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.

History, Celebration, and Wilderness

Cruising in southeast Alaska offers such a variety of things to see – you can find something interesting at every turn. 

We returned to Funter Bay on the northern end of Admiralty Island – a place full of history from its time as a mining camp, a cannery, and the temporary home of some Aleutian islanders during World War II.  The story of the islanders is the tragic story, as they were quickly relocated from their villages, watching as the US Army set fire to their homes to eliminate any useful infrastructure in case the Japanese invaded more of the Aleutian Islands.  These islanders were relocated to various places in southeast Alaska – a climate and terrain that’s very different from what they were accustomed to, and they were dumped ashore with little help.  The group left in Funter Bay had to use the abandoned cannery buildings as shelter, lacking heat and ready access to fresh water.  Disease took many of these displaced Alaskans, and the cemetery in the forest in Funter Bay remains as a somber reminder of the hardship these innocent souls had to face.Despite the fact that the families of those buried in this cemetery live very far away, many of the graves are obviously tended.

There is beauty to lighten the heart after thinking about the sad history of Funter Bay with lots of wildflowers in bloom – lupine, fireweed, and wild iris.(As usual the blog lags behind reality…)  We headed to Hoonah to celebrate July 4th since we know the community has a parade and fireworks and other fun things going on.  The weather wasn’t the nicest which dampened the festivities a little bit, but Jim dressed ADVENTURES in proper nautical flags (sequenced as specified in Chapman’s book of Seamanship) for the occasion.There were a handful of street booths and some children’s games throughout the day, and the parade was small but fun…  led by Hoonah Police and a color guard of proud veterans…The paraders were tossing candy into the street, though you had to pick it up pretty quickly so it didn’t get too soggy.  Hoonah is a Tlingit town so of course there were some drummers……and lots of children, some on their decorated bikes with playing cards in the spokes to make noise – a happy memory from my own childhood (which, some would point out, that I have not really outgrown).Small town America, with families gathering together for picnics and BBQs and welcoming friends – old and new.  There were fireworks two nights in a row – quite a long show, which we watched from the pilothouse since it was drizzly and quite late.  It’s not quite as dark as you’d like it for fireworks by 11pm, but that’s about as late as everyone is willing to stay up!

The eagles and ravens were still plentiful in town, though the whale that had been feeding regularly outside of the harbor breakwater had moved on.  We spotted two little scraggly eaglet heads peeking above the edge of the nest a few times – a happy sight.  And I happened to have my camera in hand walking back to the dock one afternoon when I spotted this raven perched on the railing.  He let me get relatively close, and I just loved his expressiveness. We always have a good time in Hoonah but it was time to move on.  We continued to be hopeful that the weather in the ocean would start to settle down so we could have good conditions to explore the outside coast of Chichagof Island.  We headed to Dundas Bay, next to Glacier Bay to sit out a few days of miserable weather and see if things would improve.  Along the way we ran into a sea lion that seemed to be as curious about us as we were about him since he hung around letting us take photos from a pretty short distance.  He gave us a few good looks – I think this was his best side……and an otter had to do his “cute” act to try and convince us that he’s not a voracious predator that decimates everything on the bottom.  “Who, me???”Dundas Bay is a remote place that isn’t often visited – which is our idea of a perfect place.  Even in really rainy crummy weather it’s beautiful – misty and mysterious.  During the one brief lull in the rain in our three day stay I was able to get out on the kayak, hoping to see more of the orcas that we got a brief glimpse of when we were heading into anchor.  I spotted lots of pelagic cormorants, a few more otters, lots of gulls, kittiwakes and arctic terns, but no orcas.  The bigger waterfall was loud, even at a distance……and the mist clung to the trees in layers, hiding the steep mountains all around.It was raining again and I had to paddle against the wind to get back to the boat, but on the way I saw what I thought was a tree in the water… upon closer inspection through the long lens it turned out to be a rock reef that was uncovering in the falling tide and a collection of harbor seals hauled on it.  I wonder where they go when the tide is high?

Juneau Adventures

We’ve ended up stopping in Juneau a few times so far this summer, and the stops have been event-ful in various ways.  There are a lot of eagles zooming over the harbor all the time, four well-fed harbor seals, a large humpback that occasionally dives between the docks… plus the view in Auke Bay is pretty nice too.The first bit of excitement was a boat fire on the next dock over.  We never heard the kerfuffle and neither did friends on a boat even closer to the action.  Fortunately a neighbor was sleeping aboard his aluminum boat and woke up when his hull got hot.  He was able to rescue the man aboard the burning boat, and he untied a few of the surrounding boats to get them away from the flames – action that saved a lot of property damage and prevented the fire from spreading.  The boat sank in 110′ of water at the dock, and all that was left was a fuel slick and some charred bits.Someone’s dinghy melted…In the midst of all this the harbor discovered a leak in the water pipe that serves the docks, so they shut the water down at the same time that we happened to be almost out of water in our tanks.

