Bears, Bears, Bears

The miserable rainy weather continued and the wind and waves in the ocean were ugly, so we headed northwards in the protection of Peril Strait.  We had a lot of quiet time with all those rainy days, though at one point I dressed in my foulies and went out in the kayak despite the pouring rain.  As we headed north into Chatham Strait the weather started to ease and dry out a bit – some relief!  Pulling into an anchorage one day we remembered that it has a big stream that was probably full of salmon right now… meaning that we were likely to see bears too.  20160815 0737 pavlov bear 39 chase r

20160815 0735 pavlov bear 41 chase r

20160815 0692 pavlov bear 27 fish r

This is the time of the year when the best food is available to the bears, and they have a short time to eat as much as they can before the long winter sets in.  For the bears, a salmon stream is all about survival so we make sure we stay far enough away so we don’t alter the bear’s feeding behavior.

We sat for hours over two days, watching as many as 7 bears feeding in the stream.  Low tide seemed best, with mothers (sows) teaching their cubs to fish or sharing their catch.20160816 0901 pavlov sow 2yr cubs 2 r20160816 0979 pavlov sow 1yr cubs fish 3 rAt one point, a sow with cubs got into a fight with another sow.  The cubs retreated to shore and the two sows stood their ground, growling, baring teeth, and snapping at each other.  I will confess that the growling made my shutter finger shake!20160816 0913 pavlov sow fight 7 r20160815 0700 pavlov bear 26 teeth close rThere was so much action in the stream that it was hard to know where to focus the cameras – the bear running after a fish on the right, the sows fighting in the middle, or the cubs sitting on the shore.  These two cubs are 2nd year cubs, meaning that they were born in February-March of 2015.  20160816 0935 pavlov 2yr cubs sitting funny rWe also saw 1st year or spring cubs, born during hibernation this past winter.  20160816 1053 pavlov 1yr cub close rOne of the days we were watching for a while and the tide had fallen quite a bit during that time.  With so many bears in the stream and the bear pecking order re-sorting itself as various bears came and went, a good-sized bear started moving towards where I was sitting.  She was moving slowly, catching and eating a fish along the way, but she was getting closer.20160815 0875 stella face 2 rI took the photo when she was close enough, just before I had to wave my kayak paddle and talk to her to get her to move off.  She wasn’t threatening in any way, but a bear is a bear.  It seems that I was probably in the way of a path she wanted to take to get to a lower part of the stream, and she was looking to see if she could pass by.  Yes, it took a while for my heart rate to slow down.  I had bear spray at hand in case the situation changed.  People come to that particular spot to view the bears so they are exposed to humans sitting quietly nearby at this time of the year.

Our butts were pretty sore from sitting in the kayak or on rocks for two long days watching the bears, but it was worth every second!


After our adventures in Kalinin Bay we decided that it was time to catch up on some laundry and pick up some fresh groceries, so we headed into Sitka for a few days.  We had a happy surprise there, finding our friends Knut and Gerry on the next dock.  Unhappily, the weather was not the best – gloomy and rainy, sometimes raining hard enough that a few fishermen actually broke out the umbrellas!

Although our main reason for stopping was practical, we always enjoy seeing the signs of Russian culture around town, especially the Orthodox church in the town center.20160807 0264 sitka church towers rWe enjoyed lunches or dinners out – always a treat after weeks of eating nothing but our own cooking, and I was happy to visit the yarn shop to see what’s new (though I resisted buying anything this time).  In between chores we decided to re-visit the National Park Service totem park, talking with a Tlingit lady tanning and sewing with various types of fish skins, talking with a master carver whose designs come to him in dreams, and visiting the carving shed where some young guys were working on a log canoe.20160809 0531 sitka totem carvers rThe Tlingit log canoes are carved from a single log, hollowed out by hand using an adze.  Unfortunately this log developed several cracks, and the carvers were spending a lot of time making plugs to repair them.  When a log canoe like this is completed it’s soaked in salt water, then filled with water and extremely hot rocks to steam the wood.  The sides of the canoe are slowly spread apart to make the canoe much wider, also causing the ends to rise up.  It’s time-consuming and requires a lot of work by a lot of people – in the spirit of cooperation that’s integral to the culture of the tribe.

