Seals, Sea Otters, & Sea Lions … Oh My!

We never know what to expect when we arrive in Valdez.  Usually, we treated to an adventure of some type and the weather generally is a mixed bag.  The landscape is always fairly predictable, while the wildlife sightings are varied … sometimes we get grizzly bears,   black bears, sea otters, bald eagles, and bunny rabbits.

We decided to try our luck with finding some bears by the salmon hatchery, but we didn’t find any this trip.  We did see the usual bald eagles hanging out for an easy dinner and lots of other birds.  Then we saw them … lots of seals … in a feeding frenzy going after the salmon which were high in numbers._DSC6339Now this wasn’t the first time that we’ve seen the seals, but it’s the first time that they were so numerous, close, and quite honestly, so animated.  They were quite curious with us and would often come close and give us great photo ops.  How absolutely adorable they were!_DSC6080In seemingly a sea full of salmon, they swam about … probably trying to figure out which one to get first.  I wondered if they went after the females for the roe like the bears do?_DSC6400Like the bears, they were quite skilled fishermen, while those poor salmon barely had a chance.  It seemed like they were sometimes just catching them, then releasing them, and chasing down another…. just like the bears!_DSC6273_DSC6000DSC_9791Not to be outdone, the sea otters joined in on the fun._DSC6105I had to laugh how they navigated the waves of the sound, never losing grip of their fresh catch.  Now I’ve seen otters before, but never catching whole, live fish like this!_DSC6117_DSC6118There were 2 otters working together and would be very observant of the other marine life in the area doing their own hunting …_DSC6124… like this sea lion!  He was quite a bit bigger than the seals, who were quite bigger than the sea otters._DSC6181I couldn’t tell if this was mom and baby seal or two amorous seals, but they were certainly affectionate with each other … so wonderful to witness._DSC6314Salmon after salmon, they dined at a virtual smorgasbord of delicacies._DSC6356_DSC6371I was so fascinated with their big eyes and how they worked their nostrils in and out of the water.  There was also such color variations between the different seals._DSC6395However, they consistently caught their salmon and would swim near us and pose with their prize, almost as if it were presenting the fish to us.  I was truly honored to be in their presence and so grateful to watch them swim, play, hunt, and feed._DSC6332OK, so we went for the bears, but we got the seals, sea otters, and sea lions.  Sometimes, you just never know what you’re going to get, never know why you visit where and when you did, but I can tell you one thing … WE WERE THRILLED!  I think that this guy was happy too.  Doesn’t he look like he’s smiling?  🙂_DSC6450Next up:  The Denali Highway

© 2015  TNWA Photography / Debbie Tubridy

http://www.tnwaphotography.com

Katmai … Here We Come!

Rain, rain, rain … combined with fog, wind, and completely overcast skies.  That’s how it was the night before we were to fly over to Katmai NP.  When we woke up, it wasn’t raining, but the fog, wind, and heavy skies were still ominously present.  I told Tom that I wasn’t in a panic as I packed my gear, fluids, and nutrition … I was pretty sure that we weren’t flying out.  Thank goodness I was proved wrong!  Somehow, the fog on the lake lifted just enough and the trip was given a green light.

With us this year, we had the pleasure of spending a few days in Katmai with Tom Blandford, a friend of mine whom I met through the world of photography.  In addition, we had 2 lovely ladies who had been shut out by bad weather for several days already.  As the plane lifted off from the surface of Beluga Lake, I began the anticipation of what was to come… like a child the night before Christmas.  🙂

Because the weather had been very rainy, the rivers were a bit more swollen than usual, so we landed at “Just Enough” lake … that is, just enough room to land and take off safely.  LOL.  We unloaded and began our trek through the wilderness of Katmai NP & Preserve in search of coastal brown bears and lots of salmon.  See, they go hand in hand.

While we got to peek at a few bears from a distance, it wasn’t until we came across one not too far off that we began to get anxious with our gear.  Anticipating a bear’s next move is always challenging, but we seemed to get it right and before long we were greeted by a fabulous specimen coming around a corner, catching us a bit by surprise.

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Or guide, Dave, made sure that we were respectful to the bears personal space.  Our goal is also always to observe the bears in their natural behavior, rather than having them adjust to our presence, we would adjust to theirs.

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That plan always works perfectly … this bear accepted us being there without any reservations and before long, began chasing salmon swimming in the creek.

