened, even though we were in extremely close proximity to the mother and cubs. They left the trail area and moved off about two hundred yards, where the mama began furiously digging for ground squirrels, with the two cubs imitating her. She even stood up on her hind legs repeatedly to sniff the air; we think there was probably a big male–dangerous to her cubs–in the area, based upon a guy we met who was camping with his dog in the nearby campground. His bear encounters were scary enough that he rented a cabin for the next night.

Nothing like Grizzly encounters to set the heart racing!

Grizzly Bear mother standing on hind legs after scenting or hearing a possible threat to her cubs at Magog Lake, Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada
Karen Rentz showing the depth of a fresh hole dug by a Grizzly Bear into the burrow of a Columbia Ground Squirrel, on the border of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park and Banff National Park, Canada
Grizzly Bear staring with menace at the photographer near Magog Lake, Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park
Grizzly Bear sow and cubs digging for Columbian Ground Squirrels near Magog Lake in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park
American Black Bear feeding on Gray’s Lovagein Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State
American Black Bear feeding on Gray’s Lovage in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State

You can see more of the work of photographer Lee Rentz at his website: leerentz.com

GLOWING PINK FLYING SQUIRRELS: Biofluorescence Revealed

Southern Flying Squirrels, Glaucomys volans, glowing hot pink on their underbellies when illuminated by a 365 nm UV flashlight, in a rare phenomenon known as biofluroescence

I awoke last night at midnight to flashes of light from a motion sensor floodlight on our deck. I wasn’t thinking of prowlers, because I suspected the flashes of light were triggered by Southern Flying Squirrels coming to visit for the sunflower seeds I had tossed out just before going to bed.

I crept downstairs and carefully opened the sliding door, letting in frigid February air. The deck light came on briefly, enough that I could see the tiny squirrels dashing up through an opening in the deck around a huge Northern Red Oak. Each squirrel would come up, grab a sunflower seed, then dash down the tree trunk out of sight. This happened so fast that I couldn’t see how many squirrels there were, though at one point I saw three. There may have been more. On this night they were nervous and did not stop long enough for any photos.

We’ve had Southern Flying Squirrels at our home in Michigan each winter, and I’ve photographed them at night several times using incandescent lights on the deck. They made for good photographs, with their gray-brown fur and a cuteness factor of huge bulging eyes and little pink lips, but their coloration was subtle to my eyes and essentially no different from most mammals, which are colored for camouflage rather than display.

Then scientific knowledge suddenly changed. About four years ago a Wisconsin forestry professor, Dr. Jonathan Martin at Northland College, was in the woods at night looking up toward the forest canopy with an ultraviolet flashlight for lichens and other fluorescing lifeforms, when a hot pink missile glided overhead. He identified this as a Northern Flying Squirrel, and its normally white belly lit up hot pink in ultraviolet light. He found this astounding, and asked a colleague to investigate flying squirrel skins in a couple of museum collections to see if the phenomenon could be confirmed. It turned out that in those collections, the bellies of all three species of North American flying squirrels–Southern, Northern, and Humboldt’s Flying Squirrels–glowed bright pink under UV light. Even specimens over 100 years old. Male and female, young and old, they nearly all glowed.

Since we have easy access to flying squirrels at our home in Central Michigan, I decided to observe this phenomenon for myself. I obtained a 365 nm UV flashlight that is powerful enough to look almost into the treetops and began looking at these squirrels on nights they chose to come to our feeding station. They don’t come every night, but when they do I often get up in the middle of the night to observe and try to photograph them. It isn’t easy to photograph little nervous squirrels by a relatively dim (to our eyes) UV light, but I’ve had some success represented by the pictures here.

Southern Flying Squirrel showing biofluorescence under UV light on the left, with the same species illuminated by tungsten light on the right. The belly fur changes from off-white to bubblegum pink when struck by UV light.

Why do flying squirrels glow? That is still unknown. What is known is that at dusk, dark, and dawn, the air is bathed in proportionately more ultraviolet light and far less light from the visible spectrum than in daytime. This UV light–when converted to visible light by fluorescence–makes the flying squirrels more visible to each other. This is even more true when snow blankets the forest, since snow reflects UV light. It also appears that flying squirrels’ eyes, unlike ours, can see into the UV spectrum, so this ability may also be involved.

Again: why do they use biofluorescence and UV light at night? There are a couple of possibilities that spring to mind. Based upon the three flying squirrels I observed on that recent February night, I think it’s possible that the squirrels use their bubblegum pink undersides to keep track of each other at night. These squirrels are highly social, with reports of 25 to 50 Southern Flying Squirrels roosting communally in a hollow tree. So why wouldn’t they follow each other to food sources? Some of my pictures show them sitting side by side, dining quietly together on the sunflower seeds I put out. They seem to enjoy a more peaceable kingdom among their kind than do the daytime Eastern Gray Squirrels and American Red Squirrels we also get in Central Michigan. Feeding together also means more big eyes to look for predators–much as goldfinches and other songbirds feed communally as a strategy to detect hawks.

