Last Cruise of the Season

We headed into Juneau to hit the big box stores for some final winter provisioning, and we were hoping to make it a short stop.  We commando-shopped and got all our errands done in one day, but the weather forecast changed and we were stuck for at least a week.  The fates were smiling on us though – we saw a DeFever 49 and as we were standing on the dock admiring it, the owner came out to investigate the strange people who were staring at her boat!  When we explained that we were fellow DeFever 49 owners she said they knew all about us since they’ve been following the blog for several years.  Glasses of wine and long conversations followed, and our new friend Brooke showed us some nice hiking trails around Juneau, and took us for a hike with her two dogs.

20141001 3624 juneau boy scout trail dog r20141001 3638 juneau boy scout trail mtns rIt was so nice to get some good local knowledge about Juneau, though you really need a car to get to a lot of the hiking trails north of town.  Note that there are only about 40 miles of road in Juneau – you can drive locally, but you can’t leave.  Like most of SE Alaska, you can only get there by boat or plane.  Just for fun, we drove “out the Road” to the northern end since it was a glorious fall day.20141001 3665 juneau the road r20141001 3669 juneau end of the road rWe ended up waiting 8 days for the weather to improve enough so we could leave, though we were hoping for a 2-day weather window to get back to Petersburg.  We saw a 1-day window and not much else on the horizon so we departed Juneau on October 7 at 0430.  It takes about 17 hours (depending on how much the current impacts us) to get to Petersburg.  The good news is that we had a nearly full moon to give us some light to help spot bergy bits and other obstacles in the dark; the bad news is that a full moon means bigger tides and stronger currents, which can really rip through Petersburg harbor.

As the sun was rising we saw a pod of orcas; we haven’t seen many this season compared to BC.20141007 3742 juneau orca pair rA little farther on we saw a large pod of bigger whales – humpbacks or possibly minkes – they were at a distance, but there were about 14 of them.  The mountains were particularly pretty since the heavy rain we had over the past few days left a nice dusting of fresh snow on the mountain tops, bringing thoughts of skiing. Juneau has a ski hill that we hope to check out this winter.

We savored the last day of cruising for the season – appreciating the whales and birds and evergreens and mountains just a little more than usual.  We had sunny weather, flat seas and a smooth ride.  Near sunset some rain clouds caught on the mountains and we saw some beautiful late day light reflected and refracted through the clouds, plus a number of rainbows.20141007 3689 frederick sound double rainbow bow horiz rWe arrived in Petersburg in the dark with the current in the Narrows ripping at full flood, but we got into our slip and secured ADVENTURES for the winter without any problems.  It’s bittersweet to see the cruising season end, but exciting to settle into the community of Petersburg.
Our first real taste of the town was meeting some of the other liveaboards in the harbor, starting to listen to the local radio station (a font of information about events around town), and the school Fall band concerts.  We both played musical instruments when we were youngsters, and we believe in supporting the band.  The concerts were well done, and we particularly appreciated the Beginner Band.  In the 6th grade here, every student is required to play a musical instrument and play in the Beginner Band; the student can choose to continue or quit after that year.  The director gave a great explanation of where these students were in their musical development after just 6 weeks with their instruments, and we enjoyed their performance.20141016 3779 petersburg band concert r20141030 3780 petersburg band concert programs rI’ve joined the Sons of Norway since they are a major hub of social activity in town, and Jim joined the Elks.  We got our library cards and P.O. Box, and we’re starting to find our way around and make friends.

Firsts

Fall in Glacier Bay is very different from summer in more ways than just a drop in average temperature.  In the last two weeks of September we had the enormous park almost entirely to ourselves.  There were a few last cruise ships for the season, a few charter fishing boats near the entrance, and maybe one park patrol or research boat running around.  We had to play duck-and-cover as the fall pattern of gales and weather fronts came off the Gulf of Alaska, and the number of hours of daylight were significantly less than in summer – which became a consideration since the distances between anchorages and sights in the park are long.  The puffins and other sea birds are back out to sea, and most of the whales have headed to Hawaii for the winter.  The sea lions and sea otters were still as lively as ever, though the otter pups are now almost as big as their parents.20140928 3596 two sea otters 3 rWe experienced two really exciting “firsts” on the same day, after watching the mountain goats and dodging brash ice up around the Lamplugh Glacier.  Another weather front was coming in and we headed into Blue Mouse Cove to anchor for the night just as the sun was starting to set.  Nosing the boat closer to shore to check out the anchorage, we spotted a black bear sow and two cubs, though one was black and the other was a gray-blue color, almost camouflaged among the rocks.  Jim passed the big camera up to me and I was able to grab a few fuzzy photos in the fading light just before the bears vanished into the woods.  You have to look closely behind the black cub to see the other one – we were pretty sure it’s a rare “glacier bear” – a blue morph of the black bear (which was later confirmed by the park’s bear expert).20140923 3326 blue mouse glacier bear cub 3 rWe kept a sharp lookout on the beach the next day in case the little family returned.  Wow – what a great sighting… how do we top that?