We enjoy seeing all the different totems, and I like to study the many details in each pole’s design.  20160809 0550 sitka big totem r20160809 0563 sitka totem 9 r20160809 0539 sitka totem 4 r20160809 0545 sitka totem 1 rThe rain held off long enough for us to enjoy the totems and a nice walk through the woods, and we even got to see a little bit of the sunset one evening, looking over the harbor.20160807 0265 sitka cloudy sunset 2 r

Rocks, Bears, and Mud

Leaving Pelican, we were once again exploring new territory – something I particularly like for the challenge and the unexpected.  Here’s our path southwards from Pelican down to Portlock Harbor on Chichagof Island.chart yakobi island to portlock hbrEven though we were cruising the ocean or “outside” coast of these big islands, there are a number of routes and passages that offer some protection from the ocean swells.  One such passage requires winding through rocks – which looks pretty daunting on the chart!chart run the rocks closeupThe blue areas are shallow water and all those little asterisks and dots are rocks, yet this is a good passage used by fishing boats all the time.  The worst part was at the beginning when we had to pass very very close to a rocky island, but the depth sounder confirmed that we had plenty of deep water.  Watching the waves breaking on the outer rocks made us glad for the protection of this wiggly passage, and I felt much better about it when we passed a 91′ fishing tender.  Part of the trip we were in the open ocean, and we’ve learned to stay out in deeper water where the waves are smaller.  Our reward was a gorgeous anchorage that we had all to ourselves for a couple of days.  And my first kayak exploration of the creek right in front of us revealed salmon and bears!20160802 0202 bear looking 2 r20160802 0147 didrickson bear encounter rBears have a definite pecking order, and they’re always looking around to check for other bears arriving.  The sow and her two cubs in the background didn’t want to be around with the bear in the foreground, so they scampered back into the woods.

Our favorite was this bear that sat on a rock at low tide for ages, not really hunting for fish… just watching the world go by.20160802 0162 bear on rock stare r20160802 0138 didrickson bear and cubs rWe’ve watched bears long enough to appreciate how expressive they are with their ears – amazing animals.  But the weather was going to change and we had a good window to run further south down the coast.  20160804 0473 baranof ocean view rWe decided to check out Kalinin Bay on Baranof Island, about 20 miles north of Sitka.20160804 0479 kalinin bay rKalinin Bay, like so many of the anchorages up here, is surrounded by beautiful mountains.  It has a large estuary at the head, and at high tide I could paddle farther up the salmon stream and get even better views.  There were many obvious signs of bear activity on the shoreline – not surprising since it was a good salmon stream.  The fishing would be better for the bears at low tide, though I made sure to be noisy and watchful and carry bear spray.  20160805 0494 kalinin estuary trail rYou can see part of the estuary here, since one of the reasons we came to Kalinin was to hike the trail over the ridge to Sea Lion Cove on the ocean side.  The first section of the trail runs along the estuary and it was a muddy slog, walking next to bear nests and the flattened grass where the bears like to fish.  What we didn’t realize was how steep the trail is – it’s 5 miles round trip, and we figure we hiked about 1500′ in ups and downs each way.  The trail crews even created a nice staircase from huge logs…20160805 0524 kalinin log steps 2 rWhen you hike in bear country, you carry bear spray, stick together, and you make a lot of noise the whole time – bears will very happily avoid you if they know where you are.  We were hoarse from saying “Hey Bear!!” for hours on end, but it’s worth the effort.  Besides, we had a bear escort on the trail – there were rather fresh bear prints in the mud, going the same direction we were, for the entire length of the trail.  That’s Jim’s big hand, for comparison.20160805 0509 kalinin trail bear tracks and hand rThe view at Sea Lion Cove was dramatic – with hundreds of logs flung high up on the beach from vicious storms.20160805 0511 seal cove north 2 rWe’ve heard that the surfing can be good here, and that some people from Sitka will hide their surf boards in the woods.  As we finished the hike we ran into two guys who were heading over the ridge to surf, dragging rather large surfboards with them – I can’t imagine making the difficult hike dragging a surfboard!  Jim found this boogie board and thought about giving it a try…  but he said he forgot his bathing suit.  Maybe next time. 20160805 0523 seal cove surfer jim rIt was an interesting hike, but a hard one with all the vertical and then the muddy finish.  I was so tired by the end that I managed to slip into two deep mud holes – thank goodness we took the kayaks ashore.  I had to hose myself off on the swim platform – such a mess!  We sat an extra day afterwards since the weather was nasty, and then it was time to catch up on some laundry and groceries in Sitka.