There is another tantalizing possibility for the pink color. Three large owls that also live in this region–Barred, Barn, and Great Horned Owls–also have bellies that fluoresce hot pink under UV light, though their coverings are feathers rather than fur. These owls are the chief predators of flying squirrels. Do the flying squirrels mimic the owls to fool the predacious birds into thinking they are seeing other owls when in the air? Maybe. I find this possible. The fluorescing fur is mostly on the belly and undertail of the squirrels, with just a minor hint of color change on the back and virtually none on the tail. Once a flying squirrel lands on a tree trunk, its back and tail make it almost invisible to predators because the glowing belly is nearly hidden.

Alternatively, perhaps the owls are mimicking the flying squirrels, fooling the little squirrels into thinking they are seeing others of their own kind. This would allow the owls to silently approach the flying squirrels and suddenly grab the little creatures.

Or perhaps all three of these mechanisms are in play: bubblegum pink signals the presence of flying squirrels to each other, but also both disguises them from owls and identifies them to owls, if any of that makes sense. Coevolution at work.

Biofluorescence also extends to the Virginia Opossum in this region, but is apparently unknown in other mammals here. It turns out the phenomenon is new enough that the chemical and physical mechanism is still unknown. I suspect this will be studied in coming years, with possible applications for industry. Or not. Knowledge is its own reward.

I will be watching these creatures over the coming weeks and years, both with and without the assistance of UV light. The mysteries of nature are an ingrained part of my life and I find observations and photography endlessly fascinating.

The photographs above are a good representation of the Southern Flying Squirrel in UV vs visible light. The final photograph shows the deck setting at night where all the pictures were taken, and includes one flying squirrel for scale. Click on the photographs to see them larger.

Here are some other sources that examine this discovery:

Ultraviolet fluorescence discovered in New World flying squirrels (Glaucomys) (Journal of Mammalogy)

Southern Flying Squirrel (Wikipedia)

Flying Squirrels Glow Fluorescent Pink Under Ultraviolet Light (Smithsonian)

Brooks Range Expedition: Alaska 1984

The story of our 1984 journey to Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range of far north Alaska in words and in photographs. Below the story there are many more photographs that you can click on to enlarge and also see photo captions.

“You guys might want to get out of the tent … there’s a Grizzly out here.” Denis Davis startled us out of our perpetual twilight dreams with that simple statement, and we’ve rarely gotten dressed so fast. The Griz was several hundred yards away on the Arctic tundra and was steadily traveling up the treeless valley. If it smelled us–which it probably did given that we had been backpacking for a week–it didn’t stop to check us out or even look our way. For that we were grateful, given that we had no protection in the era before real bear spray.

This two-week backpacking trip in Alaska’s Brooks Range originated in Denis’ Christmas card for 1983, in which he suggested several possible adventure trips for the coming year to a number of his friends. We were the only ones who responded, and we liked the idea of backpacking in Gates of the Arctic National Park, which was at that time a newly minted national park. 

Karen Rentz backpacking in 1984 in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

We began planning for the trip in conjunction with Denis and his wife at the time, Elaine. We needed to carefully consider every aspect of our equipment for weight and usefulness. I needed camera gear, including a 500mm lens for wildlife, a macro lens for wildflowers, and a wide-angle lens for landscapes, plus 25 rolls of Kodachrome film. Tents at the time were limited, and we needed a tent strong enough to withstand possible snow, so we brought the legendary North Face VE-25, a favorite of Mount Everest expeditions, but which weighed 12 pounds! Karen brought a hiking staff that was actually a beaver-chewed stick from the Adirondacks; she had to check it on the cross-country flight because the gate attendant said it looked like a weapon. Our clothing was in the pre-fleece era and included items Karen sewed from Frostline kits. We had jeans, army surplus wool pants, wool shirts and sweaters, long underwear, rain-resistant pants, and Frostline parkas. We also each had an insulated Frostline vest; these would also serve as pillows. Plus stocking caps and Frostline mittens and heavy wool socks for hiking. Water-resistant hiking boots were essential to combat the wet tundra and snow. 

Lee Rentz backpacking in 1984 in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

Considering food, we had to keep it light. Karen used our dehydrator to dry all sorts of precooked meals, not all successfully. Dried shredded cheddar cheese was crunchy and tasty, but melted away needed fats. For lunches we ate Pemmican Bars, which were an early protein bar from the 1980s. For breakfast and dinner we cooked on a Svea stove that ran on white gas. Our simple meals included a commercial beef stroganoff, rice and beans and dried cheese and chocolate. Breakfast always included hot drinks: our standing joke on this mosquitoey trip was that when a mosquito would land in the hot chocolate, we would fish it out, but any leftover mosquito legs would just go down the hatch. We lost weight on this trip because our calorie intake couldn’t possibly keep up with our exertions.

