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Michelle Theall

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A lone bear stakes out his fishing territory beneath Brooks Falls in Katmai. Photo by Michelle Theall. Alaska’s eight designated national parks cover over 41 million acres. For scale, that’s twice the size of all of the Lower 48 national parks—from Death Valley to Big Bend—added together. National parks are considered the crown jewels of each state—important enough to be protected for all—and Alaska is no exception. It just, well, has a bigger crown. Alaska is romanticized and revered for its wildness, its vast and forbidding landscapes, and its almost mythic number of creatures. The diverse flora and fauna here exist among famous mountains, but also unnamed and unclimbed peaks and salmon-rich rivers and remote streams. There’s a reason these areas are protected: their wild beauty and wonder represent the best Alaska and, thus, our country, has to offer. Visiting all of the parks requires some logistical gymnastics—ideally broken down…

After more trips around Alaska than I can count, I had yet to see bubble-feeding whales until this summer. I filled in for a photo instructor aboard the National Geographic Quest on a Lindblad/NatGeo cruise of the InsidePassage, with my eye on this ultimate bucket-list reward. Most humpback whales feed independently or with their calves, except when they do the coordinated dance of bubble-netting. As a group, multiple humpbacks descend below the surface of the water, sounding off and cueing one another, creating a circle of bubbles that “trap” herring inside the confusion. Then, all the whales rise at once, mouths gaping like the Hungry Hippo game our son once played, their hair-like baleen straining out water to keep nutrient-rich fish. Staring into the mouth of a whale topped my adventures at sea this July and made the 16-hour days pass like the gulp of a giant humpback

I just landed in Sitka after leaving Haines, where I spent two lovely weeks in the Valley of Eagles. While bald eagles are everywhere in Haines, they’re also everywhere in Southeast, including Sitka. Still, there’s a difference between them: we’ll call it the lazy factor. Haines eagles are spoiled. I visit them in November during the end of the chum run. The chubby birds wait for a salmon to flop close to shore, and then they drag it up onto the rocks and feast on it. Or, they steal a fish from another eagle already dining on one. Their young also have easy access to meals, and don’t need to rely on mom and dad to bring food back to the nest as they mature. The eaglets don’t have to learn to dive into the water to fly off with a struggling fish in their talons. They just have to…

A few days ago, my 13-year-old son Logan and I descended in the Southeast in the tiny hamlet of Haines, Alaska—aka the Valley of Eagles. I take photographers here in October and November for the annual spectacle of the thousands of bald eagles that congregate on the Chilkat for the last of the chum salmon run. They fight and soar and spend most of their time trying to figure out how to steal a fish from another bird, rather than snag one of their own. But spring here is a different story. Yes, there are eagles, but the natural landscape takes center stage—even for a teenage boy. Our VRBO for two weeks here cost more than our monthly mortgage—after you gulp and gasp as I did, I’ll tell you it was worth every penny. Our cottage sits at the end of Mud Bay Road on an isolated inlet aptly named…

Calling all wildlife weekend warriors IF YOU WANT TO GET A QUINTESSENTIAL TASTE OF ALASKA, and you want to check a few items off your bucket list in a single weekend, point your car down the Seward Highway, a nationally designated scenic byway, and get your camera ready. The 127-mile trip from Anchorage to Seward can take over two hours (or four hours by train), but trust us, you’re going to want to stop along the way for the massive views, flora, fauna, glaciers, and waterfalls. That said, the drive is a mere appetizer plate for the main course of Seward. The first whets your appetite; the second sates you. POTTER MARSH Just as you’re leaving Anchorage (mile 117.4), park and explore the boardwalk over wetlands of Potter Marsh, a birder paradise that’s also rife with spawning salmon and marauding moose. Wooden paths stretch 1,550 feet along sedges and sloughs,…

Despite an economy driven by oil and commercial fishing, Valdez earns the moniker “Little Switzerland” honestly. The city of around 4,000 people rests in a deep fjord beneath the 5,000-foot peaks of the Chugach Mountains, with waterfalls cascading down lush green hillsides at every turn and calm, clear waters lapping along the small boat harbor of Port Valdez.