Tiniest Vagabond

Weighing in at just 1/10th of an ounce, the costa’s hummingbird would easily go unnoticed by all but the most delicate of scales. Though, what he lacks in size he makes up in ego and flash. The male’s throat sports an iridescent and flamboyant gorget that wraps around his face like a ridiculous purple mustache. His ‘stache is the envy of every fire chief and biker alike. But for all his frill and glitz, he is somewhat of a prude in that his territory is very precise: desert. More specifically, the low, hot deserts of California and Arizona.

So imagine, then, every birders’ confusion in Homer, Alaska when Kachemak Bay Birders email alert pinged a male costa’s hummingbird in September of 2017. Surely, some crock has seen a chickadee after consuming some magic mushrooms and claimed the lucid trip to be a bizarre accidental visitation of a near tropical hummingbird to Alaska… in winter. Aliens might be more believable.

But no, the owners of Ashore Water Taxi assured the skeptics that Buzz had laid claim to their house feeder long after the final rufous had left. And the birders poured in to see. “Our phone’s been ringing off the hook for Buzz!” Dave proclaimed, “but he’s still there. Go see him!” I was then given the most vague driving directions I’ve ever received, but an hour later, we pulled into their driveway and cautiously walked in to find Buzz. And as sheepishly as we invited ourselves to another’s house, so did Buzz sheepishly flit from his stronghold in the spruce – a feisty Stellar’s Jay had chased him away moments before we arrived.

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To say that he appeared frazzled is a dire understatement. Hummingbirds are normally the definition of fire and confidence and rage and sureness. Buzz lacked all these things, and I swear he scampered about, fresh snow looming on the horizon, as if thinking, “I’ve made a terrible mistake. A terrible, terrible mistake. This is not the desert.” His feathers were worn, and his demeanor suppressed. But he made do, and we breathed easy knowing that that Costas have done this in other cold climates before and that they can drop their usual heart rate of 900 beats per minute to a staggering simple 50 to conserve energy.

Buzz did not go unnoticed. Dave and his wife were soon forced to ask birders to stop coming. Mud and snow had turned their driveway into a mess and it just wasn’t feasible to have visitors. Besides, Buzz was becoming increasingly hit or miss, and it turned out that he was frequenting another feeder. However, I was blessed enough to get daily updates on Buzz’s wellbeing, including his day-long scandal with a rogue lady Anna’s hummingbird who made her peace and left. When the snow began to layer, and the wicked winter winds bellowed, Buzz finally fled down the hill to a house where the wind did not ravage as violently, and there he stayed. Last I heard, there were rumors of a heated deck and protected feeder. So we can all hope that that’s where he’s been and where he’ll stay until spring.

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But what on earth would compel Buzz to fly so errantly far from his normal grounds? Buzz is not alone. In fact, in the last 20 years, hummingbirds are increasingly found in farther locations is less favorable conditions. And no one knows why! Theories abound, blaming deforestation, climate change, and simple lack of previous observance on our part (in other words, they’ve always been there, we just never noticed). “A hummingbird’s life is geared towards ephemeral resources. They’re built to wander. And they’re tough as nails.” So keep your eyes open, and find some peace in knowing that if a near tropical hummingbird can survive subzero temperatures, than maybe our problems aren’t so scary after all.

For a good, quick read on hummingbird banders, check out this article. 

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Late to the Party

Ah, 2017… what a hell of a year. I may be late to welcome the new year, but with over 300 days left to go I’m not that bad, all things considered. I’m not going on some long rant about the year, but I do think a little visual candy would be a good way to end the year… so here’s my favorite shots from 2017! I really branched out this year, trying new things… particularly, new subjects. I jumped head first into portrait photography and the scary aspect of not knowing what the hell you’re doing. I started personal projects, and challenged myself to shoot things I’m not familiar with… and it went well. 🙂

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The Milky Way, as seen from Skyline in Homer

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My dear friends Jasmine and Josh, and also one of my first couples’ shoots.

