Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We’re beginning a new kind of adventure as we start to make our way back home to Alaska after visiting family and friends back east.20161107-3268-the-new-rv-rJim has always wanted to get a 5th wheel RV, and friends in Virginia happened to be selling theirs… so Jim has gotten his wish and we’re now heading across country with the new rig.  With a shorter boating season where we live, it makes sense to spend some of the “off season” exploring some of the many amazing places in the western states.  But first we have to get west, and we’re learning a lot on this “forced march” pace to get to the other side of the country.

It makes sense to take a more southerly route to avoid bad weather at this time of the year, and we enjoyed the rolling green hills and lingering fall color through southwestern Virginia.  We spotted deer, wild turkeys and bald eagles as we made our way into Tennessee, taking a couple of days to explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border.20161108-3306-gsmnp-fall-color-2-rThe peak fall color had passed, but there was still plenty of pretty leaves at lower elevations.  On the recommendation of friends, we headed for Clingman’s Dome – the highest peak in the Park (6643′) and the third highest peak east of the Mississippi.  If you’re willing to make the steep 1/2 mile hike to the top you’re rewarded with great views from the observation tower.20161108-3276-gsmnp-clingmans-dome-tower-2-rWe crossed the Appalachian Trail near the summit which was fun since we’ve hiked sections of the Trail years ago when we lived in Virginia.  Unfortunately the view on this day was marred by smog and smoke from the wildfires in the region; on a clear day you would be able to see 100 miles.20161108-3278-gsmnp-view-from-clingmans-dome-rThe Great Smoky Mountains got its name from a natural haze produced by the vegetation in the area, but now pollution is the major cause of the haze.

After sitting in the truck for so long it felt good to get out and hike, so we explored a different section of the park the following day – Cade’s Cove.  This Cherokee hunting area was eventually settled by Europeans in the early 1800s, with churches and homesteads cropping up alongside the valley’s pasture land.20161109-3323-gsmnp-cades-cove-church-1-r 20161109-3358-gsmnp-cades-cove-field-rOne of the rangers suggested a hike to Abrams Falls so we ventured out for some good exercise and fresh air.  I miss so much of the beautiful fall color now that we live in an evergreen rainforest, so it was a treat to see the colorful leaves and to hear the crunch of them under our feet.20161109-3341-gsmnp-hiking-color-r20161109-3339-gsmnp-rickety-bridge-rWe thoroughly enjoyed the hike, even with all the sharp rocks and the rickety log bridges, though we didn’t linger too long at the waterfall since the days are getting shorter and we wanted to be sure to return with plenty of daylight.20161109-3351-gsmnp-abrams-falls-rAs you may know I love bears and Great Smoky Mountains are well known for black bears, though the average size of the bears here is about half the size of the black bears back in Alaska… and they’re tiny compared to our brown bears.  We didn’t see any bears but we did see wild turkeys and deer.  Spotting wildlife of any kind always makes us happy.20161109-3363-gsmnp-deer-rWe entered the park through Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and that was a whole different kind of wild life.  It was such a shocking contrast to drive through the middle of the most stereotypical Tourist Trap that is the main street in Gatlinburg in order to get to the National Park.  We prefer our wildlife from Mother Nature… not garish and plastic.  To each his/her own.

Polar Bears

We arrived in Churchill, Manitoba for a few days during the 6 week “season” when polar bears congregate on the shore of Hudson Bay waiting for the sea ice to form.  Polar bears are creatures of the sea ice – that’s where they find their primary food source (ring seals), and it’s where they are most comfortable – they’re designed to thrive in the extreme cold.

It’s interesting to note that Churchill, Manitoba is only 200 miles north of the same latitude as our home in Petersburg, Alaska.  The Japanese Current keeps our part of Alaska temperate, while the currents feeding Hudson Bay bring colder water and weather that will freeze salt water.

