Notes from a Caribou Whisperer

The Caribou Whisperer

WARNING: – The following journal was sent to me (Carl) from my dad. Read on at your own risk – he does tend to ‘go on’ a little.


Dear Blog,

I’m not sure whether that’s the correct way to address a blog, but it’ll have to do for now.

Sorry for the delay in penning these brief notes on our trip to Alaska and the North American Rockies. I had to wait till the ice melted in my veins and the blood started flowing again.

After a very pleasant stay of two days in the lovely city of Vancouver, made all the more pleasant by catching up with an old Aussie mate and his partner, we embarked on our Cruise up the Inside Passage to Alaska. The cruise lived up to all our expectations and we enjoyed it as much as all our friends said we would. The scenery was wonderful and the food was first class. An unexpected bonus was the great dance music the band played every night. We hadn’t danced like that for years. We thoroughly enjoyed being spoilt by the exceptional service of the staff who spared nothing in their efforts to make us comfortable and catered to our every whim. We were looking forward to catching up with our son Carl, but were a bit apprehensive at leaving the luxury of the cruise ship for the wilds of Alaska.

When we disembarked (or should I say de-shipped?) at Seward we were expecting Carl to be waiting to meet us, but he was nowhere to be seen. We waited outside in the rain for what seemed hours, then finally went inside for warmth and found Carl sitting on a seat reading. He said he hadn’t seen us as we walked past about ten yards away, because he had been absorbed in his reading (probably an article on “Bonding With Your Parents”) but I felt the welcome could have been a tad more enthusiastic.

We loaded our luggage into Carl’s van, then travelled to Anchorage where Colleen did what all mothers do when they haven’t seen their son for some time – his washing. Then to the supermarket to stock up on food supplies before heading off into the wide blue yonder. At the checkout I was somewhat surprised to find a huge amount of chocolate in our trolley and assumed this was to last for the whole 30 days, but I was sadly mistaken.

I knew Carl was anxious for us to see a Dee Nali, also referred to in reverential tones as “THE GREAT ONE”. I assumed HE must be a spiritual guru of some sort, probably an eccentric, environmental, Konservationist (or EEK). I was surprised but relieved to find it was a big white mountain that was part of a great National Park. I was even more relieved to discover we were not expected to climb it. Carl assured us that Denali was the best place in Alaska to see wild life and I quickly found out he was correct. Most of it was in the tourist shuttle buses. These were full of tourists armed to the teeth with backpacks, cameras, tripods, and telephoto lens about fifty yards long. I think the tripods were used as weapons to ward off the bears and wolves etc., and other tourists, whereas the long lens allowed the photographers to get round the regulations for keeping a certain distance from the animals. All regulations, and there is no shortage of them, are strictly enforced by the Park Rangers (more about them later). Woe betide anyone who got in the way of these photo paparrazi when any wild animals appeared. I felt quite humble with my little digital camera, and being a typical well-mannered, Australian gentleman, initially I missed a lot a good shots. However I soon got the hang of it and at the end, felt I could compete with the best of them.

The real wild animals we did see in Denali (grizzly bears, moose, caribou, elk, dall sheep, eagles, snow-shoe hares, squirrels, a fox, and a lynx) seemed quite well -behaved by comparison, and were remarkably tolerant of the busload after busload of intruders. One bull moose appeared quite puzzled by all the fuss. As hordes of vehicles and excited, camera-clicking humans descended on his grazing spot, he looked around with an expression that said quite clearly, “ I’m damned if I know what’s so interesting round here but I sure as hell wish I could see it.”

From time to time people on the shuttle bus would call out things like “squirrel at 1 o’clock” or “elk at five o’clock”. This usually earned them brownie points with the bus driver who would reply “good spotting.” It was some time before I cottoned on to this system. As an Australian bushman from way back I had no trouble spotting the animals but unfortunately I was unable to join in the calls because my watch was still on Australian time! One of our shuttle bus drivers seemed to have lost the plot. We came across a bear alongside the road, to the delight of all the passengers. After taking some shots, one passenger politely asked, “can we please stop for another minute just for a couple more shots?” “I’m leaving now” was the curt reply from the driver who then proceeded to drive 400 yards down the road, pull up and announce there would be a ten-minute stop. He got out, had a cigarette, and then drove straight back past the bear without stopping. I don’t know if there is a condition called Schedule Syndrome, but if so, then he surely had a bad case of it. Luckily all the other drivers we encountered, were helpful, cooperative, and informative.