The sun set and we had a clear, chilly evening with no moon – perfect conditions for looking at stars, which are incredible so far from civilization and city lights, and that’s when we had our second “first” – we saw the aurora borealis (aka the northern lights).  The aurora has been on my “bucket list”, and we hope to see it many more times during the Alaskan winters.  It was green and it waved gently like a huge translucent curtain.  Absolutely awesome.  Through the evening it was sometimes brighter and sometimes very faint.  It was an amazing day, though we weren’t too comfortable with the strong winds that occasionally gusted into the anchorage.  With the strong wind and bears on the beach the conditions weren’t the best to try to go ashore and photograph the aurora, but we got a better chance the next day.

The weather forecast continued to deteriorate for the next week, though the wind settled down for a bit in the late afternoon and we decided to use the brief lull and the ebbing tide to make a dash for Bartlett Cove – the park headquarters and better protection from the predicted wind direction.  In the off-season the park allows boats to tie to their massive floating dock for up to 10 days at a time, putting us behind the big breakwater to shield us from wind and waves.  That evening the sky was clear and moonless, and luck was with us since the aurora put on its show once again!  Dressed in warm clothes, we took the tripod, camera, star tracker and remote shutter control ashore and set up on the rocky beach to experiment with exposures to photograph the aurora.  The good news is that I got some successful exposures and made notes for future aurora photography; the bad news is that I accidentally bumped the focus ring and everything was quite fuzzy, which I didn’t notice until I downloaded the photos the next day.  Our luck ran out and the sky was overcast for the remainder of our days in Glacier Bay, but we’re ready the next time the conditions are right.  You have to be a dedicated night owl to take good aurora photos – the light is best later in the night, and it gets pretty cold dragging a metal tripod around and standing around waiting for the best effects.

Rainy weather is a good time to head into the forest for some hiking since the thick evergreens provide some shelter from the rain.  Wellington boots are a must for the muddy trails.20140917 2937 glacier bay forest hike jim rWe love to notice the little details in the forest (while keeping “bear aware” and making noise), and the little tiny mushrooms were varied and beautiful.20140917 2909 glacier bay forest tiny brown mushroom r20140917 2913 glacier bay forest two tiny orange mushrooms r20140917 2984 glacier bay forest mushroom cluster 2 rWe didn’t see any bears, but we did come across this grouse and I love that they are fairly “tame” and don’t mind people getting too close.20140927 3530 gbnp grouse 1 rJim worked on some boat projects and I took the kayak out to explore the cove and to see how far up the creek I could get at mid-tide.  These mergansers were almost camouflaged against the rocks and rock weed, and I passed them before I noticed them.20140917 3083 bartlett rvr merganser mouth open r20140917 3096 bartlett rvr merganser 2 rCraving a meal that we didn’t have to cook for ourselves, we got the bikes down and rode about 9 miles up and down the hills to the tiny town of Gustavus for lunch.  At the restaurant… the only one, from what we could tell – good exercise and a fun little adventure.  We had one remaining chore to take care of, and the park dock in Glacier Bay was a good spot to get it done.  We needed to replace one of the sacrificial zincs that protect the underwater metal on our boat (such as shafts, props, and rudders).  It was time to drag out the dry suits, masks and fins and get in the water!  We hadn’t used our dry suits in many years – we spent a lot of more sensible time diving and snorkeling in the Florida Keys and Bahamas the past 8 years or so – but we’re in the high latitudes now and we needed to bite the bullet and find out just how leaky our old suits had become.

Aside from a small leak in one of Jim’s boots, the suits did well and we were comfortable in the water… as comfortable as one can be dressed like the Michelin Man.  We replaced the big plate zinc and we scrubbed the waterline all around the boat.  It was much better to do it here with virtually no current and no sea lions close by.