The harbor brought in a diving barge to assess the wreckage since arson was suspected.  The boat owner’s truck had been set ablaze in the harbor parking lot two weeks earlier!The divers did their assessment and rigged a lifting harness, and then the huge crane barge came in to lift the wreckage.  I was very impressed by the skill of the tug skipper to bring that big beastie into the narrow fairway and maneuver it into place.A few days later the mess was cleaned up, the barges left, and the water was back on – whew!  In the meantime, Jim and I took advantage of being in The Big City to do some shopping at Costco and Fred Meyer, and to explore a few places we hadn’t been to downtown yet.  We enjoyed the smaller City Museum, and found the tiny Russian Orthodox Church just as the docent was giving a tour.As I’ve explained in earlier posts, Russian Orthodox is the dominant religion of the Tlingit people, so it’s common to find these churches in many of the communities, particularly those with bigger native populations.  They are very beautiful, no matter the size.  Even some of the artwork in the State Museum reflects the strong Russian influence in our area.We started having trouble with the generator – which we use to charge our batteries so we can stay anchored out as long as we like – so we headed back to Juneau to get some shore power while we (mostly the talented Jim) sorted out the gen.  We ran all over town getting some parts to replace a few things that were suspect, and we finally discovered that it was the exhaust elbow.  Fortunately we happened to have a spare aboard (they are no longer available and next time we’ll have to get one fabricated for us – costing lots of time and $$), and we visited or called every plumbing or marine shop in town to find a special fitting.  We found enough parts to make a good temporary repair and proper parts are in the mail, which we’ll pick up in a few weeks when we get to Sitka.

While we worked on the gen and a few other projects, we watched the mass influx of gillnet boats followed shortly by the big purse seiners.  Boats were rafted 3 and 4 deep, with the big seiners dwarfing the smaller gillnetters and even a 30′ recreational boat in one case.The harbor was packed, and we spotted a number of Petersburg boats that we know.A few days later the seiners headed back out to fish, and we spotted a mass of them fishing right off the shore just north of town – it was crazy!We did get to have some fun while in town besides just shopping and fixing things.  We visited the Mendenhall Glacier, which is not far from downtown.There were plenty of small icebergs floating in the lake to see, lots of nesting arctic terns, and the big roaring waterfall.We did some hiking, exploring the river from one of the other nearby glaciers (the Herbert), and watching as some local gals in bikinis played in the frigid water.We walked through wooded trails……and enjoyed all the wildflowers like lupine, fireweed, wild roses and wild iris. We checked out a birding trail near the airport that meanders along some marshes, and were rewarded with lots of dowitchers and yellowlegs.We’re not big fans of spending time in The Big City, but we got a lot accomplished, witnessed some interesting events, and had a good time.  But now we’re more than ready to be back in the wild places again.

Ford’s Terror

South of Juneau there are two opposing “arms” – large fjords that branch off in opposite directions, but sort-of connected at the bottom end.  Tracy Arm is the showy, better known fjord with the north and south Sawyer glaciers at its head, and Endicott Arm is more broad with the Dawes glacier at its head.  At this time of the summer Tracy Arm is often very choked with ice calved from the Sawyer glaciers.  It’s usually much safer to navigate starting around mid-July.  Right now some of the icebergs are the size of houses.We anchored for the night at the mouth of the fjords since there are almost no places to anchor farther up either arm – fjords are very deep and they have sheer walls.  We spotted a brown bear foraging on the beach while I was out in the kayak – always a treat to see.The next morning we headed up Endicott Arm, seeing some ice along the way……and a few humpbacks.Our destination was not the glacier at the head, instead we wanted to spend a couple of nights in Ford’s Terror – what a great name for a place!  Ford’s is a much narrower fjord that branches off Endicott Arm, with a big waterfall at its outer entrance……and when you turn away from this waterfall you have to navigate between two rock reefs that are very poorly charted, into a narrow blind dog-leg channel between sheer rock walls before the fjord opens up into a grand landscape of cliffs and waterfalls.  With our large tides you can imagine that the water can be very turbulent and violent when the current is at its strongest.  We can only enter at slack current and high tide.  The story of the name comes from the late 1800s when a hunter entered the fjord in a row boat and got stuck in there through a tide cycle while the water raged.  It’s an appropriate name!Can you see our boat in the photo above?  Ford’s is intimate, in terms of a fjord, but it’s a big magnificent place that reminds us how very small we are.  It’s breathtaking, and there’s no way to capture the feeling of the place in photos, though I keep trying.Waterfalls are everywhere – you can’t possibly count them all.  We took the dinghy on a little tour around the fjord and had a ball admiring all the different ways that falling water can be beautiful.One afternoon I was out in the kayak and I spotted a harbor seal following me.  This is pretty typical – they’re very curious but also shy, so they stay behind where you can’t see them.  I paddled backwards for a few strokes to get just the right angle for a photo, and heard a loud splash – I surprised the seal behind me.  From then on he started playing with the kayak, gently pushing it from behind.  At one point I heard the scratch of his nails on my boat – he put a flipper up to try and get a better look at what I had back there.  I didn’t move a muscle, though I talked quietly to him.  He gradually got more brave, making a big splash at me as he swam away, swimming under the kayak, and slowly making his way closer and closer to the front of the boat.  This game went on for about 20 minutes as he got bolder……resting his chin on the edge a few times and looking at me with those big eyes.  At one point he got a flipper farther up on the side of the boat and I was afraid he was going to try and haul out on the kayak so I paddled into the shallows where he couldn’t reach me.  It was great fun to get a visit like this from a seal, but he’s a wild animal and he should be more wary of humans.  I went ashore to take photographs and he swam off, but what a thrill!

On the way out of Ford’s we did some photo ops with the boat in front of a waterfall near the entrance, just to show the scale of one of the medium sized falls.