“Hey Bear” – Kodiak Bear Viewing in Alaska

The float plane roars and Keller eases back on the throttle. The immensity of the scenery below unfolds. Primordial nature. Wilderness. Muted hues. We are flying over Kodiak Island, Alaska’s emerald isle. The name conjures up images of mystery, grandeur and power. At the heart of that mystique is the mighty Kodiak Bear, that I have come to see.

The drama of the landscape – impressive white peaks, deep blue fjords and vibrantly green valleys – needs no explanation. Keller’s unerring eye points out the less obvious. Gulls on a ball of herring. Mountain goats with their shaggy coats of pure white. A rainbow to our left, dark clouds to the right and sunshine ahead – the vagaries of Kodiak weather.

We land on the remote Karluk Lake, a lake only accessible by float plane. There are some 3,500 bears in the Kodiak Archipelago, which equates to almost one bear a square mile. The 12-mile-long Karluk Lake holds the highest density of bears in Kodiak and thus the world.

We take a boat across Karluk Lake. The black dots moving across the lakeside scouring the water’s edge take shape as Kodiak Bears, the largest bears in the world. The legend of the bear is that the Kodiak Bear is touted as the world’s largest carnivore. The reality is that they are omnivores and spend more time eating grass, plants and berries than meat.

Indeed, few bears expend the time or effort necessary to chase and kill mammals. They are opportunistic. Karluk means fish in the local Alutiq language. It is well-named. The waters are teeming with salmon. Every year hundreds of thousands race the rivers to spawn. For the bears it is a feeding frenzy as they fatten themselves up for the winter months.

We see several bears patrolling the beach. The sub-adults raise their head in suspicion at the alien sound of the boat, sniff the air and retreat into the sanctuary of the long grass. But one, a large sow, holds her ground and enjoys the beach to herself. We float just offshore as she continues her progress and I listen to the soft crunch of the slate beach underpaw. She spies a floating salmon and scampers forward to scavenge.

Bears don’t expend energy unless they have to. Yet the slow, deliberate walk of the bear is deceptive: they move with disarming speed. Their turn of pace as they splash through the water in pursuit of a salmon is sudden. And at the same time amusing.

Jen my guide, an Alaskan ranger, asks, “Do you want to go for a walk?” Surprised but thrilled, I reply with an emphatic yes as she beaches the boat and we head out into bear country.

There is evidence of bears. Scat of varying sizes and consistency. Large paw prints. The size of the claw marks is worrying. The detritus of salmon – bones, scales, entrails, heads. Jen is armed. She carries a twelve-gauge pump-action shotgun which as Jen puts it, “That’s a whole lot of lead. Quite some stopping power.”

We sit on a steep bank on the side of the River Thumb. The river gurgles noisily downstream as huge red salmon struggle upstream. For some it is too much and they seek respite on the edges of the river where the flow is less strong. The solitude and silence are striking. Broken only by the head-turning splash of salmon. No bears.

Bears have no schedule and so we decide to make our own and walk further upstream to Lake Thumb. We work through long grasses, fireweed, Cottonwood trees, willow and undergrowth. A mosaic of colour. Jen doesn’t want to surprise a bear so she quietly claps her hands and talks to anything that might be out there, “Hey bear.”

That’s the great thing about walking around the corner in a truly out of the way place such as this: you never know what’s going to ambush you. Suddenly the ground reverberates and we see a bear break cover in a lolling run. The tension is broken by the wailing cry of a fox that to my untutored ear sounded like a bird.

We stand by the lakeside. The mountains around us soar some 2,500 feet above the lakeshore in a variety of greens, orange, brown and russet. I sit and marvel at my surrounds. One mountain with fissures created over millennia by raging streams that resemble a bear’s claw marks. Another with vertiginous slopes that beg to be climbed. The brilliance of the Common Merganser. Six ducks fly overhead in uniform flight. A kingfisher darts along the water’s edge. Apart from that stillness. The isolation is intense.

We spot a bear on the far side of the lake, the eleventh bear that we have seen that afternoon, and decide to return to the head of Lake Karluk. A fox saunters past a large salmon in her mouth. She seems unconcerned by our presence. So much so that her kit, a young fox of some four months, emerges from the undergrowth to relieve its mother of her catch and greedily gorge on the salmon in front of our eyes.

A sub-adult comes around the bend in the river. He spots us, raises his nose sniffing the air – a bear’s sense of smell is one hundred times that of a human – doesn’t recognise what he smells, does a quick about face and retreats quickly into the long grasses. We resume our silent vigil.

Socially bears are solitary creatures, the exception being mating pairs and sows with cubs. The bears do not have a territory that they defend, but instead have a home range that they will hunt year after year. Because of the diverse quantity of food on Kodiak Island, the bears have some of the smallest home ranges in the world. This brings Kodiak Brown Bears into much higher concentrations than their solitary nature would suggest.

And suddenly there are bears in profusion. Upstream two young sub-adults scour the edge of the river. Downstream a large sow. In the distance at the head of the lake two young cubs frolic on the beach as their mother combs the water. I watch their shoulder swagger walk, the shuffle of their backsides and their heads moving from side to side.

I tap Jen on the shoulder excitedly. Twenty feet to our left a bear was negotiating her way down the bank into the river. She crosses the river and patrols the edge of the river preying on the weak.

