Here's one last entry about the Alaska trip—a collection of various tidbits that I found interesting about the experience. In no special order:

—The reason the bears congregate in Katmai National Park, and especially in the area around Brooks Camp, several times a year is that that's where the salmon are. At this time of year, the bears are eating like crazy to bulk up for the long winter. A sockeye salmon in its prime contains a whopping 4,500 calories! Even the salmon that have "spawned out" and are way past their prime can provide a bear with 1,500 calories. Here's a shot of the salmon just drifting around in the water at Brooks Lake.

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—Speaking of salmon, people in Alaska eat a lot of it too. My friend Julie and I had a bet as to how many times I'd be fed salmon in the course of a two-week trip. She said three times; I said two. Ha! In retrospect we were both on crack. I lost track of how many opportunities there were to eat salmon, and halibut as well. It was great! I did, however, take a pass on the salmon quesadilla at one restaurant, nor did I request salmon in my omelet one morning, which I could have....

—The bears in the interior of Alaska are much smaller than the ones at Katmai, because they don't have access to salmon. They live instead on berries and berry bushes. A guy at Kantishna, the place where we stayed in Denali National Park, made a memorable comment: “When you look at bear scat this time of year, you will never look at pie filling the same way again.”

—Alaskans are pretty preoccupied with daylight, or lack thereof. In the middle of June, of course, it's still light out at midnight, but by this time of year, they're losing anywhere from five to seven minutes a day of sunlight, depending on what part of the state you're in. The Anchorage paper has a little chart devoted to hours of sunlight, minutes lost, etc. When we were there, the sunset was around 9:00 p.m., which is maybe an hour or so later than in Pennsylvania.

—As we approached Denali National Park from the north, our NatHab guide, Andrea, pointed out the general area where Christopher McCandless went missing, in a tale made famous by Jon Krakauer's great book Into the Wild. That book has been made into a movie directed by Sean Penn; I think the movie just premiered this past weekend.

—Katmai National Park is where another wilderness tragedy took place: the death of so-called "Grizzly Man" Timothy Treadwell. He's the guy who thought he could live among the bears at Katmai, and did so for more than a dozen years before he and his girlfriend ultimately were killed by a bear there.

—The rangers at Katmai number the bears that they see around Brooks Camp. They don't ear-tag them or anything; they just can point to a bear and say "That's number 42" or whatever. Some of the bears also get names ("Reggie" is one that I remember). A notorious bear around camp is Bear No. 608, who tends to eat the welcome mats and fishermen's waders, among other mischief.

—The accommodations at Brooks Camp are not what you would call luxurious. We did stay at some fancy joints during the trip (the Alyeska Resort leaps to mind), but at Brooks were were staying at what started as a fishing lodge. We stayed in wooden cabins, four people to a room, with the room just barely big enough for two bunk beds, a small bathroom, a shower, and a sink. The walls were thin and at night I could hear the thunderous snoring of a guy from another group in the room next to ours. But the meals were terrific (steak teriyaki, halibut with remoulade sauce) and the staff was great.

Here's a shot of some baggage being unloaded in front of the main lodge, just to give you a feel for the rustic nature of the place:

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—Finally, a word about our expedition leader, Andrea Reynolds.

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She was wonderful! She loves Alaska and knows lots about it, and her enthusiasm for the area and the trip was obvious. I have a great mental picture of her after we got off the flightseeing plane in Denali, running down the road with her arms outstretched and making like an airplane—it was clear she was as giddy as we were from the amazing experience we had just had.

She has a great deadpan sense of humor and teased all of us in various ways at various points during the trip. In Talkeetna I was originally signed up for an optional float trip but asked if I could cancel it—I needed a morning to just relax and catch up on editing my photos. Andrea left a message with the outfitter to cancel my reservation, so when the van carrying a trailer full of rafts pulled into the driveway of our lodge just as we were ready to go out to breakfast, Andrea and I looked at each other and said, "Uh oh." But she talked to the driver and succeeded in getting me out of the raft trip. Later at breakfast, she was going over the logistics of our next stop—Girdwood, about 160 miles to the south. She turned to me and said, "By the way, Tina, there's a float trip from here that goes all the way to Girdwood, so I've signed you up for that. You should get there in about four days."