20161021-2502-young-male-polar-bear-10-rDid you know that a polar bear’s skin is actually black?  And their fur is clear, specially designed to help keep them warm in extremely cold temperatures.  The week we were in Churchill the temps were pretty warm – right around freezing, so the bears weren’t as active.  They don’t have good food sources on land so they haven’t eaten much all summer.  At this time of the year they’re hungry and thinner, and they need to conserve as much energy as possible.20161021-2508-young-male-polar-bear-face-rPolar bears are apex predators, and although humans aren’t their preferred food source, they absolutely will hunt and attack humans when they’re hungry.  Unlike black and brown bears, these white bears are not to be trifled with!  Bear spray would just make a polar bear think “ooooh – spicy food!”20161025-3228-churchill-beware-of-bears-rWe were able to get so close to these predators by getting out on the tundra in polar rovers like these – with tires tall enough that a standing bear can’t reach the windows or the open viewing platform.20161025-3226-churchill-jim-and-polar-rover-resizeAnd to maximize our time on the tundra, we stayed in a tundra lodge – a small “train” that is parked out on the Hudson Bay shoreline in the midst of bear territory.  It had sleeping cars, a lounge, and a dining car, and no one sets foot on the ground.  There are steel mesh open platforms between each car, and occasionally a bear would hang out underneath.  20161022-2541-tundra-lodge-1-rThe bears are curious about the rovers and the lodge probably because they see them as big cans of meat.  If they could get one open, they’d have a pretty good meal.

In addition to the bears, we spotted two snowy owls…20161021-2528-snowy-owl-open-beak-2-r…arctic fox, a black morph of a red fox, snow buntings, and lots of ptarmigan.20161022-2688-ptarmigan-in-willow-2-rWe saw some solitary bears, but my favorites were the mothers and cubs.20161023-3146-three-sleepy-polar-bears-rIn one instance we spotted a mother with two cubs that ran from another mother and single cub, though we couldn’t see any overt signs of aggression between them.  20161023-2825-polar-bear-cubs-running-r20161023-2860-polar-bear-cub-prairie-dogging-2-rThe little family that napped and snuggled together was my absolute favorite, and we were fortunate to watch them for a nice long time.20161023-3012-polar-bear-peace-rAs a knitter traveling with friends to a chilly place, I had to make some appropriate hats to keep us warm while watching the bears, so I found a pattern for polar bear hats…20161024-2743-us-in-churchill-r…and they worked pretty well.  Our adventure on the tundra was much too short, but we had a great time and we met a number of exceptionally nice people.

Living in Alaska makes us more aware of the impacts of climate change – coastal communities in our state that depend on sea ice formation to protect them from winter storms are now pounded by waves and residents will have to relocate.  Warmer temperatures are causing plants and animals to move farther north, competing with native species and dramatically changing the balance.  Arctic species are threatened more and more literally every day, and as a nation we must take a leadership role in addressing the man-made impacts.  We have a responsibility to protect our planet so our children and grandchildren can see polar bears and other arctic animals in their lifetimes.

From Mansions to Bison

Spending time catching up with our boating friends Mary and Bill was a real treat, and we especially enjoyed seeing some familiar New England places through the eyes of locals.  After our perfect day at Mystic we headed to the corner of Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound for a picnic lunch.20161019-2390-newport-rocky-fishing-2-r

Fortunately the winds were light so the breakers weren’t too frisky, but it was fun to imagine what it would look like there on a stormy day!  We’re “water people” at heart, and it felt good to sit by the sea and look out on waters where we’ve traveled with ADVENTURES.  After our picnic we headed over to Newport, RI – a very pretty town, though on our previous stops we always found it to be too expensive and crawling with arrogant young racing sailors.  We were thrilled to have our friends show us a different side of things – the Cliff Walk.20161019-2403-newport-mansions-rNewport is famous for its mansions as well as for sailing, and the Cliff Walk is a public easement along the rocky shoreline in front of many of the amazing mansions.  20161019-2419-newport-cliff-walk-mansion-rOnce again we had a perfect day to enjoy the views since a more typical autumn day could bring cold wind off the ocean and crashing breakers that would get the trail wet.  The mansions were amazing – such varied styles and sheer numbers of them!  Many were under renovation now that the summer season is over and the wealthy families have retreated to warmer climes.  It’s a great trail – sometimes level, sometimes paved, sometimes comprised of huge boulders, even a tunnel, but always a great view. 20161019-2412-newport-cliff-walk-tunnel-rThe tide was going out so we could see all the rocks just off the shore – treacherous to navigate in the days before we had good charts!20161019-2414-newport-cliff-walk-rockweed-rIt was another perfect day, ending with a walk on the beach in Narragansett – amazed at all the locals who were swimming in that chilly water!