At the start of the trip, Lee’s backpack weighed 78 lbs, with Karen’s about 59. Karen had a full bright orange daypack lashed on top of her backpack; she sewed it from a Frostline kit.

After all our preparations, the time for travel came in late July, 1984. We flew from Syracuse, New York to Anchorage, Alaska. There we boarded a flight to Fairbanks, and then a smaller plane to Bettles, a tiny Alaskan bush town on the Koyukuk River. This is where we did our final planning and packing for the trip, with our gear splayed across the runway’s edge. We talked to some guys who were heading into another part of the Brooks Range who had long rifles with them for protection and hunting; we felt quite naked by comparison. But at the time, it was illegal for hikers to carry a gun in a national park, so that wasn’t even a possibility for us.

With our packs finally stuffed, we walked to the office of the bush plane to give them our final itinerary. We were to be dropped off by float plane at a small lake in the western part of Gates of the Arctic National Park, then we would hike for about two weeks and 50 miles through Arctic tundra, following rivers. Our biggest challenge would be a climb over unnamed mountains, hoping we could get to the crest, then down the steep cliffs on the north side. This was all uncertain, because it was possible no human being had ever traveled this route over the mountains and the available topographic map was not detailed enough to confirm cliff locations. This was real, raw wilderness in the extreme. If all went well, we would follow a drainage from the mountains, hiking north until we reached Kurupa Lake, where we would be picked up by float plane.

Dramatic arctic landscape between the Arctic plain and the high summits of the Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska, USA

We finally shouldered our heavy packs and walked to the Koyukuk River, where our float plane magic carpet awaited. This was a Canadian-made bush plane, a De Havilland Beaver, that was and is the workhorse of the far north. We took off from the river–our first experience on a float plane–and followed the river west for a ways, with us watching for Moose among the Black Spruce trees along the river. Eventually the pilot left the river and turned the plane north, taking us over turquoise tarns and rugged, sharp peaks where the trees eventually dwindled to none, leaving us over a treeless tundra. We came to a broad opening in the mountains where several lakes shimmered, and one of those was our destination. The pilot descended and made a smooth landing on the lake, then taxied over to the shore. We didn’t even get our feet wet while unloading our gear. After confirming our final meeting point for a rendezvous two weeks later, the pilot taxied into the center of the lake, then took off with a roar, leaving us feeling lonely on the vast tundra. The pilot had been instructed to pick us up at Kurupa Lake, but if we weren’t there, then he would look for us at our drop-off lake in case we couldn’t make it over the mountains.

Two things happened within minutes: we found a distinct fresh Gray Wolf track in the wet soil between tussocks, and mosquitoes descended upon us in Biblical multitudes. We were in the Alaska Wilderness!

After a few minutes of gazing out over the lake, we pulled out our mosquito head nets, shouldered our lead-filled packs, and set out on a two-week journey through one of the wildest places in North America. We consulted our topographic maps, then headed over a ridge that looked down over a long valley stretching toward a line of mountains in the distance. Our route would take us down the valley along an unnamed river past unnamed mountains. 

Our trip took place at the warmest time of year in the Brooks Range, with temperatures hovering above 70°F. At our feet, arctic wildflowers bloomed in profusion–most of them hugging the ground to avoid the drying winds–while along the river Arctic Fireweed was vivid. In this warm weather, the clouds of mosquitoes were legendary. To cope we wore head nets, plus applications of DEET-containing Jungle Juice. Karen had sewn the placket gaps above our sleeve cuffs shut to keep the bugs out. But we discovered that they could still bite through our jeans, so we ended up with a lot of itchy welts. During the first two days of hiking along this long valley, we saw no large charismatic wildlife, so we focused upon cool birds we had never before seen, such as a Wandering Tattler on its nest site, an American Golden-Plover, and a Gray-Crowned Rosy Finch.

We set up our first campsite on the lower flanks of a mountain high above the valley. This was northern Alaska during the height of summer, so the sun barely set, making the inside of our yellow tent look like perpetual dim daylight all through the long night. We thought it might be hard to sleep in these conditions, but we were so worn out from hiking with heavy packs that sleep was not a problem. As we gazed up the valley the next morning we could see where we would camp the next night; an expansive view.

Grizzly Bears were always on our minds, but not enough to keep us from sleeping. Without bear spray and without guns, our defense lay in our numbers–with four of us, that should work as a deterrent against daytime attacks. At night, we needed to protect our food supply from bears, but there was no place on the open tundra to hang our food. Each night we took our packs and placed them together about 100 yards downwind from our tents. Atop the packs we placed our cooking pots with stones in them, so a raid on the packs would alert us with noise. We also had little mesh bags made by Karen containing mothballs that we hoped would cover up the scent of food, or at least serve as a repellent. While hiking, the mothballs were triple bagged to contain the strong fumes.

