Striped Racer Snake

Racer Snake

Striped Racer Snake

The fastest snake I have ever seen.  I once watched a striped racer chase a lizard across a hillside; and if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought this slender snake was being blown by a strong gust of wind.

 

He flipped and flopped; his body never seemed to really touch the ground.  He quickly vanished, so I don’t know if the lizard escaped…but I doubt it.

 

Also known as the California Whipsnake, they are primarily found in chaparral habitat among rocky outcroppings.  For more click here.  A long snake at 3+ ft. (90-120 cm), they move through shrubs to avoid predators and capture prey.

Striped Racer, Calif.

Striped Racer, Calif.

 

With speed as their best defense, the snake’s stripes affect the predator’s vision in a way that the attacker continues to see the snake for a second or so after the snake has already escaped.

 

A snake that can do illusion tricks and flies across hillsides — impressive.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Denali Delights

Male caribou, Denali

Male caribou, Denali

Touring through Denali is unlike other U.S. national parks because there is only one road, and few trails. This glorious park is well designed to preserve the park, protect the wildlife, and lighten the impact of human visitors.

 

Denali Park Road is 92 miles long, with only the first 15 miles open to private vehicles. Going deeper into the park requires park buses.  Additionally, most of the park does not have trails; those that exist are less than five miles long and primarily near the entrance. This is to minimize maintenance in this extremely remote and unserviceable place.

Denali Park Rd & Mt. McKinley

Denali Park Rd & Mt. McKinley

 

There are 39 species of mammals, including caribou, moose, bear, wolves; and 169 species of birds.  With over 650 plant species in an environment of forest, tundra, and glaciers, there are numerous habitats.   In addition, majestic Mt. McKinley looms at 20,320 feet offering hiking, mountain climbing, and glacier exploration.

 

For visitors there are ecological options of courtesy, shuttle, or tour buses.  Hiking is largely cross-country.

 

green bus stopped along a dirt road, mountains in the distance, and a sheep downslope.

Denali Shuttle Bus. Photo: Nathan Kostegian, NPS

Green shuttle buses travel Denali Park Road, picking hikers up and dropping them off wherever they please.  I noticed not many people did this.  Alternatively, there are a few designated day trips available, or visitors can take a park bus tour.  Learn more here.

 

One day we enjoyed a designated day trip to Wonder Lake.  With views of Mt. McKinley and exquisite panoramas of the mountains and tundra, it was awesome.  We did not spend as much time at the lake as hoped, because the mosquitoes were rabid.

 

Grizzly Bear, Denali NP, Alaska

Grizzly Bear, Denali

One day we took a pre-arranged flight tour to a glacier at the top of Mt. McKinley.  Spectacular!  Read more here.

 

Several days we explored, on foot, areas we had researched, targeting wildlife and birds.  We used the required green bus and boarded and de-boarded as we liked.  One day the bus driver dropped us off, and as the two of us descended the bus steps he said, “Be careful, I’ve heard there are grizzlies around here today.”  Off goes the bus, we are completely alone in this vast expanse, and I said, “What did he just say?”

 

A few hours later I had forgotten my fear about the grizzlies.  We had hiked a few miles, taking photos and exploring, and then came across a delightful stream.  After carrying loads of equipment, we decided to temporarily stash the scope and tripod under a bush; set the daypack down while we scouted out a picnic spot upstream.

Denali creek, daypacks

Athena photographing, Denali streamside (Photo: Jet)

 

Ten minutes later we returned to the daypack and found, disconcertingly, that it was moving.  We ran at the backpack, and shouted at it.  Out jumped a ground squirrel.  Fortunately it was only a small mammal, and not something big enough to eat us.

 

Ground Squirrel, Denali

Ground Squirrel, Denali

One of the things I absolutely love about hiking and outdoor adventures, is that the conventions of household living are considerably looser.  Here we were in the middle of 6 million acres of wilderness, no food shops for hundreds of miles.   We needed lunch, but would there be any left?  Fortunately, he had only eaten parts of our Fig Newton cookies.  So we sat down, ate our pawed-over but uneaten lunch, including the untouched ends of the Fig Newtons.

 

Wolf, Denali

Wolf, Denali

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander (except as noted)

 

Mount McKinley, Denali NP, Alaska

Mount McKinley

Dall Sheep, Denali NP, Alaska

Dall Sheep, Denali

Wonder Lake, Denali

Wonder Lake, Denali

Baobab Tree

Baobab Tree

Baobab Tree

The venerable baobab tree is native to Africa and can be found throughout much of the continent.  Nothing towers over the vast African savannah like this tree, not even elephants.

 

Although the height is impressive at 16-82 feet (5-25 m), it is the solid girth that catches your eye.  The behemoth trunk can get up to 32-45 feet (10-14m) in diameter.

 

This is a deciduous tree, but it only has leaves for about three months of the year (the wet season).  Most of the year you see it as pictured here. Fortunately it is drought resistant, due to its large root system.