But we were in Rhode Island to see Mary and Bill for another reason – to go to the shores of the Hudson Bay in Canada to see polar bears!winnipeg-churchill-mapThe title of this post mentioned bison, not polar bears… so let me explain.  One of the southernmost places to see polar bears is Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay.  Churchill sits at a little notch in the land where the sea ice forms earlier than on any other part of the Bay.  Polar bears live on the ice – that’s where they hunt for their primary prey (seals), and they congregate near Churchill at this time of the year waiting for the ice to form.  We’ve always wanted to see polar bears and happily discovered that Mary and Bill did too.  To make it more interesting, Mary lived in Churchill for 2 years as a young girl since her Dad was doing research for the Army there.

In order to get to Churchill, we have to fly to Winnipeg (the orange label in the middle of the map).  Winnipeg sits on the prairie and is a crossroads for trading, with the Red and Assiniboine Rivers converging there, as well as railroads.  We spent an extra day to tour the city and learn a little more about the area… and one extra day was not enough!  The Forks (where the two rivers converge) was interesting – a place where aboriginal people have been meeting and trading for over 6000 years, later joined by Scottish settlers, European fur traders, railroad workers, buffalo hunters, and many other immigrants.20161021-2426-winnipeg-sculpture-at-the-forks-rThe National Human Rights Museum is located in Winnipeg – a dramatic building that we didn’t have time to visit.  The Manitoba Museum is terrific – we could have spent several days going through it all.  We learned about the French side of town, and saw the edifice that remains from the St. Boniface Cathedral which burned down in 1968.20161021-2428-winnipeg-st-boniface-rWe stopped to see the Provincial Legislature building – very pretty, with huge bison sculptures in the lobby and a beautiful dome.20161021-2439-winnipeg-legislature-bison-1-r20161021-2441-winnipeg-legislature-ceiling-2-rAnd because bison were so important to the history of the region, we had to see some real ones.  This herd is habituated to a small bus that visits their field.  They really are massive creatures!20161021-2454-winnipeg-bison-rAnd I particularly liked this one – dare to be different!20161021-2459-winnipeg-bison-twisted-horn-r

A Porcupine on the Tarmac

As usual I’m running behind, but my latest excuse is that we’re traveling… and not in our usual way (taking our home with us).  This trip involves an actual airplane, though the flight from Petersburg to Seattle was slightly delayed because they had to chase a porcupine off the tarmac.  How very Alaskan.

We flew to the east coast for a multi-stop trip to visit some family and friends, and for some other adventures that I’ll save for the next posts.  It’s a mix of wonderful things and difficult things as we spend time with people very close to us who are confronting grim illnesses.  It’s hard to keep going forward with our plans and adventures while people we love are struggling so much.  We will be there for them when they really need us, and in the meantime we want to make as much of our own time here on earth as we can – it’s not an easy balance to find.  I’ll keep the blog focused on the upbeat interesting things, but our hearts and minds and prayers remain focused on the people we love.

Hurricane Matthew rearranged our plans and the plans of many other people, causing the cancellation of the DeFever Rendezvous.  Fortunately no one that we know suffered any major damage or impact from the storm.  Eventually we made it up to Rhode Island to link up with boating friends, and we got to spend a couple of days exploring New England with glorious fall color and unseasonably warm temps.  First stop:  Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.20161018-2368-mystic-lighthouse-rMystic is a living, working seaport museum focused on the whaling and trading history of the area.  I remember going there with my parents as a little girl several times – always a favorite place with great memories.  Jim and I have been there twice with our boat, which was beyond my wildest childhood dreams – so special.  We love it there, and we even spent time there the day after we got engaged.  Boats are in my blood.  Now we got to go there again with friends on a beautiful day – perfect.20161018-2363-mystic-brilliant-stern-horiz-rWe checked out various demonstrations, stopped by to see one of my two favorite boats there – the BRILLIANT (the other one – a Sandbagger, was already tucked away for winter), and we climbed up to the deck of the CHARLES W. MORGAN to see how the renovation is coming along.20161018-2353-mystic-sanding-the-morgan-rThe MORGAN is 133′ long, built in 1841 for whaling.  Imagine the challenges of maintaining such a huge wooden vessel!  She’s almost ready to go back in the water, and she recently had a successful test and short cruise in Long Island Sound.  20161018-2337-mystic-whale-boat-rThe other special treat was getting to see the Viking longship Draken Harald Harfagre that sailed across the Atlantic from Norway to the U.S. this past summer.20161018-2372-mystic-viking-ship-fwd-side-rWe missed the lecture from the ship’s captain about the history of the longships and about the Draken’s voyage, but it was still neat to see her and to get a closer look at the traditional clinker-planked construction.  There were carved designs at both ends, and the dragon on the bow was most impressive.20161018-2324-viking-ship-figurehead-rLiving in Alaska’s Little Norway and having Norwegian ancestors (my great-grandfather came from Mandel Norway), it was special to experience a little Viking heritage on a sunny day in Connecticut.  They also had a smaller longboat on display, and we noticed how similar it is in shape to the Tlingit log canoes.  The construction is completely different, but the length to beam ratio and high ends were remarkably close.20161018-2357-mystic-viking-small-boat-bill-mary-jim-r

