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Alaska, The Last Frontier

Updated: Nov 21

The Artist Telegraph By Geoffrey C. Smith


Nature of Alaska, The Last Frontier


It will come as no surprise to those who know my artwork that nature and wildlife inspire my creativity. Many people are aware of Florida wildlife's influence on my work, but with roots in Northern California and Montana, I have been inspired by many other environments and animals outside of the Sunshine State. And this past summer, after spending my days in Alaska, my inspiration and appreciation continues to grow. Read on to learn more about the animals I encountered in the Alaskan wild!

A photo taken by award winning artist, Geoffrey C. Smith, of the Alaskan mountains and glaciers.

Alaska is an incredible place. Removed from the world, it is plentiful with millions of lakes, many of the country's tallest mountains, active volcanoes and so much more. Alaska's low population density makes it feel as though you are thousands of miles away from society. And in many ways, you really are. Alaska has so much beauty and wildlife!


A little fun fact: Alaska boasts the title as most north, most east, and most west part of the United States. The Aleutian Islands of Alaska cross the 180-degree longitude line, making this so. The federal government owns the most land in Alaska with state parks, refuges, etc. totaling over 222 million acres, about 61% of the state.


Spawning Salmon

While I was in Alaska this late summer, I observed the spawning of the different types of salmon. It was incredible! Salmon are a keystone species, meaning that they provide health to the ecosystem in a way where other species heavily rely on their existence. The nutrients they bring to the environment provide sustainable life to many others.


If you don't know much about the salmon migration, their life cycle is quite fascinating! A salmon begins its life in the riverbed. When it hatches, the salmon spends around three months, surviving off the yolk until the yolk is gone. It then becomes a young salmon fry that can swim and begin to feed. As a young fry, the salmon isn't strong enough to swim upstream. Some species stay for 1-2 years in their freshwater natal stream, others will drift downstream into an estuary, a place where freshwater and saltwater meet.


The salmon will spend up to two years here during a period of smoltification, a process of salmon adaptation from freshwater to saltwater. Salmon, and other species that go through this process, are called anadromous species. The nutrients offered in the brackish water help the salmon during this transformation. Once the salmon is ready to leave the estuary, it will move into coastal waters and beyond. In some cases, salmon don't leave the coastal waters. In other cases, they may travel up to thousands of miles away into deeper ocean waters. The salmon will spend anywhere from 1-8 years out at sea until it is time to spawn.


After years at sea, the salmon will journey back in search of the natal stream it left. Scientists believe they detect scents and chemicals as well as the position of the sun to find its way back "home". Migrating adults stop eating when they make their voyage back, in preparation for reproduction, in a process called "homing." Thousands upon thousands of salmon swim upstream, sometimes for a couple of weeks. They jump up over rocks, waterfalls, or anything that gets in their way on their way back to their birthplace.

A photo of many salmon spawning.

Sockeye salmon scattered the riverbed!


On the salmon's journey back to freshwater, the salmon undergoes a physical transformation. The males form a curved, elongated jaw known as a kype, and their nose hooks down. The salmon also develop large canine teeth and thicker skin. Their head will turn green and their bodies become a deeper red coloring due to years of eating a diet high in phytoplankton and krill.


If the salmon returns to its home stream, unscathed by fishing or other predators, the salmon will prepare to reproduce. Females create nests with pebbles and gravel while males compete with others for the females. Eventually, a dominant male will court a female. The female will lay her eggs in the nest, and the male will fertilize the eggs with its milt. A female will lay anywhere from 1,000 eggs to 7,000 eggs, but only a handful will survive.


When the male is done with the fertilization process, the female will cover the nest with loose gravel and move upstream. Due to the taxing journey to reach the spawning grounds, most salmon don't survive beyond a couple of days after their life journey is complete. However, the nutrients from the decomposing bodies are actually very beneficial to the whole ecosystem. Their bodies provide nutrients to the stream and food for other organisms in the area.


The spawning of the salmon in Alaska reminds me of the mullet run we have here in Florida. During the same time of year, thousands upon thousands of mullet spawn on the coastlines. It's interesting to see how such vastly different environments parallel in nature. These processes are vital for the health of our lakes and oceans all around the world.


Moose

Moose roam all over Alaska, but I was excited to capture some moose wandering our property! Moose are the largest members of the deer family, and the Alaska-Yukon moose are the largest you will find in the world. They can weigh up to 1,600 pounds and grow up to six feet tall! It's fascinating that such a large creature is an herbivore. Moose eat vegetation and tend to eat off trees, like willows and aspens, versus eating the low-lying grasses due to their higher stature.


Moose are sexually dimorphic, meaning that males and females of the moose family have different characteristics. The males grow much larger than the females and produce branched bones, known as antlers, while the females do not. During their reproductive years, the male moose will grow larger and greater racks of antlers as a way to attract the females. Each year after breeding season, the males lose their antlers because their testosterone levels drop due to the decreased daylight, but the antlers still grow back the following year.

We saw moose all over the place!


