To see Turnagain Arm on a map one would never imagine the countless animals, plants, and activities taking place on that little spot. This body of water is but a speck in the vastness of the earth, but its geographic corner is huge on natural beauty. Cook Inlet moves up north and then east. It splits into two arms, Knik Arm to the north and Turnagain Arm in the south. Glacial carved mountains stand handsome against the waters of the arm while networks of trees and shrubs grow up their flanks.
These valleys are host to a formidable array of creatures big, small, and everything else between. Let's explore some of the more well known land mammals that share Turnagain Arm with us.
Nothing captures the soul of outdoor living in Alaska more than the family ursidae, that is, bears. Alaska is host to three species of bears, two of which make homes in the mountains hugging the Turnagain Arm.
Naturally shy loners, black bears (ursus americanus) evolved in the forest therefore, they are very comfortable climbing up trees.
The Chugach provides much in the way of this omnivore's diet, not that they're picky. They'll eat practically anything from early season greens and grubs to late season salmon and blueberries. Daily consumption is massive with more than 10 pounds of food a day being eaten by the average, healthy "blackie." They are the smallest of the bears found in Alaska with adults standing about two-and-a-half feet tall and five feet nose to tail. The average weight for a male black bear is in the vicinity of 250 pounds. Not huge, but you still don't want to turn a bend on an old growth trail and spook one.
Although black bears can live to be 20 plus years in the wild it is more likely that they survive about 10 years.
Big brother to ursus americanus is ursus arctos, better known as brown bear. An almost mythological creature, brown bears are deeply rooted in the stories and culture of the Chugach Alutiiq. Their sheer size is staggering. A male brown bear can weigh up to 1,400 pounds at it's largest, which is just before denning for the winter. Their food sources are as varied as those of the black bear. The main difference is that brown bears are able to hunt larger prey. They are capable of preying on caribou and moose as well as domestic animals. Their hunting skills are enhanced by an exceptional sense of smell. Brown bears can detect odors from as far away as a mile.
Needless to say, these giants enjoy a healthy population in the vast Alaskan wilderness. Their life span is about 20 years for males and 25 years for females. Both black and brown bears travel from sea level to alpine tundra in search of food. When you might weigh 1000+ pounds and you can't run into a grocery store for any of your nutrition, can you blame them?
Brown bears should be treated with the respect that their size merits. Observe from a safe distance of 100 yards or more. In fact, if you see a mother bear and her young, it would be prudent to back away quietly and unnoticed. Mother bears, like all mothers, are especially protective of their young. Don't mess with Mama Bear!
Another mammalian family that epitomizes the wildness of our geography is family canidae, or dogs. The rock star of this category is by far Canis lupus, the wolf. Although wolf densities are lower in coastal areas, they are still out there, roaming the peaks and valleys of the Turnagain Arm mountains.
These creatures stir up many images and feelings. Full moon, howling, "Little Red Riding Hood," the list goes on. We humans are fascinated and sometimes, fearful of them. Wolves' existence is dominated by a hierarchy in their social structure. This is characterized by separate ranks among the sexes. There is an alpha male and alpha female, which are the breeding couple of the group.
While both mommy wolf and daddy wolf take care of their young, the rest of the pack also actively participates in the rearing of the pups. They are pack animals that mate for life.
Most packs have about six or seven members. Rarely do wolf packs overlap territories with each other. These wild dogs can weigh anywhere from 85-115 pounds. Their weight is subject to fluctuations based on food availability. These carnivores share a very delicately balanced relationship with their prey. Their numbers seesaw with a steady rise and decline between the two groups. Wolves have a life span of 6 -15 years. For most Alaskans, hearing a wolf is much more likely to happen than seeing one. Not that hearing wolves is a commonplace event by any means. When it happens, it's magical.
Of course we cannot forget that most ubiquitous of poster mammals for our area, the largest member of the deer family, alces alces gigas, or, the magnificent moose. When moose newborns are born in the spring they weigh but a measly 30 pounds. By the time winter is making it's way back up to our neck of the woods, these same babies have increased their weight ten-fold to about 300 pounds! Full grown, males tip the scales at approximately 1400 pounds while females keep their figures attractive at about 1000 pounds.
Moose are herbivores, that prefer alder, willow, and birch for their meals. They do a lot of grazing on grasses and twigs in the summer. They are preyed upon by brown bears and wolves. Can you imagine? Moose are a feast on four long legs for those carnivores. This largest of deer keep warm with their hollow hairs, which act as superior insulation during those long, cold winter months. Other adaptations include their two front legs, which are longer than their rear legs. This helps them jump over logs, debris, and snow berms. The typical moose has good hearing and excellent sense of smell, however, their eyesight is not very good. If a moose can make it past the brown bears, wolves, and let's face it, vehicles, then they have a good chance at being alive for about 15 years.
It's hard to believe as we sit in our nice sheltered homes, that very nearby, some of the above-mentioned mammals are living their lives alongside us. We are so lucky to live in an environment that advocates for the health and space that these creatures need for survival.
Turnagain Arm is not only aesthetically beautiful but it has the ecological harmony to support a complex food chain that includes creatures bigger than us.