She has had a really interesting life—she spends most of her time guiding trips, from ones like the one we took to backpacking and kayaking trips, in the U.S., in New Zealand, and in other locations. She has no permanent home, but has belongings stored with friends and family in various spots all over the world. I asked her if she owned any furniture and she said, "Two tents … three Thermarests … and I also have lamps: headlamps!" I think we all envied her life a little bit.

Here she's joining us in photographing the bears from the viewing platform at Brooks.

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I would travel with Andrea again in a heartbeat.

The Bears of Katmai

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We wrapped up our nearly two-week Alaska trip with a visit this weekend to Katmai National Park—more specifically, to Brooks Camp. If you've ever seen those famous photos of a bear standing on a waterfall with the salmon jumping right into its mouth, those photos were most likely taken at Brooks Falls.

To get to Brooks, first we took a one-hour flight from Anchorage to the village of King Salmon on PenAir (the “Pen” is short for “Peninsula”). At King Salmon we got on float planes for a 20-minute flight over to Brooks Lodge.

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For most of us, it was our first experience flying on a seaplane, and it was very cool. Some of us flew in a de Havilland Beaver or de Havilland Otter, built in the early 1960s, while others were in a Cessna of some sort. I think the biggest plane of the bunch seated 10 passengers.

As soon as we arrived at Brooks Lodge, we had to go to “bear school”—that is, stand on the shore while a National Park Service volunteer gave us a rundown on how to behave in the presence of bears.

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There are something like 60 or 70 bears living within the vicinity of Brooks Camp. (The camp consists of a lodge/dining hall, a bunch of sleepover cabins, a campground for tent campers, a small visitors’ center, and a small gift shop.) I asked the Park Service guy what were the chances of our actually seeing a bear. He just laughed and said, “If you don’t see a bear, I don’t know what you’re doing.” Sure enough, we saw bears all over the place—in the woods near the lodge, walking along the beach, and in Brooks Lake.

We were told not to carry any food with us when wandering around the area: no candy, gum, or anything that might arouse the bears’ sense of smell. And we were told not to leave our daypacks or camera equipment unattended at any time. It's best to walk in small groups, but when walking alone, just talk or sing or something, so the bears are aware of your presence and aren't startled when they see you.

At Brooks Camp, the bears are in charge. The trails are their trails; we just use them when the bears don't. If one of them decides to lie down and take a nap on the trail, then no human traffic can go through until the bear gets up and ambles away. There’s a path that leads from the lodge to the edge of Brooks Lake, and then a wooden bridge that takes you across Brooks Lake to the viewing platform. There are National Park Service rangers and volunteers posted at various locations who talk to each other by walkie-talkie to monitor the bears' movements, and the aforementioned bridge is constantly getting closed by the rangers because one or more bears have ventured too close to it. In the 48 hours we were there, I bet there were at least a dozen such “bear jams,” ranging in length from five minutes to an hour. We heard stories of people being stuck on the wrong side of the bridge—separated from, say, dinner back at the lodge—for as long as four hours.

Anyway, for the first part of our visit to Brooks Lodge, we had cloudy skies and rain. The bears were around, munching on sockeye salmon in Brooks Lake, but the picture-taking conditions were pretty lousy. We even had two cubs playing and/or fighting right below the viewing platform—not 15 feet away from us—but it was dark and none of us got really crisp photos. Still, you get the idea:

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We spent several hours watching the bears in the rain and got pretty soaked in the process. Each of us had some kind of homemade contraption—usually involving clear plastic bags or Ziplocs—to protect our camera equipment. I noticed that the professional photographers (who seemed omnipresent at Katmai) were better prepared, with fancier, commercially made, waterproof covers for their cameras.