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My friend’s dog Newt, who’s nothing but trouble but secretly a good boy.

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A costa’s hummingbird decided to overwinter in Homer, AK. Last I heard, he’s taken residence in a heated deck.

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Some cool pastors working together to haul their buddies via hand tram over the Grewingk river gorge.

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My beautiful Jamaican friends letting loose.

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The Wyman brothers locked in goofy rivalry.

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Coolest pastor of the year goes to…

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A female black oystercatcher. The females appear to have misshapen pupils due to heavy pigmentation around the pupil.

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The first hatchlings at Gull Island in many years.

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An eagle surveys his kingdom. His beak shows the wear and tear of fights with other eagles.

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Alaska Bush Pilot over Iliamna

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Clouds cast shadows too.

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Hundreds of brown bear foot prints in the grass meadows of Lake Clark.

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Saying goodbye to an old friend the only way he’d deem acceptable: whacking butts. RIP Connor!

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Dagon romping

Lake Clark

I had the pleasure of joining Alaska Bear Adventures on a flight to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve a few weeks ago… and what a trip! I was extra fortunate in that I was allowed to fly on standby and at a bargain because I currently work at the tour desk at Land’s End Resort (and you can bet your ass I send folks to ABA).

The guides were outstanding people. Having guided as long as I have, I have a hard time being the guest, but these guys made it easy. It was super laid back, with still proper attention to safety given the proximity to brown bears (props to Dillon for plunging head first into the guide world, you make a fine guide! And props to Derrick for keeping it going). Shooting the shit with Dillon was a blast, swapping carnage stories with a new guide is always a heartwarming moment (to be fair, I’ve never been a pilot but you know how it goes… “what’s the difference between a raft guide and God? God doesn’t think he’s a raft guide”).

For me, the real highlight was the view. I see bears all the time, and I’ve been closer to bears on my own than on the flight (though we were still damn close), but it’s rare for me to see my beloved home from such a vantage point. Particularly, the distant allure of Iliamna was finally closed as we flew through wisps of steam pouring through her vents… it was totally worth the minor motion sickness.

When we arrived, we were forced to circle as we could not land. There was no mechanical crisis… but there was a bear on the landing strip. Minor detail. This inconsiderate bear gave us the chance to circle a second time over the grassy meadows where the bears feed early in spring, their foot prints leaving intricate trails with no real reason.

If you can swing the price, it’s worth every penny. Most admirable perhaps is every guide’s dedication to keeping this place wild… they won’t hesitate to keep you in line for the bears’ sake!

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You gotta yell at birds.

In the ever-growing list of thankless jobs, there resides the title of ski resort chair lift attendant, or more simply put: a liftie. He is more thankless, perhaps, than even the city garbage man – whom at least walks away with an oftentimes livable wage. There is no glory to the liftie, despite the fact that without the backbone position few others would navigate the mountain for work or pleasure purposes. The liftie is akin to a rejected super villain solely by default. The irony in his banishment is that I have met many lifties who formerly served as brilliant arborists, health practitioners, scientists, etc etc, whom are truly inspirational souls. Nonetheless, he is still a pariah.

So as I sat in a drone at the top of the bunny slope magic carpet, not a single guest came to use it. Policy dictated that a liftie must always be present for a spinning lift, so I was stuck there. I plodded slowly against the moving floor to burn time. Then I heard it: a juvenile raven croaking to any nearby kin, perhaps in search of a mate for the coming spring or for a comrade to raid dumpsters. My head spun up and around, and I peered up the hill where the call resonated. I stood tall and called back to the raven. As I did so, I was unaware of the lone preteen boy dangling above me on the chair lift. He stared down in utter confusion.

“You gotta yell at birds.” I told him, as if this was some sort of common knowledge he was foolishly questioning. He immediately looked away.

“You do.” I muttered.

