Sunday, June 15, 2008

Alaska Sunday X

Our Last Day in the High Arctic

Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay, and Surroundings

Our next to last day we were driving around Lake Colleen, a fairly large lake near the Arctic Caribou Inn where we stayed, looking for nesting Arctic birds. We had stopped and were scanning the edge of the lake and small ponds for birds, when we spotted movement under a feeder pipeline. It was an unexpected visitor to “town” - an Arctic Fox in summer coat. I almost tore up the car finding my long lens to get a photograph before he disappeared. I present Mr. Arctic Fox.

Arctic Fox – Altopex lagopus
Prudhoe bay oilfield in background,
possibly part of Pump Station #1

The Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus), also known as the White Fox or Snow Fox, is a fox of the order Carnivora. It is a small fox native to cold Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. It is common in all three tundra biomes. It is a tough little wild dog of the far north. They have been spotted not far from the North Pole. They are solitary for most of the year with both parents, and sometimes another adult, caring for the young pups. Litters are usually 6 to 10 with up to 25! Dens can be complex underground networks, housing many generations of foxes. Young from a previous year's litter may stay with the parents to help rear younger siblings. The cubs are brownish and as they get older they change to white.

The Arctic Fox has evolved to live in the most frigid extremes on the planet. Among its adaptations for cold survival are its deep, thick fur, a system of countercurrent heat exchange in the circulation of paws to retain core temperature, and a good supply of body fat.

The Arctic Fox will generally eat any meat it can find, including lemmings, Arctic Hare, reptiles and amphibians, eggs, and carrion. Lemmings are the most common prey. A family of foxes can eat dozens of lemmings each day. During April and May the Arctic Fox also preys on Ringed Seal kits when the young animals are confined to a snow den and are relatively helpless. Fish beneath the ice are also part of its diet. When its normal prey is scarce, the Arctic Fox scavenges the leftovers of larger predators, such as the Polar Bear, even though the bears' prey includes the Arctic Fox itself.

We were most fortunate to see this visitor, since they rarely visit towns, even as remote and sparsely populated as this is.

Out on the Tundra

We took our Toyota 4Runner and drove across one of the gravel service roads, forded a couple of small streams, and arrived in butterfly - wildflower heaven near the beautiful Sagavanirktok River. For those that live in the high Arctic, this will seem commonplace for the summer. For an East Texas boy raised in Piney woods and Oak forests, this was like another planet. It is full of wildlife, beautiful, stark, and quiet except for the sigh of the wind across the tundra.

There is one small problem with observing butterflies in the high Arctic on the tundra. Either they have evolved to take advantage of the constant winds across the tundra or they are just downright shifty. It’s hard to get close enough to identify one with binoculars, much less net one for look and release. They pop up and fly with the wind (really fast !). Martha says this was a common and comical sight, “Troy in stealth mode hoping for one last, close look, before heading back to civilization”.

Sneaking Up
Franklin Bluffs in the background

Wildflowers are everywhere. I’ll eventually look these up and identify them. Of course, we bought a copy of every local wildflower book that we came across on our trip from Texas to Alaska. That’s a lot of books. When I was a kid, I thought Alaska was a place of snow, ice and igloos. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here is a sampling of the Arctic tundra wildflowers. If you can’t identify one, and wish to know more, email me and I’ll identify it as time permits.










We also saw evidence of caribou here
Lots of tracks

Here is their buffet
Reindeer lichen, moss, and grasses

Birds had been by also

It was a fine day photographing wildflowers and exploring.

And so the trip back to Coldfoot and Fairbanks begins….

The last day (6 AM) started nice enough. By the way, we considered the day to start at 5AM and end at 11PM. Breakfast was good as usual. They had great buffets with plenty of food and a nice variety. With breakfast over, souvenirs purchased, packing completed, we started. As we drove out of Deadhorse and visited our favorite ponds one last time, the wind picked up and the clouds started building rapidly. Storms in the Arctic can come up rapidly.

There’s a storm Brewing

Heading out of town
Ahead of the Storm

Like all good Adventure Serials………..

To be continued Next Week.

Photos by
Troy and Martha

Alaska Sunday is a collection of photographic remembrances of our driving trip from Texas to Alaska.
18,000 miles, 16 weeks, 16 western states including Alaska and four Canadian Provinces.
No chronological order, just anything of interest that got in front of our cameras.


kjpweb said...

Wonderful array on Wildflowers. Interesting read and great views!
Cheers, Klaus

Anonymous said...

Don't know some of them but...

WF2 - The purple one is a milkvetch or oxytrope, probably the milkvetch, there are many species.
WF3 - Capitate Lousewort
WF4 - I believe those are Arctic Poppies on a bed of Arctic Willow
WF5- Arctic Poppy
WF6 - Arctic Heather
WF7 - Not sure, one of the saxifrages I believe
WF8 - Wolly or Hairy Lousewort
WF9 - Again milkvetch or oxytrope

AphotoAday said...

Great shot of the fox and pipeline...

And I admit that I'm terrible at wildflower identification -- (not enough schooling) -- so I might have to take you up on your offer of helping identify something for me someday...

Best regards, Don.

Doug Taron said...

Your description of butterfly collecting in the high Arctic reminds me of trying to collect butterflies in alpine tundra. They are well camouflaged, pop up right at your feet and are immediately carried many yards away by strong winds. I have succeeded before by working with my brother. He would walk upwind of me and flush the butterflies. I'd be downwind with my net, and would nab them as they flew past. Success with this method was low but non-zero.

Thanks for sending the Erebia photo. I'll take a look at it at work tomorrow where I have ID resources available.

sandy said...

omg how ruggedly beautiful and the artic fox sandy

Livio said...

Nice to meet you Mr. Arctic Fox

storyteller said...

What fun to read about your adventures and see photos without leaving the comfort of home. Thanks for sharing. Hope you made it to ‘your home on the road’ before the storm hit. Mine’s considerably simpler … at Small Reflections today.
Hugs and blessings,

Duncan said...

All those wildflowers, a wonderful place to visit.

Shellmo said...

What a way to end your photos w/ the storm picture - great!

Sharon said...

I love the wildflower series! You are having the best time! Thanks for sharing.

I got to see an Arctic Fox once when we lived there. It was the dead of winter and it was all white. It is a memory I treasure.

Judi-gmj said...

Absolutly stunning! I have truly enjoyed this tour and it will continue! Like reading a novel and knowing the heroes are safe and happy at the end. :)

Katney said...

I think number 7 could be a spreading phlox. I would have to get a closer look to be sure.

Kathiesbirds said...

The info on the artic fox is interesting stuff.

The photo of you chasing butterflies across the tundra with all those puffy clouds would make a great Skywatch Friday post! ;)

The flowers are delicate and lovely.

Thanks for all these views!

Anonymous said...


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