But then yesterday afternoon the sun came out and we finally got some decent photo ops. Here are a couple of shots.

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I have to say that none of the photos I took were all that fabulous. Shooting photos of bears is harder than I expected! It’s hard to get the exposure right—one photographer told me that that’s partly because the bears’ dark fur absorbs so much light—and I struggled to get really sharp focus as well, for reasons I haven’t figured out. Clearly I’ll need to go back to Katmai someday and practice some more. :-)

Here’s one out-of-focus but cute shot of a pair of cubs:

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And here’s a shot to give you a sense of the backdrop against which we saw the bears:

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We also spent some time at the famed Brooks Falls, about a mile-long hike away, but the better time to see bears there is in July. It has to do with the salmon being more numerous at the falls in July; by September, they have "spawned out" and are more prevalent along the river that flows into the lake. So the only bear I saw at the falls was back in the shadows and seemed not very adept at catching fish.

As our seaplane took off from Brooks Lodge this morning, Andrea, our NatHab trip leader, pointed out that you could see the falls from the plane. And, as luck would have it, there were at least two bears on the falls. Figures!

That’s all for now. I may try to write one more entry later to wrap up the trip.

Greetings from the airport in Anchorage, where there is FREE wireless and where I’m waiting for the red-eye flight that will take me to Minneapolis, then Detroit, and then to State College. (And how 'bout those Nittany Lions, by the way??? I finally heard the results of the Notre Dame game this afternoon when we returned to civilization.)

We’ve done so much in the two or three days since my last blog entry that I can’t begin to do it justice. So, once again, I’ll just blow through some highlights and include a bunch of photos:

Earlier in the week—don’t ask me when; I have no clue anymore—we did an all-day, small-boat cruise of the Kenai Fjords south of Seward. I think I mentioned that in an earlier entry. Kenai (pronounced KEY-ni, with a long "i") Fjords was made a national park in 1980, in the same Congressional act that changed the name of McKinley National Park to Denali and made Wrangell-St. Elias a national park as well.

The trip was billed as “captain’s choice," in that the boat captain decides where to go in order to see the best stuff. The captain—a woman named Andrea, not to be confused with our NatHab guide Andrea—asked us at the outset what we’d like to see, and we all called out stuff like puffins, sea otters, whales, calving glaciers, and so on. (Along with a few wise-guy requests like giraffes and rhinos.)

I had hoped to see puffins, and got my wish: Quite often we’d happen upon a bunch of them just bobbing on the water. Here’s a tufted puffin, I think, although I get them confused with horned puffins, and we saw both kinds.

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The captain has a biology degree of some sort and teaches this stuff for a living—she just captains a boat during the summer months—so she was great at finding wildlife and telling us about their habits. She led us to red-faced cormorants and kittiwakes, among other seabirds, as well as a number of small pods of orcas, like these guys:

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We also drifted past the occasional rock coated in Steller's sea lions:

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They reminded me of the sea lions I saw in the Galapagos (also on a Natural Habitat Adventures trip, come to think of it), especially in the way they bellow and belch and growl. They sound like a bunch of teenagers having a burping contest.

The boat excursion took the better part of the day. We returned to Seward late in the afternoon, spent the night there, then headed up toward Anchorage the next morning. On the way out of Seward we made a stop at Exit Glacier, which is also part of Kenai Fjords National Park. It’s a glacier that you can easily hike to. Like many glaciers, it has been retreating rapidly in the past century or more, and in fact there are signs along the trail that mark where the edge of the glacier used to be:

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Here’s a shot of some folks hiking to and from the glacier, just to give you a sense of how big it is:

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And here are Ron and Carol, a pair of NatHab trip members from South San Francisco, standing as close to Exit Glacier as you can get:

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After Exit Glacier, and a stop at Portage Glacier, we headed north to Anchorage, where we spent the night. The next morning we set off for the finale of our two-week trip: a visit to Katmai National Park to see its famed brown bears. I'll make those the subject of a separate posting.

