The Alaskan Wilderness

This week we are going to take a break from the heat and head north to the cool climate of Alaska, our 49th state. Alaska was once controlled by Russia until its purchase by the United States in 1867, but it didn’t officially become a state until 1959. Best known for its extreme temperatures and intense terrain, people from around the world flock to Alaska each year to experience it’s unique landscapes and indigenous wildlife. Our Alaskan itinerary takes us camping in anchorage to look for brown bears, sailing into Bristol Bay to watch the orca whales, flying above the Aleutian Mountain range in a biplane, traveling to the Arctic slope to observe moose in their natural habitat, spending an evening in Fairbanks to take in the Northern Lights and then to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau to learn about the traditional totem poles.

Alaska is home to all three species of Northern American bears, which are the black bear, brown bear and polar bear. It is not uncommon for Alaskan residents and tourists alike to see bears frequently because Alaska is bear country. Bears are large predatory mammals so certain precautionary measures must be taken in order to reduce the likelihood of potential conflicts. When camping in bear territory, always maintain a clean campsite and secure food away from bears. As with all wildlife, especially the dangerous kind, it is important not to feed the bears. Bears have personal space and they expect to maintain it so never surprise a bear, and when possible, always hike in groups. If the thought of encountering a bear in the wild makes your hair stand on end, you might just be better off imagining a bear encounter and capturing it on canvas. At Gogh Arts we painted bear portraits and it turns out, they’re not so scary after all.

If nautical adventures are more your style then whale watching is the perfect way to spend the day. There are nine different kinds of whales in Alaska including the beluga, blue, bowhead, bottlenose, gray, humpback, orca, minke and sperm whales. It’s more likely that you would see an orca or a humpback whale on an Alaskan whale watching tour than any of the other kinds of whales. This has to do with the migration patterns and eating habits of the different kinds of whales. Gray whales stay close to the bottom of the ocean in order to feed on krill and plankton making it less likely to be observed, whereas the minke whale tends to be more elusive because of its ability to submerge more quickly than other kinds of whales. Orca whales go wherever the food is but they prefer colder waters making them an Alaskan fan favorite from Seward to Ketchikan. If you can’t catch a glimpse of the killer whales this summer, try making one from polymer clay instead.

The Aluetian mountain range is located in southwest Alaska and is unique because of its many active volcanoes. In fact, the most powerful volcanic explosion of the 20th century occurred in Katmai National Park and Preserve located in the Aleutian Range. The landscape of the Aleutian Range is treacherous with few roads and Katmai National Park and Preserve can only be reached by boat or plane. In Alaska, you can take a scenic flight in a private plane over Mount McKinley, also called Denali mountain, the tallest mountain in North America located in the center of the Aleutian Range. At Gogh Arts we enjoyed learning about the unique features of the Aleutian Mountains while creating a bi plane out of craft sticks and clothespins. Actual sightseeing tours of the area can be experienced by helicopter, seaplanes and other small aircraft.

One thing that’s not difficult to find or get to in Alaska is the majestic moose. Moose can be found roaming the entire state of Alaska and they are in fact the most often viewed animal in Alaska. Moose spend their days in search of food and can be found foraging in the forest and in urban areas too. Just like deer, because they are in fact, the largest member of the deer family, they are most active and frequently spotted at sunrise and dusk. Moose are herbivores and they enjoy munching on willow and birch, but not always. Sometimes moose make themselves unwelcome guests when they are caught snacking on crops and devouring gardens. Luckily, moose are generally not dangerous to humans, but they do have large antlers that help them to protect themselves against predators such as wolves and bears. Every winter moose shed their antlers and grow new ones in the spring! You can capture this magnificent creature with or without antlers, in a work of art. At Gogh Arts we used watercolor paints to memorialize our lesson about the Alaskan moose by painting the moose in summer with it’s full grown rack.

Above the arctic circle, in Fairbanks, Alaska, you can witness something most spectacular occuring in the sky. I’m talking about the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. This is a magical light show that happens when electrically charged particles from the sun collide with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. The different gas particles cause different colors to occur. Oxygen molecules produced the yellowish green color that is most predominant in the Aurora Borealis. Nitrogen produces blue and violet aurora. These colorful displays occur above the magnetic poles of the Northern and Southern hemispheres of our planet. Winter in the north is the best time to see Aurora Borealis due to the extended periods of darkness. Smaller towns with less light pollution offer the best viewing locations. The lights appear in a variety of formations including clouds, shooting beams and flowing curtains of colors. Fairbanks, Alaska offers one of the best locations for catching sight of this natural laser light show. You can catch the essence of the Northern Lights at home too with a watercolor painting. Colors typically seen in the Northern Lights include yellow, green, blue, violet and red.

These same colors can also be found in many of the traditional totem poles at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. Totem poles originated in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Alaska. They are carved sculptures that illustrate family and cultural stories. Totem poles serve as a means for passing along history through the verbal act of storytelling. Totem poles from Alaska are carved from cedar because cedar trees are plentiful in the forests of Southeast Alaska and what’s more, cedar is rot resistant giving totem poles a lasting quality beneficial in preserving historic events. Animals are often featured in totem poles as characters in ancient stories. The average height of totem poles is 30 feet but some stand as tall as 100 feet. You can see totem poles on display in many parts of Alaska or you could make your own totem pole at home. There are different kinds of materials that lend themselves to the natural form of totem poles, such as cylindrical containers, like oatmeal, or cardboard tubes from the center of paper towel rolls. At Gogh Arts we found it to be a lot of fun telling fun stories through our artwork using different animals and symbols in our totem poles.