The next day we hiked further along the river, coming upon a spot where there was enough shade from the mountains that river ice several feet thick had not yet melted; it resembled glacial ice, with its aqua-blue color. Later, we were setting up camp when we heard the blowing and galloping of a mammal coming our way. It was our first Caribou, and it appeared to be running in terror. But nothing was chasing it, and it was possible that there was a parasitic larva called a nosebot driving it crazy. Or maybe it was the ever-present mosquitoes.

The third day out, we left our broad, open valley and began ascending a steeper route into the mountains. This was the drainage we hoped to take over a high pass at the northern crest of the range. As the day wore on, the cloud cover increased and there was a noticeable chill in the air. We set up our tents high in a cirque, with sharp peaks rising around us, then finished our camp chores and wriggled into our sleeping bags. A drizzle began, followed by rain, then silence.

When we awoke the next morning, there was about four inches of fresh snow on the tents. It was cold, and we decided it would be too treacherous to make our climb over the pass in these conditions. So we took a snow day, mostly napping and reading inside our tents, waiting for the weather to pass.

We hiked to a snowy, high, unnamed pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park, in the northern part of the Brooks Range, Alaska, USA [No model release; available for editorial licensing only]

The following morning the weather had again changed, with sunny blue skies appearing between clouds still hanging in. We decided this was our day to face the biggest challenge of the trip, so we loaded up and headed straight up the snowy steep and rocky slope toward the pass. When we reached the pass, the view straight north to the Arctic Plain greeted us. The wind was blowing hard over the pass, so we took shelter against a rock buttress and ate lunch. Then Denis and Lee split up to try to find a safe route down from the pass. Denis went to the east and Lee ascended to the west, each looking carefully at our chances. When we got back together, Denis said his side of the pass was not feasible, but Lee decided we had a good chance of making it if we carefully went in his direction. It involved climbing higher, then going sidehill in snow while hugging a cliff above a steep, snow-covered dropoff. If we went far enough, we would reach a scree slope leading all the way down to the valley at a steep angle.

Lee turned to Karen, who gets nervous with exposed heights, and said “You’re going to have to be brave.” She was, and we carefully inched along the cliff face without mishap, then began our steep descent. The scree slope was snow covered, but we forcefully stuck our legs through the snow to the soft rocky debris (almost like a fine gravel dune) and felt almost entirely safe. When we made it to the bottom, it was with a sense of triumph and relief that the most difficult part of the journey was behind us. We celebrated by making a no bake boxed cheesecake chilled in the snow, and all was right with the world.

The bad weather closed in again the next morning, and we hiked down the length of a lake with wet snowflakes steadily falling. Very briefly the mosquitoes were too chilled to move. The mountains were gleaming with their coat of fresh snow. We climbed out of the valley into some foothills. Then, while eating lunch we saw movement in the distance. Binoculars revealed one of the most amazing sights of our lives: thousands of Caribou traveling across the rocky terrain! We changed our route to intercept the herd and over the following days we watched and photographed them extensively, burning the sight into our memories as well as on film.

We camped that night on a ridge in the path of the Caribou, and all night we could hear the clicking of tendons in their ankles as they walked past our tents. It is a fascinating phenomenon, and apparently it serves to keep herds together as they travel–even in the clouds and fog of the mountains they can hear each other enough to stay together. The Caribou traveled well-worn paths along mountain slopes and through wildflower meadows. There were bull Caribou with huge antlers, as well as females with smaller antlers and young of the year racing around. These were part of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which migrates twice yearly between the calving grounds on the Arctic Plain and the wintering grounds south of the Brooks Range. When we saw them, they were gathered together in a huge group, but not yet beginning their fall migration south. Our days among the Caribou were wonderful, as we saw them crossing streams and silhouetted against snowy mountains.

Caribou, Rangifer tarandus, migrating through the mountains of Gates of the Arctic National Park, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA

On another morning about this time in the trip we saw our first Grizzly Bear; fortunately it didn’t pay us any attention. It was astounding to see how large it was and how prominent was the hump on its back. One advantage of hiking in the tundra is you can see bears from a long way away. We still remember Denis and Elaine talking about being first on the scene of a near-tragedy in Glacier National Park. A family of four had been hiking together when they surprised a Grizzly in the forest. It attacked, and had one child’s head in its gaping mouth when the father jumped on its back. The bear broke the man’s arms but then called off the attack. But enough about scary bear stories. 

