Hot Springs, Orcas and Rain

The weather has definitely changed its pattern after the warm, dry, sunny May, June and early July.  The rainforest has gotten too dry so rain is welcome from that standpoint, but it makes for a soggy experience for us and our visiting friends.  Fortunately the misty clouds hanging on the mountains can be just as beautiful as sunny weather, and our friends have a great attitude about it all.

Coming out of Peril Strait without experiencing any perils, we turned south towards Baranof Warm Springs.  Along the way we spotted a tall dorsal fin – an orca!  As we slowed the boat to watch we noticed a number of them all around us.20150720 8965 orcas 5 rA pair of males with their tall dorsal fins were farther away, but we had a mother and two young orcas right in front of the boat, and others between us and the shore.20150720 9039 orcas 9 r20150720 9000 orcas 12 rThe males started tail-slapping, making huge splashes…20150720 9086 orca tail slap 7 r20150720 9050 orca tail slap 3 r…and then one of them breached – a dramatic sight! 20150720 9072 orca breach 3 closer rWe just drifted with these orcas for about 30 minutes, and we were going crazy trying to figure out where to look – little orcas, groups of orcas, splashy, flashy orcas on all sides.20150720 8981 orcas 3 rEventually the orcas swam off, leaving us breathless.  We’ve seen so many orcas this year, though they are usually a pretty rare sight in Southeast Alaska.

We finally made it to Baranof Warm Springs, a tiny little boardwalk settlement on the east side of Baranof Island, on the opposite site of the island from Sitka, with 5000′ mountains in between.  Warm Springs has a roaring waterfall and a natural hot spring, with a state dock and a little bathhouse where you can enjoy a private soak in a huge metal tub, plumbed to the hot spring, while gazing at the mountains and waterfall.  Alternately you can hike up to the natural hot pools in the woods which sit right next to the top of the waterfalls.20150720 9117 baranof warm springs pool 2 rWe enjoyed a nice soak in the hot water and were happy to stretch our legs after two days underway.  We met some nice Canadians from Victoria on the dock and invited them for cocktails, and we had a good laugh at and with them.  Three people on a 32′ sailboat for weeks can make people a little starved for outside human contact, and they were so desperate to talk to (mostly at) us – it was funny, and we’ve been there ourselves so we understood.

We had a foggy cruise from Warm Springs down to the beautiful Red Bluff Bay, with blue skies above and pea soup in front of us.  Luckily the fog lifted as we wiggled around the islands at the entrance to the bay, and we nosed ADVENTURES right up to the tall  waterfall, always amazed that we can just about get the bow rail in the cascade while still in 150′ of water.  20150723 9195 red bluff bay waterfall r

The whole bay is so pretty – snow capped mountains, a steep bowl cut by tiny silver ribbons of water, and a broad green meadow.  A month earlier we saw lots of brown bears eating grass in that meadow, but now berries are ripe so the bears are up in the woods gorging themselves on a much preferred food source.  The salmon are late this year so the bears have to wait a couple of weeks for fish.  High winds and waves out in Chatham Strait and Frederick Sound kept us an extra day in Red Bluff, but we were quite happy just to kayak and relax.

Sitka

20150709 8951 seiners 1 rOn the way to Sitka we watched the purse seiners dancing around each other, trying to find the salmon.  The fish are coming in late this season because we had an early, warm spring – so the fish stayed in deeper water to keep cool.  The fishing has been slow, but it’s starting to pick up now.  We arrived in Sitka in between openings, so the fleet was in and the docks were jammed with boats.

Sitka has 5 harbors, and it gets a cruise ship or two several days a week so the town was buzzing with activity.  We were docked at the far end of the harbor, away from town, but the extra walking was good for us.20150716 8793 sitka harbor rAfter enjoying so much sunshine over the past month, we paid the price with rainy weather and cooler temperatures – not quite the conditions we wanted for the arrival of our friends Lisa and Tom.  Fortunately they’re real troopers, and rain or no rain we set out to walk the town and take in the sights.

