Science and Nature at our Doorstep

This year was the 10th Annual Rainforest Festival in Petersburg, and we wanted to be home in time to enjoy it.  There were art shows, events for families and children, lunchtime science lectures, trips to the Le Conte glacier and Thomas Bay, hikes for foraging and to learn more about local flora and fauna, and a Wild Foods dinner.  All the activities go forward, rain or shine.  We had rain.  It’s September in the rainforest – what did you expect?  This town loves science and nature, and we’re so lucky to have enthusiastic biologists and scientists who are willing to share their knowledge and experience, working for the US Forest Service, Alaska Fish & Game, or retired here in town. 

All the events we attended were great, but I think our favorite was the hike led by a local biologist and a mycologist from Oregon (“just call me the fungus guy”).  We live in a place where food is very expensive because nearly everything comes up here by barge or air freight, and it usually shows signs of the long hard trip.  Fishing is important for subsistence (as well as to earn a living), and hunting and foraging are also common activities.  While the experts were finding a wide variety of mushrooms to show us, they were careful to point out those that are edible (and how to best prepare them) and those that are not… as well as mushrooms and fungus that are just interesting.Biologist Karen found a big cluster of yellow chanterelle mushrooms, and she hauled out her waxed paper bags to harvest some.  Just because you’re in the midst of science doesn’t mean you can’t collect some treats too!  We stumbled on a “bears beard” – an uncommon find that grows on the ends of large old-growth logs.  It was about 7-8″ in diameter, and Biologist Karen was thrilled when no one else wanted to claim the prize.I don’t care much for mushrooms, but we love berries so we happily munched on red huckleberries as we hiked, some blueberries, and my favorite – low bush cranberries, also known as lingonberries in Scandinavia.  (I left one to photograph…)While many of the berries have been eaten by bears and birds by now, the high-bush cranberries were plentiful.  They’re very tart, but our friend Barb makes a fabulous ketchup with them, so we filled some bags for her as we hiked.  The enthusiasm of the scientists was infectious and we enjoyed the explanations of various rare finds, helping to hold their sample boxes for collecting.  The small stalk-like fungus growing on moose scat sent “fungus guy” Ron over the moon, and he carefully packed them (turds and all) for further study.  I didn’t take a photo of that; I photographed some tiny mushrooms that were about 1/4″ tall instead.The rainforest is an amazing place where trees grow to massive sizes, and where a fallen tree becomes a “nurse log” upon which seeds can settle and germinate, and where the roots become a wall of soft green moss and a home for feathery ferns.  We learned so much and enjoyed the group of people we were with, getting a new appreciation for our island home. I think it says a lot about a town where attendance at a brown-bag lecture about ice worms will fill the Library conference room.  Yes, ice worms – and before you laugh just know that these 1/2″ long creatures can travel at speeds of 3 meters/hour, they can move through solid ice, they make a diurnal migration, and they can only survive at temperatures between 20-44 degrees F.  How’s that for an amazing creature!  They eat snow algae (who knew snow harbored such nutrition?), and if you scoop up a handful of snow and/or ice containing the worms you can keep them as pets in a jar in your refrigerator for at least a year.  Who says we don’t know how to have fun up here??  Actually NASA and the military are studying ice worms to understand the potential for life on frozen planets and moons, and to figure out how the worms move through solid ice.  The town of Cordova, Alaska has an annual Ice Worm Festival.  Maybe that’s going a little too far.

We didn’t go to the Wild Foods dinner, but the menu included: pickled fiddleheads (spring ferns not yet unfolded), beach asparagus and kelp, lots of local seafood, wild mushrooms, several things that included spruce tips (spring new growth shoots – they taste a little lemon-y and contain lots of vitamin C) – blueberry spruce tip sorbet, and spruce tip pesto.  Yum.

When we’re home in Petersburg we always listen to our local radio station KFSK (“fisk” is Norwegian for fish), and it’s a great source for local news and announcements… such as a report that some orcas were in the Narrows, heading north towards the harbors.  I grabbed my long lens and went to the end of the dock to watch for them.  In the meantime the Steller sea lions were groaning out on the buoy, and a big male was cruising nearby.I spotted the pod of orcas, but they were busy feeding at the mouth of Petersburg Creek for a while, finally turning north again.  I counted at least 7-8 animals, and at least one male with his tall dorsal fin.The next evening we were having dinner at a friend’s house, and they reported that the orcas had been in front of their house earlier in the day, indicating that the orcas were going in and out of the Narrows with the tide to feed.  As we set the table for dinner two younger male deer had a jousting match in their front yard, one of them with an antler already broken from rutting fights.Science.  Nature.  Can’t get enough!

Bears (Because I’m More Afraid of Hurricanes)

I’m going to post the last set of photos and stories from the summer cruising season, as our focus now shifts to our beloved Big Pine Key and our family and friends in the path of Hurricane Irma in Florida.  We’ve overdosed on news and storm tracking data, and now it’s the agonizing wait to find out what happens.  We need distractions because there’s nothing we can do from here.  Or there.