Our packs were now a bit lighter from the food we had consumed, and our still-young bodies gained strength as the days wore on. One day Denis proposed we go off on our own and he and Elaine do the same. That sounded good, and we ventured into the Kurupa Hills. Our highlight was seeing a young Dall Sheep lying on the tundra, and later seeing some adults crossing a talus slope. At our campsite we enjoyed watching an Alaska Marmot, though not-so-much an Arctic Ground Squirrel who chewed through one of our plastic water containers. During the second half of the trip we saw Peregrine Falcons, which were truly rare in the lower 48 during the 1980s because of the effects of DDT, as well as a Long-tailed Duck on a tundra pond, and Long-tailed and Parasitic Jaegers, which flew at us aggressively when we got too close to their nesting grounds.

Hiking further, we approached our destination, Kurupa Lake. Denis didn’t tell us at the time, but later said an early oil prospector’s report described the “herds of Grizzly Bears” at Kurupa Lake. Fortunately, we encountered no herds, but we did see a second Grizzly Bear on the other side of the lake, where it paused to furiously dig up an Arctic Ground Squirrel’s burrow. It is astounding how fast those massive muscles and claws allow a Grizzly to dig. We assumed it got the squirrel. 

We stayed two nights at our last campsite, giving the bush plane plenty of time to retrieve us. While we waited, Karen and Denis both fished, each catching a Lake Trout and observing Arctic Char. Denis released his fish, but Karen was determined to eat ours. So we cleaned the fish and boiled it, tossing the carcass into the lake to reduce the scent. It was good, but the scent from the cooking would have clung to our wool clothing, undoubtedly acting as a lure for a bear. Fortunately we didn’t attract any bears to camp.

There was always a chance the plane would not appear on our pickup date; if fog or other bad weather delayed previous days’ retrievals, people would be picked up in order and they would get to us as soon as possible. We were getting low on white gas and food and speculated that if we were delayed by days we would be eating raw fish.

We were entranced by the whole experience, and Lee could have turned around and stayed in the wilderness for another two weeks if we had the time. Alas, work called and we needed to return. On our last day we needed to pack early and have our gear ready to go. In the afternoon we heard the whine of a plane approaching, and it turned and descended to our lake. The pilot had instructed us to leave a tent up so he could spot us along this large lake. As soon as we knew the pilot had spotted us, the tent was quickly collapsed and we hoisted our packs to trudge down to the shore, then loaded our gear onto the float plane. When we took off, it signaled the end to one of the signature experiences of our lives.

The photographs below show a map of our route, final packing on the runway in Bettles, our flight north through the mountains, and our first moments on the arctic tundra. Click on any of the pictures for a larger view and more information.

As we hiked across the tundra with our heavy packs, the Arctic revealed itself in beautiful wildflowers, distant views, Caribou antlers, fast streams, and campsites with glorious views.

We identified and photographed wildflowers and lichens and ferns that we had never before seen. The tundra plants are short, hugging the ground to stay out of the wind and take advantage of the warmth near the ground; most of the wildflowers are pollinated by flies, since bees are scarce in the Arctic.

When we reached the end of a long valley and several days of warm temperatures, our route next led us into the mountains. After setting up camp, rain turned to snow. After a rest day, we climbed steeply up into the mountains, not knowing if we could cross the range here. It turned out that we could, although there were challenges of negotiating ice and snow and a steep scree slope.

After the steep mountain crossing we hiked down a long valley in rain and snow, passing alpine lakes and crossing a stream. Here our wildlife sightings began in earnest, with Grizzly Bears, Caribou, Dall Sheep, and birds we had never seen before. Seeing thousands of Caribou was a highlight of our lives.

After all our time in the wildest wilderness we had ever experienced, it was time for a float plane to pick us up at Kurupa Lake on the north side of Gates of the Arctic National Park. We arrived two days early and spent the extra time fishing and hiking. Alas, we heard the plane overhead and quickly packed up, ending one of the premier adventures of our lives.

Wilderness and adventure in far off places would lure us to distant locations and backpacking trips during the ensuing decades, but nothing would be quite the challenge as this trip to the Brooks Range. Looking back now, nearly four decades later, we both think of it as a highlight of our lives.

To see more of the work of Lee Rentz, go to http://leerentz.com.

PHOTOGRAPHING A BELTED KINGFISHER: A New Technology in Bird Photography

FINAL BELTED KINGFISHER

With a flurry of dry rattling calls, two Belted Kingfishers appeared to be battling over the shore of our little lake on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, flying back and forth, back and forth, chasing one another. This goes on late every autumn; I assumed it was a territorial battle, but perhaps it is a mating ritual. Ever since I observed this behavior, I’ve wanted to photograph these fascinating birds. Actually, I’ve enjoyed seeing them since first watching kingfishers from my family’s cabin along the Muskegon River in Michigan.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

Belted Kingfishers mostly eat fish, as the name implies. An individual can sit on a high perch, glaring at the water surface below, looking for a fish. If it sees a small fish below, if will instantly leave the perch, fold its wings, and dive head-first into the water with just a small splash. This is often a successful fishing technique. Alternatively, the kingfisher can hover above the water, then dive from the hovering spot. I think they can do their rattling call while diving, so I can only assume the fish can’t hear it or that it petrifies the prey like rebel yells or bagpipes were purported to scare enemy soldiers.