20150717 8800 sitka farmers market 2 r

We lucked out since the farmer’s market was open and we could sample local and regional foods such as reindeer hot dogs and beach asparagus.  Rhubarb is a popular item since it grows so well in SE Alaska.  We noticed that the salmonberries were ripe and plentiful along the walkways, and we enjoyed snacking on them as we explored.  A salmonberry is similar to a raspberry with a milder flavor and an orange-y color.  Arriving in the center of downtown we looked at the Russian Orthodox church and spotted two bald eagles sitting on the cross above the church.  It’s a fun sight since the double eagle is a Russian symbol.

20150717 8807 sitka st michaels church and eagles rWe spent the rainiest time exploring the Sheldon Jackson Museum and the new Sea Life Center, poking around a few of the shops along the way.  The second day was gloomy but not as wet so we headed up to the Alaska Raptor Center to see the work they do rehabilitating eagles and other birds.  The goal is to release birds back into the wild if possible, but the Center will give them a permanent home if they can’t live without assistance.  It’s a great chance to see these magnificent birds up close, and to learn more about them.  Some of the permanent resident birds live in enclosures in the woods, and the easy hike through the woods and the muskeg was a great first introduction to the deep greens, mosses and lichens of the northwest forest.  The bears must be happy because the many types of berry bushes were loaded!

20150718 8925 sitka totems 17 rThe Raptor Center was a highlight, but so was the Totem Park which we had not visited before.  We knew the Park Service had a totem collection, but we had no idea that they would be arranged in little nooks, spread throughout a lovely trail that meandered through the woods.  The totems and interpretations of their symbols were very interesting, representing styles from the three different tribes in the region: Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.  Bears, beavers, eagles, ravens, wolves, frogs, orcas, and humans are all common images to find on these poles, but the arrangement and placement can have significance to either tell a story or commemorate or memorialize a person.  The totems are cared for as well as possible, but the Natives who carve them expect them to have a finite life, and they will carve other poles to replace ones that age away.20150718 8906 sitka totems 12 r

20150718 8915 sitka totems 22 r20150718 8905 sitka totems 13 rA raven, one of the Tlingit moiety symbols, flew overhead with a bit of salmon – an appropriate omen after gazing at all the totems.20150718 8927 raven 2 rA local Tlingit lady was showing some costumes and beading techniques at the Park’s Visitor Center, and we enjoyed talking with her and learning a bit more about the meaning of various parts of their traditional dress.  It was a nice introduction to Alaska for our friends, and some new discoveries for us.