Jen whispers, “That’s Dark Lady. She is an adult female in her prime.” I marvel at the condition of her coat and am in awe of the rippling muscle beneath it. I notice the pads of her feet as she wades her way downstream. We watch her with fascination.

She stops. Crosses back to our side of the river and begins a watery plod upstream. Remarkably she stops just beneath us, a mere ten feet away. She begins to feed on a salmon. The ripping of skin, the tearing of flesh and the crunching of bones is audible, a tribute to her raw strength and razor-sharp claws and teeth. She looks up at us. Her red eyes revealing the overwhelming indifference of nature. A cursory look at us and she resumes her noisy munching.

“If they look at you for a long time then you know it’s serious,” whispers Jen with disarming understatement.

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British Columbia – My favourite place on earth

Flying over the west coast mountains I feel at home. I am heading back into the depths of British Columbia, my favourite place on earth. Having travelled to Canada countless times, and being a self-confessed bear lover the Great Bear Rainforest is always top of my list to visit, so asked if I wanted to head back I threw on my outdoor gear quicker than you could say maple syrup!

The trip so far has already taken me to the crème de la crème of wilderness lodges dotted along the west coast but now I am heading to Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort which is, without doubt, the cherry on top.

Set on the edge of the Great Bear Rainforest to the north of Vancouver Island, Nimmo Bay is a part floating – part stilted lodge set on the water and framed by the forested mountains that rise behind it. Accessible by float plane, I am making the journey to the lodge in a little Cessna, full of luggage and donning the headset. This is where the excitement ramps up, being able to appreciate the vast scale of this coastline and the mountain peaks that can often be shrouded from view by the low lying clouds. I jabber to the pilot who was amused to tell me I had already met his girlfriend just an hour ago when I frantically asked for some directions to the airport – she had called ahead to tell him I might be late! Despite the vast scale, this is small town Canada so everyone knows everyone’s business!

Banking around the side of a mountain side I recognised immediately where we are soon coming into land. Slowly, the pilot made the necessary moves and we glided down towards the water, cutting the surface like a knife to butter. Into view came the striking red roofs of the stilted cabins and the floating lodge beyond.

Greeted by the friendly team I immediately feel back at home. Don the lodge manager soon picks me out and after quick introductions I found myself tying the laces on my hiking boots and heading off into the forests for a ‘hike to the top’. This was a route that was only just being tested out and they were excited to trial me out as guinea pig. Winding through ancient spruce trees, crawling over mossy logs, and scrambling up the soft woodland slopes – this is my kind of adventure. The forest is magical, shrouded by the canopy above, the mossy forest floor that had once been described as a ‘decadent’ forest. It was far from it, rich and alive with flora and fauna. As I reach the top, I am gifted with sweeping views across the inlet and the surrounding mountains. Just a tiny boat could be seen in the distance – perhaps a local fishing boat I wonder.

Over the following days, we head out by boat, exploring the inlets for marine and wildlife. Activities are flexible but I am keen to try and see a pod of orcas that we knew to be nearby. Dall’s porpoise, seals and a pod of twenty or more dolphins danced merrily in the wake of our boat as we go. We never caught up with the orcas but were more than rewarded with our attempts.

On the final afternoon, we have the sighting I was waiting for. Sitting quietly on our floating pontoon in a tiny inlet, stuffing myself on fresh crab salad and tasty cheesecake gazing out onto the water’s edge. Out of nowhere, I spot a big black rock…a moving big black rock. I grab at my binoculars and peer through to see a beautiful black bear digging away at the rocks in search of his meal – perhaps he plans to feast on a crab salad like me?

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Ice in their veins, a week at Arctic Watch Lodge

I can’t think of any family more qualified than the Weber’s to guide me through the Canadian Arctic. Richard Weber, is an unassuming character but has the accolade of having walked to the North Pole more times than anyone. Richard has been there seven times including a crossing from Russia to the pole then onto the Canadian coastline and is the first person to walk to the North pole and back without resupply.

Josee Auclair, Richard’s partner, has pioneered and led multiple women’s polar treks and expeditions to both Poles.
Richard and Josee have passed their exploring bug onto their two sons Tessum and Nansen who were brought up summering with a nomadic Inuit family in an outpost camp on Baffin Island.
Tessum visited the Arctic for the first time at six weeks old. And is the youngest person to have walked to the north pole. An athlete and ski tourer he took a degree in commerce before returning to the Arctic to devote himself to the family business.
Nansen, the youngest son, is an acclaimed photographer and has led parties from BBC Wildlife, National Geographic and Netflix utilising his intimate knowledge of the region to achieve some amazing footage.
In 2000 the Weber’s purchased Arctic Watch Lodge on the bay of Cunningham Inlet at the north of Somerset Island with the idea that they would share their passion for all things Arctic with those who wanted to visit.

I visited very early in the season before the sea ice had broken up. With such great sea ice, we had the unique opportunity to explore on foot and on fat bike. Stepping into the deep blue puddles was a weird experience as you had no depth perception and it felt like you were stepping into the abyss when in reality it was rarely more than a few inches deep. Care had to be taken though as in some places there were deep holes right through the ice kept clear by the ringed and bearded seals that frequent this area — you certainly didn’t want to step into these. With the Weber’s as our guides we knew we were in safe hands. Their years of knowledge gave us the confidence to explore and to know what areas to avoid. In one particular bay we were all keen to venture out but Josee felt it was not stable enough, less than twenty-four hours later the complete ice sheet had gone.