Kingfishers nest in burrows dug into high banks along rivers, lakes, or the ocean. I have seen a couple of nest holes that I believe were made by kingfishers here in the Puget Sound region, but I’ve never photographed a kingfisher near its nesting hole. After exiting the nest, the parents stay with the kids and teach them to fish. A parent can teach a youngster to fish by dropping dead fish onto the water surface; apparently kingfishers know a birdy variant of the old proverb give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

Every autumn and winter the kingfishers come to Fawn Lake; they are here occasionally year-round, but I’ve learned to expect them especially during the November through January period. Their appearance has been reliable enough that several years ago I set up a curving branch attached to our dock so that the kingfishers would have a place to perch. More to the point: I would have a place to potentially photograph them.

Time went by, and a couple of times each year I would notice that a kingfisher was indeed using my branch, but it happened so rarely that I could not commit the time to working in a blind down on the lakeshore. It might have been weeks and weeks of waiting; I’m a patient man, but not THAT patient.

Other birds also used the perch. I’ve had Wood Ducks, Violet-green Swallows, a Great Blue Heron, and a Bald Eagle perched there, but again not long enough or frequently enough that I could justify the time of sitting in a blind.

In the last few months, things changed. Starting in December, a male kingfisher came and sat on the perch almost every morning. It became a ritual for me each morning, as soon as it got light enough to see down to the lake, to check if the kingfisher was sitting there, and it often was.

The first couple of weeks of perching were rainy, then we had a long, dry stretch that gave me a chance to check out some new technology in the form of a CamRanger. This little electronic device attaches to the camera’s USB port and sets up a wifi network. When I set my Canon camera on “Live View,” I can view what the camera sees right on the screen of my Mac laptop.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleThe Belted Kingfisher has a thin head from the front view, shaped almost like a hatchet to enable it to cleanly cleave the water surface. From the front, the head looks disproportionately small for the body.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleFrom the side view, the head appears unusually large in proportion to the body

The CamRanger is not just a dumb box transmitting an image; the CamRanger software also allows me to control several important aspects of the camera. I can focus remotely, as well as change the exposure and ISO, so it is almost as good as being in a blind–though not quite, since I don’t have a motorized tripod head that would enable me to remotely change the composition. The best quality motorized tripod head would cost about $9,000, so I think I’ll hold off on that purchase.

Early one morning, after I had tested the technology, I set up a tripod and carefully composed the view through a long telephoto lens. I tested the CamRanger and found that it was working, then waited. Within a few minutes, the kingfisher showed up and I was able to photograph it remotely using my computer mouse as a shutter release. The first images were stunning!

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleOne of the first photographs I took using the CamRanger

Each day, for the next couple of weeks, I dutifully set up the camera and CamRanger, but with less success than I had the first day. I found that the camera battery only lasted about two hours when working in the Live View mode. Worse, the CamRanger would shut off frequently, especially when the weather was foggy (if it was crystal clear, the unit was more likely to stay on). When this happened, I could reboot the software remotely, so it wasn’t a big problem. I also found that the location of the laptop was important. I tried to use the laptop from the comfort of a leather sofa in the living room, but the signal wasn’t strong enough. I found that I had to go downstairs to my daylight basement, and there it worked far better if I had the laptop elevated, sitting right in the doorway, with the glass door open. It required frequent attention, and keeping the door open. I was prepared that as soon as I saw a kingfisher from inside the house, I would run downstairs to try and take a photograph.

One day, after I had set up, I went downstairs to check on the computer after the door had been open for a while. While I was looking out and down to the lake, a black-and-white mammal ran between my legs and out the open door. It had come in while I was upstairs. We have no pets, and I hope beyond hope that it was a cat rather than a skunk!

Persistence eventually paid off, and one morning almost immediately after I set up, the kingfisher appeared. I ran down the stairs and saw the image on my computer screen. I proceeded to take over 60 photographs as it modelled for the camera, turning its head this way and that, sometimes looking up, other times looking down into the lake. It was magical.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleThe end of a yawn with its bill closing

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleTiny water drops spraying out in an arc when the kingfisher instantly turns its head

Those were the last pictures I got this year, as the kingfisher has apparently moved on. Twice, during the period when I was watching, but not photographing, it came to the branch with a small fish. Each time, it perched for perhaps five minutes with the fish in its bill, perhaps waiting for the fish to die before downing it. I didn’t capture that behavior; perhaps next winter I’ll have another chance.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

If your are interested in remote photography using the technology described here, go to CamRanger.

GALAXIES OF DUCKS: Science and Telling a Story

Seattle_Green_Lake-203A swirling galaxy of Northern Shovelers feeding

Inspiration can come when I least expect it. The winter day was gray and dry, and cold for Seattle, with temperatures hovering around 25°F. Ice was forming where small waves lapped against the shore of Green Lake, one of my favorite places to get some exercise when visiting the big city. But I was cold today and couldn’t get up the gumption to go jogging, so I took my camera for a bird walk.