A Wolf and Pelican

Sounds like an odd combination of wildlife, eh?  Actually, the title refers to a wildlife sighting and the name of a little town.  Here’s a map of the area we’ve been exploring. Map hoonah gbnp dundas elfin pelicanI included Hoonah and Juneau to help with some landmarks.  You can see Glacier Bay where we enjoyed venturing far up the western arm (almost to the top of the map) and then we headed out towards the ocean to explore some new places.20160728 0066 icy strait clouds over island rWe’ve been wanting to go to Elfin Cove – a tiny boardwalk village tucked in a protected cove just off the ocean, but when we stuck our nose in there we found the dock jammed with fishing boats. 20160730 0367 elfin cove wide rThere’s no good spot to anchor there, so we had to retreat to an anchorage in the Inian Islands where we were pummeled with two days of rain.  We were hoping to get a break in the weather so we could take a long dinghy ride to Elfin Cove and the Hobbit Hole, but there was no way – I couldn’t even kayak.  We got tired of the foggy view so we jumped across North Inian Pass into Dundas Bay (on the map above) – part of Glacier Bay National Park that’s remote and doesn’t require a permit to enter.  We had a brief respite from the rain cruising into Dundas, but by the time the anchor was set the drenching downpours started up for another two days.  The weather broke and we were ready to get moving again, though we got a few treats first.  The best surprise was an early morning sighting of a wolf.20160729 0078 dundas wolf 3 the look 2 rI saw motion out of the corner of my eye as I was scanning the shoreline for wildlife, and he was so camouflaged that I almost didn’t see him.  He stayed in that band of gray rocks, blending in perfectly, and he just glanced in my direction once as he trotted along.  Yowza!  I’ve been wanting to see a wolf ever since we moved up here.

As the sun finally made an appearance, we could see the island near our anchorage more clearly.  20160730 0352 dundas blowdown 2 rNotice anything odd?  …such as the swath of trees that are knocked down?  That’s known as a blow-down, and it’s caused by a blast of strong wind.  There were a few other blow-downs in the bay, and it helps us imagine the fierce power of the fall and winter storms coming off the Gulf of Alaska.  It’s a beautiful bay, worthy of more exploration.20160729 0346 dundas view funny clouds rWe headed back out towards the ocean to make another attempt to visit Elfin Cove, taking a rocky passage just inside the islands to shield us from most of the open ocean, choked with sea lions hunting when the water was turbulent at maximum tidal flow, but nice and calm when we transited near slack water.20160730 0364 gloomy middle passage 2 rOnce again, Elfin Cove’s dock was jammed with boats so we decided to run down the coast of Chichagof Island to Lisianski Inlet to check out the tiny town of Pelican.  Along the way we saw lots of fishing boats, and we spotted one of the big 80-100′ tenders that buy fish from the trollers, re-supplying them with ice, fuel and supplies. 20160730 0087 tendering r20160801 0406 pelican caravan rThe Alexander Archipelago is the name of the collection of islands and channels that make up the panhandle of Alaska – commonly referred to as southeast Alaska, or just “southeast”.  If you look at a bigger map of southeast, you’ll notice that it resembles a shattered windshield – so even the area around the open ocean has many channels that offer some protection.  But these channels are deep – 500-1000′ and sometimes deeper, surrounded by tall mountains.  There are no roads to connect the settlements, accessible only by water or by air.

Pelican used to be a more vibrant community of about 200 people until its cold storage plant closed eight years ago.  Now 40 people are full-time residents, and there were just 9 students in the school last year.  The summer population swells a bit, with staff and visitors to a few fishing lodges – the major economic driver for the town.20160801 0403 pelican rPerched against a mountain, most of the town is built on the edge of the land or over the water, and the main street is a boardwalk.  People run around on ATVs and heavy duty golf carts.20160801 0388 pelican main street rThe big General Store closed when the cold storage was shut down, though some dry goods are available at the Inn where you can also get a mediocre pizza, or you can go next door to the famous Rose’s for a slightly more varied menu in a scruffy, smokey setting.  It doesn’t sound like a great place, but the locals are very friendly, and it’s a beautiful spot.  The people who live here don’t have it easy.  Cuts to the State Ferry service mean that the summer ferry stops once every 5 weeks (less often in the winter), and the costs to ship things in by barge (like groceries) is about $1/lb.

20160730 0251 pelican library sign rThe Library was small but quite good, and I got to meet some of the local ladies at the weekly Sunday afternoon crafting session there.  The town has a small medical clinic, but it was closed with a sign saying that the Physician’s Assistant from Sitka would be there for a day in later August.  If you have an emergency or medical problem, you have to rely on volunteers and/or you take a float plane to Juneau (weather permitting).  And for you fans of the radio show “Car Talk”, we found out where their lawyer’s headquarters are located – it’s here in Pelican!20160801 0383 pelican law office rThere’s no cell service in town, but you can hike up the mountain to the town dump if you want to make a call – except on Mondays, which are trash days.  Trash is burned, and they burn it as soon as it’s collected to keep the bears from hanging around.  Since the salmon were running the town was having some problems with bears on the boardwalk.