Not content with just their own knowledge they have employed a range of other specialist guides in an extended family. There are 17 staff, including a first rate chef to look after the 26 guests who venture this far north to stay for a week during the short summer.
Activities are offered in small groups, exploring by all terrain vehicles, on foot, by kayak and paddleboard spending time with the wildlife of the region. Beluga come here in great numbers to frolic in the shallow waters of the bay, musk ox roam the valleys inland and foxes can be found here along with snowy owls, snow geese and even occasionally wolves. Along the coastline were many ancient Thule site, summer camps and tent rings where occasional artefacts could be found including a whale bone fire stick with brass rivets that must have been traded with the early explorers, many who came to grief here or over wintered while searching for the elusive Northwest Passage.

Most excursions were a full day and an amazing packed lunch with flasks of hot soup tea and coffee along with home cooked breads, organic meats and cheeses were produced. In the evenings the chef would cook up a banquet of Canadian home produce, organic beef, fresh vegetables and always followed by a stunning pudding and a chat by the guides around the large log fire in the “great hall”. The family certainly had some stories to tell.

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Getting to know Bob

Bob yawning at sunset

You know you are heading to the remote north when snow comes in through the airplane vents. We were skimming along the coast north of Churchill in a de Havilland DHC-3 Otter heading towards Seal River and by the time we bounced along the dirt runway I had a fine white coating.

This remote upgraded old hunting lodge was to be home for the next couple of nights. Our guides Tara and Andy met us at the strip and said once you get out please keep close the aircraft, you are in prime polar bear territory now.

It was a short walk to the lodge where we settled in before lunch. Andy said to me with a knowing smile, I’m pretty sure you will see a bear before you leave. The dining area was down a short corridor which opened up into a large windowed area overlooking the mouth of the Seal River; “if you look out there you will see your first bear”. Sure enough there was a pale rock amongst the other slightly greyer looking ones. ‘’That’s your bear’’ said Andy just 70 metres away from us.

After lunch we went out into the compound, a small area just outside the back door which is fenced so you can safely exit the lodge. Andy was giving us our briefing about travelling in polar bear country and showing us all his tricks to “discourage” an over interested bear. “Knocking rocks together is a really good option, keep an eye on the bear as he will probably lift his head as I do this” said Andy, cracking two rocks together. Not a flinch from the bear, as Andy carried on showing us the fire crackers, starting pistol and for worst case scenario a shot gun.

Mr bear did everything he could to upstage Andy, having been an immobile blob he decided to roll onto his back, waving his legs in the air. Not content with this he then picked up a caribou antler tossing it between his paws while lying on his back. We decided to name this bear backyard Bob as he was so close to the lodge. Occasionally, he opened his eyes but was completely unfazed by us, we skirted back round him and continued on our walk. We saw lots of birdlife, a beautiful arctic hare who let us get remarkably close and a short tailed weasel which had caught a lemming.

The next day we were told that our polar friend Bob had wondered off late yesterday evening towards the south, however, from the observation tower a bear could be seen a way off in the distance. The wind had picked up and it felt distinctly cooler than the previous day but the ice we had walked over was now a pool. As we head out towards where Bob was spotted, we caught sight of a bear. He took some interest in us, but as we were downwind he couldn’t smell us, so was pretty unconcerned. We stopped around 50m from him; Andy & Tara told us to stick together in group and be quiet. Andy spoke very gently and confirmed it was indeed Bob. After 20 minutes curiosity got the better of him, he stretched and picked himself up walking across the ice towards us, stopping, he then turned sideways and gave us that perfect polar bear pose that everyone will recognise. We soon learnt this was the pre defecation pose, a clear sign of what he thought of our presence. He slowly continued to walk towards us along the edge of the shore, stopping to sniff the air. We were stood slightly up the bank and we assumed he wanted to walk past us and back towards the lodge, which he did but when he was level with us he stopped less than 10m away and watched us. Andy and Tara stepped forward of the group with rocks in hand and suggested to the bear that he ought to keep moving, with a crack of the rocks he seemed to get the message and moved off at an amble, not even bothering to look back at us, but retracing our steps to the lodge. From our stunned silence we broke into an excited babble, most of regretting having a telephoto lens.

We continued our walk and soon came across another bear; this was a naughty bear, one with a green spot on his back. He had been caught in Churchill too close to the community so he had been tranquilised and spent a little time in the jail before being flown north and released. He had obviously had a bad interaction with humans so was not so keen to see us and disappeared into the willow and we left him alone.

On returning to the lodge we found Bob just 20m from the compound. Looking relaxed he put on a show of yawning and stretching, rolling on his back, relaxing in the noon sun.

Bob had certainly become a favourite for the group and none of us tired from having the opportunity to see him revel in the attention.

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Steppes Big 5 activities to do on holiday in the Yukon

The Yukon is one of the most quirky whilst scenically spectacular destinations in Canada. A northern territory of Canada (not to be confused with the Northwest Territories) it has big competition with Alaska bordering to the west and British Columbia to the south. This is a vast open wilderness boasting towering mountains, vast ice-fields, thick coniferous forests and vast meandering rivers. A magnificent deserted landscape to explore, it is twice the size of the UK, but with just a minute fraction of the population. Making it the perfect remote getaway.