Fast forward a month, and one would find me aimlessly wandering a busy Walmart parking lot in Anchorage fully lacking even the slightest inclination of where I had parked my car. To be fair, I had borrowed the car and was not familiar with it, and to be extra fair I hadn’t paid much attention to anything when I parked.

It was a spectacle. It was a live comedic performance. People commented, and people laughed out loud at my struggle. And I don’t blame them, I laughed at myself too. I owned my shame, but I was truly tired of carrying the box of Mango LaCroix bubbly I purchased and wanted to eat my garlic Ritz.

Twenty minutes later, and I was making laps down isles I had already traveled, desperately trying to avoid anyone who had already commented on the situation. I passed a soggy sandwich some unfortunate soul must have clumsily dropped, and I thought to myself that “there’s going to be a very happy bird soon.” At that moment, a raven alighted several cars away. He arched his neck and frilled his throat, cackling in his wicked tongue.

“That’s going to be the happy bird,” I whispered. “Yo, raven!” I did my best recreation of his gurgling laughter. He perked his head and looked at me. I pointed at the sandwich, and marched towards him.

“Quowoah,” I called as I had heard ravens do to find each other in dense woods. He was taken aback by my vocalization, and I spooked him towards the sandwich. Suddenly, I realized how many eyes were watching me. I surveyed their confusion. Lacking the comfort of liftie banishment, I could not explain to each of these folks individually why that raven needed that sandwich and why I opted to yell at him, so I congratulated the bird and hastily walked to the opposite end of the parking lot.

Parked in plain sight on that far end was the dark blue Jeep Cherokee with the “friends don’t let friend eat farmed fish – ALASKA SALMON” sticker on the rear bumper. I jumped inside after triggering the alarm and laughed.

“You just gotta yell at birds,” I thought.

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Falls Creek, a skyward crease

Chugach State Park and National Forest offer seemingly limitless paths to their lofty ridge lines countered by even greater unfathomable acreage of unmarked and trail-free routes. Situated in a somewhat treacherous and inaccessible glacial valley, these natural barriers have protected the forest, leaving roughly 85% of old growth forest untouched by the timber industry with little plans to change that (and what has been harvested has been carefully monitored and cared for to ensure the greatest pristine new growth). Thick with black spruce, paper birch, cottonwood, and other beautiful trees, the short canopy offers an incredible glimpse to a wild world (for a refreshing outlook on the delicate balance between logging and conservation and how the two thrive off each other, check out Alaska Forest Facts) for those willing to venture in it.

The easiest access lies in the Portage Valley (and you can read my write ups here and here). But should one desire to ascend, they must find a vein up to the pinnacles where goats dance and eagles soar.

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At the trailhead, the creek succumbs to gravity and spills over a smooth bed of rocks before funneling into a metal pipe under the road and out to the Turnagain Arm. Here, one is greeted accosted almost immediately by an extremely vocal American Dipper bird whose laid claim to the creek’s bounty (on a side note, the Portage Valley Dipper population is of special interest to birders in that, despite unforgivable and frozen winters, they do not migrate to fairer territories). The trail rises up and to the right, when facing the creek.

And then it continues up: the entire way.

I cannot stress enough that this trail is not beginner friendly, nor is it friendly to those not in fittest shape. As a chubby kid with asthma and a history of respiratory infections, and as an adult with knee and ankle injuries left unchecked, elevation gain has never been my strong point. This bloody trail tests what my body is willing to tolerate and my lungs verbally protested. Frequent pauses were needed, water was consumed, and my ego was bruised. But I love this trail.

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The lower portion is filled with stands of young growth forests, and in the summer the under growth is bombarded with bane berry and devil’s club, two important plants to know and avoid (one will kill you, the other will hurt you). In the fall, plump, broad mushrooms spill over every moist surface, and bear’s bread shelf mushrooms stoutly observe their forest. Fly agarics are a striking contrast of vibrant red to the litter of decaying leaves. Keep in mind, many locals warn of their dogs eating all the plants above, often with fatal outcomes, so keep your eyes on your furry friends should they accompany you.

