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.