Top 5 highlights of the Yukon:

 Dog Sledding

Two of the most prestigious and gruelling dog sledding races in the world are set in Yukon and neighbouring Alaska. Dog sledding is a prestigious sport here and has a deep history with some of the best Alaskan huskies and race dogs you can find. This is the place to try your hand at dog sledding. Travel with your own team and explore the hundreds of miles of mapped trails with incredible scenery at every turn.

Follow the Klondike trail

Yukon is bursting with history, the majority of which surrounds the mass gold rush of the late 1800’s. The Klondike Gold Rush saw mass migration into the Yukon soon after the discovery of gold with treacherous journeys for prospectors. Today, this history is still apparent in the quirky communities. Dawson City was at the heart of this and you can still gold pan today – definitely a must do for any tour of the Yukon.

Cross the Arctic Circle

The infamous Dempster Highway is widely known as one of the most scenic drives in the world. Stretching 460 miles, this vast gravel road leads through the northern Yukon all the way to the Arctic Circle passing through small offbeat towns along the way. The scenery is unmissable, displaying some of the most magnificent wilderness in the world. Passing through three mountain ranges there is not only impressive peaks but a wide variety of wildlife to see along the way.

Ice bear viewing in the Yukon

Nowhere else in the world can you view the phenomenon of the ‘ice bears’. Set within a stone’s throw of the Arctic Circle, Bear Cave Mountain is an extremely remote lodge visited by just a handful of people per year. With just a 6 week window, this is the place for the true wildlife lover and for photographers seeking something new and extraordinary. Due to a seasonal phenomenon, when snow is thick on the ground and winter sets in hard, watch as grizzlies fishing for salmon, dive into icy waters emerging with great icicles hanging off their thick furs.

The Northern Lights of the Yukon

Whilst auroras can be seen closer to home, the Yukon cannot be forgotten for its impressive winter light displays. Experience the total silence and solitude of the winter here whilst watching for the bright multi-coloured light displays seen each year. Tied in with dog sledding adventures or ski escapes, the Yukon should not be missed for a winter escape.

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British Columbia Holiday: 5 reasons to travel on the Pacific Yellowfin Spirit Bear Tour

The Pacific Yellowfin is based on the West Coast of British Columbia; a rugged coastline and the perfect getaway for wildlife and nature enthusiasts. Here are my reasons for why travelling on the Pacific Yellowfin is a must on your British Columbia holiday.

1) The search for the Spirit Bear

As one of the richest ecosystems in the world containing 25% of the remaining intact temperate rainforests, the Great Bear Rainforest is home to prolific wildlife making it the perfect destination for wildlife enthusiasts. The rare white Spirit bear is unique to this region and can be found in specific areas accessible only by boat. In the presence of a Gitga’at Spirit Bear keeper, view these extraordinary species in their natural habitat whilst feeding on the rich salmon filled waters.

2) Wildlife

The rich ecosystem of the Great Bear Rainforest supports a vast array of wildlife both on land and in the surrounding waters. Large mammals include the grizzly, black and spirit bears along with the more allusive grey wolves and wolverine. In the waters a myriad of species including harbour seals, sea otters, Pacific white-sided dolphins and Stella Sea Lions are common to this area along with the whale species of Humpback, Fin and Orcas making for a highly varied wildlife experience.

3) The Pacific Yellowfin

Those fortunate to have travelled on a small vessel will appreciate how the size of a boat will impact the viewing opportunities of both the scenery and wildlife. The shallow hull allows the exploration of the most remote and slight inlets and to get up close to the wildlife. The Pacific Yellowfin is the finest vessel of all those on west coast Canada; a refurbished WWII yacht, it has been exquisitely finished with beautiful hardwood furnishings to offer a spacious viewing platform with a capacity of just 12 passengers. The engine room is in itself a highlight with immaculately restored original engines that have powered the Yellowfin for over 60 years.

4) The Crew

Whilst west coast BC sells itself, the addition of an expert team makes exploring not only more informative but also far more exciting. Captain Colin Griffinson’s passion is infectious, having sailed these waters for a decade along with his team of 4. Their knowledge of the fishing hot spots, wildlife, beautiful hikes and secret waterfalls combine to make for a captivating sailing adventure.

5) September in British Columbia

Whilst the summer season is fantastic for wildlife viewing, September is the peak bear viewing season. By this time the salmon run is already underway making the run upstream to spawn in the river system. This draws the bears to the rivers congregating in high numbers to feast on this rich food source making for fantastic viewing and photographic opportunities.

To learn more about your British Columbia holiday, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Film Review | Into The Wild

“The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon for each day to have a new and different sun”

– Christopher McCandless, 1992.

 Into the Wild follows the true story of a troubled young adult Christopher McCandless seeking to emancipate himself from modern society. In 1992, he hitchhikes through America to the wild lands of Alaska. His aim is to live simply off the land seeking only a blank space on the map.

Through the extracts of his diary, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt pieced together the details of this remarkable journey that was later adapted into film by Sean Penn.

The journey follows Christopher as he disassociates himself from his life and his family and heads off on his adventure to Alaska. Embracing each new encounter and adventure that crosses his path, it has many touching moments with the people he meets along the way.