Quickly, this fades to water loving alders, willows, and cottonwoods, and if he’s still standing you may notice an impressive cottonwood along the early trail whose heartwood has rotted out. He’s an absolute beast of a tree, but sadly, as do all cottonwoods, he has begun his final stages before collapse. Around this point, the canopy lowers as the tree line approaches and you have ascended only a mediocre distance that seems much greater than it actually is solely due to its constant upward nature. The strong aroma of high bush cranberry fills the air, and if you’re lucky you may even snack along the way. Play your cards right and venture after the first frost for these delicious berries to sweeten up.

You also join back up with the creek, closely following it. Sometimes you’re in it. Mind your steps as the path may erode with little advanced notice. And you are going to get wet. Sorry, that’s just the facts of life. This creek does what it wants, and that often means that it changes course randomly, flooding parts of the trail.

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The trail opens to the highest biome. In the fall, nearly ever square inch of soil off trail is covered in crowberry and one can feast on the simple black fruit. While they’re certainly not the most flavorful or sought, they are a refreshing taste and consistency. My dog refused dinner that night as he was full of berries (and it made for some interesting potty moments later as well). A massive rock face looms in the distance, and mountain goats frequently roam this open tundra-like height, enjoying crowberries and willows before the icy grip of winter removes all delectable morsels. Should one peer down the valley, they may find themselves at eye level with an eagle in search of food below.

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At this point, we were forced to turn back solely due to the setting sun. But the trail continues onward and eventually connects to Bird Ridge and beyond. It offers access to pristine backcountry. One can make the trail as long or as short as they prefer. And yes, it’s a one way trail but the views up and down contrast so differently that it doesn’t quite feel like you’re tracing your steps.

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China Poot

Following the curvature of the Gulf of Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula rests roughly centered in the arch. There, Captain Cook explored the waters, founding the Cook Inlet, Turnagain Arm, Anchor Point, Kachemak Bay, and many other iconic, Alaskan locations. At the entrance, Kachemak splits from the Cook Inlet and remains separated from the Gulf by a narrow mountain range, the tail of the Kenai Range, carved by incredible forces during the last great ice age. And in those mountains on their northern slopes rest a few remaining glaciers further influencing the shape of the bay and health of the water. Those icy titans are connected to their southern Gulf brothers via the Harding Ice Fields which is most commonly accessed all the way north and east in Seward. The northern glaciers bleed into Kachemak, where the Homer Spit desperately reaches across towards the silt-bearing glaciers that helped create it. And at those glaciers’ terminal points, there are numerous, small bays full of life and wonder.

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Which brings us to China Poot.

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It has a silly name with a not so silly history, earning the name in honor Henry Poot of early Homer history. Henry had a herring factory – or dealings in one – where Chinese immigrants worked. The rest is history. Either way, Henry Poot and his unfortunate surname were apparently a big enough deal in Homer that he earned a bay, a mountain, a lake, a creek, AND a street named after him, torturing me day in and day out at work to annunciate my t’s because “it’s China PooT not China PooP, not that that sounds any better, and can we just move on already?”

(But really, China Poop makes more sense because the bay smells like shit at low tide, credit to the abundance of intertidal life).

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Every six hours the tides shift, sucking and pushing millions of gallons of water in and out of the bay, bringing fresh nutrients in and pushing old filth out. Thus, it would behoove a traveler to respect the water. It acts like a river. When the winds and tides argue on direction, a horrifying feature that kayakers call a “pyramid wave” form in the current. These waves have multiple faces, making them aggressive and flippy to small crafts. Not to mention, the current alone is one of the strongest I’ve seen.  I consider myself an experienced paddler, yet I’ve been nearly humbled once or twice or more than I’d like to admit in China Poot.

But the bay rewards the adventure.