Some people think bears are scary.  I prefer them to hurricanes, and in fact I really like them and will go out of my way to be around them.  We traveled a long way up Seymour Canal to hang out with the brown bears at Pack Creek on Admiralty Island.  Admiralty has the highest concentration of brown bears in the world, and Pack Creek is a protected area run by Alaska Fish & Game partnering with the US Forest Service to manage access to a population of bears that have become habituated to having humans around.  It’s safer for the bears as well as the humans.  You need a permit to visit Pack Creek, and during the prime salmon season there’s a limit of 24 people there per day.  Most people arrive by float plane from Juneau, and many are brought by a guide.Pack Creek is a spartan operation – there are absolutely no facilities.  The “rest room” is a pile of rocks out on the spit, but they disappear at high tide.  There is a “clothesline” where you can tie your skiff or kayak when you go ashore, letting you pull your small boat into deeper water to deal with the changing tide and to make your boat less interesting to a curious bear.  Food brought ashore is kept in a locker buried and locked near the sand spit, and consumed at the tide line in a group. The rangers live on a nearby island when they’re off-duty.

We got permits for two consecutive days, and with no shelter from the rain we were glad we could anchor close by and zip home in the dinghy for lunch and a little break each day.  When we arrived it was raining pretty hard so we decided to hike the forest trail up to the observation tower first.  As the ranger on the beach said, “there are no bad days… just bad gear!”  (So true.)We had nice shelter from the rain in the tower, but we didn’t see much.  No beavers in the beaver pond, few salmon in the stream, and only one bear in the distance.  It’s still a pretty hike though!  We came back down to the beach and found better weather and a little more action out at the lower end of the stream.The tide was coming in, rousting a sow and her two cubs from their sandy resting spot at the mouth of the creek.  Several bears were napping by the water……including a couple of sows and one nursing two cubs.Things quickly got interesting when another bear took an interest in the sow and started to crash the party…Fortunately the interloper didn’t stay around long, but it was a little dicey for a few minutes there.After a while the bear action cooled off and we spent a long while just waiting and watching.  The kittiwakes provided constant entertainment as they chattered at each other and appeared to dance as they shuffled their feet in the shallows to stir up things to eat.Sometimes the bear action is exciting, and sometimes you just have to wait.  And wait.  But things can change at any moment.  One bear who seems particularly comfortable around humans meandered towards the gravel patch where the humans stay, and flopped down in the tall grass a few feet away to take a long nap.  We had to keep back a bit, though he didn’t seem to mind people talking in low voices.  Every once in a while he would stretch and re-position himself……or maybe he’s just waving at a pal.

The second day we were returning to the stream after a lunch break, and we were walking along the tide line to get there.  As the shore curved around we spotted a sow and cub in the mud flats, digging for clams.  She was heading towards us so we moved up to the edge of the forest and squatted down to watch and wait for them to pass by.  She was teaching her cub to clam, sniffing and then gently turning over the mud to get them.  We could hear them crunching on the shells – awesome.We had a great time despite the fact that the pink salmon population in the stream was noticeably down this year, making the bears look for additional food sources.  The number of bears in the stream is much greater during the peak salmon run in July, but we still saw about 8 bears the first day and 18 the second.  We’re getting to know some of the bear guides from Juneau, and we made friends with the two rangers on duty.  We enjoyed talking with them so much that we invited them over for dinner.  They spend 10 day tours living in a wall tent (with propane heat), and they have to go to a separate tent some distance away to prepare their food.  Although they’re on an island nearby, bears are very good swimmers.  Between 12 hour days out in the rain and then all the hassle with preparing food and cleaning up carefully afterwards, a meal that someone else fixes is appreciated.The evening cleared and the clouds were beautiful as we wrapped up a great visit.  Thanks Lucas and Melissa!!We were nursing a leaking fresh water circulating pump on the port engine, so it was time to point the bow towards home so we could replace the pump.  It takes a couple of days to cover the miles back to Petersburg, and we stopped for the last night in Thomas Bay which was shaped by two glaciers – the Patterson and the Baird.The setting is beautiful and the view from the anchorage is dramatic.  We had glorious sunshine for our last day on the hook, and the contrast between the sunny day……and the same view the next morning was striking.  We cruised back home in the fog, though it lifted as we entered the narrows and approached the harbor.  It’s always good to be home – we miss our friends and our community here, but we also miss the wild places and the wildlife that make cruising so special.

Between Here and There

We are closely following the progress of Hurricane Irma as it heads for Florida and the Keys – places where we have several close friends and family sitting directly in the path.  Our hearts go out to all those impacted by these storms – in Texas, the Leeward Islands, the Bahamas. And let’s not forget the wildfires in Oregon, where one of my cousins lives, now prepared and ready to evacuate their only home in case the fires get closer.  The air is full of ash and the smoke makes people’s eyes burn – not a healthy situation which won’t go away overnight.