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We remained patiently observing this bear and let it pass us by.  It’s always quite the thrill for me when our eyes meet for the first time … OK, actually every time … to me, it’s the validation that we’re connected at that moment … in each other’s world, if you will.  Always amazing as well how they pass us so peacefully, not like how many would be led to believe.  For bears are actually very peaceful and predictable … honestly!

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Often people want to know how close we get to these magnificent creatures.  My answer varies with each situation, location, bear, etc … but you can see in this image that it’s not very far away at all.

Thanks to Dave of Go See Bears for capturing this image!

Thanks to Dave of Go See Bears for capturing this image!

Generally, the bears pass by and get on with their day at hand which mostly revolves around chasing down and eating salmon.  They are quite skilled at it too!

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Sometimes lens choice is an issue and your full image view becomes simply a head shot due to their proximity to us.  It’s a GOOD problem.

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Not all of the bears are chasing salmon, some are simply catching a siesta in the wilderness landscape.

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Of course, before long, they’re up and repeating the cycle … find salmon … chase salmon … catch salmon… eat salmon… and so their day goes on.

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Somebody looks as though they got caught raiding the cookie jar … or should I say the salmon pool.  LOL

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One of my favorite sightings of the day came with a sow and her young cub, probably a yearling.  We watched them as they made their way down the creek towards us.  The sow was a beauty too … a real blondie!

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Her cub followed her dutifully, not too far behind, and it was already checking things out for themselves along the way.

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As mom went on the hunt for salmon ….

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… her cub did the same.  It was amazing to me to see how it already had quite big paws and claws!

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When the young one would get a fish from mom, it would climb up on the shore to consume it, as mom continued to fish.

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Now on this trip, it wasn’t only bears of course.  There were a few birds … yellowlegs, juvenile harlequin ducks, ptarmigan, and of course, gulls.  The ptarmigan were so much fun to watch as they congregated in a group of perhaps a dozen and all took flight, with their beautiful markings showing the signs of the upcoming seasonal changes.

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Yes, it was a fun filled day so far and I for one, didn’t want it to end.  Looks like my new little friend didn’t want us to leave either!  LOL

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We pulled up our waders and made our way across the treacherous creek.  OK, maybe treacherous is a bit of an exaggeration, but the current was moving quite quickly and the water level was a bit higher than our boots!  The river rocks were also quite slippery and the water quite cold.  As I made it mostly across the creek safely, I quietly thanked goodness that Tom (aka my sherpa) had my gear safe and sound, and most importantly, dry.  What would I do without him?  I did however have a hole in my waders so I drained them out on the other side… woo hoo, it was quite refreshing!

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Heading back to the plane is always the worse part of the day, but we still had more time to spend in Katmai, so it was a bit easier to swallow.  Here’s a shot of Tom B. (aka not my sherpa Tom) and our pilot Wes of Beluga Air.

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That’s all for now, but stay tuned for more adventures from Katmai NP and my beloved coastal brown bears!

Thanks to Dave @ Go See Bears for capturing this image!

Thanks to Dave @ Go See Bears for capturing this image!

 

8’s a Charm!

Yes, 8’s a charm … our 8th trip to Alaska for our photographic journey into the wilderness and all of the fabulous wildlife, landscapes, and adventures that it holds.  Each year, we try something different … perhaps a new geography, a new drive, a new activity … whatever it may be.  Almost immediately we realized that we left our camera-carrying backpack at home, so first of all, there was a trip to Stewart’s in Anchorage to remedy that.  On our way back to the RV, I spotted a totem pole, which sported 3 definite sightings that were high on my wildlife list … a good omen, I reasoned.

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After getting some necessities at the local Fred-Meyer, off we started on our journey, headed to the Russian River on the Kenai Peninsula for 4 days of bears, we hoped.  As we checked in at the campground, the attendant told me that for the first time in seemingly weeks, there were bears sighted on the river that morning.  EXCITED didn’t even begin to summarize how I felt.  In less than 30 minutes, we were on the boardwalk in search of bears.

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Before long we encountered fishermen telling us the whereabouts of the bears … a sow and her three 2nd year cubs.  The anticipation was mounting.  Once we reached the gravel bar area, we caught our first glimpse of one of the cubs.

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The action on the river was varied … whether they were simply traveling along the gravel bar checking out their surroundings …

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… or they were emerging from the hillside and entering the river …

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… or chasing down salmon …

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… and leaping into the air and pouncing onto the schools of salmon, as they were swimming upstream for the spawning, many of which had already reached that red & green, spawned out salmon look.

