The Bears are Waiting

The bears are waiting for the salmon to start heading upstream.  The fish are getting closer, they’ve been jumping all over the place, they’re gathering near streams… the time for the bear’s feast is almost at hand.  We anchored near a good salmon stream with a small waterfall on our way to Sitka to check out the action, and I spent three sessions sitting on cold rocks watching for bears.  The action was more sporadic this time – we’ve been here other years when the salmon are running and have watched 9 bears fishing and eating in the stream at the same time.  I think it will be another week or so until the stream will be full of happy bears.Hopeful bears were making frequent visits to the stream to look for fish.  With the unusually cool and very wet summer we’ve been having, the berries are late which means that the bears are even more ready for the fish to arrive – they only have a month or two to fatten up for the long winter.As the tide falls the fish that have moved up stream get stranded in the shallows, making it easier for bears to catch them.  A sow and her two first year cubs came along……and I can see the “tough love” since momma expected the cubs to follow her across the stream, and sometimes the water was a little deep for a little cub.  First year cubs were born in February-March, and they will stay with their mother until just before their third summer when she will kick them out on their own so she can mate again.  We spotted a few of these younger bears (“teenagers”) – they’re not full grown yet, and siblings often stay together as they begin to learn to live on their own.Most of the time the bears didn’t stay around very long.  They surveyed different spots in the stream and meandered back into the woods.  One younger bear appeared and gave us a great show as he was determined to catch a fish, no matter what it took.  He chased after every cagey fish, running and splashing to and fro.  He found a deeper spot and stuck his head underwater to look several times…We could really see his muscles and body in need of fattening as he climbed out of the water, before he shook off like a dog.  Finally he caught a nice big salmon – the only successful bear we saw.A kingfisher managed to catch some small fish, but they move so fast that they’re almost impossible to catch in flight.  I got lucky, though with the low light and high ISO it’s not the best photo.One afternoon Jim was back on ADVENTURES and I had been sitting on the rocks for a few hours.  Just as I was thinking about getting in the kayak to head back to the boat the bear action got lively.  I was watching a pair of “teenager” bears on the beach in one direction when another bear came out of the woods by the stream to eat grass in the other direction.  It was a bit like watching a tennis match, though the grass bear gave up and disappeared back into the forest.  Jim called me on the radio to tell me that a sow and two cubs were around the corner on the beach, heading my way.  As soon as the “teens” saw the sow coming, they bolted into the trees.These are second year cubs, a bit more independent from their mother.  The sow walked along the creek edge, but the cubs were distracted by my kayak.The first cub stopped to give it a sniff, rubbed his head on the seat back and gently “tasted” the plastic boat before he wandered off to catch up with momma.  The second cub came along and did the same – thank goodness I’ve never had any food or fish in the boat.  But that second cub had a look in his eye……it was a devilish look!  Sure enough, he grabbed the seat back and gave it a little shake just to be a brat.  No harm was done, thank goodness.  I had my bear spray in my hand, just in case.  But momma was marching along and he had to scamper to catch up.It was an exciting end to a long afternoon – a reminder that it’s always worthwhile to sit and wait, even on cold rocks, dressed in rain gear and holding a heavy camera.  Patience sometimes pays off.  Sometimes you can wait for hours and nothing happens – don’t ask me how I know that.  But when it does… it’s priceless.

Excursion Inlet and Swanson Harbor

The weather never settled enough for us to explore the outside (ocean) side of Chichagof Island and we didn’t want to sit around and wait any longer so we headed east and turned into Excursion Inlet – a very pretty fjord next to Glacier Bay National Park.  Excursion Inlet is long and narrow, with a cannery that’s quite busy in the summer months.  Often fishing boats will offload their catch to bigger tenders so the fishermen can stay on their fishing grounds while the tenders make the longer runs back to the canneries or fish processing plants.  The tender comes to the dock and the cannery lowers a giant vacuum hose into the fish hold and slurps the salmon out.Unfortunately it’s impossible to get a tour of one of these canneries, but this particular one has been in operation since 1908 and it has a little museum that’s open to the public.  Visitors to this remote spot are few and far between – the public dock is pretty rickety and we wouldn’t tie ADVENTURES to it.  Instead we anchored farther up the fjord in a little side cove that was very quiet and pretty, with eagles, a black bear, and a brown bear for company.  We put the dinghy in the water and zipped down to the public dock to check out the museum and just to stretch our legs after too many rainy days on the boat.The museum was small but it was very nice with a slide show playing on a computer in one corner, next to a tall ship built from crab claws.There were display cases with lots of history about the cannery and the area, as well as samples of the many different labels that were put on Excursion Inlet’s cans over the years.During World War II the US Army built some infrastructure here in case the Japanese invaded more of the Aleutian Islands, and when it was no longer needed they used some German prisoners of war to dismantle the extra buildings.  What remains now are some recreational buildings, a handful of homes, bunkhouses, the cannery buildings, and a company store with a small “hotel”.  The lady in the store knew friends from Petersburg (the fishing community is a pretty small world up here), and she helpfully pointed out the ice cream freezer in the back of the store.  We walked around a little with our treats, in need of some exercise when we came upon some blue flashing lights near the ground and warning signs…We found the famous Excursion Inlet International Airport (a dirt strip and tiny covered waiting area)!The sign reads 9,280,000 salmon, 390 cannery workers, a handful of Pilgrims in the bush, The odd tourist (that’s us), and Nature abounds.  The lower sign lists the many places around the world where the cannery workers come from.  It’s a pretty hopping place in the summer, but then it closes down for the rest of the year with just a caretaker couple to watch over the facilities.We were glad to finally visit the little museum – it has been on our list of places to stop for a couple of years.  After two nights we headed a little farther east to Swanson Harbor, through the rocky approach and into a nice protected harbor.  Swanson connects to its neighbor harbor via a narrow, shallow channel that’s only passable by small boats at mid-tide or greater, and I like to explore it by kayak.  There are some isolated sandbars and rocks that are popular with birds like the oystercatchers……and some godwits – marbled, I think.Gulls and spotted sandpipers rounded out the birds on the bars, and I spotted some dungeness crabs in the shallows.  Speaking of crabs, Swanson is popular with smaller private fishing boats who like to tie up to the two municipal floats.  We were having drinks with friends on another boat when a neighbor pulled a few king crabs out of his cooler to steam.He shared some of the king crab legs with our little party, and pretty much every boat in the harbor was having some kind of seafood festival as they worked to clean the day’s catch of halibut and salmon.

One of my favorite things about Swanson is that it has nice views of the Coastal mountains, and sunsets are pretty when the sky is clear.  We have so many tall mountains around us that we don’t get to see nice sunset light too often.