At one stage we got off a shuttle bus as Carl wanted to show us a favourite little spot of his. While we were having lunch there a caribou cow and a young one showed up about two hundred yards away, and stared at us curiously for about fifteen minutes before trotting off out of sight. Calling on my extensive knowledge of animal behaviour learnt from an old aboriginal tracker, and my bushman’s instinct, I casually sauntered over with my trusty camera, leaving the others (wife & son) wondering what I was up to. Sure enough the caribou came trotting up to within 15 yards of where I waited (Carl says 50 yards but he was never a good judge of distance), and she stood patiently while I got my photo. I actually think she was intrigued by the Australian accent. Never one to boast, I said nothing but I couldn’t help noticing how Carl referred to me from then on as “The Caribou Whisperer.”

After leaving Denali we made our way to Katmai National Park. We flew the last stage of the journey in a small plane,I think it was called a sea-plane, fitted with some sort of flotation devices for landing on water. Understandably I was a little concerned to then discover we were flying over land for most of the trip. I spent the trip imagining how the flotation devices would work if we went down over the forest and meadows. We made a noisy landing on the lake and then taxied in to shore, or almost in to shore. I had thought there would be some sort of jetty to tie up to, but oh no, we stopped ten yards out from shore and then waited till the waiting crewman could find a log (read branch) long enough to reach from shore to plane. Of course no such log was available but we managed to avoid a complete ducking. The return trip from Katmai was even funnier as the crew had to tow the plane half a mile up the shore, firstly so as not to disturb a bear sleeping on the beach, and secondly, to find a suitable log we could use for boarding.

I was looking forward to settling in to a warm, comfortable lodge and reading a book in front of the fire but my expectations were dashed. Carl announced that the photographers didn’t sleep in lodges or cabins, they all stayed in the campground. It was raining and cold. The campground was about a mile away. To get there you travelled along a narrow path through the forest or along the gravelled beach, both of which are inhabited by huge brown bears. It was getting dark. We transported our luggage in a spring cart with rubber tires that were flat. We arrived at the campground to find we would be staying in a jungle surrounded by an electric fence. At night the bears must come round and laugh at the poor humans imprisoned in their concentration camp. I was very glad to finally get into our tent out of the rain, and snuggle into my sleeping bag to try and get warm. I didn’t sleep a wink. I kept wondering how effective the electric fence was.

The bears at Katmai are marvellous. We saw lots and lots of them, big old males, sows, and a number of cubs. Late one afternoon a sow with two cubs settled down just in front of the campground on the beach. The cubs played in the water while the mother dug a hollow in the gravel. When the cubs came out of the lake they romped with the mother who licked them just like a baby. It was lovely to watch. Another day we saw about 10-12 bears where the Brooks River empties into the lake. The salmon were spawning so it was a great time to be there. Colleen fell in love with a young, light coloured cub and wanted to bring it home with her but I don’t think the mother would have agreed. We went up to Brooks Falls and spent a wonderful couple of hours there watching the bears after salmon. One half grown male charged up and down the river in front of us, plunging into the water in a fruitless attempt to catch a salmon. He needed a lot of work on his technique. We didn’t see him catch one in half an hour but he seemed to be enjoying himself. I felt confident that I could have done better.

The Park Rangers have a funny system at Katmai. They rigidly patrol the immediate vicinity of the lodge and cabins and the path to the bridge over the river at the entrance to the lake. If a bear is within about twenty yards of the path or is sleeping nearby, they will hold up the people traffic for hours at a time. When they do decide to try and move a bear on to clear the way, everyone has to stand back while two or three intrepid rangers armed with sticks about two feet long, cautiously approach to within about fifty yards of the bear, calling out and shaking or banging the sticks, or throwing little stones. They talk constantly on their phones, whether to other rangers, each other, or the bears I’m not quite sure. I imagine the bear would be rolling around laughing at this “show of force.” Of course these are the same rangers who implore the tourists not to harass the bears, and who issue fines when they find someone infringing the rules. They are particularly suspicious of professional photographers, maybe with some cause. We fell foul of one ranger (it was Carl’s fault) who was the law enforcement officer and was armed with a revolver. He escorted a group along a side track to get past a bear, and told us to go about twenty yards up through the swamp. When Carl from behind me said we had gone far more than that I stopped, so all those behind me stopped as well. This was a mistake. Once we had got clear of the immediate danger (I never did see any bear) the ranger stood in front of the group, glared at me with an icy expression and spat out “No one stops and No one moves unless I say so.” I’m sure he had his hand on his gun. He reminded me of Clint Eastwood and “Go ahead and make my Day.” In the meantime Carl, the real culprit, had surreptitiously moved to the back of the group. If I ever go back to Katmai I think I’ll make a study of the Park Rangers, instead of the bears.