In the final stages, we follow the perils and adversity he faces when he reaches the Alaskan wilderness when the reality and his ideals are challenged.

It is a heart-wrenching and an inspirational story of this young man motivated by adventure with a never failing determination to continue on at all costs to reach his goal of solitude and peace. Beyond any shortfalls of the character, Into the Wild reminds of the beauty travel offers and how each experience is precious.

Watching the beautiful scenery in the film set in Denali National Park, reminded me of the remote untouched wilderness in Alaska. A place to get away from normal life and get lost in your thoughts.

“Don’t hesitate or allow yourself to make excuses. Just get out and do it. Just get out and do it. You will be very, very glad that you did. The life and simple beauty of it is too good to pass up.”

– Christopher McCandless, 1992.

 To experience your own Alaska adventure, get in touch with me now on 01285 880980 or email at inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Soaring Over Alaska

The pilot tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a huge glacier stretching as far as the eye could see, one of many huge natural wonders in this wilderness area of Alaska. Flying over the Alaska Range of Denali, I felt like a tiny insect being engulfed by the land. A vast landscape of dramatic scenery, a labyrinth of mountains, rivers and forests. This is the home of the largest mountain in North America ‘Mount Denali’ aka ‘Mount McKinley’.

Alaska has been referred to as ‘a land of superlatives – biggest, highest, wildest, most beautiful’; this was definitely evident on my trip. Flying in Alaska is the only way to truly explore, experienced bush pilots are as common as black cabs in London. Gliding at what felt like meters above the mountain tops affording an eagle eye view of the land below was incredible. If the scenery was not breath taking enough, I had the added bonus of travelling in the Autumn. The colours radiated, the vibrant reds of the fireweed standing out against the backdrop of the bright yellows and auburns. This is a special time to visit Denali, the seasonal cross over lasts just weeks at best, each day bringing a visible change until the winter snow casts its blanket.

These days terms such as ‘off-the-beaten-path’ and ‘untouched’ are thrown in as second nature and can be misplaced when describing a destination. In Alaska, this opportunity still awaits. True there are the regions where tourism is visible, but a vast proportion of the state is still so remote locals rely on hunting as a way of life and survival is a necessity through the winter season.

Travelling through Alaska was humbling, with residents playing a role in a greater cycle dictated by the weather, land and the mass of wildlife that governs much of the terrain. Nature takes its course here, and it was wonderful to be a small part of it if only for a while.

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Bush-whacking in Alaska

“Hey bear, hey bear” went the thankfully unanswered call of our guide as we picked our way through the thick forest.

I was “bush-whacking” on an uninhabited island in south-east Alaska, one of a choice of active excursions available during my time on the Safari Endeavour boat. Bush-whacking involves being dropped off by skiff onto a remote beach in a small group and making your way across the island to the beach the other side – sounds easy. What I haven’t mentioned is that there are no paths, just thick forest, fallen trees, boggy bits and bears for company.

Our intrepid party of 10 set off in high spirits, giddy with excitement and nerves, of what may lurk in the bush. The temperate rainforest was as nature intended, plants growing where they found room, competing for the light and space to make a home; on fallen logs, on trees or the ground. As we wove our way deeper and deeper into the forest climbing over, under, around and then back again at times to find the best ‘path’, a feeling of camaraderie formed between us. We continued fighting our way through the undergrowth, looking out for our fellow pioneers and also for the larger furry bush-whackers too.

An hour of arboreal obstacles later, we stepped out into a large open mossy area. It was magical, a myriad of greens all around, trees covered with lichens like wispy beards. As we bounced over the soft, spongy vegetation below, we wondered if we were the only people to have ever discovered this Tolkien-esque scene. The forest around was full of shadows and darkness, you found yourself straining your eyes in the hope of seeing an elusive bear. Overhead, a huge bald eagle glided across the sky and swooped down claws ready, like landing gear, to pounce on an unsuspecting fish in a nearby pond.

We dove back into the cover of the forest searching for the sea, the wall of trees ended abruptly, and like parting a curtain we stepped onto the beach and cheered with the thrill of having survived the Alaskan wilderness. As we headed back to the boat to clean up for dinner, a sense of satisfaction rolled over me, we had definitely earned our cocktails on deck tonight.

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More than a walk in the park

In celebration of Independence Day in the United States I share some thoughts on my favourite regions and highlights of this wonderful country. With a passion for the outdoors, I am drawn time and again towards the national parks – one of the greatest creations- preserving the precious landscapes that make this land so special.

Here are a few of my favorites…

Yosemite National Park

No words can describe the grandeur and pure majesty of Yosemite. Legendary naturalist John Muir and the talented photographer Ansel Adams have tried to encapsulate the scale. From the moment you enter the park you will feel the energy and the spirit that make this place so unique. Some of the largest trees on the planet, the tallest waterfalls, the pristine alpine meadows and lake valleys, even some of the largest monolithic rock structures ever created, live in this park.

What to do
The iconic granite monolith Half Dome. Historically geologists thought the summit of Half Dome would never be touched by human hands or feet. Now one of the most popular activities in the park is the seventeen mile Half Dome hike and cable route. The combination of the Mist Trail for the finest waterfalls, combined with some of the best views of the park, are reasons why this hike and summit are so special.