Train Ride to Talkeetna

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Here's a little glimpse of our trip from Denali to Talkeetna, which took place many days ago but which I'm only now getting a chance to pass along.

To recap, our Natural Habitat Adventures "Hidden Alaska" trip started in Fairbanks, followed by the better part of three days in Denali National Park. After Denali, we boarded an Alaska Railroad train right inside the national park and headed to Talkeetna, about four hours to the south. As part of the NatHab experience, we got the deluxe Gold Star service, which included a clear-domed car, for better viewing of the scenery, plus the railroad equivalent of flight attendants waiting on us throughout the trip.

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That's John and Adrienne, a couple from Sonoma, Calif., enjoying the train's service and the scenery. John and Adrienne are one of five couples on the trip; then there are four of us who are singles; plus Andrea, our NatHab guide, for a total of just 15 travelers. It's great to travel in such a small group and have a guide all to ourselves.

After we arrived in Talkeetna, we headed off to dinner, then spent the night, then had a few hours to explore the town in the morning. If you've traveled to Alaska, you may have experienced Talkeetna yourself. It's a very tiny town—the main street is probably three blocks long at most. Here is Talkeetna's version of a strip mall:

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One of Talkeetna's claims to fame is that a lot of people who climb Denali, or Mount McKinley, start off here. We had breakfast at the Roadhouse, which is a combination rooming house and restaurant that caters to climbers. That must explain the enormous portions of food they serve!

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That's Ted, another of the NatHab travelers, showing off his Roadhouse pancake, which as you can see is bigger than the plate itself. As for me, I had the "half order" of eggs, which is four eggs; I figured I didn't need the "full order" of eight eggs, since I had no plans to climb Denali that day. Or ever, actually.

There's a ranger station in Talkeetna where you can watch a very cool video of what it's like to climb Denali, and also check out this chart of who's been climbing Denali and a neighboring peak called Foraker (pronounced "four acre"):

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Apparently the time to climb Denali is in the spring, before the snow starts to melt and create dangerous crevasses. So by the time we got there on Labor Day, the climbing season was long over.

By the way, Andrea has requested that I include a photo of a golden retriever we saw in Talkeetna. Ted (the guy with the big pancake) pointed out the dog to me. Note the built-in toy around its neck:

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After checking out the shops and sights in Talkeetna—some of the gang did a little laundry as well—we got on a bus and headed off to Girdwood, for a night at the Alyeska Lodge, which I've already written about.

Back to real time: Today (Thursday, Sept. 6) we left Seward and headed up to Anchorage. We made a stop at Exit Glacier, which was very cool, and at Portage Lake, which wasn't too shabby either. After dinner at a seafood restaurant in Anchorage tonight, we head to Katmai National Park tomorrow for—we hope—some very close encounters with the brown bears near the famed Brooks Lodge.

More later!

More from Alaska

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Here are a couple more loose ends and photos from Alaska, assuming that my flaky Internet connection will allow it.

First, a couple of shots from the Denali flightseeing trip from last week. I uploaded a bunch to Flickr, I think—you can see them by going to http://tinyurl.com/yuxskv and clicking on "detail." In an earlier blog entry I showed you a shot of the mountain itself. Here's a shot of the McKinley River, at the base of the mountain, as taken from the Cessna:

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Like all the glacial rivers around here, the McKinley River is really more like a river bed with a small stream trickling through it. If I heard correctly, the bed represents how big the river used to be, a zillion years ago when the glaciers were advancing; now that they're retreating, there's much less water flowing through them.

Below is a shot of the kettle ponds that dot the tundra, also taken on the flightseeing trip. I didn't catch why they're called kettle ponds—the guides and drivers are passing along so much information that it's hard to take it all in.

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More on the mountain later. I also wanted to share a shot of a willow ptarmigan that we saw on our bus ride out of Denali. It's cool because you can see the feathers on the bird's legs—something that most birds don't have. It's an adaptation to the cold tundra winters.