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Though spawned out salmon are beautiful to look at, being all colorful and impressive looking, they are not fit for human consumption.  The bears, however, seem not to mind.  Once they grab the salmon they then prepare to consume it, or in some occasions, simply seem to “play” with it, seemingly tormenting the poor thing.

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Of course, it’s also fun to see them moving about the shoreline and across the fallen logs that they encounter along the way.  I’m always impressed with the way that they can maneuver the landscape so gracefully.  This is the bigger of the three young ones … quite big in my book!

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The 3rd and larger cub tended to stay more with its mama.  The other two cubs tended to hang out together quite a bit, fishing together along the banks of the shore, reaching into the fishing holes and under the ledge shelves of the banks.

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Sometimes they would play for fun along the way.

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Sometimes it was more personal and the encounter would be a bit more testy, if you will.  See, the smaller cub was the better fisherman as far as I could tell, or at least the most determined to go out and catch the salmon.  Problem was that the other cub would know when it caught one and would venture on over and assert it’s dominance over the other one and ultimately would end up with its salmon.  You can see it doing so in the next image.

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To me, there’s something about a bear’s eyes.  When you’re able to see them and capture the catchlight in their eyes, it’s an amazing moment.  You feel “connected”, or at least, we do.

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Funny thing about the river, bears, and salmon … there are always gulls around ready to pick up the scraps left behind.  Most times they loiter in the background, though sometimes, they get in the way, especially for the photographer.  So many times, I found that my images captured were photo-bombed by the gulls.  Even the bear seems to agree.  LOL

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It really gets exciting though when you’re sitting on the bottom of the river access stairs, photographing the bears, and one turns and heads directly at you.  Now some might be a bit nervous about that, but by now we know and are pretty confident that the bears aren’t interested in us with so many salmon around…. but it still makes your adrenaline peak and your heart race, as well as the endorphins release secondary to the joy of sharing this adventure with the bears.

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We absolutely love “visiting” with them, in their natural environment, as they go about their day.  Most visitors to the river feel the same, whether there for photography or fishing, though once in awhile you get that person who doesn’t feel the same.  I’d like to think that they would feel differently if they saw bears the way that we do.  It’s all about being educated about their behaviors, reading their signs, and giving them the respect that they deserve.

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Until the next blog post …. this will be the end!  🙂

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Stay tuned to more bears on the Russian River!

© 2014  TNWA Photography

Special Moments on the Russian River

Have you ever awaken in the morning and got that feeling that the day was going to be a special one?  Well, for me, it was just that kind of day.  By 6:00 am, we were off to the Russian River boardwalk to begin our “bear stroll”.  We walked to the confluence, where the Russian & Kenai rivers merge, and we were treated to early morning heavy fog and mist, with the early morning light beginning to emerge.

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We sat down to enjoy the view and wait for the sun to rise – or at least the bears to emerge.  There was an wonderful sense of tranquility on the river, so quiet, nothing but the sound of the gulls and eagles calling out in the distance.  Each year on the river, we meet great people, some from the far stretches of the world, some local.  All have their reasons for being there – wildlife, fishing, adventure, seeking peace and enjoyment of the wilderness of Alaska.

The seagulls were the only ones around

The seagulls were the only ones around

This year, we met some new friends from Anchorage – Renee and Alton – and we were there for the same reasons, which included photographing the bears.  We walked along the path alongside the river, but the bears were in hiding.  After some time, we felt that they were going to be no-shows.  We turned around and this is what we saw …

It was truly a magical moment!

It was truly a magical moment!

See, I always say that things happen for a reason … and if you’re open to it, you’ll be treated to something even more special.  It was such an amazing moment and our equipment was changed out accordingly to be able to capture it.  The sunlight rays were simply beaming through the trees and the misty atmosphere simply added to the view.

Sunbeams and rays - doesn't get any better than this

Sunbeams and rays – doesn’t get any better than this

Before long – all lost in the magical moment – we hear Tom interrupting with … “we have bears!”.  What????  I have to laugh at how quickly our reflective moment turned into pursuit.

Backlit bear crosses the river not far from us

Backlit bear crosses the river not far from us

What a encounter we were treated to that morning!  The air was cooler that morning and I remember that the boardwalk was actually covered with a thin layer of ice in spots.  I think that the bears really enjoyed the colder weather, especially with the sunlight out.

Lots of action on the river

Lots of action on the river

Catching, then ultimately eating, the salmon was the favorite activity of these amazing bears.