 Zion National Park

Combined with spectacular Aeolian sand stone deposits, arches, narrow canyons and some of the tallest free standing vertical faces in the country. For true natural beauty Zion has as much to offer any place in the world.

What to do
Canyoneering combines route finding, rappelling, problem solving, swimming, and hiking. With a variety of canyons to explore, some barely wide enough for a human to squeeze through, the Zion offers canyons that range from beginners level to experiences requiring advanced technical skills. One of the most spectacular canyons in the park is the famous Zion Narrows carved out over millions of year and considered the largest slot canyon in the world this natural wonder is a must see when exploring the park.


Crater Lake

No place else on earth combines a deep, pure lake, so blue in colour; sheer surrounding cliffs, almost two thousand feet high; two picturesque islands; and a violent volcanic past. It is a place of immeasurable beauty. One of the deepest and clearest freshwater lakes in the world reaching nearly 1932 ft. in depth, Crater Lake is recognized worldwide as a scenic wonder.

What to do
Volcano Boat Cruises are approximately 3 hours to 6 hours. They offer a fantastic perspective of the lake as you travel counterclockwise around the perimeter. An Interpretative Ranger from the National Park Service will be onboard the boat and offer cultural and natural history about Crater Lake. For the more adventurous type, the boat can be dropped off on Wizard Island for some additional hiking, exploration and beauty.

Celebrate all things State-side with us and make the most of our special rates.

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British Columbia

Soaring high above Vancouver I pushed my face to the glass to take a look at the land below. I could just make out the city sights in the distance of the harbour and the towering sky scrapers rising up to the sky. Before long the city was lost into the clouds screening my view of the land below. We were told by the pilot that the clouds were soon to clear of which we were all slightly sceptical… “Canadian optimism!” I heard someone call out.

Less than half an hour later, true to the pilot’s word the clouds dispersed and the land below returned to our sights with excited passengers returning their foreheads to the glass. The magnificent scenery was finally back in view with its rugged coastline rising out of the Pacific waters up towards the mountainous terrain.

Upon landing, I was swiftly shuttled through to my next aircraft to take me deep into the Great Bear Rainforest. Emerging from the trees I could see a small bay ahead where floating quietly on the waters was my small aircraft, a sea plane. Having never experienced a take-off on the water, I was filled with excitement as we headed off across the bay and with little effort we soared into the air.

I immediately loved this part of Canada. The dramatic landscape of scattered islands and deep inlets was mesmerising, so raw in nature. Not a boat, road or house could be seen anywhere in sight- this land seemed somewhat undiscovered!

British Columbia is renowned for this magnificent landscape as one of the largest nearly intact ecosystems in the world. Just a cluster of properties inhabit these remote areas, they work as one with the environment, dedicated to sustainable travel and self-sufficient practises. It was wonderful to at last spend time exploring the Great Bear Rainforest – home to the Grizzly and Spirit bears it is a wildlife wonderland full of exciting adventures.

Travel to British Columbia is varied and offers vast opportunities whether it is a family, wilderness or wildlife adventure, city and culture trip or romantic getaway. The west coast is renowned for its stunning coastline and the amazing wildlife with Grizzly Bears, Orcas, seals and dolphins all common of the area. Vancouver Island and the Great Bear Rainforest host a collection of inspirational lodges each offering a unique experience.

On the mainland, adventures are largely dominated by outdoor activities with Whistler a year round destination. Nicely combined with a coastal adventure on Vancouver Island or an self-drive from Vancouver to the Rocky Mountains, it is a great destination for both families and couples holidays. For those more adventurous, head to a remote wilderness lodge in the north of the province where glacial and hiking heli-adventures are notorious. For winter adventures dog-sledging and snow shoeing allow travellers to explore off the beaten track.

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The Grand Circle

As I stood high on the red cliffs overlooking the Colorado River, I was struck by the magnificent scale and beauty of the surrounding landscape. All around were staggering views of towering rock formations, dramatic buttes and mesas rising up from the escarpment. This, I would come to realise, was just an introduction to what would be an eye-opening adventure through the National Parks of Utah and Arizona.

This unique and exceptional landscape is part of the vast South-West region of the US commonly referred to as the ‘Grand Circle’ that not only includes Arizona and Utah but also portions of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. This ‘circle’ contains America’s largest concentration of national parks and monuments, woven together by extraordinary scenic byways and includes some of the most visited parks in America.

My exploration of this area focused on a selection of National Parks in Utah and Arizona that included the famous Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce and Arches National Park along with National Monuments such as Grand Staircase-Escalante and the sacred Navajo lands.

What I found was a diverse landscape of magnificent rock formations all carved through a magnificent history of environmental processes. Whilst the Grand Canyon was cut by the powerful Colorado River, Bryce National park has been created by an intricate process of frost weathering leaving the distinctive geological structures referred to as ‘hoodoos’.

I found all the National Parks to have a unique personality and history that made each an individual in their own right. Despite my initial scepticism, the parks were not overrun by coach loads of tourists and offered ample opportunity to escape and explore in solace. Of course the main view point areas are bustling with tourists striving for their personal snapshot but this is not the case throughout. Instead, the impressive operation of these parks has left a pristine landscape for travellers to discover in solace.