We were sad to finally leave the park but we’ll be back next season, and with the weather patterns changing we had to start making our way back to Petersburg, via Juneau since we needed some things from Costco and Home Depot.  We stopped in Swanson Harbor for two nights to wait for weather, and we enjoyed the mountain views and wildlife before heading to The Big City.  20140915 3047 swanson harbor eagle r

 

Fall Trip Back to Glacier Bay

We enjoyed our brief stay back in Petersburg, but we really wanted to go cruising one more time before the weather changes for the fall and winter.  Glacier Bay National Park remains our favorite place in SE Alaska so that’s where we decided to go, but not before we took care of a few maintenance items.  The last time we pulled the anchor, the salt water washdown wasn’t working very well, and it’s important to keep the chain clean when it goes back into the locker so the bilge doesn’t develop an odor.  Jim crawled into the forward bilge and discovered that the old pump was badly corroded… fortunately we had a spare.20140909 3514 corroded salt water washdown pump rIt takes a few days to get up to Glacier Bay, so we stopped in a new anchorage the first night and we liked it enough that we stayed an extra day just to kayak around and explore the protected cove.20140912 3012 chapin bay eagle 2 rOur next stop was back to Baranof Warm Springs, with the geothermal hot spring piped into a little bath house with a great view of the waterfall.  There’s a free state dock we can tie to, and what’s not to like about a relaxing soak with a view??20140913 2870 baranof hot springs tub view rHeading up to Glacier Bay we got a beautiful view of the Fairweather mountain range that sits along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska.20140916 3060 icy strait fairweather range rWe didn’t expect to see whales since they migrate to Hawaii for the winter, but we got a happy surprise and saw several of them along the way.  Talking with the rangers at Glacier Bay National Park we learned that there are a number of younger males that  to stay up in Alaska for the winter.

We had Glacier Bay almost entirely to ourselves in mid-September, and it was very quiet.  We met with the volunteer coordinator about volunteering in the Park next summer, and we got to talk with more of the rangers and one of the Park’s law enforcement officers – such interesting people with endless stories to tell!  Caring for a Park that’s the size of Connecticut is no simple matter.20140923 3166 gbnp snow capped mtns 1 rWe headed up into the Park and settled into a good anchorage to ride out some ugly storm fronts that were on the way.  We saw some extremely low low-pressure systems – 980 millibars looked strange on the barometer – that’s a hurricane-caliber low.  Apparently these fall weather fronts coming off the Gulf of Alaska are normally very low.  We found a comfortable spot to sit through the first front, capped by a double rainbow, and we explored the farther reaches of Muir Inlet when the weather settled down.20140919 3333 gbnp n sandy perfect rainbow double r20140923 3433 gbnp jim bow hopkins inlet rWe returned to the protected anchorage to hide from another front, and then explored up the western arm of the bay.  We were looking forward to getting close to the Johns Hopkins glacier, but the brash ice was very thick and we couldn’t find a safe path.20140923 3493 gbnp brash ice rHeading back down the bay, we stopped at a cliff called “gloomy knob” and we spotted some mountain goats along the rocks.  We were able to get close to the cliff and had a great view of the surefooted goats picking their way up and down the steep rock face.20140923 3250 gbnp mtn goat descending rStay tuned for more adventures from our fall trip to Glacier Bay…

Adventures Near Petersburg

After cruising over 2700 nautical miles around SE Alaska and taking a side trip up to the interior to see Denali, we finally got the chance to spend a little time in the town of Petersburg (aka “Little Norway”) where we’ll settle for the winter months.  We’ve been looking forward to exploring more of our new “back yard” and meeting people, and we were lucky to be in town for the Rainforest Festival.  A marine mammal expert from Kodiak was on hand to give a talk about Steller sea lions – appropriate since we have a healthy population in the area, and a few that always hang around in the harbor.20140907 2788 petersburg buoy sea lions rStellers are much larger than their cousins, the California sea lions, and the Steller males can weigh up to 2000 lbs.  Kate, a professor from the University of Alaska, gave an excellent talk about these animals, and relayed a number of great stories.  Suffice it to say that neither one of us is inclined to go diving in the harbor since the sea lions love to harass divers.

In addition to the lecture, the Festival organized a boat trip to see the Le Conte glacier – Petersburg’s “local” glacier and one of the reasons the town was originally founded here.  In the late 1800s it was very difficult to keep fish fresh to get it to market down in Seattle, but the ready supply of glacier ice solved the problem nicely and the town flourished.