Hoonah, Tenakee Springs, and Peril Strait

20150708 8742 hoonah troller misty morn rWe had some glorious days in Glacier Bay, but it was time to leave and look for new adventures.  Hoonah is a good place to stop – it’s not too far from Glacier Bay National Park and we pass by some prime whale feeding spots on the way.  We were just in Hoonah a few weeks ago, but we were quite happy to return to see if there was any action in the eagle’s nest (none) and to visit the wonderful Tlingit carvers.  Throw in lunch at Chipper Fish and it’s a great day all around. Just as we sat down to wait for our lunches to come out, a great kerfuffle erupted on the street and a crazy parade trooped right by the window of the restaurant!  It was the New Old Time Chautauqua performing group!  We had read about them visiting Petersburg after we left, and we were sad to have missed them… so here was our chance!  20150708 8702 new old chitaqua 9 rThis group is all-volunteer who tour around various parts of the Pacific Northwest each summer, performing, amazing, and entertaining children of all ages.  The community had a pot-luck dinner for the performers, and the Hoonah Tlingit did some traditional dances to return the favor.  We enjoyed the parade and sample acts, and we joined the townspeople in the high school gym that evening to watch the full show.  Wonderful, fun, and funky!20150708 8717 new old chitaqua 4 rIt was nice to have some cell phone service and a little Internet to catch up on the world before we headed back out into Chatham Strait to check out new place for us – Tenakee Springs.  Tenakee is a very small community with about 65 people who live there year round, and it’s known for its hot springs.  20150709 8756 tenakee springs rThe hot springs are piped into a bath house building, and the community decided to organize things so there are set hours for men and women.  We prefer the more flexible and private setting at Baranof Warm Springs so we didn’t partake, but we enjoyed walking down the little main “street” (dirt road) and seeing everyone’s flowers and gardens.  In addition to the hot springs, Tenakee is known for the ATVs that everyone uses to get around.  Even the ambulance and “fire truck” are ATVs.20150709 8784 tenakee ambulance and fire atvs rThe ambulance is the boxy ATV on the right, and the fire response is the trailer behind the ATV on the left.  There’s also a fire house – we’re not sure what’s hiding behind the funny garage door.20150709 8772 tenakee vfd rThe Post Office in town also has its own Postal ATV, which is parked right next to the seaplane dock and the helipad.20150709 8757 tenakee postal atv rI’m not sure how much of a real threat of tsunami there is in Tenakee, but we appreciated the sign on the community bulletin board:20150709 8769 tenakee tsunami sign r20150709 8760 tenakee teacup planters rWe found a very small grocery store stocked with all kinds of fabulous gourmet treats, as well as a large shed with an open doorway that serves as a community book, video, and clothing exchange.  The bakery in town is famous for its cinnamon rolls, and of course we docked right after they closed, so we delayed our departure in the morning so we could get some fresh hot treats – first out of the pan!

From Tenakee we headed back out into Chatham Strait and then turned west into Peril Strait – a not very perilous place to travel, though there are some strong currents in a few spots that require attention, and one place where we have to wait for slack current to pass safely in order to get to Sitka – our next port of call, and a place where we can restock groceries and enjoy some meals out.

Glacier Bay Part 3 – The Finale

20150705 8273 adventures at reid r20150705 8466 semipalmated plover 2 rWith the concentration of wildlife and grand scenery at every turn it’s easy to get “overstimulated” in Glacier Bay, and after days of constant excitement I start to feel pretty wiped out.  After watching the nursing brown bear, mountain goats, and glacier hike with the black bear all in a day and a half, I needed a little down-time so I put the kayak in the water and grabbed a camera to photograph some wading birds on the nearby shore.  This semi-palmated plover really blended in with the gravel beach, and the least sandpiper was even harder to spot, though there were several in the area.20150705 8304 least sandpiper 3 r20150705 8265 arctic tern rBlack oystercatchers were napping in the shade of a big rock, and a kittiwake flew overhead, chirping at me so I must have been getting too close to its camouflaged nest.  I paddled to a different part of the shoreline but some arctic terns started raising a big fuss and dive-bombing me – at one point I only had the camera to defend myself, waving it in the air to keep the bird away.  As soon as they flew off I moved away from the shore since I suspect this was another case of defending a nest close by.  So much for a relaxing paddle!

There were some interesting rock formations across the cove which looked like a more benign place to paddle and unwind.  As I was half-way across the cove I heard a loud, sharp exhale and a big splash…20150705 8316 orca 3 tail slap r…orcas blowing and tail-slapping!  In some parts of the Pacific Northwest orcas are more common, but in SE Alaska it’s a real treat to see them.  We had been hearing reports of sightings in Glacier Bay over the past week and we spotted a lone male several days earlier, but this was a small group right in our cove.  The sheer rock walls amplified their loud exhales (“blow”) so it sounded like they were all around, though they’re easy to see with their striking black and white coloring.20150705 8351 orcas 8 rWhen I’m paddling in an area where whales are present I periodically slap the side of my kayak to alert them to my presence, since humpbacks use passive listening rather than the more common echo locating that other types of whales and dolphins use.  As I slapped the kayak in response to hearing blowing I realized that the orcas are echo locaters so they probably were already aware of me, and I began to wonder what they might do, and if the slapping would attract them (not a desirable thing, I think).  I got a little nervous every time they disappeared for a few minutes, wondering where they might reappear.  The first sign that they’re back on the surface is the sharp sound of their blow, and I was a comfortable distance from them as they dove and surfaced.  Until…20150705 8415 orcas scary close r…they appeared about 30′ away from me, and I couldn’t un-zoom the lens fast enough.  The sound of their blow so close was quite startling, and my heart was pounding as I wondered if they might decide my kayak was a plaything.  They just came over to either give me a little scare or to just say hello before they began moving out of the cove towards the wider bay.20150705 8422 orca and mountains 2 rWhile all this was happening I was hoping the rest of the crew aboard ADVENTURES heard or saw the orcas, and I felt badly that I didn’t have a radio with me to alert them.  Sure enough, when I asked if they saw the orcas they thought I was joking until I showed them the photos.  Pounding heart PLUS guilt!