We have first-hand experience with big hurricanes – the urgency and fear and exhaustion that comes from preparing the boat and then evacuating – leaving our only home to the vagaries of the storm and its aftermath.  We were in the lower Keys through Hurricane Andrew in ’92 – prepared, and counting ourselves lucky that the storm turned farther east… good for us, devastating for others.  A week later we drove out of the Keys into the almost unrecognizable wreckage in Homestead and Miami-Dade in stunned silence.  While I continue to get the Blog caught up and we share the beauty and wonder of Alaska, I don’t want readers to think that we’re blind to what’s going on “outside”.  It’s foremost in our hearts and minds, and reinforces the gratitude we greet each day with.  We’re lucky, and that can be a fleeting thing.And so, as we traveled from Warm Springs around the bottom of Admiralty Island we spotted more whales than we had seen all summer farther north.  Even heading in between rocky islands to an anchorage in Gambier Bay we spotted humpbacks and orcas.We were on our way to see bears, but it’s a long trip up Seymour Canal and we had to pause along the way.  Our permits for Pack Creek didn’t start for another day so we could spend an extra day anchored in Gambier.  I picked out a few spots to explore by kayak while I waited for the tide to get high enough to get into the marsh at the back of the cove.  I knew there were lots of birds back in those channels – flocks of cackling geese and a handful of eagles, but I didn’t expect to see so many small wading birds like this spotted sandpiper……and yellowlegs…But as I sat watching one set of birds, I noticed that I was floating right next to about two dozen least sandpipers, sleeping and resting quietly in the grass.I almost missed them – they were so camouflaged.I was so excited about going up to the bear preserve that I hadn’t been thinking about the birds, and could have spent more time hanging out in the marsh to see what other species were hiding there… but the permits were for specific dates… and the bears were waiting. 


Seiners and Whales (But Not at the Same Time)

We stopped back in Sitka for a few days – who can pass up the chance to go out to dinner after cooking Every. Single. Day?  The lazy sea otter that seems to be at home in the harbor was still hanging around, sleeping near our boat.  He eventually cracked one eye open to look around, but quickly resumed his afternoon nap.

The harbor was busy with purse seine boats coming and going, and it’s so interesting to see these fishing boats with their big pile of net on the stern and their seine skiff perched on top.As I described in an earlier post, the seine skiff is used to pull the long net out and then around to encircle the salmon.  It’s a powerful boat – all engine with no muffler.  When the end of the net has been brought back to the big boat and they start to haul in the net using that big power block on the boom, the seine skiff pulls on the opposite side of the big boat to help stabilize it, and to keep it in position – so the boat pulls the net rather than getting pulled to the net.  These commercial fishing boats are serious business investments, with a brand new seine skiff (the small boat) costing as much as $250K.  The best fishermen take good care of their boats and gear, and these complex machines are always interesting to see.On the other hand, not everyone takes good care of their boats.  This inflatable boat has been in the harbor for years, and apparently no one seems to care.  The grass sprouting wasn’t planted there by human hands, and the growth on the bottom is plentiful and healthy.After enjoying some good cell signal so we could catch up on email and phone calls, we headed to the Magoun Islands to explore for a bit.  The weather was not nice – windy and rainy, but when we tucked into a little anchorage to hide out we found our friends Gerry and Knut on their Krogen 48 – a happy surprise.  We stayed an extra day so we could have dinner together and catch up.  They are serious fishing people and their freezers were already full from a successful summer, though they planned to fish more before the season wrapped up.

We enjoyed the wonderful pause, and then headed back up Peril Strait on a rainy gloomy day.  The only color came from the occasional navigational marker that stood out against the shades of gray.  But we find that the scenery is beautiful rain or shine.  Moody days are just beautiful in a different way.As we got into the more open section of the strait we started seeing more whales, which have been somewhat scarce for us this summer.  We saw some bubble net feeding at a distance, and some whales doing half-hearted breaches.  Watching something that large erupt from the water never fails to thrill!  YOWZA!After an overnight anchored at the top of Peril Strait, the weather cleared and we had a pretty ride down to Baranof Warm Springs, on the east side of Baranof Island – the opposite side from Sitka.  Warm Springs Bay has a roaring waterfall, a tiny cluster of houses along a small boardwalk, and a natural hot spring.  The hot sulphur-y water is piped down to a little bath house with three separate rooms each with a big tub for soaking.The bath house overlooks the bay and the waterfall – a lovely view to enjoy while you soak in the steamy hot water.You can also hike up to the natural hot pools in the woods, avoiding the bear scat on the trail, but there’s no cold water tap handy to help cool down the water up there.  I like the natural pools – they’re right next to the top of the waterfall, but sometimes a more civilized soak closer to the dock leaves more time to go out for a paddle in the kayak.  The tide was very high so I could get through the narrow entrance and explore the hidden pond… so pretty.…and then a quick stop close to the waterfall, backlit in the late day sun.  With all the rain we’ve had this summer, the waterfall was running as though it was spring!