Did you know moose are great swimmers? They can hold their breath up to a minute underwater. They are able to swim 6 miles per hour and can go up to ten miles in distance without stopping. Moose can even dive down almost 20 feet underwater! Moose are even known to swim in the ocean, between islands, as they search for food. Swimming allows moose to forage for aquatic plants rich in nutrients once the winter ice melts. Being in the water also provides moose some safety from being attacked by predators because it is hard for predators to sneak attack in the waters. They are truly fascinating animals!


Though moose are not carnivores, they can be quite dangerous due to their size and aggression when provoked. They will charge other animals or even humans to protect themselves from perceived threats. Similar to a mama bear, moose are very protective of their offspring. It's always important to never be too close to these large animals and make sure they aren't intimidated by you.


Eagles

Have you ever seen a bald eagle in the flesh? It was great to see many bald eagle families perched on trees outside our home. This American icon is a dime a dozen in Alaska, though that hasn't always been the case. In the 1970's, these majestic birds were considered endangered. The use of pesticides like DDT accumulated in the environment where the fish the eagles fed on became contaminated. The eagles reproduction was affected when their eggshells became too thin and would break during incubation. Thankfully, DDT has since been banned in the United States, and the eagle population has recovered and sustained growth. They were removed from the endangered list in 2007. Currently, Alaska has the largest population of bald eagles in the United States, found mostly on the coast and on offshore islands.

Bald eagles thrive in Alaska!


Aside from bald eagles, golden eagles are another species of eagle that resides in Alaska. Golden eagles are large birds, like bald eagles, and can weigh over 10 pounds. The main difference between bald eagles and golden eagles is most obviously the color of the feathers on their heads. Golden eagles also have smaller beaks with black tips instead of solid yellow like bald eagles. Sometimes golden eagles are called booted eagles because their feathers cover their legs to the tops of their feet. Bald eagle feathers stop a few inches above the tops of feet.


Though many people believe the bald eagle and golden eagle are closely related due to their commonalities, the two birds are actually quite different from one another. Bald eagles are considered more of a fishing bird while golden eagles are more closely related to hawks. Juvenile bald eagles can easily be mistaken for golden eagles because it takes a couple of years for the feathers on their heads to become completely white. Both birds share the same family- Accipitridae.


Bears

Did you know that bears are considered one of the most intelligent land animals in North America? Bears are amazing mammals! They have large, complex brain structures with superior navigation skills when compared to humans. Alaska has a variety of bear species on its land- black bears, brown bears divided into grizzly bears and coastal brown bears, and polar bears call Alaska home!


While I observed the salmon spawning, hungry bears lingered by the river, taking every opportunity to feed off the salmon that swam upstream. I watched as brown bears dove into the water in order to try to capture salmon with their claws, many of them successful in their attempts. Some were not as fortunate. Regardless of the outcome, it was incredible to watch the bears in action! The salmon spawning plays a key role in bears to bulk up before winter hibernation.

Bears feeding on salmon in the rivers.


We saw a mama bear with her three cubs on the river. The cubs played with each other, pawing at one another on the shoreline. The mama bear lunged into the river in search of salmon to feed herself and her cubs. I enjoyed observing this family, and how the cubs interacted with each other and their mama bear. Not so dissimilar from a couple of young children playing while their parents fish the waters for dinner.


Bears are extremely smart animals and their intelligence is known to be comparable to higher primates. Think about, for instance, trash cans in mountain towns. Bears have good problem-solving skills. This is evident since humans have had to create bear-proof trash cans. These cans ensure that bears don't grow accustomed to eating in the human populated location they would find food in otherwise. Bears are also known for their use of tools, utilizing branches and scratching their backs.


Some people ask me if I had concerns with such close proximity to these bears. The truth is, the bears are more interested in feeding on salmon than thinking about humans fishing nearby. However, it is important to be careful and know how to manage these situations. I have had a lot of experience in the wild so I know how to ensure my safety as well as others around me. If you visit Alaska, I recommend you seek out a guide who can help you navigate the terrain!


A little fun fact: According to National Park Service, Brown and grizzly are common names for the same species; the difference between the two is geographic location, which influences diet, size, and behavior. Those that live in coastal areas are called brown bears, while typically inland bears that have limited or no access to marine-derived food resources are called grizzlies. Both have a distinctive large shoulder hump, long curved claws, and a wide head with a concave profile, often described as "dish-faced." In Alaska, both coastal and inland bears are of the subspecies Ursus arctos horribilis, and generally we refer to them all as brown bears, although either term is acceptable.



The Hungry Little Bear was created partly by my children about a coastal brown bear.


I hope you enjoyed learning about the wonderful animals I saw while I was away in Alaska! I am always grateful to experience animals in the wild. While I was there I created many Alaskan works of art, if you wish to see a few, please click here to link to my website.


Be Well, Be Loved,


Geoffrey Smith

Comment below, or email me your questions and/or comments. I would love to hear your thoughts.


References

https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/


https://www.fws.gov/species/bald-eagle-haliaeetus-leucocephalus


https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=moose.main


https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/09/science/sockeye-salmon-blue-red-color-change.html#:~:text=After%20hatching%2C%20sockeye%20salmon%20spend,over%20six%20to%20eight%20weeks.


https://www.nps.gov/lacl/learn/nature/ursus-arctos.htm





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