We had to make a couple of calls, and we were having trouble with keeping a good signal on the satellite phone with all the tall mountains around, so we hiked up… carrying bear spray and calling out “Hey Bear!” frequently.  You can’t make this stuff up.

We made some new friends in Pelican – custom boat builders from Port Townsend, WA visiting in their gorgeous tug boat, and a couple who live in Pelican who used to own a wood DeFever like ours.  Our new Pelican friends know Petersburg friends (it’s a big place, but a small world), and they invited us up to their lovely home up on the mountainside overlooking the inlet.  We learned a lot more about living in a tiny community from them, as well as living in an area with more numerous and problematic bears.  They’re buying a new boat and we can’t wait to host them in Petersburg when they bring her north in the spring.

We capped off our visit with lunch at the little cafe, a long walk and a shared ice cream.  It’s an odd little place, but we liked Pelican and will definitely be back next season.  Oh, and why is the town named Pelican when there aren’t any of those birds in Alaska?  It was named after the boat of the town’s founder in 1938.20160730 0249 pelican raven totem jim r

Glacier Bay’s Glaciers

After sharing some of our favorite wildlife in Glacier Bay National Park, today’s post is all about the ice.20160718 3763 gbnp decorative ice rGBNP glaciers west armThis map from the Park Service shows all the glaciers in the park that reach water – blue dots indicate salt water and green dots indicate fresh water lakes.  The area circled in red is the west arm of the park that we explored this trip.  There are hundreds of glaciers in the park that no longer reach water, called hanging glaciers like the Hoonah pictured here.20160721 002 hoonah glacier r

The first major glaciers we visited were the Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers – at the top of the red circle above.  Note that the Grand Pacific glacier is now just across the border into Canada.20160718 3779 gbnp marjorie face and jim rThe Margerie is the obvious glacier on the left, and the low dark gray area to the right is the grit-covered Grand Pacific.  About 250 years ago, during the Little Ice Age, the Grand Pacific covered both the east and west arms of the park, all the way down to Icy Strait.20160719 0001 gbnp margerie face close rThere’s something mesmerizing about the ice.  Spires (called seracs) reach to the sky, chunks calve and fall into the water (or break off underwater and shoot to the surface), and the sound of cracking and rumbling remind us that the glacier is really a river of ice that’s constantly flowing down the mountains.  As the mass of ice flows it picks up rocks, grinding and scouring the mountains underneath… embedding streaks of grit in the ice.20160719 0006 gbnp hopkins stripe face rIce with air trapped in it looks white, but ice under pressure turns clear or even blue – an almost fake-looking turquoise color.  The blue ice is so compressed that it absorbs all the colors of the spectrum except blue, which it reflects.20160720 0034 gbnp lamplugh close vert rWe think the most dramatic glacier in the bay is the Johns Hopkins glacier, and we were lucky that the inlet to it was pretty clear of ice so we were able to get fairly close.  The grand view of it is what I love best though – with the rugged mountains behind.20160721 004 hopkins approach rIt’s difficult to grasp the scale of these glaciers, as well as their age and their power.  Standing before them, feeling the cold wind whipping down from the peaks where they begin, hearing their cracking and watching ice calve into the water only hints at what these glaciers are all about.

Sometimes we can get to the side of a glacier and touch it or even climb on it, and that’s the case with the Reid Glacier.20160720 016 reid rushing water and ice rWe can anchor in the basin that was formed by the Reid when it was larger, and take the dinghy to the shoreline near the face.  This rushing river is melt water coming from underneath the glacier.20160720 026 reid glacier edge 2 rBy hiking along the water’s edge we can reach the side of the glacier and get a better view of the alien landscapes on top.  20160720 036 reid top r

Looking back towards the entrance to Reid Inlet you can really see how the glacier scoured the landscape, though some wildflowers and willow are beginning to establish themselves, paving the way for an eventual forest.20160720 010 gbnp reid jim rWe had a little uh-oh moment when we hiked back to the dinghy.  Normally Jim is ridiculous about setting the dinghy anchor so high up on shore that it would take a Biblical flood to cover it.  This time he mis-judged a bit…20160720 051 reid oops rWe had a good laugh about it, and the good news is that the tide was starting to fall so we wouldn’t have more than about an hour to wait… but it was also getting late in the day and we hadn’t had lunch yet!  We suspected the anchor line was caught on a rock, but the opaque water made it impossible to guess where it was.  There was another boat anchored near us, and it turns out that we have mutual boating friends.  We spotted them out in their dinghy so we waved them over and they pulled up the anchor for us.  Small world!  But the little plover who had escorted us along the beach was not impressed.20160720 053 plover r

