To celebrate my brother Fred’s 10th birthday my grandparents took him on a trip to the wilds of Alaska. I was only 5, but I vividly remember Fred’s descriptions of waters teeming with marine life – whales, puffins, more bald eagles than you could count – and woodlands full of bears and moose. He brought me back a necklace with a little gold shell on it, and every time I wore it I dreamt about the day I would turn 10 and have my own chance to explore Alaska’s wilds.

When my cousin Claire and I turned 10 my grandparents took us to Nova Scotia. We did not disguise our disappointment that the destination wasn’t Alaska. But we were promised that Nova Scotia was a lovely island teeming with birdlife. We set our hearts on seeing puffins.

There were no puffins. Fred had gotten the greatest adventure of his life and we’d gotten some seafood buffets. At least, that’s how two sullen 10-year old girls remembered it.

Fred and Kim ensure that Summer and Savannah are not deprived of puffins

Fred and Kim ensure that Summer and Savannah will not have childhoods deprived of puffins

When Aaron and I started dating, he was informed that I was owed two things in life: a horse and a trip to Alaska.

When I found out that Alaska had made the short list of possible locations for the celebration of my mother’s 70th birthday, I lobbied hard. And when we finally settled on Alaska, I pushed against the popular inland passage cruise from Seattle to Juneau. As an infectious disease epidemiologist, a cruise boat has about the same appeal as a hospital ward. I pushed for a flight to Anchorage, followed by a road trip around the Kenai peninsula, including a one-day boat ride. And I whole-heartedly threw my support behind my brother’s motion for a bear tour. The bear tour was not cheap, as you had to charter a private plane to take you to a remote wilderness inaccessible by road.  But when in Alaska.

Typical Nelson family wildlife-viewing: mom spotting logs, bob snoozing

Typical Nelson family wildlife-viewing: bob snoozing

The Nelson family has a Theory of Travel that the Amount of Time Spent in a Place should be proportional to the Time Spent Getting to the Place.

Vacation Time(Location 1): Flight Time (Location 1):: Vacation Time(Location 2): Flight Time (Location 2)

Thirty-five years of living on this earth have taught me that this Theory of Travel is patently false. As Aaron puts it, maximization is not the same as optimization. I whittled my parents’ two-week trip down to 5 days. Plenty of time to see a puffin.

Our road trip went Anchorage-Seward-Homer-Anchorage

Our road trip went Anchorage-Seward-Homer-Anchorage


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Day 1: Marthon don’t run the Mt. Marathon race….but sure put it on the bucket list

Dahl sheep: the spirit animal of Mt Marathon

Dall sheep: the spirit animal of Mt Marathon [photo:Aaron]

Aaron and I didn’t get picked in the lottery for The Mt. Marathon Race — a crazy 3,000′ scramble to the top Mt. Marathon, followed by a rapid descent back to town, all over the course of just three miles. It’s the country’s 2nd oldest race (only the Boston Marathon is older). But we were in Seward on the day of the race and got a real taste for why this race is so famous. First off, the atmosphere is incredible. The small town of Seward swells on race day, held every year on the 4th of July, becoming jammed with spectators who take the race as seriously as the Boston Marathon. This was a particularly exciting year for the race because a local Alaska cross country skier broke the course record set by Killian Journet last summer.

The race finishes to throngs of fans on Main Street (Mt Marathon is in the background)

The race finishes to throngs of fans on Main Street (Mt Marathon is in the background)

After the race Aaron and I took a short hike on part of the course. Well, it’s not really a ‘hike’, it’s more of a scramble. I haven’t scaled down cliffs like than since Finn took me and Sarah platypus-hunting in the Blue Mountains.

This wasn't an actual section of the race course -- but it wasn't far from it.

This is an actual section of the race course

Day 2: Martha gets her puffin

Booms of ice calving could be heard at the glacier at Resurrection Bay

Booms of ice calving off the glacier could be heard in Resurrection Bay

Our trip was structured around two big events: (1) The Boat and (2) The Bears. Our primary reason for coming to Seward was The Boat. Of all the wildlife in Alaska (including the bears), Fred was most excited about the prospect of spotting orcas in the wild. I had waited 25 years to see a puffin.

Plenty of space for Aaron's doubler lens

Plenty of space on board for Aaron’s doubler lens

Bob masters the seaman gaze

Bob scans the horizon for signs of trouble

On July 5th, the day of my mom’s 70th birthday, we took a full-day boat ride out of Seward to tour Resurrection Bay, the best way to see Alaska’s diverse marine wildlife. It was a rainy, overcast day, but that proved fortuitous as a large number of folks cancelled and we had plenty of room on deck to watch and photograph wildlife.