The boat tour included commentary by Professor Kate so it was a rare treat to learn more about the marine mammals near the glacier – particularly the seals.20140907 2831 le conte seal on ice rThe Le Conte is a difficult glacier to see since the approach has a lot of twists and turns, and it’s often choked with brash ice and bergy bits.  There is no way we could have gotten ADVENTURES in close to see the Le Conte, but the nimble jet-drive aluminum tour boat was perfect for the job.  Of course the day of the tour was foggy and it was raining hard, but since the tourist season was over and the participants were all locals, no one thought anything about the weather.  We all just dressed in our rain gear and boots, and I brought “rain coats” for my cameras.  20140907 2810 le conte seal on ice r20140907 2834 le conte seal gang on ice 4 rThere were lots of seals around the glacier and we enjoyed learning more about them.  They prefer the ice over any other terrain to haul out on, and they even give birth to their pups on the ice.  Here you can see the Le Conte glacier, and if you look closely you’ll see lots of little brown seals in front of the snout.20140907 2809 le conte glacier wide rThe ice is so magical – it can have so many different colors, and I love the almost fake-looking turquoise blue that’s common in glacier ice.  Some ice is perfectly clear, some is white, and some is black from the grit and rock ground from the mountains as the glacier makes its way down to the sea.  The shapes and sizes boggle the mind, and I don’t get tired of looking at all the different formations.  You just have to be careful about getting too close to the bergy bits since pieces sometimes calve off, changing the center of balance and causing the ice to roll over or pop up.20140907 2862 le conte turquoise ice rAs we headed back towards Petersburg the clouds got darker and some of the big bergy bits really stood out against the gray sky.  Who says a rainy day can’t be a beautiful thing?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Happy Alaska Day!

147 years ago the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia for the price of $7.2 million dollars, and the formal transfer took place at Fort Sitka on this day.  Happy Alaska Day!  It only took 92 years after that for Alaska to become the 49th state, proving that glaciers aren’t the only things that move very slowly.

The last post talked about our terrific too-short two days in Denali National Park, and this post will wrap up the last bit of our week long side trip to see different parts of Alaska.20140901 2758 alaska rr fall color and river rIt was strange to see so much fall color in the first few days of September, but fall is a very short season in the interior.  “So much fall color” is relative since the majority of the trees are evergreens rather than deciduous.

We took the Alaska Railroad from Denali back down to Anchorage in a “dome car” with panoramic views from every seat.  The train runs at a slower speed – the whole point is to enjoy the ride, and it’s fantastic that the train stops for wildlife sightings.  We spotted a moose cow and calf in a field, and the train not only stopped but it actually backed up to give all the cars a better view.20140901 2754 alaska rr along the tracks rWe loved the Alaska Railroad, but we discovered that some trains have dome cars provided by the Alaska RR, and some trains have cars provided by the cruise lines.  We definitely prefer the Alaska RR cars – the commentary was excellent and informative; the cruise ship version was more “rah rah”, pushing fancy drinks from the bar and mindless “entertainment” more than actual information.  We’ll be more careful when making arrangements in the future.

We took an extra day to explore Anchorage – Alaska’s largest city in terms of population – about 300,000.  We wanted to learn more about the infamous 1964 Good Friday earthquake, the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded at 9.2 on the Richter Scale.  The devastation in the city was tremendous, though there was also significant damage and impact for 200 miles around.  In areas to the south the ground fell, while an area near Kodiak Island was permanently raised about 30′, and the port of Valdez was destroyed by an underwater landslide.  Tsunamis from this quake impacted Hawaii and Japan, as well as local towns.  It’s a reminder that Alaska is a geologically active place, and although we haven’t actually felt any earthquakes this summer we did experience one when we were in Haines.  The people in town felt the overnight rumbling, but since we float we didn’t notice until the next morning when our cell phones stopped working.  The quake was centered about 100 miles to the west, and it severed a fiber optic communications cable that serves the northern part of Juneau, Haines and Skagway.  It’s a good thing we’re immune to tsunamis down here in Petersburg!