Those poor salmon never stood a chance!

Those poor salmon never stood a chance!

Yum, Yum, Yum ... a bear's sushi bar!

Yum, Yum, Yum … a bear’s sushi bar!

During their break from fishing, they would interact with each other through sniffing, soft pawing, and gentle biting.  Nothing like watching sub-adult bears – not quite adult behavior and still open to playful encounters.

Gentle encounter between young sub-adult bears

Gentle encounter between young sub-adult bears

To get the best angles on these bears, one must get low to be on their level.  The position of the sunlight is also a consideration.

Sometimes the bears just seem to know, and go, right where you want them

Sometimes the bears just seem to know, and go, right where you want them

Of course, the bears dictate where you can be and if the bear wants to be where you are, you gently relinquish your spot to them.

Bear approaches the stairs where we were sitting

Bear approaches the stairs where we were sitting

Funny how bears will sheepishly walk towards you to get a better look - or sniff.

Funny how bears will sheepishly walk towards you to get a better look – or sniff.

Probably one of my favorite actions exhibited by the bears is what I call “the shake”.

I always wonder what makes them think that they can shed that excess water off of them while they're in the water!  LOL

I always wonder what makes them think that they can shed that excess water off of them while they’re in the water! LOL

This one particular bear was having a ball in the water.  It would find the hole where the salmon were congregating and catch one …

Such skillful fishermen the bears are

Such skillful fishermen the bears are

… then get on its back and begin to devour it, as the river current floated the bear down the river, all feet in the air, grasping its prize …

Lazy day bear

Lazy day bear

… then it would do it all again!  Got to love it!  🙂

What fun these bears have ... just another day in the life of a bear!

What fun these bears have … just another day in the life of a bear!

So we had a great start to our Alaskan adventure during those 3 days spent on the Russian River.  Met some awesome new friends, enjoyed their company, had lots of funny moments, and of course, got to spend some incredible time with the bears.  🙂

Yes, they sure do have the life!  Then again, so does Tom!

By mid-day, Tom takes a well needed rest on the Russian River banks

By mid-day, Tom takes a well needed rest on the Russian River banks

Today is a special day as well … it’s my sherpa’s birthday!  Today’s post is dedicated to my husband and best friend – Tom.  Happy Birthday baby!  Love you!  xoxoxo

Next will be our visit to Katmai National Park & Preserve for more coastal brown bears!

Our 2013 Alaskan Adventure Begins

My passion ... brown bears of Alaska!

My passion … brown bears of Alaska!

It has become a summer tradition … our annual trek to the magnificent wilderness of the US, known as Alaska, or what others might call the “last frontier”.  To us, it is paradise and it seems that we can’t let a year go by without it.  This year was no different, so off we went to spend 26 magnificent days … where my spirit would soar, my energies renew, and my heart would go a-flutter.  🙂  For the next month, I will try to share with my readers our memories from 2013.

This year, our adventure was a very different one.  For one thing, we had more inclement weather (i.e. very drizzly and overcast, especially in the beginning) and lots of concentrated wildlife sightings, with lots of nothing in between.  Let me start with our time on the Kenai, specifically our 3rd and 4th days staying at the Russian River in Cooper Landing… one of the hot spots for brown bears … at least while the salmon is running.

Our first morning at the campground, we ventured down to the boardwalk, in search of bears.  Wasn’t long before we got our first sighting.  See the fisherman were leaving, warning us of the bear ahead, so off we went for some bear photography.

Sub-adult bear seeking privacy to eat its salmon snack

Sub-adult bear seeking privacy to eat its salmon snack

We observed it from a respectable distance, often making eye contact with this magnificent creature.  Before long, it decided to head back to the river, so up the boardwalk it went, as we backed off accordingly.  It took a leisurely stroll to the next stair access to the river.

"Share the Road" - brown bear style ... got to love that paw pad.

“Share the Road” – brown bear style … got to love that paw pad.

The river was a virtual “floating buffet line” of salmon, as they made their way upstream in their ultimate last deed before becoming part of the circle of life.  Problem for the bear was simply which one to grab.

Checking out "What's for Dinner?"

Checking out “What’s for Dinner?”

Ultimately, the chase begins….

Such intensity on their faces during this feeding frenzy period

Such intensity on their faces during this feeding frenzy period

Even during the pursuit, there are many decisions to be made ... like which one!

Even during the pursuit, there are many decisions to be made … like which one!