My personal recommendation for this area is to hire a guide to explore the more remote areas of the National Parks. Their knowledge of park history, landscape and culture is vast and not something to be found in a book. There is also a diverse range of activities throughout the area so that the more active travellers can not only hike but enjoy the other exciting opportunities such as canyoneering, rafting and kayaking that are off the beaten track.

An aspect to note, that is often overlooked when travelling to this area, is the rich history of the Native Americans. The Navajo Nation is the most influential Indian tribe in North America with a strong presence in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Travellers can get an insight into their history by visiting a reservation, with tribes welcoming individuals to learn more of the cultural and spiritual practises and how they have shaped the magnificent landscape. It is a very special and unique aspect to a trip and an incredible learning experience to beautifully complement the iconic surroundings.

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Now is the time to see the Northern Lights

A double peak ‘Solar Max’ is expected in late 2013 and again in 2015 so if you have always dreamed of seeing the Northern Lights, now could be the time to plan your trip and see some of the most spectacular aurora displays.

A Solar Maximum is a period when sunspot activity is at its greatest levels and this tends to happen approximately every 11 years. A sunspot is a dark patch appearing from time to time on the sun’s surface. These cooler areas appear dark by contrast with the surroundings and are prone to eruption which cause solar flares across the surface of the sun. These flares release charged particles into the solar system, which are the catalysts of the northern lights.

During a time of Solar Maximum sunspots are more prevalent which can result in some of the most frequent, dramatic and stunning Northern Light skies. We can help with travel to a number of destinations where the Northern Lights can be seen including Iceland, Spitsbergen & Canada.

We are also excited to announce a new tour by Luxury Train between Moscow and St Petersburg, over the Christmas and New Year period, when you can see the Northern Lights in the Russian Arctic.

For further advice or information contact our specialists on 01285 651010.

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Polar Bears in the Canadian Arctic

Churchill is a tiny town along the Hudson Bay, remote and inaccessible by car since no road has ever been built. This remoteness is not to everybody’s liking and it takes a strong mind and an adventurous spirit to decide a move to Churchill is a good idea.

That’s probably why polar bears outnumber humans in Churchill, and while this makes Churchill an amazing place to visit for polar bear safaris, it also makes it a hot-bed for human-wildlife conflict. This is no joking matter when the wildlife in question is the world’s largest carnivore that is likely not to have eaten for over 3 months.

At the beginning of November, clients Annemiek Van Gijn and Carsten Gerlach from the Netherlands, witnessed first-hand the manner in which “problem bears” are dealt with in Churchill. “Problem bears” are Churchill’s bad boys, who regularly enter the town in search of food (anything from the contents of a rubbish bin to a drunken resident on his way home from the local) and are no longer deterred by the sound of gun-shots emitted by Churchill’s Polar Bear Alert.

These 400kg miscreants are darted and put into captivity where they are encouraged to consider the consequences of their anti-social behavior. In reality, their time inside is easy porridge with a regular supply of seal blubber and constant care and attention.

Once the sea ice has reformed and is thick enough for a helicopter to land, the polar bears are released in a procedure that takes skill and bravery. The bears are sedated and placed in a heavy duty harness which is winched up into the air by a helicopter. The helicopter slowly makes its way out across the tundra into the frozen wilderness, hundreds of miles away from the residents of Churchill where the polar bear will be gently landed and given an anti-sedative to wake it up.

This is an expensive but effective antidote to human-polar bear conflict and research data shows that those bears who do time and are relocated, learn their lesson and never return to Churchill.

Both the photos shown above were taken by Annemiek on her trip to Churchill. For more information about Polar Bear holidays to the Canadian Arctic, please contact our specialists on 01285 880 980.

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Wildlife of the Northwest Passage

While the history of the 300 year search for the Northwest Passage which links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, is well documented, travellers in search of a polar adventure may be less aware of the huge variety and numbers of wildlife to be enjoyed during a voyage through the Canadian High Arctic.

According to Aaron Lawton, a Northwest Passage Expedition leader, it is possible to be truly inundated and overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of marine mammals, polar bears and birdlife that appear during such a voyage.

Lawton says: “One memorable day at Beechey Island last summer saw three polar bears; two white morph adult gyrfalcons taking turns feeding their chick; three beluga whales swimming along the shoreline; a bearded seal poking its head up from time to time; hundreds of harp seals, thousands of fulmars, kittiwakes, thick-billed murres and even a few black guillemots! Plus, about a dozen Arctic hare were easily visible even from the ship’s anchorage.”

This bombardment of wildlife sightings is by no means an isolated experience as passengers on board the impressive ice-strengthened Akademik Ioffe will discover. Using zodiacs (inflatable boats) with the quietest of motors, travelling upwind of a polar bear, it is possible to safely get within metres of these beautiful creatures as they stroll along the shoreline. And, with a real chance of seeing pods of beluga or bowhead whales, a raft of ringed, harp or bearded seals, a herd of walrus and staggering numbers of birds, many with chicks in various stages of fledging – it is certain to be a wildlife experience to remember.

Travelling along one of the most legendary shipping routes in the world also provides a fascinating opportunity to follow in the footsteps of a host of courageous polar explorers, including the ill-fated Sir John Franklin and Roald Amundsen, the first to successfully traverse the Northwest Passage.

