Fifty feet off the Homer Spit and we might as well be a million miles away. Scant seconds after launching from the rocky beach down the hill from the Land’s End Hotel, the landing craft on which we boarded slowly turns and heads across Kachemak Bay in search of bald eagles and other coastal Alaskan wildlife. We don’t have to wait long…
As we skim across the watercolored a deep blue-green hue by glacial till and the rivers that feed freshwater into this bay, sea ducks like scoters and harlequins buzz past just inches off the water. This is the kind of scenery that’s hard to take in but by the body language of the guests aboard the boat, each is trying their best. There is so much beauty to see.
In front of us, the sharp-pointed China Poot Peak rises above a cove and is flanked by snow-covered mountains. To our right and behind us way across the immense Cook Inlet, active volcanos named Illiamna, Redoubt, and Augustine lie silent in the distance. While they are quiet for now, their deep bowels within tell a different story because each of these is capable of erupting once again as the nuances of the Earth’s plate tectonics and a constantly moving crust dictate the ebbs and flows of unseen magma. While the boat skims headlong into the quiet seas, another guest and I talk and speculate about the impact that an eruption would have on the landscape and local populations. While our questions are rhetorical and our speculation moot, it’s a fun mental exercise in which to engage.
The boat’s cresting and falling caused by the gentle waves and hum of the craft creates a syncopated rhythm and is a bit hypnotic. The wind off the seas, although cold and with a bit of a bite, is welcome. For here, seven people from all walks of life and all corners of the country come together and meet at a place where our love of photography and nature intersects. This time, it just happens to be in the wilderness off the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula.
Soon, we are floating slowly through a cove just off the bay. A pair of sea otters surface and float lazily on their backs while we drift past. I’ve seen river otters often but these sea otters are enormous. The species is native to the coasts of the North Pacific Ocean and can weigh up to 100 pounds. Their fur (which is the densest of any animal) is thick and sheds water – essential for surviving the harsh environments in which we’ve entered.
Overhead, the first bald eagle flies past. Her presence as the first eagle of the trip is a novelty and everyone scrambles to get a photo. Little did we know that this first eagle would be one of the hundreds of eagles we’d see during the week. As the boat eases closer to a picturesque island, eagles perch in the coniferous trees that line the craggy bank. Even more, hang out on the shore as we anchor and prepare for our first eagle photo session.
While bald eagles are seemingly ubiquitous because of the proliferation of their facsimile on money, governmental seals, and in popular culture, nothing beats seeing them in person. In-person, you can see the enormity and sense the gravitas of the imposing sea eagle that feeds off fish and carrion and lives near open bodies of water. Adult males and females look identical to one another but the females are 25% larger than the males. Immature bald eagles (those under five years of age) sport brown plumage with messy white highlights streaked randomly through their feathering.
Once listed as an endangered species by the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, the national bird is a modern conservation success story and has since been removed from the federal government’s list of endangered and threatened species in 2007. Today, the eagle is found from Alaska to Mexico and most places in between where their habitat criteria are met.
After an hour or so of shooting eagles, the birds began to drift off so we head over to the seaside village of Seldovia. Only accessible by boat or plane, the old Russian trapping village was established in the late 1700s and today is a fishing and tourist hamlet boasting about 250 permanent residents. The town is idyllic and as we deploy from the boat to the docks, I look up and see the Boardwalk Inn. It’s a quaint and Pinterest-perfect spot from which we’ll sleep, eat, and launch our daily excursions. After we meet the hotel’s proprietor, Angela, she feeds us a bounty of a lunch. Her culinary first impression was spot on and each subsequent meal was full of variety and quite possibly, better than the last. To say that Angela is a great cook is an understatement and is maybe second only to her welcoming sense of hospitality.
Soon we are back out for eagles. All week, our routine was largely the same: go out all morning and shoot pictures of eagles and head back in for lunch. Then back out again in the evening. While this may sound painstakingly routine, it is not. Each day our boat captain Gabe (a native of Seldovia) took us to coves, spits, and beaches where the eagle action would be the best. Eagle photography is also challenging in the sense that the bird (despite its size) is an acrobatic flyer and getting photos of all the nuances of an eagle in its daily life takes some repetition.
Aside from eagles, we also drifted out to get photos of sea lions, seals, and more sea otters. The wildlife in this little spot in an otherwise immense Alaska is impressive.
All week long, we photograph the eagles diving, perching, interactive with one another, and doing just about everything a bald eagle can do. And we did it in the most beautiful, serene, and unspoiled of locations. In short, we captured a good slice of the natural history of the bald eagle and did so in close-up form.
At the end of the week, we board our boat to head back to Homer. Along the way, we make a stop on a small spit of land at the base of some seaside islands near the China Poot. Today, the weather is pleasant, clear, and the wind is light. When the boat docked on the beach, we each climbed down the ramp and stood around for five minutes when the eagles began to appear. For more than an hour, we photographed the majestic bird from mere feet away. To say they were tolerant of our presence is an understatement. It was a magical last moment to add a perfect bookend to an otherwise wonderful trip.
Although I am scantly hours away from boarding a plane and heading back to Texas, I feel like I am a thousand miles from nowhere. That’s what a good trip will do for you – immerse you in a location that you can’t easily shake. As we step off the boat and each says our goodbyes, I conjure a plan to return to this part of Alaska. The landscapes, wildlife, and culture are infectious and my return will be swift – just like an eagle.
If you’ve read any Texas-based magazines over the past twenty-five years chances are you’ve seen some of Russell’s photos or read some of his words. Since 1989, he has been traveling the state telling authentic Texas stories with his camera and his words – both written and spoken.
A graduate of Dodd City High School and East Texas State University, Russell was an ag science teacher in Childress, Texas for 16 years where he was named Texas Agriscience Teacher of the Year on three occasions.
After leaving that career in 2009, he continued to photograph, write, and speak about his experiences and the people he meets and in 2010, he began delving into television production. His first documentary film, Bois d’Arc Goodbye was filmed entirely in Fannin County and chronicled he and his brother Bubba’s canoe journey as they traversed the creek before a lake forever changes the landscape. The film aired three times to a prime-time, national audience.
Recently he’s worked with such celebrities as the Robertson Family from Duck Dynasty television show, T. Boone Pickens, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Pat Green, and Tracy Lawrence, but he insists that regular people are his favorite subjects.
Currently, Russell lives in the country north of Childress, Texas with his wife Kristy and their two children Bailee and Ryan but still manages to spend a considerable amount of time near his boyhood home north of Dodd City.
You can see Russell’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.russellgraves.com