Once a salmon is successfully caught by the bear, it’s quite a thrill to watch them as they efficiently and skillfully devour it, in a very targeted approach.

What a prize ... can't you just see the pride in the bear?

What a prize … can’t you just see the pride in the bear?

Of course, the seagulls are always hanging around to dutifully pick up any scraps left behind by the bears.

Quite the conversation these two are engaging in ... such a racket too!

Quite the conversation these two are engaging in … such a racket too!

Even when the bears aren’t chasing salmon in the river, they are always a thrill for us to observe them as they go about their daily ritual.  Such activities include getting around in the slippery river rocks and over, on and around the trees.

So fun to watch them navigate the fallen tree branches ... not always to perfection though.  LOL

So fun to watch them navigate the fallen tree branches … not always to perfection though. LOL

Such a peaceful creature, as it pauses to assess the "goings on" around it

Such a peaceful creature, as it pauses to assess the “goings on” around it

The morning hours on the Russian River are especially rewarding, even if the bears haven’t arrive yet.  Tom & I don our hip waders and venture out into the river alongside the fishermen.  Not once have we thrown out a line to catch anything, though Tom has been known to catch a few with his bare hands (catch & release, of course).

How many Florida boys own hip waders?  Especially guys who don't even fish!

How many Florida boys own hip waders? Especially guys who don’t even fish!

Over the years, I feel like we’ve gotten to know some of the local bears.  This year there were 2 sub-adult bears hanging out together quite often.  After looking at some shots from last years adventure, I can’t help but feel that these are actually the 2 yearling cubs we photographed last year, but without their mom.  See, the bears usually keep them for 2 years, then kick them out to fend on their own.

Not completely sure, but I believe that these are the siblings that we photographed last year  :-)

Not completely sure, but I believe that these are the siblings that we photographed last year 🙂

It’s fun to see how good of fishermen they have become … yes, mom taught them well.  🙂

Mine!  Mine!  Mine!

Mine! Mine! Mine!

Further down the river, past the confluence, is the Kenai River, which is world renowned for its “combat fishing” – standing shoulder to shoulder, while fishing lines are being tangled, patience wanes, and tempers flare.  Of course, late August is not peak time for salmon fishing for the humans … but for the bears, it’s like a little bit of heaven.

What a life!

What a life!

Signing off for now … be sure to check back next week and beyond for more posts covering our 2013 Alaskan Adventure.  Hope that you enjoy.

Taking a break on the Kenai River on one of the most glorious days we encountered.

Taking a break on the Kenai River on one of the most glorious days we encountered.

2012 Review: PART 3 – Brown Bears of the Kenai Peninsula & Katmai

Of course, our sights were also focused on our return to Alaska – our 6th annual trip!  This time we visited with our good friends, Todd & Susan, who were experiencing Alaska for their first time.  Really made it fun to see and hear their thoughts on a place that has become so near and dear to us over the years.  We spent about a week on the Kenai Peninsula – visiting with the Russian River bears (always a thrill), eagle watching in Homer, walking Bishops Beach near Home Spit,

Hanging on to the prize

Hanging on to the prize

Like a child playing in their bathtub

Like a child playing in their bathtub

Out on the Russian River

Out on the Russian River – photo courtesy of Todd Stein

and of course, spending some time with the coastal brown bears in Katmai NP.  This year, we spent time at Kuliak Bay, where we were treated to numerous bears, including some sows and their adorable cubs.  What a sight these cubs were, as they scurried by us, not sure of what we were or what we were doing in their world.

Spring cub is not too sure about us

Spring cub is not too sure about us

Salmon fishing at the falls

Salmon fishing at the falls

Chasing down the river towards us (after the salmon, of course)

Chasing down the river towards us (after the salmon, of course)

Retreating into the tall grasses to rest

Retreating into the tall grasses to rest

No matter how many times we visit Katmai NP, it’s never the same.  We have been fortunate to visit new locations within the vast Katmai landscape each year and 2012 was no different.  We even got to spend some time with crew members of the BBC film crew shooting a documentary in the area.

... missed ....

… missed ….

The skillful fisherman

The skillful fisherman

The flight over to Katmai is always a treat for the eyes, but this year we were treated to an incredible fly-over of the glacial landscape and mountains of the coastal areas and a bit of the interior of Katmai – on an amazingly beautiful day.  I can’t thank Jon enough for that added bonus thrill for us!

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What an incredible place!  Make it a destination for yourself one day!

Stay tuned for more of the 2012 year in review!