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With Doroshin, Nameless, and Woz Glaciers all feeding into Neptune Bay (Poot’s immediate neighbor), the area is full of rich glacial silt, filling the seas with sticky mud teeming with invertebrates and opportunistic aquatic plants. All those small critters are the base of the food chain. The small fish follow, bringing the bigger fish and they bring the bigger predators from land, sea, and sky. It’s a feeding frenzy in the bay.

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Lion’s Mane jellies the size of my torso drift aimlessly in the shallow waters of the bay, snaring small bait fish that hide from whales in the outer bay. Shy horned puffins feast along the coast where they need not compete with their goofy and rude nestmates the kittiwake. Red salmon stage along the rocky beaches in preparation for their final journeys, feeding hordes of eagles that have waited patiently for the fish. Bears peruse the cliffs, gorging themselves on countless berries in spring and fish carcasses in fall. Mussels coat the sticky floor in numbers to rival the greatest armies. Peregrine falcons patrol the steepest slopes, whirling like torpedoes at any juvenile eagle that gets too close. Harbor seals in colonies of hundreds flop onto shore to molt their old coats where they argue and growl.

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I work in that bay. I play in that bay. I’ve bled in that bay. I’ve struggled in that bay. And I damn love that bay.

The Disgruntled Guide and the Downfall of Wild

Nearly four years ago when I first saw the entrance to one of America’s most iconic parks, I was immediately awestruck. The entrance was guarded by narrow posts set to mark the depth of snow. Past these gangly sentinels, the park road wound around to a few educational buildings set in a thick spruce forest, and further past the road meandered up a forested hill before opening up into the vast expanse of wild tundra and sloping glacial valleys. It was love at first sight, and despite my then-crippling injury I hobbled my way. I promised myself I’d return. But when the opportunity reared its head to see the pristine tundra once again my heart sank. While the sights were the same, the wild had been pre-packaged.

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There’s this horrible trend growing in the world nowadays that revolves around nature and wild places, and it’s the same thing that made me sick of commercial guiding. It’s this belief that nature is cool, and it is! But something as innately magnificent as wilderness cannot be marketed. Inspiration cannot be served; humility cannot be purchased. In other words, while I poured my heart and soul into my career as a guide it made me sick to see people act as if they cared but truly only wanted the “experience” at best, or the f*cking Instagram photo at worst. Imagine how sickening it is to wake up every morning and literally bleed to protect and educate the very thing that makes your heart sing only to see people take away a shitty cell phone photo to turn into likes online. It’s insulting, and I have enough sense around people to know when that’s all you’re after.

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Wild places are not simply experiences or bragging rights. They are a creature unto themselves, an entity to meet and coexist with. People are beginning to treat nature like a chance encounter with a celebrity: intrusively, arrogantly, entitled, disrespectfully…

Denali nowadays caters to the likes. It does not cater to the people who wish to know it, love it, and bleed for it (and on a side note, I called ahead of time to confirm if I was still able to drive to mile 30 only to be told otherwise upon arrival, thanks for getting your act together, guys). My heart ached to see that ancient High One stuck in the middle of a marketing scheme.

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Now, now… I’m sure you’re reading this scoffing just a bit, “Courtney, you have an Instagram and takes heaps of photos.” And you’re right. I do. But the difference is that I started doing that for my own sake because my memory isn’t the best, and it turned out that I’m not too bad with a camera so I made a bit of a hobby out of it. My camera joins my escapades as a personal historian and nothing more, and only a fraction of my photos are viewable by the public. And frankly, my favorite photos are the nondescript occurrences along the way (like all my American dipper photos, I know each of those birds personally).

So please, take all your photos, selfies, panoramas, snapchats, etc… but make sure your heart is in the right place. If it even remotely crosses your mind how good a photo will look online, you’re doing it wrong. Your life is not a marketable product, nor is nature’s existence. Your moments are your own: experience them for you. Not the likes. And for fox sake, if you try get a selfie with a damn bear, I will personally beat your ass.

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