The crows were having a convention, and looked strikingly sinister when silhouetted against a gray sky. I found some tiny birds foraging in the birch trees along the waterfront; several ladies stopped and asked what the tiny birds were; I wasn’t sure yet, because they were moving rapidly and were a little ways away from me. One of the women thought they were Bushtits, which I had seen in this location on my last trip to Green Lake, but it turned out that they were Golden-crowned Kinglets, feeding and in constant motion among the birch branches. They were so fast that they were extremely difficult to photograph.

Seattle_Green_Lake-378Crows high in a birch tree, facing into the wind

Then a couple from Boston came up and asked if I had seen the big bird with the long legs standing in the water. I hadn’t, but I explained that it was almost certainly a Great Blue Heron. Almost immediately, an enthusiastic young woman came up, pushing her baby in a stroller, and asked if I would like to see the picture she had just taken on her iPhone. I said I would, and she had a good photo of what was probably the same heron. I asked where she had seen it, and she pointed across the bay to “where the ducks are.” Since I wanted to see the ducks, and they were not floating on this cold and windy part of the lake, I decided to head that way. I stopped at my car to pick up a layer of puffy down, because I was getting chilled.

When I reached the dock near the community center, I noticed a lot of Northern Shoveler ducks intensely feeding, and thought that someone was illegally tossing bread to the waterfowl. Then I realized that the ducks were crowded together in three clusters, each group swirling around in a tight circular pattern. I estimated that there were between 50 and 100 birds in each circle, so it was a lot of ducks engaging in a behavior I had never seen before.

At this point my sense of wonder kicked into high gear, and I wanted to know more. Northern Shoveler ducks have a disproportionately large and spoon-shaped bill, which is structured for surface feeding. Their mouth anatomy reminds me of baleen whales in the way they filter tiny plants and animals from the water. Typically, I see a Northern Shoveler motoring along, with its bill just under the surface, busily gathering its food as it swims. But I had never seen shovelers working together while feeding.

Seattle_Green_Lake-350Northern Shoveler male feeding in a typical manner, with its bill just below the surface; with this behavior, it filters small plants and animals from the surface

Seattle_Green_Lake-260In contrast, this group of Northern Shoveler ducks was feeding communally; there must be some advantages to clustering and feeding together

Apparently the circular motion stirs up the water and sediments, and I suspect that it generates a current that brings food from the bottom mud toward the surface. This kind of current has been scientifically demonstrated in the feeding behavior of phalaropes–a small bird that must make itself dizzy spinning in circles on the surface of the water. Perhaps the action of many shovelers working together can create a similar effect.

This shoveler behavior has, of course, been described before, but it was new to me and perhaps not commonly seen, at least with so many birds at once. A fellow blogger, Greg Gillson, described it in this entry: Feeding Habits of the Northern Shoveler. And I saw one video on youtube of three shovelers engaged in the same behavior, going ’round and ’round and ’round.

My challenge in the field was to show the behavior through photography. I snapped a few photographs to record the scene, but quickly realized that freezing the action in a quick shot did not show the pattern of movement and was not an artistic portrayal of the ducks. I decided to concentrate on long exposures to blur the movement of the ducks, but hopefully record the sense of motion. It worked! The motion shots told the scientific story of the feeding behavior, but were also beautiful in their own right. The form reminds me of the spiral shapes of galaxies.

Seattle_Green_Lake-237

Seattle_Green_Lake-224These two photographs show the difference between freezing the motion and using a longer exposure to show the motion

When I am photographing, I constantly face choices like this, and my analytical left-brain and artistic right-brain skills have to work together to solve a problem. When successful, the pictures can tell an effective story.

Seattle_Green_Lake-267

Seattle_Green_Lake-291

Seattle_Green_Lake-220I ended up really liking the motion shots; I took nearly 300 images while experimenting with the rapidly changing composition and while trying different shutter speeds

Seattle_Green_Lake-99One of my Golden-crowned Kinglet photographs that started the afternoon

Seattle_Green_Lake-76Crows noisily flushing from a battered tree that seemed somehow perfectly appropriate 

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

HAWAII: The Grace of Sea Turtles

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of HaA Green Sea Turtle swims over a shallow coral reef using its powerful front legs for propulsion

Karen and I were snorkling in a coral reef area south of Kona, working hard to stay together despite all the distractions of colorful fish everywhere among coral canyons. When I looked toward her, I was astonished to see a Green Sea Turtle swimming right between Karen and me, about five feet away from each of us. I couldn’t shout with glee without drowning, so instead I took pictures as we swam parallel to the turtle through the tropical aqua sea. It was enchanting.