We saved the big dramatic glacier experience for last, waking up to another bright sunny day for a visit to the Johns Hopkins Glacier.  Last year, the inlet to the Johns Hopkins was always choked with brash ice and we couldn’t get very close, but this year the inlet was wide open and we had the morning sun to light the eastern-facing glacier.  This is part of the Johns Hopkins and the smaller Gilman Glacier.20150706 8559 gilman and jh glaciers rSeals were scattered on the brash ice near the face of the glacier, and we’re only allowed into this inlet by the Rangers after the seal pupping season has ended.20150706 8670 seals and brash ice rThe seals swam behind us, always shy, and diving when we turned to look at them.  We really enjoyed the beautiful warm day, and Hank (the consummate Floridian!) was in bare feet on the bow while Jim scooped up a small piece of glacier ice to look at.  We had to navigate around a few bergy bits, and we marveled at the shapes and colors of the ice.20150706 8576 bergy chunk rWe stopped by the Lamplugh Glacier (my favorite) for a few last glacier photos before we headed back down the bay.20150706 8626 adventures and ice r

Glacier Bay Part 2 – Two Amazing Days

On the Fourth of July we awoke to blue skies and sunshine – a good omen to start the day’s exploration of Glacier Bay.  Our plan was to head up to Tidal Inlet to look for bears, do a slow pass by Gloomy Knob to look for mountain goats, head through Russell Pass to look for the wolf that had been sighted recently, and then anchor just off the Reid Glacier for some hiking.  Otters and whales and eagles kept us company as we cruised towards Tidal Inlet, where there is a wide gravel flat cut by streams.  It’s a good place to look for bears, and luck was with us – we spotted a brown bear sitting with a little cub running all around her, frolicking.  The bears were a good distance away from us, but we nosed ADVENTURES close to shore and watched until our shoulders ached from holding up binoculars.  The sow started walking across the gravel delta, crossing the largest stream with ease while her cub bounced along behind her until he got to the deep rushing water and hesitated.  Momma bear kept walking and didn’t look back – a bit of “tough love” – and the cub finally took the plunge into the fast moving water and struggled across.  After a good shake, he caught up with his mom and they disappeared into the woods.

Light winds allowed us to just drift in the deep waters of Tidal Inlet for a little lunch break, and then we rounded the corner towards another beach and Gloomy Knob to see what else we could find.  We had heard reports on the radio about sightings of a brown bear sow with three cubs over the past week, but the last report was for a spot farther north than where we were.  It’s unusual for a bear to have three cubs so these bears are of great interest to the Rangers.

Approaching the beach with ADVENTURES, I was almost ready to start turning away when Jim yelled “Stop!!”.  There, on the beach, was a big brown bear laying down for a nap.20150704 7891 sow 3 beach head up closer rThe bear would occasionally look around, but then put its head back down on its paws and go back to sleep.  As we nosed the boat closer, we started to see some rocks that were decidedly furry, and realized that we had found the sow with the three cubs – YOWZA!