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At the end of our bus ride out of Denali, we had about a half-hour to hit the national park visitors' center and gift shop before getting on the train to Talkeetna. The train ride was most excellent: We had seats in the Gold Star section, which had cloth-napkin meal service and a clear dome overhead for optimum viewing of the scenery. The whole thing was quite deluxe. I'll upload shots from the train ride later, but here's one that Carol, a fellow trip member and fellow photography nerd from South San Francisco, took of me after we got off the train in Talkeetna.

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I'll try to write more later when we get to Anchorage, which is a little closer to civilization and thus might have a more reliable Internet connection.

Where do I begin???

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This trip is just so packed with activity and with unbelievable photo ops that there's no time to keep up with blog postings. So I'll just give you a whirlwind tour of the past few days.

A couple of days ago, I have no idea when (I'm suffering from "vacation brain"), we drove from Talkeetna to Girdwood, where we checked in at the Alyeska—the only major ski resort in Alaska. Very fancy place. Big contrast to where we would spend the next night, which was a bunch of cabins on an uninhabited island. At Alyeska—pronounced "alley ess kuh"—many of us took the tram ride up to the top of the mountain...

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...where we had a great view of Cook Inlet, followed by dinner at a four-star restaurant at the top called the Seven Glaciers. Also very fancy.

The next morning, yesterday morning, we set off again (we often spend less than 24 hours in one place!), this time for Seward. In Seward we strolled around the small-boat harbor, stopped in the Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center, and then boarded a boat for Fox Island, in Resurrection Bay about 12 miles south of Seward. There we had a "salmon bake"—salmon, corn on the cob, etc.—and were shown to our cabins. Rustic, but sweet. Timber construction and what you might call an open floor plan....

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There's limited electricity on the island—you can charge your laptop or camera batteries in the small lodge, but there are no electric outlets in the cabins. There are, however, a few battery-powered fluorescent lights (you can see them on the walls in the photo above), and there is propane-fueled hot water for showers.

Among the built-in entertainment at Fox Island are the Steller's jays, which are sort of like grey jays ("camp robbers") in that they aren't too shy around people. The cook put a few croutons on the railing and said, "Stand back," and sure enough—in swooped the jays.

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That night I slept in my cabin under a stack of comforters and blankets and listened to the wind howl. I like fancy hotels as much as the next person, but there was a charisma about Fox Island that can't be beat.

Today, after a breakfast of Eggs Benedict—not bad for a wilderness lodge, huh?—we left Fox Island behind and took a small charter boat out among the Kenai Fjords area. Kenai Fjords was named a national park in 1980, and what a gorgeous place it is. We dropped anchor at Holgate Glacier for lunch.

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Throughout the day we looked for, and saw, all kinds of wildlife: orca whales, sea otters, puffins, murres, kittiwakes, Steller's sea lions, and a bald eagle or two. Many of them were too fleeting or too far away for great photos, but that didn't stop us from trying. I took eight bazillion photos during the day and haven't had time to see what I have. But this shot of the back side of Fox Island on our return to Seward may prove to be one of my favorites of the whole trip.

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That's all for now! Gotta get ready for dinner.

Incredible Denali

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We've just spent the better part of three days deep inside Denali National Park. There is only one access road into the park, and it goes for 90 miles—most of that on gravel. At the end of that road is an old mining village called Kantishna, and it is home to a few lodges, including the Kantishna Roadhouse Lodge, a Native American-owned lodge where we spent three nights.

The 90-mile drive is on a school bus and takes about six hours, in part because we stop anytime there's a wildlife sighting. This caribou would be a good example of a wildlife sighting. :-)

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Along the way in, we saw not only this caribou, but a moose (very close to the bus but only fleetingly, and then he disappeared into the bushes), some Dall sheep (little white specks way up on the hillsides), and a number of bear. The closest bear was this guy, who spent a good 20 minutes vacuuming up berries not far from our bus.

