Alaska Autumn

A group of nine rams had been resting on the high slopes of a south-facing Alaska basin for two days. They wandered slowly in the bright sun amid the thick willow and alder that clogged the various valleys. There were about a dozen ewes and their lambs eating here. The sheep were mixed together, yet there were two different bands.

The tallest and oldest ram rose, stretched, and started to skirt the mountain, headed towards the north slope, slowly and cautiously. The other sheep were either eating or sleeping and didn’t appear to notice. Perhaps the old ram was just becoming too crowded. The younger rams rose, stretched, and followed one after the other, following the old ram’s every step. It was difficult to determine if he wanted the younger ones around or was attempting in vain to keep them away. The kids, on the other hand, were dependent on this old ram who had been a full curl for half his life…this old survivor who had lived on this mountain despite the many grizzlies and wolves.

The apprentice rams ate what the old guy ate, scratched what he scratched, and licked minerals that he licked. But the elderly ram insisted on sleeping apart from the others.

The north slopes, which the ram was now leading, were colder. There were fewer sheep and the landscape was steeper and rockier. I chose to ascend in the hopes of photographing them. When the sweat started, I realised I needed to travel lighter since I was bringing lenses I seldom used.

I kept upward, avoiding the heaviest bush and the steep, rocky ledges. The beautiful red, yellow, purple, and orange leaves of the thin layer of tundra that carpeted the top slopes drew the majority of my attention. I became aware of a movement to my right. When the sight became clear, I knew I was in the presence of a wolverine.

On these unexpected, infrequent meetings, I’m always torn between watching and photographing. I simply stood there, unable to believe what I was seeing. In more than two decades of outdoor wildlife photography, this was just the second time I’d seen a wild wolverine. The wolverine swung around and loped up into the dazzling tundra. It, like the other animals, had a brand new coat. Its golden skirt flowed as it raced. The wolverine came to a halt before cresting the seat above me to give me one more look. The mountain then devoured it entirely. There wasn’t enough time to get my camera out, and even if I had, I would have missed much of the meeting. But I had something much better than a photograph: another of autumn’s ephemeral recollections.

Every fall, I am overcome with a renewed longing to be in game country. It may have been left over from my father’s hunting expeditions when I was a kid. The early morning chill and the lengthy shadows cast by mountains at dusk bring back lovely memories. Even though I now hunt with a camera, the scent of willows, the beautiful terrain, and the sight of bulls in the autumn satiate my hunting instincts here in Alaska.

An Alaskan scene is incomplete without a magnificent bull moose or a stunning caribou bull. These bulls were created by nature to be viewed and loved. Standing out in this vast wilderness and not getting lost in it is part of the rut—how the bulls find one other. In much of Alaska, tremendous hunting pressure has transformed the showy bull moose into a reclusive, nocturnal beast that must maintain a low profile. A difficult feat for an animal weighing about a tonne!

These warm, mosquito-free days tend to make me sluggish, and all I want to do is sit and soak it all in. I realise I’m not the only living creature who likes blueberries. A red-backed vole races through the low blueberry bushes, stopping at each one. The little mammal smells or tests a fruit by reaching up. If the berry is tasty enough, the vole will pluck it from the bush and swallow the juice, leaving an empty or half-eaten skin on the ground.

Grizzlies aren’t big fans of blueberries. They spend every waking hour removing berries from their trees because these massive bears cannot afford to lose out on this vital food source before denning. Blueberries are not a luxury for the grizzlies of interior Alaska; they are a need.

These days of Indian summer mask the approach of winter, and a family of beavers often teaches me the foolishness of squandering time. Beavers are generally busy at work throughout the day throughout the autumn, and this is the greatest time to view them. They are on a quest to chop, pull, carry, tug, and tow enough willow and alder boughs to last the whole winter. Favorite willow stands flanking their lake were visited often until sloppy, muddy paths created. Even a half-grown baby beaver contributed. With a little branch in hand, the little worker proceeded to its destination: a large, ever-growing pile of branches a few yards from the lodge.

Now was the moment to put in extra effort since a thin coating of ice would soon cover the lake, making it a dangerous area to walk. Within three months, the ice might be five or six feet thick. Because their very existence relied on storing adequate food for the winter, the beavers’ caching instinct served them well. During periods of intense cold, their pond might freeze to the bottom.

These hardworking creatures demonstrated that they cannot afford to squander time admiring landscape and considering the changing seasons. So their job continues at a steady rate throughout the gorgeous but transitory season known as autumn.

Michael Quinton is a photographer and writer in Slana, Alaska. He shoots for National Geographic magazine and is the author of The Mountain Grizzly.

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