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.


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.

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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.