Super-soaked to glimpse these orcas

Orca pod, 2nd place – best trip photo [photo: Aaron]

Killer whales are the largest predator of the sea, surpassing the great white shark and reaching up to 9 tons and 32 ft in length

Killer whales are the largest predator of the sea, surpassing the great white shark and reaching up to 9 tons and 32 ft in length.  Orcas primarily feed on seals and sea lions, but are also known to hunt sharks.  They’ve even been filmed killing great white and tiger sharks.

And despite the odds (orcas are typically seen only once per week), we had a gorgeous look at a pod of four orcas, including a calf. The trip was a bonanza of marine life: hoards of Stellar sea lions lazing on the rocks; playful otters tussling in the harbor; shy harbor seals popping their heads out of the water for a doe-eyed peek; a mother humpback whale romping with her calf, repeatedly slapping the water with her tail while her calf breached.


Humpback whale calf, left, breaches, while momma tail-slaps playfully [photo: Aaron]

And a good thing we had Fred along to identify the diversity of marine birds: rhinoceros auklets, marbled murelets, phalaropes, jaegers, sooty shearwaters, red-faced cormorants, etc., etc. And, yes, I got more puffins than a girl could dream of. Horned puffins, tufted puffins, puffins flying, puffins bobbing in the water, rocky outcrops teaming with puffins. Twenty-five years worth of puffins. I also learned my new favorite word: puffling. As in, Duck:duckling::Puffin:puffling.


Tufted puffin [photo: Aaron]

Horned puffin

Horned puffin [photo: Aaron]

Stellar sea lions (otherwise known are 'orca food')

Stellar sea lion [photo: Aaron]

A harbor seal takes a quick peek at the humans

A harbor seal takes a quick peek at the humans.  WINNER – best trip photo [photo: Aaron]

Mom celebrates her 70th on Fox Island

Mom celebrates her 70th on Fox Island


Day 4: Bearfest

The only point of Day 3 was to drive from Seward to Homer so that we could have our much-anticipated bear trip on Day 4. Maybe if it hadn’t been pouring rain the drive across the Kenai Peninsula would have been more memorable. But honestly, if there was a day for terrible weather, we couldn’t have picked a better day than Day 3.


The USA owes a great deal to the sea otter.  When the Russians wiped out their populations for their pelts, it removed the predator of the sea urchin, which allowed sea urchins to proliferate. The urchins demolished the ecosystem and fishing grounds, making the Russians all too eager to sell Alaska to the Americans [photo: Aaron]

On the face of it, a bear trip sounds like a terrible idea. A tiny plane flies you to a remote stretch of Alaskan wilderness called Katmai, drops you off, and sends your party off out into woodlands teeming with very hungry bears for several hours unaccompanied. I can’t be the only one to whom this seems like a great way to feed some famished grizzlies that have lost 40% of their body weight during a long hibernation with some fatty tourists.


We saw the Common loon (here) as well as its cousin, the Pacific loon [photo: Aaron]

Sandhill cranes along Homer's spit

Sandhill cranes spotted along Homer’s spit [photo: Aaron]

Grizzlies are not to be trifled with. During our stay in Seward the local newspaper had just reported two recent bear attacks: one in Denali and one right along the drive from Seward to Homer. But for the price they were charging us, I figured there had to be sounder plan than Make Noise and Carry Bear Spray.

Our little plane

Our little plane could only take half the Nelson clan, so we split into two planes [photo: Aaron]

It turned out that making sure tourists didn’t become bear food was taken very seriously in Katmai National Park.  The whole thing is actually extremely well organized.  Yes, you have to take certain precautions to make sure you don’t turn into bear chow.  But I was very impressed with the park’s infrastructure.

Getting there was half the fun.

Getting there was half the fun.

  • One thing in our favor is that July is the month that the salmon travel upriver in droves to spawn. Which for the bears means feeding frenzy. Bears have to catch about ten fish a day to get back the weight they lost during hibernation. Bears are much less likely to pay humans any mind when there’s loads of delicious salmon around.
The view from our little plane en route from Homer to Katmai

The view from our little plane en route from Homer to Katmai

  • No food was allowed to be carried in the woods. Not even gum. All food had to be safely secured at the visitor center before we ventured out. For someone who doesn’t go out for a 30-minute run without snacks, the prospect of going snack-less for four hours almost caused a panic attack. But I recognized that it was in my own interests not to carry snacks in areas teeming with hungry bears.
More aerial photography

More aerial photography fun

  • A wooden platform was built adjacent to the waterfalls that were the most popular spot for the bears to feed. Under no other conditions could a human possibly feel comfortable being that close to a dozen massive grizzlies.
We totally lucked out with the clear weather

We really lucked out with the clear weather

  • We took full advantage of the Bob Boom, making my dad walk in the front. For the first time that I can remember, we actively encouraged my father to talk loudly about politics.
Evolutionary relationships of bears

Evolutionary relationships of bears.  Notice the close relationship between polar bears and brown bears/grizzlies (which actually have hybridized in the past).  The panda is highly divergent from other bears.