From a distance of about 150′ and the safety of the tall bow of ADVENTURES, we watched this little family napping and snuggling together, and then sitting up.20150704 7941 sow 3 little family 2 rThe sow looked all around, didn’t pay any attention to us, and then walked a short distance to another spot on the beach…20150704 7965 sow 3 wait for me r…where she flopped down on the ground on her back, clearly a very tired mother.  Talking with one of the Rangers a few days later, she commented on how large this bear’s claws are… as you can see.20150704 7971 sow 3 tired mom nursing rThe cubs eagerly began to nurse as we sat in awe of this incredible sight.  She cuddled and stroked each cub with one of her paws while they nursed – so tender and gentle.20150704 7986 sow 3 nursing snuggle rReluctantly we left the little family to nurse and nap, speechless at our good fortune to see such a sight to make our July Fourth a memorable one.

Rounding the corner to cruise slowly along a scoured cliff called Gloomy Knob, we were looking to see if there was any activity by an eagle’s nest when we spotted several mountain goats – nannies and kids!20150704 8001 mtn goat nanny and kid rThe nanny in the photo above was shedding her coat, and I could just imagine the wonderful sweaters that I could knit with that wool.20150704 8036 mtn goat blue background2 rHigher up there was another nanny and kid, and the little goat was really struggling to find a way down to its mother.  It eventually did climb down to her, learning to be brave on the steep rocks as mountain goats need to be able to do.20150704 8038 mtn goat kid rWe were hoping for a wildlife trifecta and that our good luck would reward us with a sighting of a wolf, but that remains an elusive animal on our wish lists.  Capping off the day we dropped the anchor in a little bay by the Reid Glacier.  It’s a great treat to be able to watch the changing look of the ice as the sun moves across the sky.  After a good night’s sleep and a chance to rest our tired shoulders (from holding binoculars all day), we were ready for some hiking.

20150705 8239 fab four at reid rAlong with friends Hank and Nancy, we anchored the dinghy on the rocky shore and hiked across a landscape that was scoured by the glacier as it retreated over time.  Snow and ice melting create many little cascades and streams, and fireweed and a few other flowers are starting to grow, pioneer plants putting nitrogen back into the ground which will eventually help larger plants and trees to establish themselves on the rough terrain.20150705 8221 hiking at reid rOur goal was to climb to the side edge of the glacier and touch the ice, and we were able to scamper up on the ice, investigating rocks that were carried great distances as the glacier traveled, perched on top of the glacier looking very out of place.  We continued to have perfect weather – clear blue skies and light winds, and it’s not usual to have such a long string of dry sunny weather in a rainforest.

As we were heading back towards the dinghy, we spotted a black bear down on the beach.20150705 8225 black bear at reid rThe bear was a good distance away, and we were excited to see more wildlife, especially in the stark landscape.  Jim was ahead of us, scouting a path over the rocks and down towards the dinghy when the bear decided that it preferred the same path that Jim wanted, and it started to walk up towards him.  Jim clapped his hands and talked to the bear to make sure it realized that humans were present, and the bear veered off and took a higher trail.  As the bear rounded the boulders it could see three of us standing together – you can see it perked its ears up…20150705 8227 black bear at reid looking r…and as soon as it got a good look at us, it hustled away.20150705 8230 black bear scampering at reid rI would say that those might be the best two days we’ve ever spent here in SE Alaska so far, in terms of wildlife encounters.

But then I decided to go for a little paddle in the kayak to photograph some birds along the shoreline, and had another wildlife adventure… that story will have to wait until the next post.