20140902 2770 anchorage museum rWe heard good things about the Anchorage Museum so we set aside some hours to explore it.  The museum was currently hosting an exhibit called “Gyre” about the horrific problem of plastic trash in our oceans.  It was a very compelling exhibit, telling the heartbreaking story of humanity’s carelessness and callousness in very innovative and even beautiful ways.20140902 2781 anchorage museum ocean trash horn rWe wallowed in native culture, amazed at the variety of creations from all the different tribes, particularly those in the northern and interior regions.  In British Columbia and SE Alaska we only see things from the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes so we appreciated their extensive collection.  The museum also had an exhibit of Art of the North in a variety of media – most excellent.  My favorite was a small set of photographs about the Kobuk Valley National Park – an arctic desert 25 miles north of the Arctic Circle.  I love that kind of stark, dramatic landscape and now I have to figure out how to visit such an inaccessible place!

We discovered the Imaginarium on the lower level, unfortunately a little too close to closing time, but we still managed to find some neat science-y things to play with.  You’re never too old to have a happy childhood.20140902 2782 anchorage museum hands on jim r

To wrap it all up, we got a kick out of the funky statues just outside of the museum – art meets local wildlife.

20140902 2774 anchorage museum funky statues 2 r20140902 2776 anchorage museum funky statues 1 r

Denali National Park – Part 2

Our first day exploring Denali National Park involved a 5am wake up and 184 miles on a dirt-gravel road in a school bus – it was outstanding and we just loved it!  In fact, the only problem was some extreme frustration because there were so many places we wanted to stop and savor the landscape or to get a better view of some wildlife along the way.  We didn’t get back to our hotel until about 8pm so we put the camera batteries on chargers, grabbed a quick bite of dinner, and fell into bed so we could do it all over again.

Our second day in Denali was a bit less structured – we decided to take one of the park buses up to Mile 66 – to the Eielson Visitor Center so we could spend some time hiking.  We still had to get up at 5am in order to catch a park bus that would get us to Eielson early enough to have plenty of time for hiking, and we arranged for box lunches from our hotel since there isn’t anything available inside the park.

An interesting feature of Denali is that there aren’t that many actual hiking trails – rather the park is just open wilderness and you can hike anywhere.  Along the first few miles of the park road there were temporary signs closing that area to hiking because it was moose mating season.  Moose are grumpy and dangerous enough on a good day; I hate to think of how much worse they can be when they’re rutting.  But the good news is that we saw a number of moose…20140831 2411 denali np bull moose 2 r…and one was very close to the edge of the road.  (I wonder how thick the steel is on a school bus?)20140831 2447 denali np moose face 2 rWe were most excited about the moose, caribou and Dall sheep since they aren’t things we see down in SE Alaska very often.  We saw a number of brown bears, though they are called “grizzlies” in the interior and they are smaller than the coastal brown bears that we’re used to because they don’t have all that salmon in their diet.20140830 2544 denali np brown bear and cubs vertical r20140831 2356 denali np dall sheep ram rWe saw a number of Dall sheep up on the mountainsides, though they were usually too far away for good photographs.  This ram came down a bit lower so we could get a better view.  Sometimes it’s hard to decide whether to just look at them with powerful binoculars or try to get a photograph, hand-holding a long lens.  Regardless, any wildlife sighting is a thrill.

 

We had a number of caribou sightings, and they are impressive with their huge antlers.  One caribou even ran across the road in front of our bus!20140830 2609 denali np caribou looking 3 rMy favorite was this one, though, silhouetted against the late afternoon sky.  He’s a beauty!20140831 2352 denali np caribou silhouette rWe finally got to the Eielson Visitor Center and began to appreciate the views we had the day before.  Our second day was overcast which made the chilly temps feel much colder, and we never saw the mountain (THE mountain) all day.  We decided to hike up the Alpine Trail behind the center, through the high tundra.  It wasn’t a very long hike but it was very steep, climbing over 1000′ feet on a mile-long trail.  20140831 2692 denali np eilson from alpine trail rWe stopped often to catch our breath, but we were lucky enough to hear and then see some little pika – 6″ long mouse-like animals that live in the rocky high country.  They don’t hibernate, so they were very busy gathering food to get them through the long winter.

The tundra seems plain and barren, but there was a lot of subtle fall color in the various plants and the lichens growing on the rocks.  The views along the trail were grand sweeping landscapes, though they would have been even better if we could have seen the mountain from up there.20140831 2708 denali np eilson alpine near summit r20140831 2725 denali alpine jim rAs we got higher up the mountain the wind really made us feel the cold, and we were glad we brought some layers of clothing, warm hats, and gloves.  It was very strange to be standing on snow on August 31st, but that’s Denali.  As of today, the park road is completely closed due to snow, only accessible by dog sled until spring.