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Our bus driver, Kirsty Knittel, was a New Zealander who has been working in Denali for 20 years—mostly, I think, driving the bus back and forth every day during the summer. She is a great photographer as well; you can see her stuff at http://www.naturalalaska.net/. And she is incredibly knowledgeable about the park, its history, and its flora and fauna. We learned about things like precocial versus altricial animals, and about the difference between Alaska brown bears and grizzlies (they are the same species, but the former are twice as big because they live along the coast and eat a lot of fish, whereas the ones in the interior live mostly on berries and vegetation). She told us about how the wood frog survives the brutal Alaska winters by freezing solid: Its body produces sugars that surround and insulate its vital organs, and the frog then just turns solid.

You learn a lot of weird stuff on a six-hour bus ride through Denali.

We did some hiking the next day, and also saw a little sled-dog demonstration—apparently a pretty common tourist activity in Alaska.

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On our last full day at Kantishna, some of us took a flightseeing plane to Denali—the Mountain Formerly Known as Mount McKinley. We got to fly right up into and around the mountain. It was indescribable. I'll try to write more about it later, but for now, here's one photo of one little piece of the mountain:

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It's not so much a mountain as a "mountain complex," in that it's got all kinds of parts: the North Peak, the South Peak, Wickersham Wall, the West Buttress, nearby sub-peaks, glacial valleys, and so on. Anyway, more on all of that later.

More on Fairbanks

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My half-day or so in Fairbanks before the official start of the trip has turned out to be a lot of fun. While I was over at Creamer's Field checking out the sandhill cranes—as well as a zillion Canada geese—I also hung out for a while with some people from the Alaska Bird Observatory next door, who were banding birds. I had heard about bird-banding but had never seen it before. Basically they string these "mist nets" in various places throughout the woods—they look somewhat like badminton nets, only taller—and go check them every so often to see if any unsuspecting birds had flown into the nets and gotten tangled up. Then they extricate the bird from the net, put them in a cloth draw-string pouch, and take them back to a little quonset hut to measure them, record a bunch of data about them, and fit them with tiny little metal ID bands before setting them free again.

When I got there, they had just checked all the nets and "come up with a big goose egg," one of the volunteers told me. It had been a slow day. But they were going to check the nets again in about 20 minutes, so I hung around. When the time came to check them again, I asked which of the volunteers or staff I should tag along with in order to have the best chance of seeing a bird in the nets. "Whoever's going to the gully" was the answer. That turned out to be a guy named Tim, so I followed him.

As we went to the nets in the gully (passing about six or eight ruffed grouse along the way), Tim asked me where I was from.

"Pennsylvania," I said.

"Where in Pennsylvania?"

"State College—I work at Penn State."

"Really! I went to Penn State."

Turns out that Tim is Tim Walker, who got a degree in animal wildlife management (or some such) in the mid-1980s and now lives in Fairbanks. I mean, what are the chances of that?

On top of that, we got to the first net, and there were four yellow-rumped warblers stuck in the nets, waiting for us. So I got to watch and take pictures as Tim gently untangled each bird and put it in a pouch.

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Back at the quonset hut, each of Tim's warblers got the once-over from another staffer, who checked under its feathers, measured it, determined its sex (she'd call out "FP," which apparently meant "female, based on plumage"), and then stuffed it upside-down into a plastic film canister to get its weight.

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Afterward, Tim would take the bird outside and set it free—or, in this case, ask me if I'd like to do the honors. Basically it meant holding my hand out so he could put the bird in my hand and then let it fly off from there.

All in all, a very cool way to spend part of an afternoon.