Today’s adventurer will travel in much greater comfort than the remarkable polar explorers who went before them. Facilities on board include a bar and lounge, a library and media room, plus a theatre-style presentation room, gift-shop and wellness centre with massage, sauna and hot tub, as well as a dining room serving sumptuous meals throughout the voyage.

Additional highlights of the 14-night trip, which travels between Kangerlussuaq in Greenland and Coppermine in Canada, include majestic, steep-sided fjords and massive tabular icebergs; the chance to visit remote Inuit communities and meet traditional Greenlandic kayakers; and the opportunity to participate in hiking, kayaking, photographic and birding expeditions in the company of expert guides.

There is a choice of two voyages through the Northwest Passage this summer.

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Paul Gauguin exhibition

To all those Paul Gauguin fans out there, a new exhibition of his work is opening in Seattle from the 9th of February to the 29th of April 2012. The exhibition showcases a large number of his works alongside a collection of Polynesian Artefacts which were such an influence on his work. The end of the exhibition coincides perfectly with the start of the Alaska season with two boats departing on their 14 night Alaska and British Columbia voyage. If Alaska does not appeal then how about travelling out to the somewhat sunnier Marquesas Islands, aboard the freighter Aranui III. This unusual “cruise” offers you the chance to get to some of the remote islands and as the vessel supplies the locals they are always keen to meet the ship and those onboard. You will soon see why Gauguin fell in love with these beguiling islands.

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Insider guide to the Inside Passage

Gazing across the limpid, fathomless waters of Frederick Sound, one of the world’s richest feeding grounds for Humpback whales, these great behemoths had already announced themselves by the oily jets of their ‘blows’ still dancing in the moist air. Needing no second invitation, my fellow travellers and I aboard the very comfortably appointed 36 passenger boat Safari Explorer climbed aboard the zodiacs, hoping for a closer encounter.

This was my first exposure to Alaska, and to be honest I was still grappling with the sheer scale and vastness of this tangled, untamed wilderness. A land in which tooth, talon and claw continue to prevail, and man’s foothold along this labyrinthine coast remains tenuous. Lured by Alaska’s treasury of natural riches – dramatic landscapes, world beating whale and bear populations and towering glaciers – it had already been an eventful first few days.

With the outboard engine cut and the zodiac now bobbing gently, the wheezing trumpet of the whales two-hundred mile an hour exhalations as they surfaced from a dive drifted audibly across the stillness of the bay. They seemed all around us. We were specifically on the trail of two adult humpbacks who we had watched gracefully turn tail and slide down into the impenetrable depths just a few minutes earlier and now hoped would re-surface nearby. Feet shuffled impatiently, hushed conversations and almost tangible stifled excitement as we waited.

And then without warning, rising up almost directly beneath us, 40 tonnes of surfacing cetacean suddenly erupted with a great triumphal bugle just feet from the edge of our rubber boat, scaring the hell out of all onboard! The joker in the pod and clearly enjoying his practical joke, the humpback then circled us once in what seemed like a salutary wave, before sliding away into the inky depths. A rare fleeting encounter, forever bored into the mind’s eye, and at the same time neatly encapsulating the very essence of this rugged land: wild, beautiful, unpredictable.

The Russians must be truly gutted having sold it to America for just 2 cents an acre in 1867!

For more information on whale and bear watching in Alaska contact Alex on 01285 880 981.

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The call of the North

Whenever you mention you work in travel the immediate response is “I bet you get to go on lots of cheap beach holidays.”

So while the UK had a mini heat wave, I decided to head north to a “beach hotel” on Hudson Bay in the small Inuit community of Arviat. Not your average beach stay, wearing 3 layers of thermals plus a Canadian goose down jacket and salopettes, but definitely my kind of holiday.

In Arviat we were given a warm welcome by the locals who were keen to show us their traditional way of life. The Arviat Qaggiqtiiq, meaning ‘the people who come together to celebrate’ in Inuktitut , entertained us with stories, traditional throat singing, drum dancing along with various Inuit games one of which involved competitive face pulling! They are proud of their heritage and want to keep these traditions alive. After a sumptuous meal there was an “open mike session” where the elders challenged the younger generations in throat singing and drum dancing along with traditional songs and more contemporary music in Inuktitut – a true “Inuit got talent” not for tourists but purely for their own enjoyment.

Arviat was just the beginning of the journey deep in the Arctic tundra, travelling across this desolate but indescribably beautiful landscape in a kumatik (traditional Inuit sledge) pulled by a skiddo. We were in search of the great Caribou migration, which was sadly a little delayed due to an earlier cold snap. We were however rewarded with close encounters with the Arctic fox, in his smart white coat and large flocks of Ptarmigan. During the short night the eerie Northern Lights danced across the skies, flickering green hues against the inky darkness.

From our base camp we headed to the tree line, the realm of Grizzly Bears, Wolves, Wolverine and Musk Ox. We also had the chance to try our hand at ice fishing. After clearing 60cm of snow to reach the ice, we drilled through for a further 30cm to reach the water; fishing is for those who are patient, not an attribute I claim to have but the views over the frozen lake kept me entranced.

I never feel more alive than when I am surrounded by absolute wilderness, bathed in the low polar sunlight, watching my breath crystallise in the cold crisp air.

Just in case you are wondering for my “summer break” I am heading north again, but this time to the Russian Arctic and the polar bear maternity ward that is Wrangel Island………