Next stop was Wrangell-St Elias National Park. It was a lovely drive from Anchorage and the autumn colours were at their peak. We left the van behind and had to walk the last mile to the quaint little village of McCarthy as someone had forgotten to complete the last section of the road. Carl then insisted we go up to the old copper mining town of Kennacott, and on up to the nearby glacier. The temperature was about 100 degrees below and the wind factor was too high to measure but we struggled on without complaint. Carl had failed to provide any crampons so we had great difficulty on the glacier, and I was very conscious of the deep crevasses, not for myself of course, but for my wife. We headed back before our hypothermia got too severe and camped about a quarter of a mile below the glacier, where the temperature was only about 95 degrees below. We slept in the van but Carl chose to sleep in his sleeping bag under the stars without his tent. I fear the cold mountain air has addled his brain.

The following morning we headed off to McCarthy again as we were booked in for a flight with Wrangell-Mountain Air. Carl was keen to shoot some photos from the air and to show us the Skolai area where he often went hiking. Although the plane looked small and fragile I felt reasonably comfortable as the pilot, Natalie, happened to be an Australian. The day was clear and sunny and we got some great shots of the snow-covered mountains and the glaciers. However we had to cut short our photo shoot as our pilot needed our assistance to look for a missing hiker. He had been missing for about three days during bad weather, We did manage to spot his tent which was wide open, not a good sign. A helicopter was called in, and later we learnt a search party of twenty was organised to look for the 66 year-old man. Apparently the search was called off after a week. This sad incident brought home to us all how unforgiving Nature can be.

The three of us flew down to Seattle the next day where, as the attendant announced, we De-Planed (Ugh!), before picking up a motor home and heading off to the Canadian Rockies. It was sad to say farewell to Alaska, such a lovely state, but we had to leave as there was no chocolate left in Alaska. We were also looking forward to the Rockies.

—————————————To Be Continued.

This document is, and shall remain the property of Neil Donohue, and all patents and copyright authorities pertaining to it are covered under the various statutes and legal codes of the Australian Patents & Copyright Act of 1996. None of this material contained herein may be copied, altered, or even improved upon, without the express written permission of the author.

— Carl’s Dad

7 thoughts on “Notes from a Caribou Whisperer

  1. Ron Niebrugge

    That is great stuff! Now I know where Carl gets in sense of humor.

    I have trouble believing Carl would run afoul with a ranger 🙂

    Sounds like a great trip,


  2. Carl Donohue

    Hey Ron,

    Actually, dad’s sense of humor is a product of my most excellent and considered tutelage. 🙂

    As for the rangers, never happens, bruh! I love those rangers – God bless the Park Service Rangers and their 2 foot long sticks.



  3. MaryBeth Lunsford

    That was a really great assessment of your recent trip! Very funny, too. I can also see where Carl gets his laid back attitude & great sense of humor. Hope to see & hear more!!

  4. Carl Donohue

    Hey MaryBeth

    Thanks for posting. Don’t take it as too very accurate though. My dad’s humor is just fine, most of the time, but his memory and attention to detail is waning. Some of the comments were a little ‘skewed’. 🙂

    Hopefully dad’ll finish up his little screed son with his account of the Rockies section of the trip.



  5. Pete Zwiers

    Great stuff … glad to hear that your ‘guide’ was tolerable throughout the trip!

    And yah, I know all about Carl ducking out when the rangers in Katmai go ‘Clint Eastwood’. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Notes from My Father - Stock Photos - Skolai Images

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