 

It also bears an ovoid fruit that has a dry pulp and can be ground into a powder, used to make nutritious drinks.  The fruit doesn’t come along for about 20 years, but for a tree that can live to 1,000 years, that’s a very youthful time. Animals eat the leaves, and humans make food, clothing, and other useful products from the tree.  To read more about Adansonia digitata, click here.

 

The baobab is prevalent in many parts of Africa, and is also found in Oman, Yemen and Western Asia.  But when I see this tree it says to me one word:  Africa.  And what a lovely statement that is.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Rhinoceros

White Rhinos, Kenya

White Rhinos, Kenya

The African rhino species originated on this planet about 14.2 million years ago.  Let’s take a look at this astounding creature.

 

A century ago, at least in Africa, rhinos were heading for extinction due to over-hunting in the colonial era.  Now, all five rhino species are killed for their horns, which are coveted for medicinal purposes and ornamental carvings.  Sadly, sophisticated poaching syndicates have evolved into organized crime, utilizing advanced technologies and weaponry.

 

The dwindling rhinoceros population is so depressing that I will stop talking about it at this point.  You can, however, click here to read the exact numbers of remaining species.  Fortunately, there have been enormous conservation efforts toward reviving the population; and the white rhinos, the most abundant rhino species, have increased.

 

There are rhinos in Africa and Asia, a total of five different species.  The two African rhinos are called Black and White; the Asian rhinos:  Greater one-horned, Sumatran, and Javan.  General rhinoceros info here.

 

White Rhino Family, Kenya

White Rhino Family, Kenya

It is only possible to observe wild rhinos by going to preserved wildlife sanctuaries.  We visited the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya, where these photos were taken.  It is 62,000 acres and heavily guarded, although when there you rarely, if ever, see a fence.  (For a little pop culture fact:  Lewa is where Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton in 2010.)  More about Lewa here.  On a previous safari we visited Lakipia Plains, also in Kenya.

 

The African Rhinos.  The black rhino is not black, and the white rhino is not white.  They are both brownish-gray.

 

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya

The white rhino, seen here, is a grazer.  The mouth, for grazing on grass, is wide; so the Dutch named it “wijd” for wide.  But the early English speaking settlers mistakenly thought the word was “white” and that is how the wide-mouthed rhino became known as the white rhino.  They named the other rhino, that had a narrow mouth, black.

 

White rhinos are the largest of the five rhino species and are the world’s largest land mammal after elephants.  The males average 5,100 pounds (2,300 kg), females average 3,700 pounds (1,700 kg).  The male’s head and body length are 12-13 feet long (nearly 4m); and they stand about 5-6 feet high (about 180 cm).  In spite of their immense size, they can run up to 31 mph (50 km/h).  Gloriously enormous.

 

Barn Swallows greeting us, Lewa, Kenya

Barn Swallows greeting us, Lewa, Kenya

Black rhinos, more rare, are not grazers but browsers.  They eat leafy branches, shoots, and bushes, and are more solitary than the white rhino. They are known to be more aggressive than the white rhino, and are roughly half as big as the white rhino.

 

On our last day in Lewa, we had had a great day observing the rhinos.  As we were leaving, a wonderful cloud of spirited barn swallows surrounded us, apparently attracted to the bugs our vehicle had stirred up.  It was the perfect farewell.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Our Palace at Lewa

Our Palace at Lewa

 

 

Father’s Day Rodeo

Little Cowboy

Little Cowboy

The thing I like most about travel is seeing different ways that humans live.  Humans, after all, are my species.  I love to come across new communities that open my horizons, even if it’s only for a day.

 

So that is how I found myself at “The Biggest Little Rodeo in the West.”  It takes place in Grover, Colorado every Father’s Day weekend, has been the town’s main attraction since the early 1920s.  The population of Grover is 137 people.

 

This is a world filled with horse-back riding,  cattle-tending cowboys and cowgirls.  Some rodeos these days are professional events hosted in air-conditioned arenas with large prizes; other rodeos, like this one, are community celebrations in a big, flat field, involving generations of families.

 

Rodeo, Grover, Colordo

Rodeo, Grover, Colordo

I was with three of my favorite people:  my partner, my 83 year old mother, and my sister.  There we were in the bleachers in our city tennies and summer capris, surrounded by cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and belt-buckled jeans.

 

Just about the time the “bucking broncs” were being released out of the chutes, the vast and dark sky opened up, and the rain poured and poured.   The rodeo was delayed when the lightning started, and it was time to get Mom back to the hotel.

 

That was one of those days when we had spent more time traveling to and from the event, than being at the actual event itself.  But on the way “home” as the rain and hail pelted our rental car, we were exhilarated and happy, and recalled the event with relish.

 

Life on earth with over 7 billion other people makes for a complicated web of overlapping lifestyles and values. I don’t know any cowboys personally, and my father died many years ago, but I still give a nod to fathers and the Grover cowboys every Father’s Day.  And even if you’re not a father, I bid you a Happy Father’s Day.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Dedicated to the memory of my mother, who enjoyed the rodeo most of all.

Colorado-rodeo