Wildlife of Glacier Bay

If you’ve followed the Blog for awhile you’ll know that Glacier Bay National Park is one of our favorite places.  The whole place is huge – about the size of Connecticut, but the most visited section consists of a long bay branching into two arms, each over 50 nautical miles long.  You can only see the bay by boat or by air, and the Park limits the number of boats during the summer season to preserve the feeling of remoteness and solitude of this grand place.20160717 3613 gbnp mountain view 2 rThe park has many moods depending on the weather – shy and mysterious when it’s overcast and misty, or bright and brash when the sky is clear and you can see 15,325′ tall Mount Fairweather and the other distant mountains on the ocean coast.  Regardless of the weather, we love the park for its density and variety of wildlife.  We can see the same animals in other parts of southeast Alaska, but not as many of nearly everything in one place.20160713 3423 pavlov bear 2 rThe park has brown bears (such as this sub-adult in the photo above) as well as black bears.  We’ve even spotted a glacier bear – a rare gray-blue morph of the black bear.  We’ve watched a brown bear sow teaching her cub to swim and we’ve watched a sow nursing her cubs.  As this was our first visit to the park this year, we had to stop at the ranger station for a mandatory boater briefing.  It’s always a treat to go ashore and stretch our legs, so we took a walk between the beach and the forest, not far from the park campground.  We were talking and making noise when I spotted a sub-adult black bear just 30′ away, watching us from behind the trees.20160716 3393 gbnp forest trail black bear rUsually a bear will avoid humans which is why it’s important to make human noises when you’re in bear country (and the majority of southeast Alaska is bear country).  We were a little bothered by this bear – he should have been more afraid.  We stood close together to appear larger, and we firmly told him to go away.  He finally did, flattening his ears, huffing, and running deeper into the woods.  We warned a few tourists that we saw on the forest trail, urging them to clap and say “Hey Bear!” as they walked, but most did not.  Unfortunately stupidity on the part of humans usually results in a bad outcome for a bear.20160716 3407 gbnp pond reflections rWhales were around, but not as plentiful as we’ve seen during other visits.  We also heard reports of orca sightings on the radio, but always somewhere far from our location.  Heading up to South Marble Island, we were guaranteed to see masses of Steller’s sea lions, puffins, pelagic cormorants, and nesting gulls and kittiwakes.20160717 3455 gbnp sea lions fussing rSea lion haul-outs are great places to watch and listen.  Many of the sea lions are trying to nap, but it doesn’t take much to get someone ticked off at someone else, and then the barks and groans rise to a din while the kerfuffle is sorted out.  Things will settle down to softer groans for a few moments until it starts up somewhere else.  There was a big bull we nicknamed Jabba The Hut since he looked just like the Star Wars character, but I love the young ones best – zipping around in little groups, cavorting and frolicking and generally showing off.20160717 3512 gbnp sea lion gang rThe puffins are some of my favorite birds, and we mostly see the tufted puffins here.  They’re like blond surfers, shaking their heads to show off their golden tresses.20160717 3567 gbnp puffin flying r20160717 3523 gbnp puffin with fish 2 rThe puffins live at sea for most of the year, returning to make their nest in burrows on the side of the hills just for the summer.20160717 3537 gbnp puffins nesting 1 rPigeon guillemots, murres, murrelets, pelagic cormorants, gulls, kittiwakes, and the occasional horned puffin join ravens and eagles to make up the typical bird variety in the park.

Pigeon guillemots

Pigeon guillemots

Sea otters are adorable, despite the fact that fishermen hate them because they can eat up all the crabs and clams in an area in short order.  They’re much bigger than you would think, about 5′ long, and I love how they hug their pups to their chests.20160727 0052 sea otter and pup r20160717 3599 gbnp sea otter 4 rMountain goats are another favorite of ours, and there’s a particularly good spot to look for them called Gloomy Knob.  The wool from their coats is used by Native Alaskans to weave Chilkat blankets, and as a knitter I’d love to get my hands on some of their wool to play with.  This year we stopped at the Knob on a hot sunny day, and some of the goats we spotted were hiding in the shade or in small caves to keep cool.20160718 3718 mountain goat 3 rIt’s amazing to watch them negotiate the steep rocks with their specialized feet and powerful muscles.20160718 3730 gbnp mountain goat steep 2 rMany people come to Glacier Bay to see the glaciers, but we love it best for the wildlife.  I promise the next posting will be about the ice – each glacier has its own personality, and we had good accessibility to them this season.