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Remembering Alaska’s “Moose Man” I got the hard news in a group email last September—biologist Vic Van Ballenberghe was gone. I could practically feel the collective sigh as the news radiated outward across Alaska, the Lower 48, and worldwide to scientists, conservationists, writers, filmmakers, and others who had known him, or his work. His passing hadn’t come as a surprise; at age 78, he’d been struggling with Parkinson’s for years. But letting go of Vic and imagining Alaska without him would take a while. Though they should, most Alaskans probably wouldn’t recognize his name. A short version of Vic’s bona fides goes like this: he was regarded as a (some would argue the) premier moose biologist, especially noted for his keen observational skills and uncounted thousands of hours of boots-on-the-ground field research stretching over a 50-year career. He published scores of peer-reviewed scientific papers, editorials, and articles, plus a fine,…

Indelible Brushes with Wildlife Unexpected encounters with wildlife are my favorite kind. Just yesterday, a moose and I startled each other on the trail. It wasn’t the wildlife viewing opportunity of a lifetime, but it was exhilarating to hear a noise, glance up, and behold that mass of shiny, brown, rippling muscle hotfooting it downhill toward me. Had I stood still, it would’ve come close, but I reacted instinctually, leaping for the scant protection of a nearby birch. My motion scared the animal and it bolted.  Another time, a campground coyote slipped by almost unnoticed. I happened to see it amble across the road and alerted my boyfriend. We grabbed cameras and moseyed to where the canid had disappeared into the bushes and were surprised to see furry ears flashing in the setting sun. Wiley sat on its haunches and watched us watch, then laid down and curled its tail…

The value of exploring the unknown Coming off visiting 10 countries in six months, I’m taking a breather—for three weeks, exactly. The questions I’m asked most by friends and family are: are you back yet and where are you going next? Truth is, I get “itchy” if I’m not on the road, seeing new things, giving my brain stimulation, connecting with other cultures and fellow explorers. So, in three weeks, I’m heading to Nome, Alaska, to witness the finish of the Iditarod. Alaska might as well be another country because every part of it is unique. I’ve never been to Nome, but it feels as remote and “off the beaten path” as any destination I’ve been to so far—and that includes the end of the world in Ushuaia, Argentina, where I managed to get spit at by a guanaco and bit by a wild horse. A quick look at a…

Meet the Rodney Dangerfield of Alaskan wildlife I’m casting for a dinner along a cut bank across from camp, evening colors reflected in the Nuna’s clear, purling current. The arctic stillness is broken by a wet, resounding crash, as if a rock had just been chucked from the sky. Though startled, I’m hardly surprised by my noisy company. Floating 30 feet away, a pair of unblinking eyes set in a wet, furry head regard me, radiating curiosity-tinged indignation. I can practically hear a Disneyfied, bucktooth nasal voice: Hey buddy, what the hell you doin’ in my yard?  Another tail slap followed by a shallow dive, and the head pops up closer. I’m again fixed by that beady-eyed stare. I said, beat it! and with a final slap and a swirl, it vanishes. I track the bubble trail a few dozen yards down the bank to a mound of peeled, interlocked…

Relearning how to be outside When Ira Edwards was struck by a rogue tree he was felling in 2010 and paralyzed from the waist down, he knew life would never be the same. But it never occurred to him to stop doing the things he loved: hunting, fishing, skiing, and being outside in Alaska. “A lot of that is believing you can. It just takes me a lot longer to do.” Named “the real-life most interesting man in the world” by The Chive, Ira shares how this injury has shaped him and how the outdoors helped him become happy and healthy again. —AS TOLD TO AND EDITED BY MOLLY RETTIG Let’s start by talking about life before your injury. I grew up in Palmer skiing and being outside. The whole world revolved around skiing, having kept up a 163-consecutive-month ski streak. I raced for the University of Alaska Fairbanks and…

Lessons in feathers and freedom Picture it: You’re in the mountains of Alaska, out where the trail ends and the air tastes unused. You’ve forgotten what a crummy week you just had. You’ve even forgotten the cramping protests in your right thigh and the 10 miles you’ll have to hike back to the truck. Here in the mountains, you’re just an animal; a pair of lungs and a circuit of senses, raw and unfettered, living second to second. Same as the ptarmigan you so desperately chase. This was me last September. I was halfway up a scree slope on the Kenai Peninsula, and my heart was thumping like a phonebook in a dryer. I’d just flushed a handful of willow ptarmigan that cackled and flew way off into the next valley. Even though this ptarmigan flush was what I hoped to find when I set off from the trailhead with…

And into your own journey Getting off the beaten path, this issue’s theme, means different things to different people. A short hike to an overlook above a lake popular with hikers and paddlers on weekends might be all one person needs to recharge her batteries before heading back to the city. Another might think teaching students in rural Alaskan communities is sufficiently out there to qualify. Someone else might consider diving deep into frigid waters to photograph undersea creatures his blissful escape. However you frame it, getting off the main drag in Alaska is as easy or complex as you want to make it. This month, our features lead readers away from the usual to places like Naknek, Kasigluk, and Tuntutuliak in “Never a Dull Day” (page 64); a tiny cabin visited every summer in “Off-Grid in Moose Pass” (page 72); and underwater around Kodiak and Valdez in “What Lies…

A Wildlife Sighting Primer from a Pro I’m often asked how I managed to get a particular shot of a wolf or a bear or some other wild creature in Alaska. People imagine I know of secret locations up trails that can only be accessed by ATV, snowmachine, or packraft, or that require weeks of primitive camping and sewing a coat out of leaves, fur, and pine needles to blend into the environment. That’s rarely the case. I do have a yeti costume, but that’s a different story for another day. In fact, none of my images required me to slather myself in salmon oil or bellow like a moose in heat. At this point in my life, I’m old and lazy, and I prefer to work smart, not hard, to get an image, if I can help it. What I’ve found out? Animals also prefer the path of least…

A photographic journey of the heart I knelt behind my camera tripod, gazing from the edge of a sandy knoll, northward up the Nuna valley. A few yards away, a fortyish Japanese man did the same. Before us, a weathered caribou skull lay in a blood-red swath of bearberry; beyond, an immense sweep of autumn tundra glowed beneath a furling expanse of clouds, squalls, and sun. Occasionally moving his lips without speaking, my companion seemed adrift in a trance as he studied land and sky, making adjustments and squeezing the shutter release. I divided my time between scanning the country for caribou and studying him—emulating lens choice and angle, trying and failing to mimic both his technical command and his absolute-in-the-moment absorption. At last, he turned toward me with a smile that seemed to mirror the land’s radiance. Oh look, Neek, look! It is all so beautiful. The man was…

Species Profile Whatever adventure you’re planning this summer, it’s not likely to match the recent journey of godwit #234684. Nicknamed B-6 and weighing less than half a pound, this juvenile shorebird gained fame last October when it flew 8,925 miles nonstop from Alaska to Tasmania in 11 days. The odyssey, which occurred largely over open ocean, was tracked via a five-gram satellite tag attached to the bird’s rump. Audubon’s online field guide describes the bar-tailed godwit as “big, noisy, and cinnamon-colored.” It is a wading shorebird that feeds along shallow waters and nests among tussocks on Alaska’s tundra. According to Dan Ruthrauff, the U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist who helped tag B-6, the godwit is among 37 shorebird species that regularly breed in Alaska. Ruthrauff’s crew captured B-6 last summer on the tundra outside of Nome as part of a study to better understand shorebird migrations, which are tied to…