Autumn Changes

It always surprises me to see how quickly the weather patterns change from summer to fall up here.  18+ hours of daylight at the Summer Solstice is now about 10 hours, and we’re losing daylight at the rate of about 5 minutes per day.  Strong weather fronts start coming in off the Gulf of Alaska, and it’s not the nicest time to be out on the water if you don’t have to.  The good news?  It’s now dark enough to see the aurora borealis on a clear night, and when the aurora activity is far enough south.  20160919-2159-sept-aurora-1-ps-rThe aurora wasn’t too bright this particular evening but it was still pretty to see, with Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) and the north star – the symbols on Alaska’s flag – just above the green light.

The end of the summer cruising season gave us a chance to make a change to ADVENTURES – something we’ve been considering for a long time:  a bulbous bow.  Without going into lots of technical detail, suffice it to say that a bulbous bow is a rounded protrusion under the water that helps break waves and improves efficiency.  It doesn’t look like it would do all that, but it does very effectively.

DeFever-designed boats perform very well in the ocean, though they are known to “hobby horse” when waves are directly on the bow – we get a lively ride in a head sea.  We’ve been interested in a bulbous bow to help dampen that motion, more than to improve speed or fuel economy but we never though we’d find someone with the knowledge and experience to scale a bulbous bow for a boat of our size… until we met Steve Keller in Wrangell.  We asked our commercial fishermen friends and they all spoke highly of bulbous bows and of Steve’s work.  Jim did his own deep dive into the science and math of bulbous bows, comparing his findings with Steve’s recommendations.  Everything matched up, so we decided to take the plunge.

Here are a few photos of the process and the final result – spare us the snarky comments about what it looks like.  Boats are known as “she”, and… we like to think of ourselves as more “transgender” now.

We started out with a 10′ long, 3′ diameter fiberglass cylinder 3/4″ thick and weighing 700 lbs. 20160906-1645-bulb-cylinder-alignment-resizeThere was a LOT of leveling, measuring, marking, re-measuring, test cutting, and more re-measuring before the final cuts were made to make the cylinder fit snugly to the curved sides of ADVENTURES’ bow.20160908-001-cut-down-cylinder-faired-resizeIn the photo above, the 10′ long cylinder is still 10′ long… but most of that length is on either side of the bow, and only a couple of feet extend beyond the bow at the top.

A large ball buoy was inflated to fit the end of the cylinder, and used to mold the dome.20160908-1673-ball-buoy-mold-resizeI’m skipping over a lot of intermediate steps, but here’s the cylinder and dome mated together and fiberglassed to our hull.20160912-2054-bulb-rThe overall weight of this addition is over 900 lbs, carefully calculated by weighing the original cylinder, weighing the big pieces cut out of it, and keeping track of the yards of fiberglass cloth and gallons of resin used to construct everything.  It’s important that the finished bulb doesn’t make the boat ride lower at the bow – instead we want it to be neutrally buoyant or very slightly positively buoyant.  There is a lot of math that goes into scaling and balancing a bulbous bow like this, on top of the skill to construct it.

Our bulb has both air and water chambers to achieve the proper buoyancy.  Steve constructed a bulkhead inside the bulb to trap enough air in the aft section to offset the weight of the fiberglass as well as the weight of the water that will be carried in the front section.  The dome end of the bulb has two 2″ holes drilled in it (top and bottom) to allow water in it so it’s not too buoyant.  This really was a fascinating project.

This is the final result, after sanding and fairing, epoxy barrier coating, and bottom painting.  The native style eagle head was Jim’s idea – he drew it, created a large-scale stencil for it, and painted it on each side of the bulb with black bottom paint.  Pretty spiffy!20160915-2126-bulb-proud-bulb-artist-r20160916-2135-bulb-emerging-from-the-shed-rThe whole process took about 10 days, and living in a boat yard shed with all the grinding and sanding dust was not fun, but the guys were great to work with and the project was a good intellectual challenge.  We’re very pleased with the result.