 The music for this video is from the song Silver Creek, by the German duo DOKAPI. More information and a link to their website is at the end of this article.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle and Snorkeler Swimming off the Big Isla

This was the third sea turtle I had seen on this trip. The day before, both of us had observed one basking on a narrow strip of sand beach, where it shared the space with scores of humans. It seemed content to be there, and even used its flippers to toss sand onto its back.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

The endearing thing about sea turtles is their grace. Most of us humans are water nerds, graceless and gangly and splashing. In contrast, the sea turtle moves with the cadence of time itself. The swimming is slow and graceful, as if it got extra points for style and poetry of motion.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

This swimming sea turtle was covered with green algae. It looked like it needed to go to one of the natural cleaning stations that certain fish have set up in the sea. These sea salons are known to turtles and fish as places where they can go for a good grooming to have parasites and algae removed and gobbled down by specialized species of fish.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

In contrast, the Green Sea Turtle I had photographed several days before looked like it had just come out of the turtle wash and had been waxed afterward. There was not a speck of visible algae on it; in fact, each plate on its back sported lines of subtle color that looked for all the world like soft brushstrokes in a watercolor painting. Against the aqua color of the sea, it was stunning.

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

The Green Sea Turtle lives around the world in the tropics, and is endangered. It gets caught accidentally in nets and is killed for its meat and shell. Fortunately, in Hawai‘i the sea turtles are revered, and everyone is ecstatic to see them. They have special beaches where they go to lay eggs, and it would be wonderful to see the hatchlings emerging and heading for the sea, but that will have to wait for another trip.

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

Music for the video in this article was created by the German duo DOKAPI. It was licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 2.5; go to opsound.org/info/license/ for more information. DOKAPI has a website at dokapi.de where you can find out more about their excellent music. Our video, Dream of the Sea Turtles, is available for use under the same terms of the ShareAlike 2.5 license. Contact us at lee@leerentz.com for information.

WINTER PREDATORS OF THE SAMISH FLATS

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish FlatsShort-eared Owl taking a close look at the photographer

The deltas and estuaries of Puget Sound are not a good place to be a mouse in winter. On a recent trip to the Samish Flats, located on the northern shores of Puget Sound, we observed hundreds of avian predators, including Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Short-eared Owls, and a single Northern Shrike.

We drove through the Skagit Flats and Samish Flats for an entire winter afternoon, enjoying the sight of over a thousand Snow Geese and hundreds of Trumpeter Swans: both cheery white against the muddy farm fields. There were also a lot of ducks, including Northern Pintails and both American Wigeons and fifteen Eurasian Wigeons.

Red-tailed Hawk in Samish Flats of Washington StateRed-tailed Hawk up close and personal

What we really wanted to see were Short-eared Owls, and we had heard that a great spot to see them was on Department of Fish & Wildlife land known to birders as the West 90. We arrived at about 3:00 p.m., and hiked out to a location where people had recently seen the owls.

We quickly spotted some owls, then spent the next two hours observing and photographing the owls as they hunted the fields, sometimes encountering and skirmishing with the Northern Harriers who hunt in much the same way. It was thrilling!

Short-eared Owl in Flight while Hunting in Samish Flats

Samish_Flats-69-2

Short-eared Owl in Flight while Hunting in Samish FlatsShort-eared Owls in flight while hunting, reminding us of butterflies with their erratic flight patterns over the fields

Short-eared Owls fly erratically, quickly changing course to drop on a vole; the flight reminds me somehow of a huge butterfly. Like many owls, they are certainly wary of humans, but we were able to get reasonably close to them without causing a panic attack. I think they view us as less of a threat than Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls.

It was a cloudy day for photography, but I often find that the pale winter sky on a cloudy day makes a wonderful background for my bird photographs.

As the afternoon wore on, twilight approached and it became too dark for exposures of moving birds. We left the owls to their hunting, and came away thrilled with the experience.

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish Flats

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish FlatsShort-eared Owls will perch on shrubs between flights

Northern Shrike in Samish Flats Area of Puget Sound

Northern Shrike in Samish Flats Area of Puget SoundA young Northern Shrike was a surprise visitor to the West 90; shrikes are known as “butcher birds” for their habit of impaling mice on thorns–storing them for later use. We have observed that behavior along the northern shore of Lake Ontario, where the shrikes used hawthorn trees as their gruesome storage facility.

Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier Skirmishing in Samish FlatsSometimes the Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers–who appear to occupy a similar ecological niche in winter–don’t play nice

Red-tailed Hawk in Samish Flats of Washington StateRed-tailed Hawk

Murmuration of a Flock of Small Birds in the Samish FlatsAt twilight, a flock of small birds rose in an ever-changing three-dimensional natural sculpture known as a murmuration

The Seattle Audubon Society has a web site that tells more about the Samish Flats, as well as bird species found around Washington. Go to: BirdWeb.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.