Alaska Wildlife"In wildness is the preservation of the world," wrote the 19th-century American writer Henry David Thoreau. When you visit Alaska, you'll understand exactly what he meant, for this vast and geographically diverse northern state provides an amazing natural habitat for some of the most intriguing creatures in the animal kingdom. From the whales who breach in the icy waters of the Inside Passage to the bald eagles who soar majestically over the Great Land, Alaska's animals thrive in their wild domain. Humans are invited to observe and expected to respect this small piece of precious wildness.
Marine MammalsAlaskan waters are home to some magnificent and highly entertaining sea mammals. The striking black-and-white orca, or killer whale, is the largest member of--surprisingly--the dolphin family. It fascinates people when it hurls its body into the air and then falls back into the sea with a mighty splash, an act called breaching. Known to have a voracious appetite, orcas live and hunt in packs, feeding on fish, sea lions, seals, porpoises, sharks, squid and even blue whales. The intelligence and acrobatic movements of the orca make it a star aquarium performer.
Also frequenting Alaska's coastal waters are humpback and minke whales, both baleen whales. Instead of teeth, baleen whales have two rows of comblike plates of baleen (a bony substance often called whalebone) along their upper jaws; as they swim with their mouths open the baleen plates filter food from the water passing through. The humpback whale is famous for its vocal talents. Although most whales communicate with each other by grunting or squeaking, the humpback sings a haunting melody that can last for 35 minutes. Its voice can travel up to 115 miles.
Bald EaglesThe all-American bald eagle is found only on the North American continent, with more bald eagles living in Alaska than the other 49 states combined. The bird is distinguished from other eagle species by its white head and tail. With a wingspan of 61 2 to 8 feet, the bald eagle graces the sky. It has incredibly powerful eyesight that enables it to see great distances. The speed at which it travels is also amazing; it can fly at 20 to 60 miles per hour, reaching 100 miles per hour when diving. Once on the brink of extinction, bald eagles are now making a comeback.
Grizzlies & Other CrittersDenali National Park is a premier wildlife arena. Here you can spot grizzly bears, moose, wolves, Dall sheep and other creatures that most people never encounter in their natural habitat.
Most arresting is the grizzly bear. Strength and speed are its two most noteworthy characteristics; it can bite through a half-inch-thick steel bolt and charge at a speed of 30 miles per hour. The grizzly measures from 61 2 to 9 feet in height and weighs up to 975 pounds. This forbidding animal can be unpredictable and will attack if frightened or provoked.
During the brief season of the salmon spawning run, grizzly bears, along with other animals, anxiously line the river banks. Using their claws and teeth, the grizzlies easily catch the pinkish fish as they struggle upstream. The salmon itself baffles man with its unique homing ability. One of nature's greatest puzzles is how a salmon, after years at sea, returns to the same stream bed it was born in to deposit eggs.
Another favorite Denali inhabitant is the wolf. Cunning and intelligent, this animal prefers to live quietly in the wild undisturbed by humans. Wolves travel in packs, and the alpha wolf,or leader of the pack, is easily identified by the upright position of its tail. A well-organized hierarchy exists within each pack,and teamwork is a vital element. Although only the dominant male and female reproduce, raising their litter of 5 to 10 pups is a group effort. Members of the pack must obey the leader or risk being smartly and effectively put in their place.
The Alaska moose, the largest member of its species, is also an impressive Denali sight. A mature bull, with his tough antlers and massive body, weighs from 1,000 to 1,600 pounds. Moose calves are the fastest-growing animals in the world. At birth, a calf weighs about 30 pounds; by its first birthday, the animal tips the scale at 600 pounds!
Fly FishingAlaskan waters are home to a variety of aquatic life just as diverse as the state's other geographic features. A plethora of water, from small streams to large lakes to saltwater bays, dot the Alaskan landscape in such quantity that the most avid fly fisher would need a lifetime to sample them.
A fly fisher's day could be spent struggling to control the underwater movement of a lake trout, watching the dancer-like leaps of silver salmon or casting a fly into a dense school of tidewater pink salmon. These species and many others are found in Alaskan waters, and may be pursued against the backdrop of rugged mountain peaks, forested river valleys or the open tundra.
Most fly fishers visiting Alaska experience inflated expectations. Alaska is frequently extolled as a fly fishing destination, and anglers are often led to believe that every puddle of water in the state is brimming with finned creatures just waiting to swallow an artificial fly. If you believe this, you too will be disappointed; while the fish here are plentiful, it takes skill, knowledge, patience and, as always, being at the "right place at the right time" to catch the fish of your dreams.
The most well-publicized type of Alaskan fishing vacation is a stay at a remote lodge. In addition to the fishing, these lodges offer accommodations that range from rustic to elegant. If you are interested in amenities such as Jacuzzis, saunas, maid service and fine dining after a day's fishing, you'll have no trouble finding them. Lodges can be categorized according to the frequency with which they fly their guests to fishing spots. In full fly-out and daily fly-out lodges, anglers board an airplane each morning and fly to the waters they're going to fish. Partial fly-out lodges offer this service on a specified number of days.
When investigating a lodge, ask if the manager and guides are fly fishers. Inquire about the guides' credentials. Can they tie flies? How many seasons of guide experience do they have? How many different rivers will you be able to fish in one week? In this case, more isn't necessarily better, but it is nice to see a variety of waters. Some anglers like to visit the same stretch of water more than once, getting to know the spot well. If this is your preference, ask if it can be arranged. And ask about fishing right at the lodge.
Most fly fishers will try their luck in almost any kind of water, but some spots are more suitable than others. If the staff doesn't understand the nuances of fly fishing, you might be fishing less than optimal waters for your entire stay. Furthermore, if the guides don't fly fish, it will be very difficult for them to assess your fly assortment and recommend appropriate local patterns. There will also be little chance of finding fly-tying tools or materials on the premises should you run out of a hot pattern.
Another alternative to a lodge trip is fishing along the road, the least costly and easiest way to fish in Alaska. You'll also see some great scenery and probably other wildlife. However, unless you luck out or happen to be under the tutelage of a knowledgeable resident angler, you'll most likely be sharing your fishing spot with lots of other people. Roadside streams, especially when the salmon arrive, can be as crowded as any urban fishery. If you enjoy fishing as a largely social event, you'll probably find happiness along Alaska's roads. If you're looking for a little more solitude, you'll need a lot of ingenuity and determination. Strapping on a backpack and hiking into a more secluded area might be your best bet.
Whether you enjoy fishing in the company of others or on your own, Alaska has a great deal to offer the experienced as well as the beginning fly fisher. For more information on fly fishing in Alaska, contact the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at 907-786-3486.
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