Tonight I met the other 13 trip participants—we all went out to dinner together—and tomorrow morning after breakfast we shove off by bus for Denali National Park, which is a few hours south of here. We'll have lunch somewhere outside the park, then board a different bus to go into the park. We'll be staying in Kantishna, at the far end of the park—a 90-mile drive from the park entrance, and 80 of those miles are on dirt roads! Apparently it will take us six hours to get from the park entrance to Kantishna, in part because we'll be watching for wildlife the whole time, and anytime anybody spots something—a bear, a moose, or whatever else they've got up here—the bus will stop, the windows will go down, and the cameras will commence clicking.

We'll spend three days at Denali, during which time I expect I will have zero Internet access. So I'll report back when I get to the other side of that blackout—and I'm sure I'll have stories to tell and pictures to show!

So I finally made it to Fairbanks at 10 a.m. Wednesday local time, which is 2 p.m. back home. I had been traveling for just about 24 hours straight. I was thrilled beyond words that my checked bags actually arrived on the same flight as I did—they had been checked through to Fairbanks from State College, so when I spent the night in Seattle, I have no idea where my bags spent the night, and I really had little confidence that they would make it onto Alaska Airlines flight 81 from Seattle to Fairbanks this morning. But there they were.

Andrea, who will be our Natural Habitat Adventures guide for the next 12 days, met me at the airport and took me to the All Seasons B&B Inn. On the way there I asked if the sandhill cranes have arrived at Creamer's Field yet—in reading about things to do in Fairbanks, I saw that there's a migratory waterfowl refuge called Creamer's Field and that it's invaded by sandhill cranes in August. Andrea said yep, the cranes sure are there, and would I like her to give me a ride over there? So I dumped my stuff in my room, grabbed some camera equipment, and jumped back in the van. I ended up spending three or four hours over there, trying to get good photos of the cranes—a new bird for me.

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Andrea also had mentioned that there was some bird banding going on in the woods adjacent to Creamer's Field, and I thought it would be cool to get some close-ups of migrating warblers getting little bands put on their legs. Little did I know that that would cause me to bump into a fellow Penn Stater! More on that in the next entry.

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Finally in Fairbanks

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Man, it takes for-freaking-ever to get to Alaska from State College! It didn't help that the Northwest flight from State College to Detroit was late, causing me to miss all my connections. So I got rerouted onto USAirways and spent 12 hours just getting as far as Seattle. Got to a hotel outside the Seattle airport at 1 a.m. and had to be awake at 4 a.m. in order to catch the first flight out in the morning. That's not enough sleep....

On that Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Fairbanks (with an intermediate stop in Anchorage), I spent a lot of time talking with a wonderfully friendly flight attendant from Anchorage named Robin. She noticed my cat earrings, asked if I had cats, and returned a few minutes later with pictures of her two Abyssinian cats, Trapper and Keetna. The latter is named for Talkeetna, the Alaska town where she and her husband got the cats. We'll be visiting Talkeetna later in the trip.

Robin told me all about life in Alaska in the winter (the sun rises about 10 a.m. and sets about 2 p.m.!), about the difference between grizzly bears and brown bears (the former live in the interior, the latter along the coast), and how to pronounce some of the places we'll be visiting (Kantishna, the village in Denali National Park, is not "can TEESH nuh," as I've been calling it, but "can TISH nuh"). I had a million questions for her, and she enthusiastically answered every one.

On the second leg of the flight, from Anchorage to Fairbanks, the captain called our attention to a spectacular view of Mount McKinley out the left-hand window. I took a bunch of pictures, and Robin told me that Denali (a term that seems to be used interchangeably with McKinley) is actually made up of a bunch of peaks: the three she told me about were Mount Foraker (pronounced "four acre"), which is about 17,000 feet; Mount Hunter, which is about 14,000; and Mount McKinley, which is the tallest peak on the continent at 20,320. She also said that one of the meanings of "Denali" is "the shy one," which may explain why it's so often hidden by clouds.

The weather for the flight up was just gorgeous—clear and crisp—and I couldn't get over how lucky I was to be able to see Mount McKinley before even setting foot on Alaskan soil. I feel like anything that happens from here will be a bonus. What a great way to start the trip.

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