Nothing can prepare you for the scene at Brooks Falls. More than a dozen massive grizzlies stand below the gushing water, waiting for the right moment to swipe at a fish. A young mother stands on the shore with three tiny cubs treed next to her. On the other shore, a hulking male rips the roe out of his salmon, gulls squawking and darting in for stray pieces. A bald eagle flies in, sending the gulls squealing in all directions. Mergansers bob in circles in an eddy in what seems like constant confusion over who the leader is.

Bear traffic jam

Bear traffic jam at Brooks Falls [photo: Aaron]

Each bear had its own personality. All the bears cleared for the dominant male, who got the choice fishing spot and caught three times as much salmon as the others.


Brown bears lurk strategically at the base of the falls as the salmon try to leap to the top.  Note that the brown bears of Katmai are essentially grizzlies, but larger and slightly lighter shaded due to their high-fish diet [photo: Aaron]

A young female bear with three tiny cubs struggled on the shore as she tried to protect her young from the marauding males while finding moments to dash out and catch fish.

A tiny bear cub finds refuge in a tree

A tiny cub finds refuge in a tree [photo: Aaron]

While the larger, older males stood Zen-like for long periods of time in a single spot before gracefully snatching a fish with a quick swipe of the paw, an adolescent male did spread eagle belly-flops off rocks and spent most of the day looking like he’d just gone through a washing machine.

A young male plunges for a fish

A young male plunges for a fish in the less choice waters downstream of the falls

Whereas the dominant male carried new catches to a large flat rock to peacefully engorge, other males consumed their slippery catches right in the spot where they caught it under the waterfall. Even after decapitation the salmon still flops vigorously, and several forlorn bears watched their catches slip away in the swift current.

A one-year old cub awaits the return of his momma from fishing

A one-year old cub is still too young to fish and awaits the return of his mom [photo: Aaron]

The bear pecking order was mostly set and most bears knew their place, skittering away immediately if a more dominant bear approached. But there were still tussles. Grizzlies are so powerful that most fights are over in a matter of seconds, with one animal quickly backing down rather than face the alternative. But one bear was covered with scars. Another was chased fully out of the river.

Two males exchange some words over who gets a desired fishing spot

Two males exchange some words over who gets a desired fishing spot. Apparently the fish weren’t as plentiful on the day we visited, making for some cranky bears.

The greatest testament to how thrilling watching the bears was is the fact that I went four hours without any snacks and didn’t even notice. When 7pm rolled around and it was time to head back to have dinner, I opted to instead spend every possible minute with the bears and save my sandwich for the plane. I can’t think of a time that has ever happened before.

Momma bear gets a fish!

Momma bear gets a fish!

Watch the live BearCam at Alaska’s Katmai National Park

Lessons of a Nelson Family Vacation

Aaron cruises through five days of Nelson family bonding

Aaron cruises through five days of Nelson family bonding

  1.  Longer is not better.  Previous Nelson safaris to Africa and Argentina have been 2-3 weeks.  Alaska 2016 was proof-of-concept that you can have an amazingly fulfilling trip in a much shorter period as long as you plan carefully.
  2. Mt Marathon is definitely a race Aaron and I would like to get back to some day, either in the short-term or long-term.  It’s bloody hard to get into the lottery, though.
  3. Alaska will bring out the amateur photographer in anyone.  Aaron has always been an aficionado of film, and we knew going in that photography would be a major part of the trip for him.  But whether I was just snapping landscapes with my iPhone or borrowing Aaron’s super lens to catch some bears at the end of the day at the falls, Alaska proves you don’t have to be a gear junkie to fall in love with photography.  I still need to learn about aperture and lighting and such.  But next time maybe I’ll even try some birds.
  4. Shell out some $$ to do the big highlights.  The bear-viewing was more money than the Nelsons had ever shelled out for any half-day event.  We thought it would be cool, but it was hard for us to believe that it could possibly be entirely worth it.  It was, no question.
  5. It’s never too late to fulfill a childhood dream.  One might have thought that 25 years later the puffins would have been anti-climatic.  I’ve declared that the new house Aaron and I bought is going to have a prominent puffin theme.

One Response to Into the Wild

  1. WOW!! TC is gonna drool right on the screen when he reads this Alaska porn. I haven’t been since I was 12 — time for a return visit!

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