Now we just need lots of sea time with the new bulbous bow to see how the boat’s ride will change.  We cruised the 40 miles back to Petersburg, and it was the one time we were disappointed in having flat calm water!  The biggest wave we could find was a ferry wake, so we’ll have to wait until the cruising season starts in the spring to really give the new bulb a thorough workout.  We definitely saw a big speed improvement, and felt some differences in the ride.  Docking is a little different now – with the extension up front the boat doesn’t want to make sharp 90 degree turns the same as before, so it will take some practice to see how much more rudder to use and where to line up.  We’re really looking forward to the boating season starting up again in the spring, especially now that we have a new “toy” to experiment with, and an improvement in ride when the sea is on our nose (as often happens in the long channels that funnel the wind up here).

End of Summer in Glacier Bay

Since we were back in Glacier Bay at the end of August for the Tribal House dedication we just had to spend some days enjoying the wilderness, especially with fewer visitors that late in the summer.20160821-1171-gbnp-burgee-view-rWe stopped at one of the big Steller sea lion haul-outs and we weren’t disappointed – there were hundreds of sea lions barking, groaning, napping, frolicking, and fussing at one another.  20160821-1304-gbnp-sea-lions-jabba-young-yell-r(We call that big one in the middle Jabba the Hut – if you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ll understand.)

The kittiwakes were still sitting on their cliff side nests, but the puffin burrows were empty – most of the puffins have returned to their life at sea.  A few were hanging around, but not many.20160821-1354-gbnp-tufted-puffin-rOn our way into the North Sandy anchorage, we spotted this sea otter eating a large orange something… we finally figured out that it was a good sized basket star.  They are absolutely adorable animals, but they will decimate all the sea life in an area in short order – so with no predators to control their numbers they are a problem.20160821-1366-gbnp-sea-otter-basket-star-1-r

We didn’t have the best weather for the next few days, though that doesn’t slow us down much.  We spotted the same brown bear and her three cubs from last summer, wandering along the shore and up a creek.  Last year we weren’t that hopeful for one of the cubs – he was pretty small compared to his siblings, but there he was – still a little smaller but healthy.  Rangers at the Park Headquarters confirmed that it was the same bear family.  It was pouring down rain so we couldn’t get any decent photos, but sometimes it’s good to just watch and enjoy.  Right around the corner from the bears in the creek we found some mountain goats on the cliffs, so we watched them for a while, in the rain.

The clouds obscured the distant Fairweather mountain range but they diffused the late day sunlight as we cruised farther up-bay to the Reid Glacier.20160821-1192-gbnp-sunset-mtns-2-rThe Reid Glacier is somewhat smaller than the most popular tidewater glaciers in the park, but we love going there since we can anchor in the cove created by the terminal moraine and spend time enjoying our own personal, private glacier.  One morning a skiff came in carrying about 6-8 people, and they cruised close to the face of the glacier.  It’s a great way to get some perspective on how big this “smaller” glacier really is!20160821-1379-gbnp-reid-glacier-r20160821-1377-gbnp-reid-glacier-closest-dinghy-rWe got the kayaks down and paddled ashore – we had been stuck aboard for a number of days and we were anxious to hike around and stretch our legs.  We always expect the temperature to be cooler around the glaciers, but the nip of fall was definitely in the air.20160822-1216-gbnp-jim-kayaks-reid-rLater in the afternoon I took the kayak all the way up to the glacier’s face at high tide, getting a close look at the details in the ice as well as the beautiful colors.20160822-1266-gbnp-reid-blue-ice-close-r20160822-1254-gbnp-reid-ice-cleft-blue-rThe colors don’t look real, but they are – the blue comes from ice that is so dense it absorbs every wavelength of light except blue.  So many shades of blue!  I loved getting so close, but I had to be mindful of calving ice.  Glaciers are neat to just listen to – they groan and pop and crack, and there’s always the sound of water – dripping meltwater and rushing, roaring melt streams coming out from underneath.  They may move slowly but they’re certainly active.

On our last evening in the park we finally had a nice sunset.  So many places in southeast Alaska are surrounded by tall mountains so the sun disappears behind them before it gets low enough for us to see that lovely warm light, and living in a rainforest a lot of days are overcast – so we really appreciate a nice sunset when we get one.20160826-1604-gbnp-sunset-r