Glacier Bay – Part 1

Ah… Glacier Bay National Park.  It’s an amazing place with a very high density of wildlife on top of wonderful scenery and plenty of glaciers – something for everyone.  The entire Park is the size of Connecticut, though the area we were exploring is the main section with two long “arms”, each more than 50 miles long.  The Park controls the number of boats via a free permit system (so its popularity doesn’t cause crowding), and upon first entry you have to stop at the Ranger Station for a mandatory boater’s briefing, covering the rules for not interfering with humpback whales and seal pupping areas, as well as how to get weather information and assistance.  Once we completed the briefing we were back aboard and ready to head “up bay”.  First stop:  South Marble Island to see the Steller sea lions, puffins, nesting gulls and kittiwakes and cormorants.  It was a breezy day, and as we loitered near the sea lion haulouts the aroma of sea lion habitat wafted over us.20150703 7741 gbnp steller sea lions r20150628 7230 gbnp steller sea lions rThey bark, groan, moan, and generally fuss at each other in between lots of napping.  We saw a few gigantic beachmasters, but we love to watch the younger ones playing in the water.20150703 7760 three sea lions rI photographed two different sea lions that had a number marked into their fur, and shared them with the Park biologist who was happy to get a report of their condition and location.  There’s a lot of science that goes on in the Park every day, and visitors report interesting sightings to the Rangers to contribute to the effort.

After enjoying the noise and aroma of sea lions, we eased towards the cliff where a lot of puffins congregate… but not before we had a visit from a humpback – awesome!20150703 7749 whale tail sunny day 2 rThe tufted puffins were preening and primping, shaking their heads and flipping their golden tresses around – the tufts are present during breeding season.  20150628 7341 puffin shaking 2 r20150628 7394 puffin 8 rThese sea birds spend most of the year on the ocean, except in summer when they dig burrows in cliffs to raise their young.  They’re just adorable little birds, and we watched them for a long time.20150628 7361 puffin on cliff nest mouth open rKittiwakes and some gulls also nest on the cliffs, clinging to the rock face.20150628 7429 gulls in cliff nessts rCormorants were plentiful along with the other birds, and I even spotted one horned puffin among all the tufted ones.

20150628 7203 mergansers in flight rThere are a group of islands not far from South Marble where only non-motorized boats are allowed, and I’ve always wanted to explore the area by kayak.  Jim generously offered to drop me off on one side of the island group, and then meet me on the other side a few hours later – what a great opportunity!  Unfortunately the wind picked up and it was against me for the entire time, but I saw sea otters and lots of seals (“rubberheads”), as well as huge flocks of birds.  I love the otters with pups, clutching their little “mini-me” to their chests.20150701 7656 sea otter and pup 3 r I expected to see more deer or bears or maybe a wolf on land, but it was very quiet.  A few of the islands are nesting areas for different birds, so I kept my distance from those.  It was a long paddle against the wind but I was happy to explore some new territory, and Jim saw some whales and otters on his trip with the big boat around to the other side.

Any exploration of the western arm of the bay has to include a slow pass by Gloomy Knob, a bare mountain that comes right down to the water’s edge – we can bring ADVENTURES quite close to it since the water is so deep.  Our shoulders ached after holding binoculars up for so many hours, but we were skunked – no mountain goats, no bears, and only one eagle near a nest.  We heard reports on the radio of a wolf sighting farther north near Russell Pass, so we headed up there to look… but luck wasn’t on our side.  We also heard reports on the radio of orca sightings, so we hugged the shoreline near the reported area.  The rumored 5-7 orcas weren’t around, but we finally spotted one lone male cruising around.20150630 7614 orca fin rThe male orca has a very tall dorsal fin – 5-6′, so it really stands out!  While there are many humpbacks in the bay (as well as all over SE Alaska), orcas are far less common to see.

We chose a new anchorage for the night, and were focused on navigating across a narrow area between two rocky bars.  As we got closer to the shoreline, I spotted a large brown bear on the point – but I couldn’t watch him – I had to pay attention.  As we slowed down to navigate the entrance channel, I saw the bear swimming across the channel – in our path.  He came towards ADVENTURES, but as we got closer he turned around and swam back the way he came until we passed.  Then he resumed his 3/4 mile swim from the island back to the mainland.  Fantastic!20150630 7622 gbnp swimming brown bear close rThere are more tales (tails?) from Glacier Bay to share… stay tuned.